Travel - Destinations
By: - at September 20, 2013

Top 15 Interesting Places to Visit in Shanghai

Shanghai Skyline
shanghai skyline

In the past ten years, Shanghai has proven to be a shining example of the effect of rapidly fast, economic growth. The skyline alone is a testimony of Shanghai's vast and sprawling development, and overall financial success. Shanghai translates to above or on sea, and began as a settlement sometime between the fifth and seventh century. Over time, Shanghai has become an international business and trading central. It has grown so rapidly that by 2010 its population number was ranked as the highest in China, as well as in the entire world. It’s only natural that a city like Shanghai, a city that has become one of the leaders of the economic driving powers of the East, would attract more than just business travelers but many vacation and leisure travelers as well. Whatever your reasons for your visit to Shanghai may be, whether an extended business trip or a holiday, you’ll find more than just the monuments of a modern world.

Shanghai is a modern city just as much as it is an ancient civilization, and there are examples of things to do in the following top 15 list that are both modern in nature as well as ancient.

15)  Riverside Promenade – Bingjiang Da Dao
On the opposite side of Shanghai’s famous Bund is the 2500 meter long Riverside Promenade. Across this stretch lies a wide selection of restaurants, coffee houses and ice cream parlors that can be discovered and tried at your own leisure. Meanwhile, along the promenade acrobatic and musical performers will try to direct your attention to them, and entertain you for a little while as you walk along the river bank.

Riverside Promenade
Riverside Promenade
Courtesy of

Or you could stop at one of the musical fountains, which are especially popular with the children. If your timing is right and you’re looking for some other things to do, you can partake in activities or watch tournaments that are sometimes held on the promenade. In the end, the most important sight the Riverside Promenade offers is on the other side of the Huangpu River. The best panoramic view of the Bund is from the promenade and from the distance, you can appreciate the view on the third tallest TV tower of the world, the 468 meter high Oriental Pearl TV Tower as well as the second tallest building in mainland China, the Jinmao Tower.

Jinmao Tower and Shanghai Skyline at Night
Jinmao Tower and Shanghai Skyline at Night

The Jinmao tower from certain angles, looks like a very modern interpretation of a pagoda.

14)  Fuxing Park
The French style Fuxing Park is unsurprisingly located in the former French Concession of Shanghai, and is classically European in its layout with a central lake, several fountains and pavilions and immaculately trimmed flowerbeds. What makes the Fuxing Park different from its original French counterparts is how it unfailingly becomes a center of Chinese social life every morning when locales gather to do tai chi. 

Fuxing Park
By J. Patrick Fischer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

People gather to dance, play cards or mahjong or practice Tai chi. If you’re interested in joining, you’re more than welcome to any of the groups.

Men Writing Chinese Letters in Fuxing Park
Men Writing Chinese Letters in Fuxing Park

Should you prefer to watch and perhaps learn a thing or two that way, nobody will mind either.

13)  Propaganda Poster Art Center
This hard-to-find little museum located in the basement of an apartment complex and only has two rooms. But these two rooms are filled with a selection of 5000 propagandist posters from the Maoist period of Communist China, especially from the time of the Cultural Revolution. The owner of this hidden gem has collected some of the last existing versions of some posters, and considers them important historical documents as well as examples of artwork from this time period.

Propaganda Poster Art Center
By Ellywa via Wikimedia Commons

The Propaganda Poster Art Center is mainly visited by foreigners, and is in general not popular among the locals due the little time that has passed since the Cultural Revolution. Finding historical documents on Communistic China in China itself can prove to be difficult, since it’s such an uncomfortable topic for the majority of people, but the Art Center offers a wonderful perspective. If you’re the type to collect historical documents, original posters can even be purchased.

12)  Shanghai Acrobatic Dome
Beyond China’s shores and borders, the country is not only well-known for cheap manufactured products and everlasting smiles. Martial Arts performance and acrobatic troupes are also one of China’s exports, and if you’re looking for things to do with your family, then visiting the Acrobatic Dome in the Huangpu district for an evening of entertainment for you and your kids is a great idea. Acrobatics have a long standing in Chinese history and are an integral part of traditional Chinese variety art.

A Look at Acrobatic Performance
A Look at Acrobatic Performance
Courtesy of

One of the key elements, beside the astounding performances, is the traditional clothing in which the troupe is dressed. Although the West doesn’t clearly distinguish between a circus and a variety art show, Eastern cultures make clear that they see a difference, mainly in the lack of clown and animal shows. It’s unclear how far back in history the first acrobatic show performances go, but they’ve always been popular with the common people.

Shanghai Acrobatic Dome
Courtesy of

At some point, the courts picked up on it and had acrobats perform in front of foreign guests, refining the art and changing the status of the performers. Even if acrobatic performances fell out of preference in court after a while, they have remained a constant part of Chinese culture and now have passed international borders. Most notably is the performance of the Lion Dance to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Chinese communities all around the world.

11)  Nanjing Road & People’s Square
Part of the former British concession, Nanjing Road became the center of import of foreign goods when the American and British concession were brought together to the International Settlement. This makes Nanjing Road Shanghai’s earliest shopping district and the place to go to when you’re in Shanghai and looking to do some plain old window shopping. Just in case your stay in Shanghai feels like it’s getting too long because of homesickness, which is known to happen to the best of travelers, go ahead down Nanjing Road.

Nanjing Road
Nanjing Road
By P.B. via Wikimedia Commons

The variety of shops ranges from expensive, like Tiffany’s, down to familiar sights, like McDonald’s, which might come in handy with picky eaters who would like to taste something they know every once in a while. With over 600 businesses, you’re sure to find something you’ll like, be it food, consumer products, or entertainment. If your holiday is struck with a bad case of weather, Nanjing Road also has a pedestrian arcade to allow you a full experience without getting wet. To the south of Nanjing Road is the People’s Square, which is the epicenter of Shanghai city.

Nanjing Road at Night
Nanjing Road at Night
By taylorandayumi via Wikimedia Commons

The large plaza that is flanked by two broad green belts was once a racecourse and now lies in the center of a park in the north, Shanghai Museum in the south, the large glass construction of the Grand Theater in the northwest and the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall in the East. Should you feel curious about that last point, prepare to be astounded. The exhibition has five floors above ground and two below, and features a gigantic city model in the scale of 1 to 500. You can also see how Shanghai has developed over the past decades and how it’s planning to develop even further.

10)  The Bund – Wai Tan
Mainly centered on Zhongshan Road within the former International Settlement, which lies to the north of the old walled city, the Bund describes the area on Shanghai’s waterfront along the Huangpu River. Specifically, the name refers to the wharves and buildings along this section of the road. What makes the Bund a place to visit is the international historical value of the buildings you can find there. Due to Shanghai’s position as trading center today and in centuries long before, the city was home to several foreigners who settled in so-called concessions.

The Bund (Wai Tan) at Night
The Bund (Wai Tan) at Night

The former International Settlement is the combination of what were previously the British and American concessions. As such, the easy accessibility of the Bund by water made it the location for banks and trading posts from countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Accordingly, the former buildings of these international banks and posts exist till this day and attract a lot of people interested in historical architecture. Even after the majority of foreigners and their companies left the Bund, it remained the financial center of Asia. Buildings that are still in use by foreign guests are the Russian and British consulates. An interesting must-see besides the historical landmarks is the pedestrian transit tunnel that transports people across the Huangpu River on slow-moving powered vehicles through a tunnel. Light effects are projected onto the walls, offering an interesting distraction while waiting to arrive on the other bank.

9)  Old French Concession
From 1849 to 1946, an area of Shanghai was the designated French Concession, which expanded twice in history. Despite recently constructed new buildings and some redevelopment, the former French area hasn’t lost its European flair. Several of the buildings have been preserved, even if all around them, streets and places have been renamed from their original French designation to the adapted Chinese ones.

Map of Old French Concession
Map of Old French Concession
By Jonipoon via Wikimedia Commons

The French have not only had an impact on Shanghai’s face, but on all of China, as they brought in plantains as roadside trees for Shanghai. Now, the so-called French plantains are immensely popular all across the nation. However, in Shanghai’s former French Concession, the switch from Eastern country to what feels like urban France can still be felt strongly. Housing areas feature homes with timber framing, peaked roofs, and classic avenues, while till this day, the former French Concession is considered to be the center of Catholicism in Shanghai. Despite the name, the area wasn’t purely French, as the existence of the American College and two Russian Orthodox Churches prove.

Most important for local Catholics is St Ignatius Cathedral, which is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Diocese in China. The classic cathedral can hold up to 2500 worshippers, proving just how many members of this faith were present in Shanghai when the cathedral was built before the concession was dissolved.

St Ignatius Cathedral
St Ignatius Cathedral
By Pyzhou via Wikimedia Commons

St Ignatius has made a name for itself on international level for not only being the center of Catholic faith in Shanghai and possibly, China, but also for hosting the first mass in Chinese.

8)  Shanghai Old Street – Miaoqian Dajie
As an old business street, the Old Street is where the earliest bank, gold shop, jeweler, wine shop and teahouse of the city can be found. It’s also a wonderful place to hunt for original handcrafted items, paintings, calligraphy, and jewelry spread over the 225 stores, of which some go back as far as 100 years. When you’re taking a break from your hunt or want to reward yourself for an especially good buy, you can visit the Chun Feng De Yi teahouse on the weekends to not only enjoy a traditional Chinese tea, but also listen to a performance of the Suzhou Ballads.

Shanghai Old Street
Shanghai Old Street

Alternatively, drop in the Old Teahouse and adore the owner’s collection of 50 cheongsams, traditional female dresses that date back to the 1930.

7)  Longhua Pagoda and Longhua Temple
In the south of the city, on the equally named Longhua Road, are the Longhua Pagoda and Temple. Both alone are already pretty well known, though the surrounding complex is also famous for the Evening Bell Striking Ceremony that takes place in the evening of the 31st of December to welcome the New Year, and for the temple fair on the 3rd of March. The fair is coordinated specifically on this date because of the blossoms of the surrounding peach trees are in full bloom during this time of year. The Longhua Temple is one of Shanghai’s oldest temples. It is the oldest temple, and even though it went through several reconstructions after the wars, it’s also the city’s largest temple that covers an area equal to five acres.

Longhua Temple in Shanghai
Longhua Temple in Shanghai

Most important possessions of the temple are the Dazang sutras, gold seals and the Buddhist statues. Away from the main building is the three story bell tower where, on the top floor, is the heavy and large copper bell. The Longhua Pagoda nearby has seven floors, of which each one is smaller than the one below, ending in a final height of 40.4 meters. Each floor is encircled by a balcony and banisters, allowing those who are brave enough to scale the old wooden staircases. If you are daring enough to hike up these ancient stares you are in for a wonderful view of the entire temple complex.

6)  Shanghai Ocean Aquarium
Did you ever want to meet Bruce Lee? You can in the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, though you’ll really be meeting his Orando goldfish namesake. As Shanghai is on the coast of the East Chinese Sea, having an ocean aquarium isn’t a huge leap.

Underwater Shark Tunnel
Underwater Shark Tunnel
By Diliff via Wikimedia Commons

Opened in 2002, it attracts millions of visitors each year and is a great place to go to get to know Chinese water flora and fauna. Among its most distinguishing features is the 120 meter long underwater tunnel, which is one of the longest in the entire world.

Mallard Ducks in the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium
Mallard Ducks in the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium
By Aapo Haapanen [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As you are carried along a moving walkway, you are brought through the sea life of a coastal reef, the open ocean, a kelp cave, a shark cove, and a coral reef. There are plenty of things to do and see in this aquarium.

5)  Zhujiajiao Ancient Town
Literally translating into the Zhu family corner, the Zhujiajiao Ancient Town is one of four remaining well-preserved ancient Chinese towns, and is the best in terms of historical preservation. You can find the ancient town on the outskirts of Shanghai, and it will feel like you’ve been transported back by 1700 years when you enter this water town that was economically reliant on the rice industry. Even though archeological findings date back even further than the aforementioned 1700 years, the 36 stones bridges and array of left-over buildings only date back that far. Also called Shanghai’s Venice, the historical site has recently fallen prey to Shanghai’s modern expansions, one of the most recent being what was formerly the People’s Square.

A Boat Rental Company in Zhuijiajiao
A Boat Rental Company in Zhuijiajiao

So if you’re planning on visiting, make sure to do it as soon as possible, as it is unclear how long and how much of this historical landmark will continue to exist. When you do visit, do cross the Fangsheng Bridge, which is the longest, largest and tallest stone bridge within the town, which is an impressive feat, considering the building year of 1571.

4)  Shanghai Museum
Just off the People’s Square is the modern looking building of the Shanghai Museum. Actually, the architecture has a historical basis to its design. The building is shaped like an ancient bronze cooking vessel, which is one of the museum’s exhibits. Also a rather traditional concept is the Chinese belief of a square earth and a round heaven, which is why the building’s base is square and the roof is topped by an arch.

Shanghai Museum
Shanghai Museum

Inside, the Shanghai Museum houses over 120,000 exhibits, mainly of ancient Chinese origin, and so becomes a definitive place to visit for anyone interested in more than just the recent developments China has made. The exhibits are found in various halls, such as the Ancient Chinese Bronze Hall and the Ancient Chinese Numismatics Hall. In total, there are 11 permanent galleries and three galleries that display regularly changing exhibitions. Besides the Chinese exhibits, the museum also displays art created by Chinese minorities and international level artwork.

3)  Jade Buddha Temple
After the destruction of the previous temple on the same site in west Shanghai during the Revolution, the Jade Buddha Temple was built in 1928 and is the home of two ornate jade Buddhas.

Exterior of Jade Buddha Temple
Exterior of Jade Buddha Temple
By Iamtherealnick via Wikimedia Commons

Originally brought from Burma by a monk, the two figurines were lucky to survive the destruction of the wars that plagued most of mainland China. One of them is a sitting Buddha of 190 cm in height, decorated with agate and emeralds. The other a reclining Buddha in the so-called lucky repose.

Reclining Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple
Reclining Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple
By Steve46814 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The lucky repose means that the statue is posed laying on its right side, with the right hand supporting its head and the left placed upon the left leg. Besides these two main features, the Jade Buddha Temple has another reclining Buddha from Singapore. The temple contains various ancient paintings and scriptures stored within its walls.

2)  City God Temple – Chenghuang Miao
In accordance to the Chinese tradition of having city gods for every old walled city, Shanghai has a temple dedicated to its own three city deities. The temple can be found within the old walled city and encompasses more than just the temple complex. Chenghuang Miao now not only refers to the temple complex, but to the surrounding commercial district that consists of stores and shops, some of which are situated in buildings nearly 100 years old.

The Chenghuang Miao (City God Temple)
The Chenghuang Miao (City God Temple)
By gruntzooki via Wikimedia Commons

The City God Temple began as simple temple dedicated to Jishan, who is a spirit of an equally named island off the Shanghai coast. As the city itself grew, so did the temple. In 1403 it made the change to the City God Temple as it appears today. The commercial area around it only began to expand from this point onward due to the growing popularity of the temple. Today, the temple honors three city gods. The oldest being Huo Gang, Shanghai’s original city god, who was a chancellor during the Han Dynasty and is best known for deposing a young emperor and replacing him with another.

One of the Alters of the City God Temple
One of the Alters of the City God Temple
By Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons

Joining him roughly in the 14th century was Qin Yubo, who fulfilled several roles at the first Ming Dynasty court. Finally, Chen Huacheng, a general who defended the city during the first Opium Wars and died in a battle against the British, joined the previous two.

1)  Yuyuan Gardens
Located just beyond the City God Temple, northeast of the Old City, is Shanghai’s most famous collection of gardens. Known by several different names such as Yu Garden, the Garden of Happiness or the Garden of Peace, it seems to live up to all of these names. It’s quite impossible to say what the Garden’s best feature is, but commonly named among the many is the Exquisite Jade Rock. A porous 3.3 meter high boulder weighing an impressive five tons. Since its establishment in 1559, the Yu Garden has received several add-ons and been named a national monument in 1982. Today it now stretches over a field the size of two hectare, and does its best to be representative of Chinese styled gardens.

Yuyuan Gardens
Yuyuan Gardens

Specifically, the Yu Garden is mainly based on the Suzhou gardening design style. As you might know, the Suzhou gardens have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to this style, Yu Garden consists of six areas, which are separated by so-called dragon walls. These walls are made of gray tiles made to look like dragon scales and end in an elaborate dragon’s head at the end of each wall. The six areas are the Sansui Hall featuring garden designs mainly made of stone. There is the Wanhua Chamber, which is also known as the Chamber of the Ten Thousand Flowers, the Dianchen Hall, the Huijing Hall, the Yuhua Hall with its Ming Dynasty rosewood furniture, and finally, the Inner Garden with an array of rockeries, ponds, pavilions and towers.

A Detailed Look at the Gardens
A Detailed Look at the Gardens

If you’re looking for a place to relax and simply enjoy your surroundings, then the Yu Garden must be on your list of stops during your vacation to Shanghai. 

Whatever you’re planning, a solo trip, one with friends or family, there’s something for everyone. Take your time to enjoy original Chinese food in local restaurants, and relax in the many garden and temple retreats Shanghai has to offer. The city is well aware of its potential for tourists and offers varying kinds of tour transports that not only carry you from one sight to the other, but allow you to lean back and take in the entire splendor of this gigantic growing metropolis before diving right back in. But remember, the best way to experience a different country and city is to dare and wander off the worn paths, and go along the same roads as the locals have taken for thousands of years. Even though there are more than enough major sites, it’s what you discover on your own what makes your trip unique and worth remembering.





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