Visiting Shanghai for the first time? Here’s a guide to the top sights a first time visitor should not miss…
My first visit to Shanghai was to attend a 3-day tech conference. This was to be my inaugural trip to mainland China and so I decided to make the most of the opportunity and extend my work trip in order to explore the city.
Having not really had China on my radar before, I didn’t know much about what to do in Shanghai and the best places to visit, so on the weeks running up to my trip I delved into research mode.
I knew that with just one week in the city I’d only be able to scratch the surface, so I focused on the biggest and best Shanghai tourist attractions as well as those slightly off the beaten track, quirky finds that I love when visiting a new city. Oh and of course, the best places to eat in Shanghai!
Visiting Shanghai for the first time…
Visiting Shanghai for the first time, I have to admit that I had some unfair presumptions about the city I would find. I expected aloof people, smoggy air and dirty streets. How wrong I was. Although the language barrier was an issue quite often, everyone I met was happy and helpful, and the majority of the time the air quality didn’t seem too bad. But the biggest surprise was how clean, green and pretty the city was.
History lovers will get a kick from the city; it’s got such an interesting, albeit tumultuous past, and the museums will teach you all you need to know about the Opium Wars, the unfair treaties that subjugated the Chinese, the rebellions, revolutions and, of course, the Concession Era. This was when the Shanghai was divided up between the international trading powers – the British got the Bund and the area to the north, while the French took the southwest and America, keen to get in on the action, also came and took land for themselves. Eventually the Chinese took back what was theirs, but the colonials left behind their mark in the form of some beautiful architecture.
In the Old French Concession, for example, there are lots of pretty, tree-lined streets with cute houses and everywhere I went there was always a road sweeper with a bamboo broom keeping the road and paths spotless. I could easily see why it’s been given the nickname of the ‘Paris of the East’.
The most jaw-dropping colonial buildings line the Bund of course, overlooking the Huangpu river. These are juxtaposed with the futuristic skyscrapers that have shot up in the Pudong district, just the other side of the river. Although amazing to see during the day, at night this area bursts into life. A warm glow emanates from the lights on the Bund, while across the river buildings turn into a kaleidoscope of colour, with changing lights blazing messages over the steel structures that rise up into the night. I love a good cityscape and this has become my number one city skyline, a title which had been long held by Hong Kong until this trip.
Things to do in Shanghai
Anyway, back to the focus of my article – what are the things to see in Shanghai when visiting for the first time? I’ve done the research so you don’t have to, taking advice from fellow bloggers, travel experts and even residents.
So, without further ado, here’s my rundown of the top things to do in Shanghai on your first visit.
Afternoon tea at the Peninsula
2 Zhongshan East 1st Rd
Afternoon tea is served daily between 2-6pm
The Peninsula name is eponymous with luxury and class and the Peninsula Shanghai is the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotel’s flagship hotel in Mainland China. If you want a decadent treat after some Shanghai sightseeing, this is the place to go.
As part of my Global Afternoon Tea Challenge I tried out the hotel’s Heritage and Baroque afternoon teas during my visit. Read my review to find out more…
Eat Xio Long Bao
Xio Long Bao is a Shanghai delicacy that you can find everywhere in the city.
These pork soup dumplings are delicious and have to be tried while you’re here. Everywhere I looked the top recommendation for Xio Long Bao was Din Tai Fung, which is actually a Taiwanese chain of restaurants.
I can report that their Xio Long Bao were absolutely delicious, as were the other dishes I tried on my visit. Even better, Din Tai Fung recently opened its first restaurant outside Asia – in London! I’ve already visited once and was not disappointed.
I’ll be putting together a list of the best places to eat in Shanghai soon, so be sure to come back to check that out…
Long Bar, Waldorf Astora
No 2, The Bund
After a long day exploring, why not treat yourself to a drink at the famous Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria? Heritage and luxury come together here, as this bar has been restored to how it was when it was known as the 1910 Shanghai club. Back then this members-only bar was, at 110 feet, the longest in the world and was the place where the most important officials met to discuss matters over a glass of whisky. One such guest was US President Ulysses S. Grant.
Grab yourself a leather seat, order a cocktail, try the oysters and soak in the history.
Shanghai (Municipal) History Museum
325 Nanjing Xi Lu
OPEN 9am-5pm Tues-Sun
Pick up an audio guide and take a whirlwind tour of Shanghai’s history from ancient times to modern day.
I absolutely loved this museum, as I learnt so much about the city’s tumultuous history, and I highly recommend it as one of the first attractions you visit, in order to get the most from visiting other sights around the city.
Here I learnt in detail about the Concession Era where the city was broken into sectors owned by the French, English and America and the rise of the Revolutionary Army. I revelled in seeing old, giant printers used to publish propaganda and learnt so much about the city’s history and people.
Well worth a visit and a must-visit for history lovers, you’ll get the most out of a trip here if you visit at the start of your time in Shanghai.
*Note to visitors, online most websites state that the museum can be found on Lujiazui in the Pudong area of Shanghai. At time of writing however, the museum has been moved to the address above. I’m not sure if this is temporary or permanent so be sure to double check before travelling to the museum
Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre
Basement, Building 4, 868 Huashan Road
Open daily 10am-5pm
It might be a bit of a challenge to find, but the Propaganda Poster Art Centre is one of the best places to visit in Shanghai. The museum is in the basement of an unassuming apartment building, so to get there you have to give a nod to the guard at the housing estate’s entrance, who’ll then give you a small bit of paper directing you to the entrance. Walking inside the third building we passed, we were sure we’d made a wrong turn, but heading down the stairs we suddenly spotted a room full of posters and knew we’d made it.
Opened in 2012, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre is home to over 6,000 propaganda posters and Shanghai calendar pages – many are the only existing copies in the world. It’s an amazing place to wander around – although it’s tiny we spent a good few hours slowly taking in the posters that were like windows into each era. Posters displayed come from the Maoist era of communist china and especially during the Cultural revolution, showing ideological messages and shifts in focus as the world changed and alliances were formed with different leaders such as Stalin, for example. I particularly enjoyed the section that focused on how the ways of the west – and particularly America were evil. It was really interesting to see how western leaders were portrayed and caricatured.
Once you’ve taken everything in, make sure you spend some time in the shop. Here you can get postcards of many of the most prolific posters you’ve just seen, or grab one emblazoned on a t-shirt. If you’re feeling flush, you can even take home an original piece of Chinese propaganda as many pieces – small and large – are available to buy. We picked up the mini poster (above) from 1968 entitled ‘Red Guards in the long march with Mao’.
Once a muddy riverbank, the bund was opened as a treaty port in 1843 and just a few years later become the site of British settlement. In the early 20th century it was had become the finance and political centre of the international community in China and was known as ‘Chinese Wall Street”. Many of the buildings from this era still stand, as if you take a stroll down the Bund you’ll see gothic, baroque and renaissance style architecture to name but a few.
Look across the river and you’ll see the amazing buildings that have shot up in Pudong during Shanghai’s much more recent history. Highlights include the sci-fi style Oriental Pearl Radio and TV tower, Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Shanghai Tower. This claims to have the world’s highest observatory, so if you have a clear day why not head up there?
Be sure to visit the Bund both during the day and the evening. At both times it’s a great spot to visit, but at night the river bank and Pudong/Lujazui area becomes a crazy, bright fanfare of lights. Here’s a couple of short videos I took giving you a view of the city from both sides of the river…
There’s so to see and do in the area – including a stop off at the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Bund Bull statue – every first visit to Shanghai must include a stop at the Bund.
The Peace Museum
20 Nanjing Road East
Open everyday 10am-7pm
In the vicinity of the Bund and have a spare 15 minutes? Then I recommend popping into the Fairmont Peace Hotel’s Peace Museum. Located on the mezzanine floor this tiny museum, which is free to visit, tells the hotel’s history. Here you’ll learn about how the hotel housed Jewish refugees during the war and see memorabilia from different eras, including hotel silverware, menus and letters and photos from famous guest.
It’s a beautiful art deco space to visit, and even has plush vintage sofas where you can get cosy for a short while. If this whets your appetite to learn more about the hotel then you also choose to go on one of the several hotel tours they offer. Focusing on heritage, jazz, tiffin and high tea, prices range from 100RMB to 480RMB, depending on whether you want to include food and drink. Tours in English run daily at 2.30pm.
The People’s Square
Xizang Middle Road
The People’s Square is one of the most famous city squares in China, but until 1949 it used to be a horseracing course! Worth a stroll around, it’s also where you’ll find several big Shanghai attractions, such as the City Hall, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai Art Museum and Shanghai Concert Hall.
Tian Zi Fang
Tian Zi Fang was one of my favourite spots in Shanghai. It’s a maze of tiny side streets filled with shops, bars and the like. It’s a very creative area, with lots of artists selling their wares and we saw the most amazing dumpling and sweet designs here.
Allow yourself to get lost in this warren of cute shops and cafes, you won’t be disappointed.
Visit a park
Shanghai has several beautiful big green spaces and it’s well worth taking the time to go and wander through one of these parks. My work hotel was right next to Changfeng Park, so on a couple of occasions I wandered over there and explored the beautifully landscaped gardens.
While I was working Justin would go wandering and often found himself in a new park. One time he came across an afternoon dance class!
Wulixiang Shikumen museum – Shikumen Open House
25 Lane 181, Taicang Road
Open daily, 10.30am-10.30pm
This museum in the Xintiandi area offers visitors an insight into how a Shikumen house would have looked in 1920s. A great way to envision what life in ‘old Shanghai’ would have been like, seven rooms of the house have been decorated as they would have looked when the building would have been owned by a local middle-class family.
Lane 181, Taicang Road
This small area is made up of beautiful Shikumen houses that have been restored. Although they’re now posh shops and eateries, it’s still a lovely spot to visit for the gorgeous architecture. I adored walking away from the main thoroughfare down the tiny side streets.
Xintiandi is also where you’ll find the Wulixiang Shikumen Museum. Well worth a visit to find out more about this area’s history.
Yuyuan Garden district
Yuyuan Garden was built 400 years ago and is world-renowned classical garden that tourists – both domestic and international – flock to see. I didn’t actually make it there myself sadly, but I did manage to visit Shanghai Old Street and also Yuyuan Tourist Mart on the last night of my trip.
Totally aimed at tourists, this place is always heaving and one of the cheesiest Shanghai attractions, thanks to its bright lights at night and gaudy fake gold decoration. The buildings, mainly shops selling souvenirs or stalls selling overpriced food, are designed to look like ancient Ming and Qing dynasty houses. Sure, it’s tacky, but still worth a quick trip to see it with your own eyes!
My guide to visiting Shanghai for the first time
So there you have it, hopefully this list has given you an idea of some points of interest to visit on your Shanghai trip. There are so many things to see in Shanghai, and this list is far from definitive, but these are some of the best things to do when visiting the city for the first time.
I’ll leave you with some fast facts and tips to help you out during your visit visit, but above all else get out there and enjoy everything this amazing city has to offer!
Shanghai fast facts and tips
Getting around Shanghai
Getting around Shanghai via public transport is really easy, with metro stations and bus stops on almost every street corner. The metro is very modern and user friendly so don’t be put off by the language barrier. Pick up a bus and metro map at your local tourist office and get exploring!
When is the best time of year to visit Shanghai?
September and October are considered the best months to visit Shanghai, although tourists flock to the city all year round. Weather-wise, the coldest month is January, where the average temperature is 4oc. The hottest months are July and August, which have an average temperature of 30oc – never particularly great in a bustling city.
Those who struggle with pulmonary conditions like asthma etc should also take into consideration the air quality of the city at different times of the year. I didn’t research this thoroughly, but it is noted that winter is often when air quality in Shanghai is at its worst.