Even though I had lived abroad by myself for years, Shanghai was my first proper solo travel destination. I probably could have picked an easier destination, but Shanghai was an incredible bucket list destination and I am so, so happy I went. This mega city is definitely not for the faint of heart and can be an assault to the senses. The city is bustling and will most likely induce a small culture shock. So why do I claim that Shanghai should be on your bucket list? Because, in short, it’s a unique mix of East meets West and in such rapid development that you can see it renew in front of your eyes. The list of things you can do in Shanghai is endless and if you haven’t tried Chinese food, have you even lived? I love a good list so here goes; reasons Shanghai should be on your bucket list. In lovely list format.
Shanghai’s Constantly evolving CityScape
Have you ever seen an image comparing Shanghai now with say 30 years ago? The difference is incredible and it’s hard to wrap your head around how fast Shanghai is developing. The famous Pudong skyline didn’t even exist 30 years ago. Even when I went a few years ago, there were construction sites everywhere. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place with so many building works in progress.
That said, you still have the residential Shanghai neighbourhoods contradicting the new and shiny skyscrapers. Peak through a courtyard entrance and you’ll see an old lady brushing the ground with a broom. Take a random turn and the cityscape instantly changes from a modern highway to tightly packed low rise houses with washing lines strapped between the buildings. Walk past groups of teenagers hanging out on mopeds. Try not to get run over by a moped (definitely not an unlikely scenario).
Finally, you have the neighbourhoods that are stuck somewhere between old and new. They are big apartment blocks, but they lack the shiny modernism of the central business skyscrapers and the personality of the low rise areas. They are not going to be on anyone’s top list of things to do in Shanghai, but they are a huge part of the city.
The history of Shanghai and China
Needless to say, China has played an important role throughout history. From ancient dynasties to communism, China has definitely seen its fair share of political systems. While modern Shanghai is a thriving metropolis, the history of the city and China alone should place Shanghai on your bucket list. There are some good museums in Shanghai that will allow you to explore China’s as well as Shanghai’s past.
My favourite experience in Shanghai was The Propaganda Poster Art Centre. This place has an extensive collection of propaganda posters from the Mao era and has some really interesting displays. The Birthplace of Chinese Communist Party museum is another interesting place to learn about the development of communism in China. This museum gets very busy with Chinese tourist groups so prepare to walk around slowly. Another of my favourites was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center which shows the evolution of Shanghai and features a scale model of the city. This museum gives you the chance to see old photos of Shanghai before the famous Pudong skyline developments.
The sights in Shanghai
I spent 10 nights in the city and didn’t run out of things to do in Shanghai. In fact, it can be difficult to know what to do in Shanghai with so much choice! I’ve written a post about the top 10 must do things in Shanghai here (in lovely list format), but there is of course even more to do. The beauty of Shanghai is the scope of attractions; from taking a boat down the Huangpu River to visiting a traditional Buddhist temple to seeing the latest art at M50. Some of my favourite sights in Shanghai were the Qibao water town, Moganshan Lu and the slightly touristy but beautiful Tianzifang area.
Qibao is an old water town that you can easily reach by the metro network (the station name is Qibao). Walk along the canals and get lost among the locals eating street food in the narrow Qibao streets. Moganshan Lu is home to the art park M50 where you can visit artist studios and galleries. There are some really incredible pieces in this area and you should definitely visit if you have the time. Also make sure you don’t miss the street art outside of M50 on Moganshan Road itself. Tianzifang is a cluster of narrow alleys full of small shops and bars. I would highly recommend it for the atmosphere alone, especially towards the evening.
The culture in Shanghai
Now, how vague a statement is that? It’s always difficult to describe culture because it’s such a fluid concept and means different things to different people. It’s also difficult to pinpoint unless you live in a place. As a visitor, you can only get a flavour of a location’s values but Shanghai did leave a big impression on me. As mentioned above, you have a stark contrast between traditional and modern. One day you can visit a temple in Shanghai and see the spiritual side of the city’s residents. The next you can go to a massive shopping mall full of international luxury brands. The contrasts are present wherever you look.
I think that one of the most enjoyable things to do when travelling is observing everyday life. With Shanghai you still have the possibility to see locals go about everyday life, as long as you leave the skyscraper districts. Interact with local people if you get a chance. I struggled to find locals that spoke English but aim for younger people and you should eventually find someone. Just beware of the tea ceremony scam (people speaking perfect English approach you and invite you to a tea ceremony that you end up paying extortionate sums for).
Food in Shanghai
Whenever people talk about food in China, there comes a moment when someone smirks and goes ‘just wait until you try REAL Chinese food’. This is often followed by a knowing and slightly evil laugh. It’s fair to say that Western versions of Chinese food are pretty watered down. I’ve only tried food in Shanghai so can’t speak for the rest of the country, but I had great dishes.
If you’re interested in northern Chinese food (think Beijing), I suggest you watch The Food Ranger’s Youtube videos. He posts some seriously mouthwatering content. But back to food in Shanghai. The city offers plenty of food options, from tiny hole in the wall restaurants to international Western food chains. Whatever you do, make sure you try something you’ve never even thought about eating before.
It’s impossible to say what you should try with so many options. Personally, I really enjoyed hong shao rou (red braised pork belly), deep fried sticky fish in Bellagio and cold wood ear mushrooms. I also tried cold jellyfish (surprisingly good), stomach from an unknown animal (less good) and really boney small fish (not for me). Basically, if you’re a foodie who enjoys trying new and exciting food, Shanghai should be on your bucket list.
Shanghai was one of my favourite trips to date, because it was so different to anything I had ever experienced before. Personally, I can’t wait to go back (writing this post has really made me want to return). The city is overwhelming and chaotic but also incredibly enticing. The range of things to do in Shanghai will keep you busy for days and the mix of East and West makes it a good introduction to China. There are so many reasons Shanghai should be on your bucket list and I hope the above have at least made you interested in a trip. Please let me know below if you’ve ever been to Shanghai or want to visit!