A Province of China: The Fishermen’s Town Turned Metropolis
Shanghai, China, is the nation’s largest and most populous city. With 18 districts and several islands at the mouth of the Yangtze river, there are plenty of places to visit as well as things to do in Shanghai. Although this city began as a fishermen’s folk town, its humble beginnings gave way to a packed and sprawling urban metropolis once it became a major trade port. Today, it is the financial and commercial core of China. For those seeking unforgettable Shanghai attractions and insight into the best places to visit in Shanghai, look no further than this list.
Looking for things to do in Shanghai that take a step away from hectic municipal life into a tranquil direction? Yu Garden is the spot. This traditional Chinese garden’s name translates to “pleasing and satisfying.” Concealed in the Huangpu District and boasting surprisingly low tour costs, this 400+ year old, 20,000 square meter garden is surprisingly accessible. Although finished in 1577 during the Ming Dynasty by government officer Pan Yuduan, this garden has undergone significant changes throughout new ownership, the Opium War of the 19th century, and other historic events that occurred in Shanghai, China.
This garden contains six main areas to the public: Sansui Hall, Wanhua Chamber, Dianchun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall, and the Inner Garden. Within these scenic zones is the Great Rockery, a 14-meter rock wall that is the oldest in the region, offering a bird’s eye view of the garden. Other zones include entertaining spaces for ceremonies, serene flower enclosed spaces, corridors, pavilions, streams, courtyards, natural gems and rock such as jade, and other attractions. A more modern addition is a shopping mall where souvenirs from crafts to jewelry are sold.
As one of the most profound and sprawling commerce centers of the world, it should be no surprise that Shanghai, China is home to must-see shopping areas such as Tianzifang. Located in the Old French Quarter, this shopping area is more authentic and eccentric than the popularized Xintiandi shopping area. In a rapidly changing city, this is one of the things to do in Shanghai, especially before it succumbs to gentrification and touristy remodels. Within the last decade, to preserve original architecture and culture, artists, businesses, and residents joined together to maintain the funky, affordable space. Visit for a one-of-a-kind view of youth culture, cafes, craft shops, design studies, galleries, and boutiques. It is Shanghai, China’s unofficial hipster hub. Whether someone is searching for unusual knickknacks or just wandering through as a window shopper, this is one of the coolest places to visit in Shanghai.
In virtually every package of postcards featuring the wonders of China, the Bund is highlighted, so it is certainly one of the places to visit in Shanghai. This waterfront strip in central Shanghai features an array of stunning buildings and wharves of the Huangpu River. Popular activities include photograpy, walking, viewing scenery, and taking river cruises.
However, the Bund is also great for history lovers who will marvel at the 52 buildings of iconic international architecture that include baroque, Gothic, and neoclassical, just to name a few. It is a true merging of Chinese culture and western influence. This spot is fantastic for both day and night tourists and one of the top things to do in Shanghai. During the day, the Bund offers a lovely riverside atmosphere, perfect for picnics, strolls, and daytime browsing. At night, this internationally inspired line of buildings is reflected across the river front, an epochal view in comparison to many of the historically preserved architectural components of Shanghai’s city landscape.
Related: 10 Must Visit Sights in China
Zhujiajiao Ancient Town
Of all of the things to do in Shanghai another of the Shanghai attractions, Zhujiajio—the ancient water town—is perhaps the one that most looks like it came out of a Studio Ghibli movie. This is one of the best spots to get a feel for the ancient side of Shanghai, China. Being over 1,700 years old, it should be. Bringing to mind the river runs of Venice, Italy and Amsterdam, for visitors, a boat ride through the canals of town is non-negotiable. There are 36 waterways to explore. Depending on visitors’ schedules and party sizes, short and long cruises are offered, as well as smaller boat cruises for groups of just a couple people.
When not exploring the river’s paths, walk around town to see the rest of the historically preserved town. Check out the post office built during the Qing Dynasty, possibly one of the best preserved from that era. Such exhibits fill many of the quirky buildings here. For example, the postal exhibit displays letters written on bamboo and antique postcards of the city.
What makes Xintiandi interesting is its departure from strict ancient architectural style. The south blocks of Xintiandi offer something traditional–but not ancient–while the north blocks offer something more modern and pedestrian. The south blocks’ traditional look is reminiscent of Shikumen style walls and tiles favored on old Shanghai houses, the interior of which transports people to a different time.
The north blocks are where international businesses—including galleries, bards, cafes, and restaurants—are available to explore, one of the hallmarks of a true urban, 21st century street. This part of Xintiandi speaks to an international, urban, luxurious experience, making it a convenient, comfortable place for first time visitors to stay or live if the charms and chances of the rest of Shanghai are intimidating. Elevators, central air conditioning, broadband internet connection, and other amenities of today make this a spot for tourists or international residents who need a taste of home or something familiar in the heart of Shanghai, China. For the history buffs out there, make sure to see Xingye Rd, the place where the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China was formed.
Shanghai Temple Of the Town God
A list of Shanghai attractions and things to do in Shanghai cannot be complete without the mention of a temple. The Temple of the Town God is officially known as the City Temple of Shanghai and is another of the places to visit in Shanghai. This Taoist folk temple commemorates the municipal status of Shanghai, China. Taoism is a Chinese philosophy or ideology concerned with the writings and teachings of Lao-tzu. It promotes piety and humility, ultimately advocating harmony. The popularized yin yang sign emerged from this tradition. This temple contains 9 halls that represent Chinese immortals, including Guan Yu and Huo Guang.
Although this place is most revered for its religious and historical significance, City God Temple is also known for excellent snacks. As with the other most popular Shanghai attractions, food plays an important role for reeling people in. A big snack square rests beside the City God Temple and is known for snack cuisine that is both delicious and authentic.
Shanghai Nanjing Road Shopping
If Tianzifang proves to be too niche and quaint, check out Nanjing Road Shopping as one of the great shopping places to visit in Shanghai. When it comes to finding things to do in Shanghai, shopping is always an option and tops the list of Shanghai attractions. It should not be a surprise why this is often considered China’s premier shopping street. At almost 5 kilometers long holding over 600 businesses and multilevel shopping malls, Nanjing Road is unfathomably massive! Talk about a consumer’s paradise. New shops, theaters, eateries, and hotels emerge constantly, but this spot in Shanghai, China has held some of the same trading posts since the Qing Dynasty.
Some of the historic shops on this road include: Shanghai Laojifiefu Department for any and all cloth and fabric needs, Heng Da Li Clocks and Watches Co. for luxury watches and clocks, Cai Tong De Pharmacy for traditional medicines, Shao Wan Sheng for local foods, Duo Yun Sheng for calligraphy and artistry materials, and Lao Feng Xiang Jewelers for gems and gifts. Check out Plaza 66 or Shanghai Center for goods sold by famous contemporary fashion houses.
Really, the options are endless on this street. Just when tourists are shopped out, more places to visit in Shanghai appear. The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, the Shanghai Museum focusing on bronze work and artifacts, and Jing’an Temple celebrating Buddhist traditions of the Southern Song Dynasty also stand on this iconic street.
Still looking for more Shanghai attractions and things to do in Shanghai that capture tradition and history? Old Street—also called Fangbin Road—shows this side of the city. Near Yu Garden, this 825 meter street has eastern and western sections. The eastern section conserves characteristics of the Qing Dynasty and early Republican days, spanning from 1644 to 1949. Noddle restaurants, specialty tea shops, and florists take up business here. The western section has some overlap in Qing style, but it hearkens to older days with its Ming influence, which lasted from 1368 to 1644.
Black tiles, white walls, and red accent structures mark this high contrast artistic and architectural look. One side of the street is home to stores over 100 years old, from tea houses to restaurants to clothes stores. For those overwhelmed by the vastness of this street, look into tours of its alleys. Shanghai attractions often include, or offer, helpful, educational, exciting tours from locals and longtime residents. Some even allow tourists to eat with locals who kindly open up their homes.
Seeking Shanghai attractions and things to do in Shanghai means stopping by the Shanghai Museum in People’s Square. While visiting Nanjing Road Shopping, find this artistic masterpiece of Shanghai, China. Established in 1952, this museum was one of China’s first world-class modern museums. It contains ancient Chinese art and artifacts, divided up into 11 galleries and 3 halls. Major artistic traditions are kept here, including ancient bronze, ancient ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, ancient jade, sculpture, ancient dynastic furniture, coins, and seals. See these markers of tradition, culture, history, religion, philosophy, and social change first-hand. As with many cutting-edge museums and educational facilities, Shanghai Museum weaves multimedia into its exhibits and offers downloadable guided learning tools and resources for visitors.
Just about every item on this list includes a reference to incredible Chinese cuisine, but it deserves a category unto itself. Traditional Chinese cuisine often refers to Benbang cuisine, which literally translates to “local cuisine.” The food in Shanghai mimics the food in the other provinces of China—Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Jiangxi—in many ways.
What makes traditional Shanghai food unique is that soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine vinegar are more prominent than in the cuisine of the other provinces. Considering cooking techniques, this traditional cuisine opts for food that is gently braised over a long period of time. Fast cooking usually calls for a stir fry of vegetables, meats, and noodles. Fish is a popular poultry choice, as the Yangtze River transports fish and shellfish in its currents. Freshwater lakes flow into the river, allowing rice to be cultivated and freshwater fish varieties to be caught.
Popular foods in Shanghai today include dumplings, braised pork, stir fry, vegetable sautés, and deep-fried seafood such as eel, shrimp, and crayfish. However, as Shanghai is an international powerhouse, expect tons of dietary variety. International cuisines of all sorts can be found in various nooks and crannies in Shanghai. Even popular western chains such as McDonalds have fronts in this city, even if the menu is modified. Tiny cafes, food stands, and 5 star restaurants are all part of the food landscape.
Tea is popular in both traditional and contemporary cuisines. The tea leaf has great growing conditions in the elevated mountainous terrains of outer Shanghai. Tea houses are trendy in young parts of the city, making them another of Shanghai attractions and they are also valued as a ceremonial tool in temples and other ancient areas.
Ready to Plan a Trip to Shanghai?
This list provides just a glimpse of things to do in Shanghai, China has to offer in 10 of its outstanding attractions and places. Shanghai, a city of fusion, brings together truly unparalleled combinations of east meets west, ancient meets contemporary, domestic meets international, and old meets young. Tourists and locals alike will never run out of things to do here. Book a flight, rent a room, and see what is in store for you in the boldest metropolis China has to offer. Make it a point to partake of the many Shanghai attractions waiting for you.