As China’s most populous city, and one of the largest in the world, Shanghai is alive with an energy quite unlike any other municipality in the Middle Kingdom.
Home to the world’s second tallest building, 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 boasts 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 can experience traditional Shanghainese cuisine for lunch and then dine at a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant for dinner. Shanghai is a diverse and lively city with plenty to do, from one sunrise all the way through to the next.
Shanghai visually and culturally represents the complicated relationship between China and the West. Having been subject to British, American, French, Italian, and Japanese influence throughout the years, the city’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 Bund features dozens of beautiful old colonial buildings, including imposing banks 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. To get the best views of both sides of the river, take one of the many sightseeing cruises that travel along the Huangpu River.
The best way to see the area surrounding the Bund is to simply take a stroll around, pit-stopping at Shanghai’s best restaurants and boutique shops, many of them found along the city’s famous pedestrian shopping street, Nanjing Road.
Pudong New Area (east of the Huangpu River) is the site of the city's iconic modern skyline and fast-paced financial district. Here, you can stroll amongst a veritable forest of skyscrapers, including the 632-meter Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world. At 546 meters, Shanghai Tower’s observation deck is not only the highest in the world, but you can also reach it via the world’s fastest elevator, traveling at a record-breaking 74 km/h!
In Pudong New Area, you can also enjoy a leisurely drink among the clouds at the posh Cloud 9 cocktail lounge on the 87th floor of Jin Mao Tower, or gaze at pedestrians far below through the glass floors of the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
Although Shanghai’s skyline screams “modern,” the city is by no means lacking in more traditional elements. The famed Yuyuan Garden, home to classical Chinese rock gardens and mesmerizing landscaping, is a prime example of Shanghai’s rich Ming Dynasty heritage and offers a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. While you’re there, be sure to visit Huxinting Teahouse, adjacent to the garden entrance, which is one of the most famous in China.
No visit to Shanghai is complete without exploring the tree-lined lanes and winding alleyways of the Former French Concession, yet another example of Shanghai’s unique intersection of cultures and influences. Today, the French Concession’s streets boast fantastic modern shopping and entertainment areas housed in old, colonial buildings with loads of European charm.
Within the French Concession, the zigzagging alleyways of Tianzifang, lined with traditional shikumen-style buildings, are populated with a fantastic combination of trendy cafes, art galleries, and quirky boutiques. Xintiandi, while more commercialized, is also home to several great shops and restaurants.
In the heart of Shanghai lies People's Square, another of the city’s most popular attractions. This large, beautifully landscaped square is the site of a number of world-class museums, as well as the bustling People’s Park. Here you will find Shanghai Museum, home to one of the world’s finest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts, and Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, which houses a fantastic 3D model of the Shanghai of the future.
Alongside these 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 an old race course and is worth a visit just to see the architecture.
Shanghai is full of interesting religious sites as well, from centuries-old Buddhist temples, like the lively Jade Buddha Temple, to fascinating examples of Jewish heritage from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The delicate balance of this ever-evolving city’s troubled past and prosperous future make any visit a unique and educational experience. With rich history and culture, world-class restaurants and bars, and boutique shopping, Shanghai really does have it all.
Although technically the youngest of China’s eight major regional cuisines, Shanghai’s gastronomic history 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 busy 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 the world.
Shanghai’s most iconic snack is xiaolongbao, also known as soup dumplings. Found all over China yet allegedly invented in Shanghai, these small dumplings are traditionally filled with pork and jellied pork broth, which melts into a flavorful soup during steaming. Other quintessential dishes to try while in Shanghai include steamed crab, smoked fish, and beggar’s chicken (made up of juicy, slow-roasted chicken).
From high-end rooftop bars to microbreweries, 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 scene, 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.
Make sure to head to the Bund during the evening hours to take in the stunning sight of Shanghai’s iconic skyline illuminated with bright lights. Another fascinating nighttime display is the array of colorful neon signs that light up Nanjing Road.
Shanghai experiences four distinct seasons, with a significant difference in temperature between the hottest part of summer and the depths of winter. 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 sometimes drop below freezing 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 July and September.
As China’s largest city, Shanghai is very well connected to the rest of the country, and the world, by land and air.
Flights: Pudong International Airport (PVG), located around 45 km 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, depending on traffic. 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.
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.
Within Shanghai itself, the best way to navigate the city’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).
Shanghai is a great launchpad for exploring 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).