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15 Unique Things to Do in Shanghai

by Kat
View from the Observation Deck at the Shanghai World Financial Center.

At a population of 24 million, Shanghai is China’s biggest city. With the futuristic skyscrapers of the Financial District and the traditional Yu Gardens, it has a delightful mix of old and new architecture.  In this guide, discover the must-see sights in Shanghai as well as interesting museums and lesser-known tourist destinations.

1. Stroll Along the Bund

The Bund is a waterfront promenade next to the Huangpu River. Facing the towering skyscrapers of Liujiazui, it is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll. I recommend checking it out both during the day and at night!

View of the Bund on a clear sunny day

2. Visit One of the Towers

Shanghai’s Financial District (Liujiazui) has 3 skyscrapers that tower above the rest: Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center and Shanghai Tower. Nearby is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. I have been to the observatories in Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. Jin Mao Tower has excellent views and you can also peer down at the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel from 88 floors above! I went to Shanghai World Financial Center to watch the sunset. It a very special experience to watch the nearby buildings light up, especially the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which flickers and sparkles in many different colours.

Night view from the Shanghai World Financial Center

View from the Observation Deck at the Shanghai World Financial Center.

Dusk view from Shanghai World Financial Center

Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower.

Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower.

3. Discover Local Culture at Fuxing Park

Once the largest park in Shanghai, Fuxing Park in the French Concession is brimming with culture. It’s a charming place to spend a couple of hours observing the locals. During my visit to the park, I saw locals doing many interesting things such as practicing Tai-Chi, playing mah-jong, playing cards, and dancing. I also saw a man practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk, which drew a small crowd. On one side of the park, a band was practicing. On the other side of the park, elderly men were debating politics while others stood to read the daily newspaper, the pages of which were mounted in display cases.

Fuxing Park Fountain in Shanghai

Statues of Marx and Engels in Fuxing Park

Statues of Marx and Engels

Men reading the newspapers in Fuxing Park.

Men reading the newspapers.

Fuxing Park Calligraphy

A man practices calligraphy.

A man practices calligraphy.

A debate at Fuxing Park.

A group of men debate politics.

4. Visit Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre

Located in the basement of an apartment building in the French Concession, this museum features many posters from the Mao era. If you have trouble finding it, ask a security guard for help. Each poster title has an English translation and each time period has a summary in English and French. There is a gift shop where postcards, books, posters and Mao paraphernalia are available. Bring cash as cards are not accepted.

Russia and China at Propaganda Poster Art Centre

A poster of men marching at Propaganda Poster Art Centre

A poster at Propaganda Poster Art Centre

5. Visit the Museum of Urban Planning

The Museum of Urban Planning is a great place to learn about how the city of Shanghai grew and changed over time. The huge model of the city is the highlight!

A sculpture of Shanghai's Financial District

A model of the sprawling city of Shanghai

Yu Garden Model

A model of Yu Garden during its early years.

6. Shop or Visit a Cafe in Tianzifang

Tianzifang is a labyrinth of alleys filled with cafes, boutiques, restaurants and galleries. It has a more traditional atmosphere than Xintiandi.

A busy alley in Tianzifang

Tianzifang, Shanghai, China

Worker taking a break in Tianzifang, Shanghai

Totoro Latte at Rock Princess Cafe.

Dolls at Rock Princess Cafe, Tianzifang.

Dolls at Rock Princess Cafe, Tianzifang.

Food at Dolls at Rock Princess Cafe, Tianzifang.

7. Visit Xintiandi

Xintiandi is a pedestrian street that features a combination of Shikumen-style buildings and modern buildings. It is well-known for its upscale international restaurants (French, Italian, etc.) and shops. It is also the site of the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. If you are interested, you can visit the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Outside view of the former Communist Congress in Xintiandi

8. Visit Yu Garden (Yuyuan Garden) and Try Xiao Long Bao

Yu Garden is a traditional Chinese garden built during the Ming Dynasty. Filled with beautiful pavilions, rock gardens and ponds, it is a nice place to step into the past and take a break from modern Shanghai. Outside the paid area of the garden, there are shops and restaurants aimed at tourists. These restaurants are most famous for xiao long bao, a soup-filled dumpling. Try not to come to the area on weekends, as it is always extremely crowded.

Xiaolongbao in Shanghai's Yuyuan Garden

Xiaolongbao.

Yu Garden Shanghai with Shanghai Tower in the background

Children try to touch koi fish at Yu Garden.

A peaceful area at Yu Garden

Yu Garden in Shanghai

A statue in a pond at Yu Garden

Crowded Yu Garden

Crowds in the Yu Garden area on a weekend.

A busy street near Yu Garden

9. Visit the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Site and the China Art Museum

In 2010, millions of people visited the Expo in Shanghai. After the Expo, most of the buildings were demolished, with only the Chinese Pavilion (now China Art Museum), the World Expo Cultural Centre and the River Mall remaining today. The World Expo Museum is now an art gallery. It is definitely worth spending a few hours here. When I visited in March the Expo site was quiet with very few tourists.

The red and impressive Chinese Pavilion in Shanghai.

Art in China Art Museum, ShanghaiThe Monkey King at Shanghai Art Museum

A group of statues in the China Art Museum, Shanghai

Animated art

10. Visit Shanghai Museum

Shanghai Museum houses a collection of more than 120 000 rare historical relics such as furniture, ceramics, paintings, bronze and calligraphy. In the Chinese Minority Nationalities’ Art Gallery, you can view the dresses, embroidery and ceramics of the minority people. The museum is shaped like a bronze ding (a cooking vessel) and symbolizes China’s “round sky and square earth” perception.

A white and orange floral artifact

A white engraved artifact

A horse statue at Shanghai Museum

11. Stroll Along Nanjing Lu

Nanjing Lu is Shanghai’s main shopping street. It is best experienced at night to enjoy the view of the flashing neon signs on the buildings. There is a sightseeing train that can take you along the road if you want to have a rest.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai at night

12. Take a Huangpu Riverboat Tour

A nighttime riverboat tour is a magical experience. Stand on the top deck of the boat to enjoy the cool breeze while admiring the skyscrapers on one side of the river and the colonial buildings on the other.

View of Shanghai's Financial District from a boat on the Huangpu River

13. Watch a Show at Shanghai Circus World

China is famous for its hard-working and talented acrobats. At Shanghai Circus World, you can watch amazing acts such as juggling, hoop diving, trampoline and stunt bicycle riding! I went to the ERA- Intersection of Time show and was very impressed!


14. Visit Shanghai History Museum

Located at the base of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, this museum features interesting exhibits about the history of Shanghai. With impressive dioramas, wax figures and music, this museum is a must-see if you are interested in history!

Wax figures at Shanghai Municipal History Museum

Wax Figure at Shanghai History Museum

15. Visit Shanghai Natural History Museum

This spacious, modern museum was opened in 2015. It has dinosaur skeletons, fossils, taxidermied animals, and models of sea monsters. My favourite exhibit was the T-rex- it suddenly roars every couple of minutes!

A taxidermied wolf at Shanghai Natural History Museum

Camel exhibit at Shanghai Natural History Museum

Shanghai Natural History Museum Ice Age animals

A taxidermied lion at the Shanghai Natural History Museum

A lion at the museum stares at passerby incredulously.

Shanghai Natural History Museum Lemur

My recommended day trip from Shanghai:

Visit a Water Town

There are many traditional water towns near Shanghai. Water towns have canals and bridges, and in these towns, you can pay for a boat ride along the canals. If you pay extra, your gondolier will sing traditional Chinese songs for you. I went to Zhouzhuang Water Town and enjoyed it. You can read about my experience here. Other popular water towns near Shanghai are Tongli, Zhujiajiao and Qibao. All these towns are easily accessible by public transit.

Discover top attractions, interesting museums and off-the-beaten path places in Shanghai, China.

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13 comments

Lauren May 6, 2017 - 3:12 am

This was never super high on my bucket list but you may have convinced me otherwise! I love all the architecture porn happening…

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Kat May 6, 2017 - 4:59 pm

Haha, I’m glad that I may have changed your mind!

Reply
Shandi Barclay May 6, 2017 - 4:29 am

Awesome! We live in China so the next time we visit Shanghai we’ll keep these in mind. 🙂

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Kat May 6, 2017 - 5:01 pm

Thanks! I hope I have given you some new ideas. 🙂

Reply
Olivia May 6, 2017 - 1:46 pm

Hey fellow Canadian. I just love all the unique buildings in Shanghai! and the museum of urban planning looks like so much fun! #gltlove

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Kat May 6, 2017 - 5:02 pm

Hello! Yes, it was so cool to see the giant model of the city. 😀

Reply
Christine - The Dime Travelers May 6, 2017 - 5:32 pm

I was in Shanghai a few years back but sadly missed some of your wonderful suggestions – guess I’ll just have to go back! 🙂

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Jessica May 6, 2017 - 6:04 pm

Nice blogpost! I have been in Shanghai in 2011 so a while ago and i did half of your listed things. But the water town was really nice too.. we went on a chinese tour and it was hilarious, they took us to other random places xD like a jade selling place and a herb doctor that makes suggestions of what your body needs by reading your hand and tongue hahhaha #chinese . But shanghai is super fun

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Louise Allonby May 7, 2017 - 1:54 am

Great post, really interesting especially the part where the men are reading the newspaper from display cases.

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Laura May 7, 2017 - 4:15 am

I’ve never looked too much into China as a destination before (other places have taken priority) but whenever I do make it there Shanghai is now high up on the list. Fuxing park, Tianzifang and the water gardens all sound amazing. And that Totoro coffee! ????

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Catherine - Red Door Ponderings May 8, 2017 - 1:27 am

I really like this post, particularly how you have a broad range of attractions and experiences described. I didn’t realise there was a Propaganda Art Poster Centre in Shanghai – I really love that type of art – so will definitely make a point of putting in on my list when visiting. Great pics too.

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Amr May 12, 2017 - 7:36 am

I like how you add nice photos to the article. China is just next door to where I am now.

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Tonkin Voyage Travel August 21, 2018 - 12:51 am

Thanks so much for the great post! I will come to Shanghai in November, your post helps me so much plan the itinerary there. Keep up with your good work!

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