In China, it’s the financial capital of the country whereas the actual capital, Beijing, is most noted for politics. If you love shopping, dining, and exploring, and you want to feel indulged in every way imaginable though, Shanghai is a must-visit on your travels through China.
Shanghai’s Top 5 Most Famous Attractions
Shanghai is mostly known for its intensely modern design and wealth, though there are some old places you’ll definitely want to see. When in Shanghai on limited time, you shouldn’t miss any of these 5 landmarks!
- The Bund
Quite simply, the Bund is where you have seen those immaculate skyscrapers jutting up into the sky from the waterfront of the Huangpu River. There’s a walkable boulevard here where you simply must see both during the day and at night for a totally different take.
Lucky for you, the Bund is bustling with first-class dining and stunning 5-star hotels. If you visit any smaller cities in China, Shanghai is definitely going to blow you away.
- Nanjing Lu
The next thing that’s not to be missed in Shanghai is a visit to Nanjing Lu. It’s the main shopping street that runs through the city. The east side almost looks exactly like Times Square in New York.
The west side was once where expats would typically congregate but now it’s full of high-end shopping malls, gloriously opulent hotels, and office buildings.
- Yu Garden
Shanghai might be ultra-modern, but there are a few rare sights from olden times that still remain untouched. Among them is Yu Garden, built-in 1559 by Zhang Nanyang.
This was for the Ming Dynasty and is a peaceful place to come and collect your thoughts while gazing into ponds of fish surrounded by rock gardens and bamboo. The small on-site museum also gives you more of a glimpse into the garden’s historical past.
- Oriental Pearl Tower
Perhaps the most recognizable of all of Shanghai’s landmarks, the Oriental Pearl Tower can be seen from the Bund. Built-in 1994, it features three pearl-like spheres and an observation deck that gives you the most spectacular view of the entire city below.
At the top, catch a cocktail and dine, or head to the bottom and discover the museum that gives all the details of Shanghai’s history before 1949.
- Jade Buddha Temple
China has over 5,000 years of history and in other cities, you’ll see landmarks that are from that long ago. In Shanghai, the Jade Buddha Temple is most fascinating of all because it’s not even a full 100 years old! What makes it an amazing place to see though is that it lived through the Cultural Revolution.
The monks put pictures of Mao Zedong on the outside and the Red Guards couldn’t destroy the images. Inside, you’ll see the giant Buddha made from white jade that stands over 6 feet tall.
Best Hotels in Shanghai
Shanghai’s Top 5 Local Things to Do
While a visit to Shanghai certainly requires seeing the major sights, there’s so much more to see when you take the path of a local. By doing so, you get closer to the culture, and isn’t that one of the reasons you came? Of course, it is!
- People’s Square Marriage Market
Today, most Chinese choose their mates, but even now, meddling parents can be seen trying to marry off their offspring at the People’s Square Marriage Market. If you thought your parents were pushy, just you wait.
You can find this fun happening on the weekends at the People’s Square from 12 pm – 5 pm. You don’t need to understand Mandarin to know what’s going on.
- Gongqing Forest Park
While Gongqing Forest Park is the second-largest park in Shanghai, visitors from outside the city don’t usually come. It’s a little further out in Yangpu, but the gorgeous natural surrounds are worth it.
It’s not all tall trees and quiet strolls though. You can find go-karts, paddle boats, paintball, and a roller coaster. There’s something fun for everyone here!
- Nine Dragon Pillar
You’d probably walk right by this without a second thought, but it’s a fascinating piece of Shanghai’s history. This glittery dragon pillar is a bit of an eyesore, but it’s there because the highway construction workers couldn’t dig through the ground. They sought a Buddhist priest for clarity and found that the earth they wanted to dig was a dragon’s lair.
The dragon needed to be honoured before the ground could be broken. They erected the pillar and the crews were finally able to break the ground. It may not seem like much, but folklore like this is what makes Chinese culture so fascinating and special.
- Historic Jiading
Jiading is an outer district most tourists don’t stop in. The public transit makes it easy though. Here is where you will see more of the old historic charms from the olden days that haven’t been paved over.
If you take the metro line 11 to the end of the southern fork, you’ll have the pleasure of discovering an old Confucian temple (one of the best-preserved in all the mainland). With a pagoda, museum, and a set of canals and parks, it’s a beautiful place to get away from it all.
- Chongming Island
Take the bus from downtown to Chongming Island and discover the national forest, wetlands, bird sanctuaries, eco-farms, and a Confucian temple. It’s a popular spot for annual festivals too like the Chongming Hairy Crab Festival and the Mingzhu Lake Cup Fishing Competition. Depending on when you come to Shanghai, you might be able to catch one of them.
Shanghai’s Top 5 Foods to Try
Every region in China has its own distinctive cuisine. While your local takeout place might make it seem otherwise, all Chinese dishes aren’t ubiquitous. Shanghai has some truly revered dishes that you will definitely want to sink your teeth into!
- Soup Dumplings
Every region of China has dumplings, but in Shanghai, you get xiaolongbao, known as soup dumplings. These are delicate and stuffed with any combination of pork, vegetables, shrimp, or crab plus a savoury broth. The trick with these though is to eat them with the large, white soup spoon that will be served alongside them.
Place your xiaolongbao in your spoon, gently bite off the end, and let the spoon capture all that broth. Then, when it cools enough, eat everything off the spoon and call your server back over. You’re most certainly going to want another bamboo basket full of them!
- Steamed Crab
Shanghai serves up a special crab from the rivers, usually in the autumn and winter. Simply steamed and served with vinegar, they are one to try especially if you love seafood.
- Smoked Fish Slices
Another dish for those that enjoy seafood is this smoked fish. Or should we say ‘smoked?’ The spices that it is marinated in make it taste nice and smoky. Usually made with carp, it’s absolutely delicious. The outside is crispy while inside, the flesh of the fish is soft and tender to delight all of your senses.
- Beggar’s Chicken
Now here’s a dish with history! This dish comes from the Qing Dynasty. Chicken is stuffed and marinated, then sealed tightly with layers of lotus leaves. This is all wrapped in wax paper and mud, then baked on low heat for as many as 6 hours.
It’s very flavorful and has a melt-in-your-mouth texture. You’ll find some nice places on the Bund, quite ironically, where you’ll be able to taste Beggar’s Chicken.
- Braised Pork
And finally, don’t leave Shanghai without tasting the sweet, caramelized braised pork in brown sauce. Usually served with hardboiled eggs, the whole thing just melts into your mouth for a sublime flavour. It’s called hong shao rou when you’re looking for it at restaurants.
Shanghai’s 5 Quick Tips for Visitors
Shanghai is a fairly safe place, though, like any destination, you should always be aware of your surroundings and take care of your belongings. Never put yourself in a dangerous situation and you will be fine. The people in Shanghai are very friendly, but these tips will help you further along on your travels.
- Choose a Western hotel
The higher the stars, the better the hotel. You don’t need to stay on the Bund (though why not treat yourself) but you should look for bigger hotel chains. They will speak English and you’ll have a more comfortable stay.
They can also help you get to your destinations more easily by giving you pre-written cards in Chinese that can help you tell a taxi driver where you want to go.
- Taxi drivers must give you receipts
While taking the Shanghai Metro is super easy (it’s in English too!) you may opt to take taxis. If you do, most of them are nice but every once in a while, you will find a driver that wants to take advantage because you’re foreign.
That’s why having those cards written in Chinese with the destination helps. The driver should start the meter once you get in and they must give you a receipt. Be sure to say “fa piao” which is the word for receipt.
- Look for places with English menus
Because Shanghai is so modern, you’ll notice that many places have menu cards in English. Others will have photos. Even KFC will have photos so you can simply point at something and say “wo yao yi ge” which means “I’d like one of these.”
- Learn a little Mandarin
As with any country that doesn’t speak English, it’s so much better if you try to speak their language. You surely can’t make fun of anyone that comes to where you live and doesn’t speak English if you yourself aren’t a polyglot.
Mandarin is really hard to read, but it’s a lot easier to speak than you think. Practice a few common phrases like “ni hao” which means “hello.” Another one that might come in handy: “xi shou jian zai nar?” which means “where is the bathroom?”
- And speaking of toilets…
Even in upscale Shanghai, you’ll be met with squatty potties. These are not ideal but when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. Luckily, Shanghai is very modern so in the airports and Western-style hotels, you’ll find actual toilets. But at some of the sites, you’ll most certainly encounter these glorified holes in the ground. They also smell horrible.
You should also take along tissues and hand sanitizer because you’re not likely to find them unless you’re staying on the Bund. A good dab of scented lotion or perfume under your nose can help you endure any smells.
Final Shanghai Thoughts
If you go to other cities in China, big or small, you’ll find Shanghai remarkably clean and incredibly civilized. You should definitely try to absorb Chinese culture while in Shanghai, but if you do feel a bit homesick, you can always find everything from the modern world close at hand. Overall, Shanghai is a beautiful and exhilarating city that you’ll find it easy to love.