Shanghai could be the perfect place to fall in love with travelling solo. There’s always something new to eat, a new show to catch, a new skyscraper to head up for sunset drinks. Plus, there are so many people around (over 26 million) you need not fret about anyone staring at you on your lonesome.
Many people find themselves in Shanghai due to a layover or work and, for this reason, the metropolis often serves as the setting for many travellers’ first taste of travelling alone (whether reluctantly or willingly).
With this in mind, here are our recommendations for things to do (and places to eat) in Shanghai for solo travellers; a selection of memorable experiences where nobody will bat an eyelid if you arrive unaccompanied.
1. Start with a stroll along The Bund
German etymology yes, but quintessentially Shanghai – The Bund is the city’s beloved waterfront boulevard. Heritage buildings elegantly set its backdrop, giving an insight into the city’s past prior to the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). A look towards the other side of the Huangpu River, by contrast, showcases the Shanghai of the future, where soaring skyscrapers of different shapes, sizes and designs unite to make up the city’s economic zone.
The Bund is well worth multiple visits. In the mornings it’s bustling from the get-go, with locals ballroom dancing, or practising tai chi and qi gong, while at night the spectacle comes from the surrounding illuminated buildings – each one a different colour, reflecting a neon rainbow in the river’s waters.
2. Weave the laneways of Tianzifang and Xintiandi
Once a residential district, the Tianzifang is a quirky labyrinth of laneways whose old red brick residences are now a series of galleries, eateries and boutiques. Stores sell the likes of teas, leather goods and vintage photographs of the city. Xintiandi is a similar precinct, though feels more modern – a little more built up, not as quaint, and the offerings geared towards more affluent patrons. Nonetheless, both areas are great for spending an afternoon milling around the stalls and moving as one with the large crowds.
3. Visit one Shanghai’s epic public parks
It’s in the city’s parks where you’ll realise how important exercise and social interaction is to Shanghai’s seniors and, in fact, throughout China.
Fuxing Park is a popular senior hotspot. You’ll find groups of people playing mahjong, others writing poetry with calligraphy brushes, some painting, inspired by the foliage of the garden, and a vast number dancing harmoniously. It’s a place to respectfully observe daily life; but look too hard and someone may pull you in for a dance. Huaihai Park offers something similar but on a smaller scale. The park is sprinkled with gym equipment and here you’ll witness 80-year-olds get the heart racing with speedy push ups, strained pull ups and full-blown gymnastics routines on the bar, putting the young ‘uns, with their heads in their smartphones, to shame.
4. Hear some live jazz at the Fairmont Peace Hotel
This is by far one of the best things solo travellers can do in Shanghai. Gracing the corner of The Bund boulevard and Nanjing East Road is the iconic Fairmont Peace Hotel, built in 1929. The hotel’s original jazz bar still stands, where every night from 6.30pm Shanghai’s oldest jazz band proudly play old classics.
The band has six veteran musicians with an average age of 82. Some members played together back in 1947, in what was the city’s first ever all-Chinese jazz band. Order your poison of choice, take in the tunes and be transported back in time.
5. Find retreat with a side of history in the Yuyuan Gardens
For scenes of the way ancient China is typically depicted in movies, head to the Yuyuan Gardens. It's one of the few large Chinese heritage sites in Shanghai, built back in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty. Alongside fish-filled ponds, bamboo groves, pagodas and beautiful rockeries is the Exquisite Jade Rock – a 5-tonne boulder that was purportedly heading for the imperial palace in Beijing before the boat carrying it sank near Shanghai.
The rock is a display of filial piety – being good to one’s parents is an extremely important value in historical and modern China. Then governor of Sichuan, Pan Yunduan, who hailed from Shanghai, built the Yuyuan Gardens for his parents, translating as the ‘garden of peace and comfort’ to make their old age more enjoyable.
6. Slurp up Shanghai’s iconic dumpling soup
Xiaolongbao, the much celebrated soup dumplings of Shanghai, are so delicious and iconic that they are a highlight of the city in their own right. What’s more, they’re a great meal for one, and there’s an endless number of places to enjoy them; chances are if you ask three different locals where to eat them you’re likely to get three different answers.
Here are three to get you started: Jia Jia Tang Bao is not only adored by locals but also celebrity chef Rick Stein. There are 12 varieties of soup dumplings here, including the classic pork version, pork and mushroom, and pork and crab roe. Nanxiang Mantou is another firm favourite close to the Yu Gardens if you find yourself near there, but lines at peak times can be long for the dumplings – both to dine in and takeaway. For more inventive and upmarket xiaolongbao, there is Sui Tang Li, where variants with Spanish ham, vegetable and black truffle, and hairy crab are on offer.
7. Hit up some of the best bars in the world
The city’s drinking landscape never ceases to rest, a mix of jazz bars, humble boozers, speakeasies and upscale bars. By upscale, we’re talking 91 storeys high, like 100 Century Avenue at the Shanghai World Financial Centre (affectionately known as the bottle opener). Another high roller, the Park Hyatt’s bar is ideal for lone travellers, with many people on work trips also enjoying a drink in their own company, along with the amazing evening views of Shanghai’s Pudong district.
A little more down to earth (both literally and financially), Daga Brewpub specialises in local Chinese craft beers from the country, many of which you’ll find hard to track down at other bars. You can sample before you buy, drink at the bar (a great way to meet fellow revellers) and, if you get the munchies, order a sandwich, pizza or some fried snacks.
8. Take in Shanghai at night at Lujiazui
Lujiazui is an area in Shanghai’s financial district, defined by an elevated circular walkway that lights up at night. The walkway is an impressive structure, five metres above ground and able to fit 15 people standing side by side.
At night, it’s a stunning spot to merely stand still and soak in the energy of Pudong, with otherworldly skyscrapers overlooking you and residents out and about, enjoying Shanghai by star – or, more realistically, neon – light.
Where to eat alone in Shanghai
Though a source of anxiety for many travellers, dining out alone is part of Shanghai life. One of the best things about dining solo is that you can eat exactly what you want, when you want (the next best thing is being able to react candidly if you really don’t like something), and Shanghai is inundated with options to satisfy every craving.
Traditional Shanghainese cuisine itself is a little sweeter than the rest of China’s. Get your pincers on some dazhaxie (steamed crab), hong shao rou (braised red pork) and jiaohua ji (beggar’s chicken cooked in lotus leaves over flames). For fearless diners (or those feeling momentarily adventurous) consider the delicacy that is jia xiang ji – chicken and duck blood soup.
Five restaurants that are perfect for solo travellers:
Wèixiāng Zhāi For solo diners, a hearty bowl of noodles is a wise way to go in Shanghai. At Wèixiāng Zhāi, the strenuously hand-pulled noodles are iconically topped with sesame paste, and cost from ¥10 to ¥20. This one is ideal for a visit after Fuxing Park, a mere 10-minute walk away.
Da Fu Dong Eating in a shopping centre food court is generally considered a no-no when it comes to dining recommendations. But Reel Mall often pulls a line of diners in peak times, and for good reason. Within the food court is Da Fu Dong, serving up Asian-style grilled meats on rice from China and beyond. You're in a shopping centre, who cares if you're alone? Hot tip, the sake-flavoured soft serve is a hit here.
Hao Jiu Hao Cai Chicken Company Chicken pot is aptly the signature dish at the Hao Jie Hao Cai Chicken Company, taking form as a Cantonese-cross-Sichuan-style casserole which is made to serve individual diners. Think soybean paste, oyster sauce and soy sauce combined, paired with ginger and Sichuan peppercorn, before the likes of beef balls, tofu and vegetables are added into the mix.
Lost Heaven Bar Just off The Bund, Lost Heaven Bar is a popular spot with travellers hunting down a drink, snacks and/or dinner. Some even make friends over authentic Yunnan food, one of China's most vibrant cuisines. Head to the rooftop terrace for for unforgettable views.
Tops at the Banyan Tree When it comes to dining out in the open, this rooftop spot is hard to top (geddit?). The elevated terrace affords unobstructed views of the city skyline, with plenty of small tables for one; perfect for enjoying a sunset. Creative cocktails and tapas are the order of the day here.