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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).