As China’s biggest and the world’s most populated city, Shanghai is alive with an energy quite unlike any other municipality in the Middle Kingdom.
Home to the world’s second tallest building (and two others that make the top ten list), its futuristic skyline is instantly recognizable. However, it is not only the innovative infrastructure that makes the city such a unique destination; Shanghai’s undeniably turbulent history has also left its mark on the metropolis, which is home to a unique blend of eastern and western culture.
The result of this is fascinating: you can explore the Bund’s colonial architecture whilst gazing across the river at the dazzling Lujiazui skyline; you can find Buddhist temples and contemporary art galleries within a stone's throw of each other; you experience traditional Shanghainese for lunch and then dine at a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant for dinner. Shanghai really is a lively and splendid city with plenty to do, from one sunrise all the way through to the next.
Situated in the center of China’s eastern coast, Shanghai (which literally translates as upon-the-sea) is home to the world’s busiest port. As a result, the city is very well connected not only by land but also by sea.
Flights: Pudong International Airport (PVG), located around 45km from the city center, is Shanghai’s hub for international flights. The majority of domestic flights depart from Hongqiao Airport (SHA), which is closer to downtown and is served by Metro lines 2 and 10. A taxi to the airport will take about 50 minutes. A flight to Beijing takes 1 hour 30 minutes, Guangzhou and Xi’an take roughly 2 hours, and Chengdu takes about 2 hours 30 minutes.
Ferries: You can catch one of two weekly ferries to Osaka, Japan from the Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal. Departures are on Tuesday and Saturday (company dependent) and the journey takes 44 hours.
Buses: Overnight buses depart from Shanghai Long-Distance Central Bus Station. The nearest metro stop is Shanghai Railway station.
Trains: There are three main train stations in Shanghai, Shanghai Railway Station (trains to most major destinations depart from here), Shanghai South Railway Station, and Hongqiao Railway Station (the hub for Shanghai-Beijing high-speed trains). The high-speed train takes roughly 5 hours and stops in Nanjing en route. Note that the Shanghai-Beijing flight route is notorious for delays so it is often more efficient to take the train, which usually runs on time.
Shanghai visually and culturally represents the relationship between China and the West. The city’s early modern history earned it the nickname “the Great Athens China”. Having been subject to British, American, French, Italian, and Japanese influence throughout the years, Shanghai’s history is inescapably tainted with war and oppression and the results of this arrangement can be seen in its architecture and local culture.
Puxi (the area west of the Huangpu River) is Shanghai’s cultural heart. Here you will find the Bund, the city's famous waterfront promenade and the embodiment of colonial Shanghai.
The Pudong (east of the Huangpu River) is the site of the city's iconic modern skyline and fast-paced financial district. In contrast, Yunnan Park is home to traditional Chinese rock gardens and some mesmerizing landscaping, offering a sometimes welcome break from the bustling modernity.
The delicate balance of this ever-evolving city’s troubled past and prosperous future make any visit a unique experience. With rich history and culture, world-class restaurants and bars, and boutique shopping, Shanghai really does have it all.
The best way to navigate Shanghai’s sometimes overwhelming streets is the Metro. The Metro connects all major areas and attractions, and the transport card you can purchase for the subway can, very conveniently, also be used to pay for taxis and buses (as well as in some convenience stores).
The Bund: The Bund is a visually impressive reminder of Shanghai’s interaction with the West. On the east side of the Huangpu River, the Bund boasts dozens of beautiful old colonial buildings, including imposing consulates and exquisite hotels. At night, an impressive display of China’s modern development presents itself on the other side of the river, with bright and colorful neon lights illuminating tightly packed skyscrapers. The best way to see the area is to simply take a stroll around, pit-stopping at Shanghai’s best restaurants and boutique shops. To get the best views of both sides of the river, take one of the many sightseeing cruises that ply the Huangpu River.
The French Concession: Shanghai’s intersection of cultures can also be seen in Xintiandi and Tianzifang. Two quadrants situated in the district of the former French Concession, Tianzifang and Xintiandi are fantastic modern shopping and entertainment areas housed in old, colonial buildings. The perfect place to escape the sometimes overwhelming crowds and modernity of the city’s many malls, the areas boast a fantastic combination of trendy cafes, al fresco dining, and boutique shops. Tianzifang is also home to several great local art galleries, such as the Deke Erh Centre, while the north block of Xintiandi is home to a couple of small museums.
Yuyuan Gardens: Located in Shanghai’s Old Town, the Yuyuan Gardens are another must-see. Although they are a popular tourist destination, the Gardens offer a welcome chance to relax around traditional Chinese architecture and the stunning rock formations and water features that make Chinese gardens unique. While you’re there, be sure to visit Huxinting Teahouse, adjacent to the Garden entrance, which is one of the most famous in China. Admission to the park costs around 30 CNY and the nearest subway stop bears the same name.
People's Square (Museums and Galleries): People's Square is the site of a number of museums and galleries, as well as bustling People’s Park. Here you will find Shanghai Museum, a fantastic facility full of history and ancient craft, and Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, which houses a fantastic 3D model of the Shanghai of the future. Alongside the museums stand Shanghai Art Museum and Shanghai Museum of Modern Art. Both exhibit a range of modern Chinese and international art pieces; the Art Museum is housed in the old race course and is worth a visit just to see the architecture. The People’s Square Metro stop serves all of these attractions.
Shanghai Tower: Found in the Lujiazui Financial District and standing at a neck-craning 632 meters tall, Shanghai Tower is the world’s second tallest building. Towering above other iconic buildings in the city’s skyline, such as the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, the tower offers truly unique views of the surrounding area. At 546 meters, the observation deck is not only the highest in the world, but you can also reach it via the world’s fastest lift housed in the world’s tallest single lift tower...a record breaking experience all round! Entrance to the observation deck costs 180 CNY.
Temples: With sections dating back to the 13th century, Jing’an Temple stands in fantastic juxtaposition to its ultra-modern surroundings. There is a Metro stop of the same name conveniently located just outside the temple. Further north, lively Jade Buddha Temple is one of the few active monasteries in the region and houses one of five iconic pure jade Buddha statues.
Although technically the youngest of China’s eight major regional cuisines, Shanghai’s gastronomic history still dates back 400 years. The defining characteristic of Shanghai food is balanced sweetness and seafood is one of the staple ingredients. Traditionally referred to as benbang cuisine, Shanghai’s dishes have been heavily influenced by the international trade passing through its bustling port. The city is home to a number of famous food streets, such as Huanghe Road (close to People's Park) and Qibao Old Food Street. If you tire of the local cuisine, you can find restaurants serving almost any cuisine from across China and the rest of the world.
Keep an eye out for these Shanghainese dishes:
Shanghai Hairy Crab: Caught mainly in the east China sea, the crabs are tied with rope and steamed in bamboo containers. Usually seasoned with vinegar, the meat is succulent and full of flavor. The main season for crab is Autumn and early Winter when the female crabs are full of roe, which is considered a delicacy.
Xiaolongbao: Found all over China, yet allegedly invented in Shanghai, these dumplings are traditionally filled with pork and jellied pork broth, which melts into a flavorful soup during steaming. Head to Nianxiang Montou Dian (located in Yuyuan garden) to try their famous take on the xiaolongbao, made with crab and pork.
Shaomai: These small dumplings stuffed with sticky rice flavoured with pork and shiitake mushroom make for a delicious snack and can be found at street vendors all over the city.
Red-Braised Pork: This technique involves slow-cooking fatty belly pork in mixture of sugar, soy sauce, and fermented bean paste. Try this mouthwatering dish all over the city from street-vendors to high-end restaurants.
Crayfish: A quintessential Shanghainese dish, there is an entire street dedicated to this spiny crustacean. Head to Shouning Road to sample the best the city has to offer.
From high-end rooftop bars to microbreweries, Irish pubs, and everything in between, Shanghai has something to suit all nightlife tastes. Cocktails, in particular, are everywhere. This range of drinking options, coupled with the city’s multicultural food, makes for an exciting sensory experience.
Entertainment: Visit Smart Ticket for listings and to purchase tickets to any of the city's upcoming events and performances. Many major international acts pass through Shanghai, so be sure to check in advance before your trip.
Bars/Clubs: The Lujiazui skyline and rooftop bars really were a match made in heaven. For the quintessential Shanghai experience, head to Bar Rouge, the famous rooftop bar that lives up to its reputation.
With drinks prices in the city soaring as high as its skyscrapers, happy hours are a great way to navigate Shanghai’s bars. On the Bund, visit VUE bar or Kathleen’s Waitan for unparalleled views of the city with reasonably priced drinks (find VUE bar on the 7th floor of the Hyatt on the Bund). If beer is more of your thing, head to Dogtown (serving craft beers from international brand Brewdog) or Taphouse, both found in Jing’an District. Elevator Club has a great underground music scene, good value cocktails and beer, and weeknight ping pong sessions.
Shanghai experiences four distinct seasons and the difference in temperature between the hottest part of summer and the depths of winter is extreme. In summer, temperatures can reach 90°F (mid-30°C). In the hottest months of July and August, humidity is around 80% and most of Shanghai's rainfall occurs during this period. In winter, temperatures can drop below zero and conditions tend to be gray and dull, though no snowfall occurs. Spring (March to June) is perhaps the best time to travel to Shanghai, with moderate yet variable weather conditions. Autumn (September to November) also tends to be moderate, with sunny, dry weather. The odd typhoon can hit the city between September and October.
Shanghai Tourism Festival: Running during the late half of September to the beginning of October and showcasing the best the city has to offer, this festival has something for everyone, capped off with a famous musical firework display.
China Shanghai International Arts Festival: Overlapping the latter half of the tourism festival, this month-long extravaganza features music from some of the world’s biggest names, as well as local Shanghainese bands. With music, dance, and drama this festival is one of the city's most popular and diverse.
Shanghai is a great launch pad to discover the nearby water towns of Tongli, Zhouzhuang, and Zhujiajiao. The residents of these charming areas use the local waterways like other cities use alleys, much like the Venetians (giving the water towns the collective nickname of the “Venice of the East”). Small boats transport visitors along the meandering rivers through the low-rise towns and under arched step-bridges. Don’t miss the chance to dine on local dishes in one of the open-air restaurants along the banks of the canals (weather permitting, of course).