Shanghai: few cities in the world evoke so much history, excess, glamour, mystique and exotic promise in name alone.
Shanghai is home to the world's second-tallest tower and a host of other neck-craning colossi. But it's not all sky-scraping razzmatazz. Beyond the crisply cool veneer of the modern city typified by Pudong, you can encounter copious architectural styles. The city's period of greatest cosmopolitan excess – the 1920s and 1930s – left the city with splendid examples of art deco buildings, most of which survived the vicissitudes of the 20th century. And there's more: from Jesuit cathedrals, Jewish synagogues and Buddhist temples to home-grown lòngtáng (laneway) and shíkùmén (stone gate) housing, Shanghai’s diverse architectural heritage is like no other city's on earth.
Thirty years ago, Shanghai's dour restaurant scene was all tin trays and scowling wait staff, with international food confined to "exclusive" hotels. Today, the seriously good restaurant scene is varied, exciting and up-to-the-minute. Shanghai got its own Michelin dining guide in 2017, proving just how far the city has come. Food is the hub of Chinese social life, and it's while eating that people catch up, celebrate and clinch business deals. Inevitably, some of your best memories here will be culinary. Do as the Shanghainese do and make a meal of it.
Bearing in mind that Chinese shoppers constitute up to 46% of the global luxury-goods market, shopping is rarely done in half-measures in Shanghai. Retail therapy is one way of spending new money and the Shanghainese aren't called 小资 (xiǎozī – "little capitalists") by the rest of China for nothing, especially at the luxury end of things. But it's not all Prada, Gucci and Burberry. There are pop-up boutiques, bustling markets, cool vintage shops and young designer outlets. Beyond clothing, you're spoiled for choice, whether you're in the market for antiques, ceramics, art, jewelry… whatever is on your shopping list.
Entertainment & the Arts
Beijing often hogs the limelight as China’s cultural nexus, but for a town of wheelers and dealers, Shanghai is surprisingly creative. Many art galleries are exciting, offering a window into contemporary Chinese concerns, while nightlife options have exploded. Acrobatics shows are always a tourist favorite and you might grab the chance to catch some Chinese opera. Shanghai’s music and club scenes are vibrant: from unpretentious jazz and indie venues to all-night hip-hop and electro-dance parties, the city swings with the best of them.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Shanghai.
With its shaded alcoves, glittering pools churning with fish, plus pavilions, pines sprouting wistfully from rockeries, and roving packs of Japanese tourists, the Yuyuan Gardens is one of Shanghai's premier sights, but becomes overpoweringly crowded at weekends. The spring and summer blossoms bring a fragrant, floral aspect to the gardens, especially the luxurious petals of its Magnolia grandiflora, Shanghai's flower. Other trees include the luohan pine, bristling with thick needles, plus willows, gingkos, cherry trees and magnificent dawn redwoods.
Symbolic of concession-era Shanghai, the Bund was the city’s Wall Street, a place of feverish trading and fortunes made and lost. Originally a towpath for dragging barges of rice, the Bund (an Anglo-Indian term for the embankment of a muddy waterfront) was gradually transformed into a grandiose sweep of the most powerful banks and trading houses in Shanghai. The optimal activity here is to simply stroll, contrasting the bones of the past with the futuristic geometry of Pudong’s skyline.
One of Shanghai’s few active Buddhist monasteries, this temple was built between 1918 and 1928. The highlight is a transcendent Buddha crafted from pure jade, one of five shipped back to China by the monk Hui Gen at the turn of the 20th century. It's a popular stopover for tour buses, so be prepared for crowds. During the Lunar New Year (usually February), the temple is very busy, as some 20,000 Chinese Buddhists throng to pray for prosperity.
China’s tallest building dramatically twists skywards from its footing in Lujiazui. The 121-storey, 632m-tall, Gensler-designed Shanghai Tower topped out in August 2013 and opened in mid-2016. The spiral-shaped tower houses office space, entertainment venues, shops, a conference centre, a luxury hotel and ‘sky lobbies’. The gently corkscrewing form – its nine interior cylindrical units wrapped in two glass skins – is the world’s second-tallest building at the time of writing. The observation deck on the 118th floor is the world's highest.
Tianzifang and Xintiandi are based on a similar idea – an entertainment complex housed within a warren of lòngtáng (弄堂, alleyways). Unlike Xintiandi, families actually reside in Tianzifang and have done so for decades, meaning there's a genuine charm, vibrancy and community. You do need to wade through the souvenir stalls to get to the good stuff, but this network of design studios, cafes, bars and boutiques is the perfect antidote to Shanghai's oversized malls and intimidating skyscrapers.
Shanghai's oldest and largest monastery is named after the pipal tree (lónghuá) under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. Trees are decorated with red lanterns, incense smoke fills the front of the grounds and monks can regularly be heard chanting, making this one of the city's most atmospheric sites. The much-renovated temple is said to date from the 10th century.
With its own namesake metro station, Xintiandi has been a Shanghai icon for over a decade. An upmarket entertainment and shopping complex modelled on traditional alleyway ( lòngtáng) homes, this was the first development in the city to prove that historical architecture makes big commercial sense. Elsewhere that might sound like a no-brainer, but in 21st-century China, where bulldozers are always on standby, it came as quite a revelation.
This must-see museum escorts you through the craft of millennia and the pages of Chinese history. It's home to one of the most impressive collections in the land: take your pick from the archaic green patinas of the Ancient Chinese Bronzes Gallery through to the silent solemnity of the Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery and from the exquisite beauty of the ceramics in the Zande Lou Gallery to the measured and timeless flourishes captured in the Chinese Calligraphy Gallery.
Shanghai may be known for its glitz and glamour, but it's got an edgy subculture too. The industrial M50 art complex is one prime example, where galleries have set up in disused factories and cotton mills, utilising the vast space to showcase emerging and established contemporary artists. There's a lot to see, so plan to spend half a day poking around the site.