It’s hard to explain the sense of excitement that you feel when you walk through Shanghai – it’s a sensational city that makes you feel alive. For me, part of the excitement was because I knew exactly how easy it would be to get lost in such a big place- and this gave me a buzz to the point where I was purposely taking paths, which I had no idea where they would lead.
China is a country that is developing very quickly and playing an increasingly important role globally. So for visitors, Shanghai is a great place to get an understanding of modern China’s role in our global future.
The city also offers a great mix of old and new so the diversity allows you to experience both in a short period of time. One minute you can be staring up at a rapidly expanding skyline and the next minute you can be sat in a little back street eating traditional cuisine while witnessing how the locals ‘really live’. The wrong turns that I took while walking around couldn’t have been so right- I saw things that pulled on heartstrings that I didn’t know I had.
Things to Do in Shanghai
To me, a visit to Shanghai is more about people watching and observing what life is like in authentic China, rather than hitting up a series of typical tourist sites. With that in mind, here are a couple of activities I recommend for soaking up the modern city’s culture and atmosphere.
- Photography was actually main priority of mine as I was meeting my dad in Shanghai who has an exceptional eye for capturing moments. I was all geared up to learn some tips and tricks on how to use my new camera. Dad is a professional photographer and Shanghai really is a photographers paradise, so we literally spent days wandering around exploring with our lenses.
- The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is also worth a visit, if only to see the enormous scale model of the city. You get to see what the city looks like now, as well as all the developments that are planned for the coming years.
- The Shanghai Museum, located in People’s Square, is excellent if you want to learn about traditional ceramics, jade, coins, furniture, paintings and so on.
- If you’re in town on a weekend, you definitely shouldn’t miss the Marriage Market held at the north end of People’s Park. This is where parents gather and scour notices in the hopes of finding a suitable spouse for their adult children.
- Take a cruise along the Huang Pu River and the Bund (a waterway that runs through the city). One of the highlights of a visit to Shanghai is seeing the city skyline all lit up at night. Unfortunately I didn’t have my tripod with me so my photographs at night didn’t turn out as I hoped. Below is a picture I took earlier on in the day so with a little imagination I’m sure you can picture how wonderful this looks in the dark. The cruises are cheap (around $8AUD or so) and you can buy tickets from the booths at the southern end of the Bund promenade.
Where to Eat in Shanghai
Let me start by warning you that Chinese food in China tastes nothing like the Chinese food we’re used to eating in the Western world.
A lot of the food is either really bland or made with parts of animals we could never in a million years fathom eating. I must admit that on some occasions I stuck to a simple noodle and Bok Choy dish. With that said, there are still some great restaurants in Shanghai if you know where to look.
First of all- you can’t visit Shanghai without eating Xiao Long Bao, which are dumplings with meat and soup in them. You simply bite a hole in one end of the pastry and slurp out all the liquid before eating the rest of the dumpling. This type of dumpling is a Shanghai specialty.
Talking of slurping, I have one major issue with China…. The noise the locals make while eating disgusts me like you wouldn’t believe. I absolutely love my food but I have been known to leave my full meal on the table and walk away. The icing on the cake for me was when dad and I were sat in a noodle bar opposite two ladies. They were well presented and seemed polite but when their meal came it became apparent that ladies was not something that I wouldn’t consider them being any more. One was crunching through her chicken bones and swallowing them in chunks while the other chewed off every bit of meat there was then proceeded to spit out the bone on the table directly in front of us. There would have been murder if one had of rolled across and landed on my lap! Now I’ve had my little rant here are a few recommendations on restaurants where a western view of table etiquette is essential.
- If you want a really fun meal, I recommend eating at Haidi Lao, which is a chain of hot pot restaurants that offers manicures and games while you wait for your table.
- Xintiandi, which is an affluent pedestrian-only area of shops and restaurants, has lots of great food options including both Asian and Western fare.
- Sinan Mansions, made up of a bunch of renovated villas, are also full of restaurants that appeal to Western palates.
- For Yunan food and beautiful décor, I really enjoy Lost Heaven. It’s sister restaurant, Coconut Paradise, serves up really good Thai food.
- For a splurge, M on the Bund offers great Bund views and mostly Western food (it’s run by some Aussies), while Mr and Mrs Bund serves fabulous French cuisine.
- For budget eats, the Tokyo Food Court, which is under the HSBC and Cartier stores near Xintiandi, has lots of options like sushi, noodles, pizza, pasta etc..
Where to Drink in Shanghai
Well, there’s definitely something for everyone when it comes to drinking in Shanghai.
Glam is a sophisticated bar with an extensive cocktail list and food with a twist.
- Shanghai also has countless rooftop bars with stunning views –VUE Bar at Hyatt On The Bund even has rooftop Jacuzzi that you can enjoy while you drink. This is my kind of place!
- The Boxing Cat Brewery is great if you’re into micro brew beers.
People 7 is a nice quirky bar, but you have to solve a puzzle to get in the door (and to use the bathrooms), so don’t go there drunk!
Best Places in Shanghai for a Night on the Town
If you head to TMSK (a restaurant/bar located in Xintiandi) at the weekend you’ll often be able to enjoy traditional singing and music. You should email ahead for a booking and ask to be seated upstairs where the stage is.
If you want a big night out then I would recommend you head to MINT. It’s set in a high-rise building screaming glamour and sophistication. It even has a tank of baby sharks!
Where to Stay in Shanghai
I’ve stayed at The Langham Hotel and also The Crown Plaza. Both are great choices but The Langham topped it for me. Their service is great and they are both right by metro lines, shopping and restaurants.
The Langham is located in Xintiandi and rooms start at 1,65.00 CYN for a standard room upgrades.
The Crown Plaza is in Pudong and rooms start at 780.00 CYN for a standard room and increases for room upgrades.
I haven’t stayed in budget accommodation in Shanghai however I believe that the Captain Hostel is a fantastic option located right opposite the Bund. Apparently it has an amazing rooftop bar with views to killer views, which you would usually pay a premium for.
Shopping in Shanghai
If you prefer markets, head to Tianzifang. This market has good prices on handicrafts, jewellery, and other souvenirs. Tianzifang is a really cool area to wander around, but the narrow maze-like streets are really easy to get lost in- which is what I like! Bartering is huge in China so don’t accept the first price and prices get bumped up for tourists.
There’s a giant underground market below the Science and Technology Museum in Pudong (you’ll see it as soon as you walk out of the metro station). This is FULL of fake designer stuff, as well as other random knick-knacks. This is a typical tourist trap so the prices of items are sometimes more than quadrupled! So barter barter barter! From what I saw of the knock off handbags the quality wasn’t great however I have been told that if you speak to the right person down there you can apparently get some pretty good copies.
Changle Lu (“lu” means street in Chinese) near Ruijin Lu is where you’ll find lovely boutiques by emerging Chinese fashion designers.
The French Concession has some lovely pieces to purchase and it is a great place to photograph too. An Jinxian Lu is an area in the French Concession with emerging local designers.
If you are looking for home decor then Xinle Lu, Donghu Lu, and Fumin Lu intersect is a fantastic starting point. There are plenty of restaurants and clothing stores too
Getting Around Shanghai
Taxis are dirt cheap around Shanghai, and even cheaper when you head out of the major city. You can also pre-organise and airport shuttle for 80RMB each way with…. My hotel concierge made my booking for me.
You will often see people offering a private taxi to avoid waiting in the taxi line at the airports and train stations. Do not fall for what they say! Always request a taxi metre, as they are much cheaper. One guy told me that the taxi queue waiting time was two hours but it was no longer than 15 minutes. The queue was HUGE so I was very tempted but they are so efficient and move along extremely quickly.
Shanghai’s metro is fast, cheap, clean and really easy to use, with a fair amount of signage in English. Dad and I used the bullet train to visit areas outside of the city, which was time and cost efficient. Always carry your hotel business card in Chinese and English with you so that you can show the drivers where you wish to travel to. If you know where you are going then it is a good idea to plan ahead slightly and ask the concierge to write down your spots in Chinese for you. Communication can be tough as a large percentage of China is illiterate and not many locals speak fluent English.
Walking around and soaking up the atmosphere is another way to explore the city. There are so many quirky things to stop and look at. It is a large place though and time seems to disappear here.
Finding WiFi in Shanghai China
Most hotels and hostels will provide wi-fi for guests, however, if you’ll be staying for a while I recommend getting your own VPN. This is because a lot of popular websites like Facebook, Snapchat & Youtube are blocked in China. The city does have a free public wi-fi service, but I would never consider connecting to it as there are a lot of scam artists in Shanghai.
Best Time of Year to Visit Shanghai
Shanghai gets super humid in the summer time – as in, you step out the front door and in about 30 seconds your clothes are soaked through with sweat. Eeeeewwwww. Metro stations and busy public places would be horrific which is why I would avoid it like the plague. I was there in January, which was very cold, but it is the start of the Chinese New Year, which is a great time to get involved with the locals but be mindful that most markets and shops will be closed down for the festive period. Another holiday is between……October so I would try an avoid that week too.
Basically I would avoid summer, but any other time is good to visit.
Best Day Trip from Shanghai
If you want to see traditional Chinese gardens, Suzhou can be visited as a day trip. The train between Shanghai and Suzhou is really modern and fast, but be warned that getting around Suzhou itself can be a bit confusing and not many people there speak English. The train can get booked up really fast so ask your hotel to help you book your ticket early. We got caught out by turning up to the station and the seats were taken so we had to wait around for a couple of hours for the next available one.
Hangzhou is another popular side trip. The city is most famous for the pretty scenery and traditional buildings along its lake.
Haining is a great spot for more shopping and is well known for the huge ‘Leather City’ malls. You could easily spend more than one day here though so I would recommend staying in The Langham hotel. The Langham in Haining is much cheaper than the one in Shanghai City.
Getting to and from Shanghai
Shanghai has two airports, and if you’re traveling to or from Pudong Airport, consider taking the high-speed train. The Maglev goes uptp 268 MPH, making it one of the fastest trains in the world. It’s worth taking the train just for the experience. In all honesty though, I find the shuttle or a taxi much easier after a long-haul flight.
Shanghai is constantly growing and evolving so there’s always something new and exciting to discover. It is China’s largest city and is situated on the banks of the Yangtze River Delta. The development over the past few decades has made it one of the most important economic, commercial, financial and communications center of China.
It has a seductive mix of tradition and sophistication but in China I am drawn in to the authentic side of the city. Some of the poorest areas are where the people seem the happiest. It really made me question some of my life choices. Dad and I sat watching locals dance in the street with huge smiles on their faces because they had music, laughter, family and hopefully enough food to feed them selves. What is more important than that? These people were living in poverty but had welcoming smiles bigger than any of the people staying in the 5* luxury accommodation that we were in.
I travel because I have a natural curiosity to see the beauty of the world but I sometimes get caught up in the other side- the materialistic world. Next time I walk past Louis Vuitton I wont be in such a hurry to snap up the latest design. The children here are just absolutely beautiful and I believe that all kids deserve a good start in life. I couldn’t help but wonder what my handbag collection could do for these kids who don’t seem to have much opportunity ahead of them. Thankfully times are changing and education is becoming more in China but seeing children as young as 6 doing a day job and women as old as 90 carrying crops are fairly heartbreaking. I know I can’t save the world but I’m certainly going to do my bit.
I’m currently sat at the airport waiting to board my flight back to Australia. I will be there for 10 days then I’m flying off to Belize to do some work for a children’s orphanage. These children all suffer with HIV and have been orphaned due to their parents passing away from the disease. If you want to follow my journey as I continue to make my way around the world then subscribe to my blog for fortnightly updates and images, which aren’t uploaded to my Instagram.