Shanghai is a sprawling mega city that offers travellers a soft introduction to the rest of China. I went here for my first solo trip and found a cultural shock but also an exciting city with endless opportunities for activities and food. Read more about why you should visit Shanghai here. I spent 11 days in Shanghai and made sure to experience as much as possible of the city. With so much on offer it can be overwhelming to decide what to do in Shanghai! Below I have listed 10 of my must do activities in Shanghai to make your trip planning a little bit easier. I’ve added the closest metro station to each activity, as this is the easiest way to travel around the city. Shanghai is a really big city and even with the metro, you will find that some sights are about 20 minutes walk from the closest metro station.
What to do in shanghai
1. Yuyuan Garden
Metro: Yuyuan Garden
Yu Garden or Yuyuan Garden is probably one of the most famous attractions in Shanghai and definitely worth a visit. This classical garden is located in an old Shanghai neighbourhood which feels like a step back in time. As the garden is so famous, it does get really busy and I would recommend getting here early for a more tranquil experience. Whilst I didn’t personally join a tour, there were several that sounded interesting when I walked past. Not that I eavesdropped or anything. Entrance to Yuyuan garden is about £5 (30 – 40 CNY depending on season) but you’ll probably spend 2 hours here so worth it. Inside the paid area there is a tea house, the Exquisite Jade Rock and a pond, which makes for a beautiful setting. I would also walk around the surrounding Yuyuan bazaar area and pay a quick visit to the City God Temple of Shanghai.
2. The Pudong Skyline
Metro: Nanjing East Road or Yuyuan Garden for the ferry terminal
The Pudong skyline is easily the most iconic landmark of Shanghai and even though you’ve seen a million pictures, nothing beats reality. You can choose to either walk along the Bund (and remember to compare the skyline with the old images in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre!) or take a ferry along the Huangpu river. I chose to walk down the Bund from East Nanjing Road and then take the ferry up the river. Tickets are bought by the ferry terminal and I went with the 1 hour option, which was enough to see the skyline.
3. Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre
Metro: People’s Square
This was my favourite museum in Shanghai and covers the history and future of Shanghai as an urban space. The historical sections were interesting but my favourite part was the miniature model of Shanghai. Tiny wooden buildings have been put together to accurately depict the downtown area of Shanghai, which basically fills a room. The centre has even taken it one step further by slowly alternating between day and night settings. Another really good section was the circular room which shows you an animated video of Shanghai. The video is made so that you feel as if were flying through the city. If you’re stretched for time, this centre is a good introduction to Shanghai.
4. People’s Square and the Marriage Market
Metro: People’s Square and then head to the north part of People’s Park
This is a rather off the beaten path thing to do in Shanghai and whilst it won’t take long, it is an educational insight into Chinese culture. Every weekend from noon parents and/or grandparents gather in People’s Park with ads of their unmarried (grand)children to try and find spouses for them. Whilst this obviously isn’t the norm for finding partners it was interesting to witness this part of Chinese life. Many ads have pictures and a lot of them state salaries. The market was packed when I went and I would recommend having a quick glance just to appreciate the size of this event. Don’t take pictures though as some of these bachelors and bachelorettes might not be aware that their family is advertising them. Also have a look at People’s Square with its manicured gardens and modern look before you leave the area.
5. View from Jin Mao Tower
The skyscraper Jin Mao Tower lies next to the characteristic Pearl Tower and bottle opener-shaped Shanghai World Financial Center. With an observation deck on the 88th floor this is one of the higher viewpoints in Shanghai. I especially recommend going at night to experience the spectacular Pearl Tower light show. Just be wary that it’s quite difficult to get good pictures at night due to window reflections. Don’t just look outside though, also peek down at the Grand Hyatt reception at the bottom of a massive drop in the middle of the building. Vertigo guaranteed. I went a few years ago and recently read that they’ve added an outdoors observation platform which looks scarily awesome.
Metro: Lujiazui, follow the signs for Super Brand Mall
I met up with a local friend in Shanghai and she took me out for dinner to the restaurant Bellagio located on the 8th floor of the Super Brand Mall. I loved the food so much that I went to the outlet on East Nanjing Road by myself a few days later. Together with Ajisen Noodle, this was my favourite must eat food in Shanghai. The sweet and sour fried fish is incredible! So much so, that I ordered a fish all to myself the second time because I loved it that much. Bellagio is a popular restaurant and at dinnertime you can expect to wait for a table, but it is definitely worth the wait.
7. Mao Zedong’s Shanghai Residence
Metro: Huangpi South Road and then a 20 minute walk
You can’t talk about China and not mention Mao Zedong. A fundamental part of modern Chinese history; his presence and influence can hardly be ignored. This house in Shanghai is where the leader spent his longest Shanghai visit in 1924. Whilst the house itself isn’t that interesting, there is a good exhibition about Mao and his family’s life stories. If you have even the slightest interest in modern history, this is a must visit destination in Shanghai.
8. Jade Buddha Temple
Metro: Changshou Road
When in Shanghai you sometimes find yourself craving peace and tranquility. The Jade Buddha Temple is a popular tourist destination but I didn’t find it too crowded on a Friday afternoon. Instead, it offered a welcome break from the hustle and bustle. Despite its popularity among tourists you can witness local worshippers and I saw a lot of monks. The entrance fee is only for access to the temple area and you have to pay a second entrance fee for access to the Jade Buddha. Inside the main Jade Buddha Room you will find 500 tiny Buddhas fixed to the ceiling and also an eternally lit lantern.
9. Moganshan Lu
Metro: Zhongtan Road metro stop and then a 15 minute walk
Moganshan Lu is off the beaten path in Shanghai but was one of my favourite experiences. Lu means road and this stretch of road is famous for both street art and artist studios. The area previously housed factories and has a very industrial look to it. Along the road runs a wall of street art and I was lucky enough to see some street artists at work. Your final destination on the road will be M50, which is a cluster of artist studios. Here you can admire existing art in the galleries or, if you’re lucky, see an artist at work. I spent about half a day at Moganshan Lu and really enjoyed the creative atmosphere of the area.
10. Qibao Old Town
Have you seen those pretty pictures of Zhujiajiao, which is an ancient town full of picturesque canals? I had and was determined to visit even though it was outside of Shanghai. However, I left it for my last day and spent 2,5 hours looking for a bus that no local had ever heard of. Eventually, I gave up and went to Qibao which can be reached by the metro. I am so happy that I did!
Qibao is not as famous as Zhujiajiao and I was the only westerner during my afternoon visit. The old town is fairly small but comes with some museums. I tried the museum dedicated to fighting crickets (cause how many museums like that have you ever seen?) but I wouldn’t waste your time here. Instead, walk down the different streets and check out all the Shanghai street food on display. Think entire birds on skewers, massive eggs and fish heads. Also make sure that you walk across the bridges and admire the views, because Qibao offers some gorgeous scenery.
Shanghai was a massive culture shock to me but also one of the best trips of my life. Have you ever been to Shanghai? What were your favourite experiences?
For more Asian city guides, check out my guide to Tokyo!