Shanghai is a metropolis abounding in energy and excitement and there’s no shortage of interesting things to do. Designer shopping malls, expensive boutiques and upmarket restaurants might appear to reign supreme, but Shanghai is also chock full of free and inexpensive things to do.
If you’re lucky enough to visit this dynamic city, and are willing to crowd in with a few other tourists, Shanghai’s budget sights are top-notch. Here are our picks for the ten best free (or nearly free) things to do in China's most glamorous city.
Tianzifang’s bustling alleyways
Expect cheerfully decorated shop fronts and a lively atmosphere in this fun shopping area at the edge of the French Concession. Tianzifang is a network of small alleys lined with craft shops, bars and food stands. Shoppers looking for the best bargains need to come armed with a price in mind and a knack for haggling – shopkeepers here love the chase!
The Bund waterfront
Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong. Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.
When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it's free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.
If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of the French Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.
French Concession stroll
No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.
Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city. Meandering through the temple's three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you're overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!
An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.
M50 Contemporary Art Space
You can wander for free around expanding M50, a contemporary art hub that showcases both upcoming and established Chinese artists. Influential Chinese galleries ShanghART and Eastlink are two of the numerous galleries exhibiting ceramics, modern art and sculpture. Give yourself a few hours to appreciate the fusion of talent on display and stop to chat to the gallery owners – most speak English and are happy to answer questions about the works.
Ferry ride and walk around Binjiang Dadao
Shanghai Ferry has got to be the best value activity in town. ¥2 gets you on board a scenic trip across the Huangpu River with the locals, arriving at the Binjiang Dadao riverside walk. The waterfront setting here might be less grandiose than its Bund counterpart, but it’s still an ideal spot from which to appreciate the impressive heights of Shanghai’s main architectural giants: the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center and Shanghai Tower. A glance back across the river offers contrasting views of the stately colonial buildings that line the Bund waterfront.
Marriage Market in People’s Park
In the pleasant surroundings of People's Park, every Saturday and Sunday parents and grandparents convene to seek out promising partners for their offspring at Shanghai’s marriage market. Eligible twenty- and thirty-somethings are 'advertised' and potential partners, parents and agents alike peruse the candidates with a view to finding a suitable match. Details are respectfully swapped in the hope of paving the way for a happy and successful union. This is not a place to go and ogle, but a stroll through provides a glimpse into modern Chinese life and what has become a Shanghai institution.