Shanghai is one of the 4 major cities in China and China’s largest and richest city. Shanghai is also one of the worlds most populated cities. This huge city is located on the east coast of China and is a financial hub, the port is also the worlds busiest container port in the world. Shanghai has a diverse melting pot of various buildings from the skyscrapers in Pudong to a scattering of Art Deco colonial buildings, and traditional Chinese buildings. Shanghai is very different compared to other Chinese cities.
I have been fortunate enough to travel to Shanghai on many occasions with the airline I work for, and have tried exploring different parts of the city on each layover I have had there. Shanghai was not how I imagined it, and has had many foreign influences over the years.
There are many areas of the city to explore and see, and the city has a huge food scene both high end, and places to eat for the more budget conscious travellers. Shanghai is really where east meets west. Shanghai was not what I expected and it’s a really hard place to describe as it doesn’t feel very typically Chinese but you defiantly know your in China (not sure if that quite makes sense) but that’s kind of how I feel when I visit Shanghai, I really enjoy visiting this city but still not quite sure how to describe it or what to make of it.
Sights & Activities
The French Concession was a former designated residential area for the French. It’s boulevards are lined with trees, and it has a suburbia feel to it. It feels like your in a completely different city compared to the rest of Shanghai’s metropolis. The French concession can be tracked back to 1849, where it gradually developed into the largest and most affluent areas in all of China. In the 1920s, it was the best and richest residential area in Shanghai. In 1943 the Chinese government took it over, and after nearly a 100 years ended its history as a French concession.
Today the French concession is one of the most sought after areas in the city and is home to lots of live music venues, boutiques, wine bars and European delis. The area also has a large arts and crafts scene there and the area is a great place to explore on foot getting lost down many of the leafy avenues and watching locals go about their day to day lives.
Maglev Train is a magnetic levitation train which operates in Shanghai, this super high speed train is an attraction in itself. The train can reach speeds of up to 270mph. On one of my trips to shanghai a few of my colleagues and myself decided to take the Maglev Train from Shanghai’s airport to Pudong. I would recommend taking the Maglev either to or from the airport to experience this high tech train.
Nanjing Road is one of Shanghai’s main shopping streets and stretches almost 3 and half miles long, starting at The Bund and finishing at the junction by Jing’an Temple. The road is one of the worlds busiest shopping streets, you can buy everything from high end fashion to your cheap tacky souvenirs and everything in between! It’s great to visit in the evening as this is when all the neon signs are lit up.
Qibao is a great place to visit to escape the modern city life of Shanghai, and get a chance to see a traditional ancient water town. Located in the Minhang district, and only about 11 miles out of downtown Shanghai it’s easy to reach by the metro system. As the only ancient town forming part of greater Shanghai, with a history of over 1000 years. The town was built in the Northern Song Dynasty from 960 to 1126 and grew into a prosperous business center during Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Today Qibao has lots to offer visitors from temples, museums and lots of shops and street food in the old town. Crickets are popular in the town and not just for eating but a traditional folk activity dating back centuries of cricket fighting, which is still popular today, and you can see plenty of places selling crickets. Which seems a bit cruel to me but it is part of traditional Chinese culture, there is even a museum dedicated to crickets in the town. I would recommend heading to Qibao in the morning to try and beat the crowds and you can easily spend half a day or so there.
The Bund is Shanghai’s most iconic symbol and associated worldwide with Shanghai, London has Big Ben, Sydney the opera house, Paris the Eiffel Tower, and The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous landmark. The area is known for its impressive mile long waterfront views of Pudongs huge skyscrapers and the Oriental Pearl Building. On one side you have views of modern tall buildings, and on the other side is a reminder of Shanghai’s colonial past with lots of old historical buildings.
I would recommend trying to go to The Bund both during the day and in the evening to witness what it’s like day and night, however the evening is definitely my preference as I loved seeing all the buildings lit up. The promenade is a great place to take a stroll along and take in the views. The buildings are lit up at 7pm so go a little before then to see the nightly light show and to get a good viewing spot. Just make sure to check the weather before hand as sometimes fog and rain can ruin the views of the bund, check for the clearest evening while your there.
Tianzifang is an artsy and hipster area in the city, which transformed itself from old traditional shikumen stone houses which formed lots of small alleyways and lanes in former back streets of the french concession to now housing cafes, bars, boutiques and design studios. Tianzifang is also known as the Soho of Shanghai, and it’s full of so much creativity even the old walls are used as canvases to display street art and sculptures.
It is an absolute must to visit this unique area of the city, it is one of my favourite spots in the city, and I loved wandering around the small alleys exploring all that they had to offer. It’s also a great spot to visit for food as there is so much choice so make sure to go hungry!
Yuyuan Bazaar & Old Shanghai
Old Shanghai is full of historical buildings, narrow bustling alleyways and inscense filled temples. It’s a real insight into how Shanghai would have been in days gone by. Yuyuan Bazaar which is also known as Yuyuan Market is outside of Yu Garden, and in the centre of the old town, the bazaar is full of ancient buildings which are now full of shops, stalls and restaurants. I’ve only ever visited during the day, but have heard that the evening is a great time to come to see all the buildings lit up.
Yuyuan Gardens is one of Shanghai’s top attractions and dates way back to the Ming Dynasty, and is over 400 years old! The gardens are typical Chinese gardens with rockeries, carvings, carp ponds and pavilions. Yuyuan gardens are set in the Bazaar which is filled with lots of shops, restaurants and stalls. You need approximately 2 hours to explore the gardens, and I would recommend going early and avoid a weekend if possible, it’s only a few quid to enter the gardens and well worth it. The gardens are one of my favourite attractions in Shanghai, and while there make sure to stop off at Huxinting Tea House.
Xintiandi is a chic pedestrianised shopping, eating and entertainment area in the heart of the city. It retains the antique walls, tiles and exterior of the Shikumen residences of old Shanghai while having a totally modern interior. It’s great to spend an afternoon here wandering and shopping around or you can come here in the evening to sample one of the many upscale restaurants and its nightlife scene.
Food & Drink
Huxinting Tea House
Huxinting Tea House is situated in the heart of the old town next to Yuyuan Gardens. This beautiful ornate tea house is a must when in the old town. It’s one of China’s most famous tea houses, and is steeped in history and is over 200 years old. It’s a great place to visit to escape the chaos of the old town. It has some excellent teas to sample, you do pay a little more here but it’s well worth it for the setting and location. I had jasmine tea, however if tea is not your thing then there is also other traditional Chinese cuisines and refreshments to try out.
Lost Heaven is a chic restaurant serving up Yunnan (region in Southwestern China) specialities, the food was very similar to that of many South East Asian cuisines it was a real mix. Many of the dishes incorporate coconut, fresh chillies, flowers etc, and the ambient atmosphere is buzzing. The dishes are really well presented and not only look great but taste great. There are several Lost Heaven restaurants now dotted around the city, but I visited the one on The Bund as after dinner it’s nice to go and see the bund lit up in the evening.
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant serves up Shanghai’s most famous dumplings and soup dumplings, is it a bit of a tourist trap?! Yes! However the dumplings are delicious and the place is huge, expect queues and avoid on a weekend would be my best bit of advice. I would recommend coming here to sample the food as I really enjoyed it, and its famous in the city, it’s definitely worth a visit if your in the old town too. If you are in a hurry there is also a stand up bar outside where you can order dumplings to eat there if your rushed for time.
Shanghai Grandmother is a popular restaurant with both locals and tourists as it’s really well priced and cooks up a great selection of traditional Chinese food. It’s also only a short distance from the Bund. I have visited the restaurant a few times before I went vegetarian, and had some of the most delicious pork dishes, however there is a good selection of vegetarian dishes available too. When visiting the bund make sure to stop at Shanghai Grandmothers either for lunch or dinner you won’t be disappointed!
Tianzifang Street Food
Tianzifang is one of my favourite places to visit in Shanghai and amongst its small labyrinth like alleyways are lots of choice of small boutique style cafes, restaurants and bars and lots of street food to choose from. Make sure to come hungry as there are snack stalls at every corner. The street food is an eccentric mix from traditional Chinese food, western food and everything in between. I had to have the foot long french fries! I also stumbled across a colourful dumpling stall and couldn’t resists getting a dumpling that looked like a cute penguin. In Tianzifang there really is something for everyone’s tastes.
Transport & Getting Around
Shanghai has an extensive public bus system which is really inexpensive however it’s hard to navigate with the language barrier. Shanghai also has a clean subway which has signs in English as well as Chinese, however it can be extremely busy.
I tend to use taxis to cover larger distances of the city, and try and walk to most places if it’s not too far. Make sure to downsload maps.me so you can easily find your way around the city without WiFi and roaming, and if you can’t speak the language. I also find it helps to plan your route and pin everything on the map, and that way you can easily work out walking distances etc.
When visiting China try and go as prepared as possible, yes there is a huge language barrier and not many of the locals speak English, so go armed with google translate, guide books, maps.me app etc. Also if you have any dietary requirements try and get one of the cabin crew on your flight over to write out a little card for you in Chinese with your dietary requirements or ask a hotel member of staff. Im vegetarian and luckily work alongside some great Shanghai based crew and got them to write me a card which states I’m vegetarian and don’t eat meat or fish on a piece of card for me, and now every time I go out to eat I just show the waiter/waitress the card to make sure I’m not getting any surprises when I order.
When staying at any accommodation try and get a business card or address so you can show taxi drivers. A lot of the big hotels actually have small little translate cards you can ask for which have their address on plus lots of other popular attractions that you can show taxi drivers. I always have maps.me downloaded as it’s a great app that works offline and when I’m walking around Shanghai or in taxi I always check it to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.