A time-lapse movie of the Shanghai skyline would be a fascinating study in urban development, but how do you come to grips with a city that swaps faces faster than a Sichuanese opera performer? Head to these five museums to help gain a foothold in a place where the only constant is constant change.

Shanghai Museum

This is the only place in Shanghai where the city’s future-now mantra need not apply. One of the top museums in the country, the Shanghai Museum houses masterpieces of Chinese art that date back as far as the Neolithic period, providing an impressive but manageable overview of the path of beauty within the Middle Kingdom. Even if you do not know Su Shi’s brushwork from a Jingdezhen piece, fret not – you do not need to speak Mandarin to appreciate the artwork here. From the shamanistic origins revealed in the Bronze Gallery to the minimalist landscape paintings of the 14th-century master Ni Zan, the Shanghai Museum walks you through more than 6,000 years of traditional artwork in various media, including bronzes, ceramics, sculpture, ink painting, calligraphy and furniture making.

Shanghai History Museum

Incongruously hidden in the basement of Shanghai’s landmark Oriental Pearl Tower is this surprisingly fun and clever history museum. Shanghai has had many pasts, but these exhibits take you back to before the opium traders and gangsters conspired to give Shanghai a bad name (though it does cover the juicy bits too). Yes, once upon a time Shanghai was an honest little port that traded in nothing more than cotton, fish, silk and tea, and its biggest worry was being raided by Japanese pirates. Waxwork figures and old artefacts embellish displays, and the interactive presentations will be a hit if you have children in tow.

Rockbund Art Museum

Opened in 2010 as part of the Back Bund renovation project, the Rockbund is one of the city’s premier modern art museums. And as far the heritage of local architectural goes, the museum’s Art Deco home is a feel-good story – it was originally built for the Royal Asiatic Society in 1932, one of the first modern museums in China. Exhibitions focus on contemporary Chinese artists and explore themes that pertain to life in a fast-changing society.

Propaganda Poster Art Centre

Chinese communism was certainly no friend to the arts, denying any form of expression that was not socialist in nature. But from a historical perspective, some of the mass-produced propaganda issued in the 1950s and ’60s is fascinating, particularly now that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution stand in such sharp contrast to present-day China. Stop by this underground gallery to enter the bizarre world of cheerful peasants, cherubic children, heroic soldiers, revolutionary Red Guards, and, of course, innumerable depictions of the Great Helmsman himself.

Urban Planning Exhibition Hall

Shanghai’s quest to unseat Hong Kong as China’s leading financial centre has been officially underway for some time now. At times, it seems as though Shanghai has light years to go before it can truly compete with Hong Kong’s sophistication and first-rate business services, but drop in at the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and you will realize just how far Shanghai has come in the past two decades. Start with historic photos and maps of old Shanghai before moving on to the highlights, an enormous scale model of the future city (circa 2020) and a 3D virtual tour.

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CHENGDE, HEBEI PROVINCE, CHINA - 2015/04/23: Seven-story octagonal Liuli-Wanshou pagoda (Glazed Tile Pagoda of Longevity).  The Xumi Fushou Temple (Temple of  Sumeru Happiness and Longevity) is one of the Eight Outer Temples in Chengde,  which are listed as the World cultural sites along with Chengde Mountain Resort.  The temple was first designed in 1780 to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Emperor Qianlong and built for Penchen Lama the VI. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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