Shanghai is a city which has transcended its Chinese heritage and has in many ways become its own independent international city. Since the city’s humble beginnings it has been influenced by all manner of cultures which has had a lasting effect until this day. For many, it tops the list of Chinese cities and often is the one and only destination people see during their time in the country. Any itinerary would be incomplete without it. As such, here are the top highlights in the city that is Shanghai.
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1 – The Bund
From it’s humble beginnings as a mile-long tow-path for dragging barges of rice along the Huangpu River, it has since become Shanghai’s financial centre and one of the most recognizable symbols of Shanghai. The mile long-stretch was once a collection of the most powerful banks in Shanghai, and has become a “living museum” of the city’s colonial history.
Though the strikingly un-Chinese neoclassical buildings are an attraction, its not what makes the Bund THE biggest of highlights in Shanghai. From here visitors from all across the world come to stare at the defining view of Shanghai. As night sets, the greatest light show in all of China begins as the district on Pudong on the other side of the river is illuminated.
2 – Yu Garden
From the most modern of attractions to one of the most cultural. The Yu Gardens have become one of the biggest highlights in Shanghai. Originally built by rich Ming dynasty officials, at the time it was the largest and most prestigious garden in the city. Whilst walking through the maze of picturesque pavilions overlooking a tranquil oasis of interconnected koi filled ponds, its little wonder such beauty took 18 years to be created.
Each pavilion comes with their own story and significance to where they’re placed in-between the high rock formations. You’ll walk in the footsteps of former dignitaries as you pass from one beautiful dream home to the other. You’ll also be a part of the select few that were worthy enough to enjoy the leisure that the gorgeous gardens provide.
3 – Yuyuan Bazaar
As you leave the peaceful serenity of the gardens, you’re immediately find yourself in the madness of the Yuyuan Bazaars. These spectacular mazes are filled with everything you might expect in a booming market district. Chinese lanterns, silk, antiques, arts, crafts and jewels, all advertised by several yelling merchants trying to entice you in.
Within the labyrinth are also a number of restaurants and tea houses that serve some local delicacies, such as Yangchun noodles, crispy fried cakes and steamed stuffed buns. However, one teahouse stands out above all the rest.
Between the bazaars and Yu Garden is a 9 cornered walkway which leads above a koi filled pond. In its centre stands the beautifully designed Mid-Lake Pavillion Teahouse, one of the most famous teahouses in all of China and the oldest in Shanghai. It has hosted a number of high-profile guests, including presidents and the Queen of England herself.
4 – Zhujiajiao Water Town
50 kms outside the city centre in the Qingpu District of Shanghai is China’s answer to Venice, Zhujiajiao Water Town. Similar to its Italian counterpart, Zhujiajoao has a series of interconnected waterways which in centuries past were used to ferry produce, making the district a vital trading area for the city. Its the perfect chance to escape Shanghai’s madness and get back to the city’s ancient roots.
The town holds a number of treats which calls back to the old ways. The best of which is found along North Street, which has buildings dating back to the Qing Dynasty. On Xihu Street, there’s even a post office built in the same era. These days the streets are filled with plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes which line both sides of the canals.
5 – Jing’an Temple
Once stripped of its Buddhist statues and turned into a plastics factory during the Cultural Revolution, today Jing’an Temple has become the centrepiece of Shanghai and one of its biggest highlights. The temple finds itself wedged snugly between monstrous skyscrapers and equally gigantic malls that almost brush against its walls. However, dating back to 1216 AD, the temple has been here much longer than anything else around it.
The gold covered halls battle to reach the heights of the surrounding development but remain incomparable in beauty. Inside the temples halls are some equally impressive figures, such as a 15-tonne silver Buddha and a figure of Guanyin made out of a 1000 year old camphor tree. The temple is the perfect example of how such peaceful serenity can still hold strong in an ever expanding and modernising world.
6 – Qibao
About 18 km from downtown Shanghai, Qibao is an ancient town and a spiritual sanctuary from the noise and development of the city. Built in the Five Dynasties Period around a thousand years ago, the old street is an echo of what Shanghai once was. Translated as “seven treasures“, Qibao is named after a legend that these treasures were hidden in the town. There is some truth to it, as two of them (the Scripture and the Bell) have survived until today.
Similar to Zhujiajiao, Qibao is split between canals with many well preserved houses, gardens, temples, and restaurants lining either side. Some other treats include the Qibao Pharmaceutical stores, Shadow Play Opera theaters and a-thousand-year-old shop.
7 – Tianzifang
What was once a humble market district has these days been transformed into a network of modern cafés, studios, bars and boutiques. Located in the Old French Quarter, Tianzifang is an entertainment complex spread across a collection of alleyways. For those tired of the Shanghai’s dominating skyscrapers and monstrous malls, this is the perfect relief.
The area is paired with nearby Xintiandi, but with one defining difference. Though the area has seen a handful of modern touches, overall it remains true to the time. Local artists, business owners and residents that have called these alleyways home for decades banded together to preserve the area’s original architecture, keeping the areas charm.
8 – Longhua Temple
Dating back to the 10th century, Longhua Temple is Shanghai’s oldest and largest monastery. It gets its name from the pipal tree (lónghuá) under which Buddha reached enlightenment. With red lanterns hanging from the trees and incense smoke waving amongst the chanting monks chanting, its one of the most atmospheric sites in Shanghai, and one of its worthy highlights.
The modestly designed halls each come with their own shrines, each more lavish than the next. Each intrinsically designed statue is basked in gold and has some extraordinary detailed designs. The best of which is a large figure of Shakyamuni sitting on a lotus flower within the main hall.
Next to the temple’s entrance is a striking 44m-high pagoda dating back to 977 AD. Faithful devotees walk clockwise around its perimeter, some with their hands together under murmured prayers. Movie buffs may recognise it from Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.
9 – Oriental TV Tower
Of the many amazing structures that line the banks of the Huangpu River, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower is easily the most recognisable, and has become an iconic landmark since 1994. At 468 meters high, it was China’s tallest structure before the Shanghai World Financial Center was built. It still claims the title of fifth highest tower in the world! The tower consists of three main spheres, each of which has an observation deck. The top level of the lower sphere even comes with a revolving restaurant and a glass-bottomed sightseeing floor.
10 – Jade Buddha Temple
One of the city’s few active Buddhist monasteries with 70 resident monks, the Jade Buddha temple is one of the most significant highlights in Shanghai. The temple is divided into three halls and two courtyards with some incredible figures spread throughout. As the name suggests, the temple’s main attraction is a solid jade Buddha which commands the main hall. The Hall of the Great Hero, one of the most significant structures, is where devotees come to pray to the past, present and future Buddhas. Further into the complex is a small reclining white jade Buddha originally brought from Burma.
11 – Shanghai Old Street
Shanghai Old Street (or Fangbin Road) is a small taste of how Shanghai once looked. The entire street retains styles from the Ming and Qing dynasties with their black tiles, white-washed walls, red columns, and upturned eaves. The eastern end has a variety of shops selling everything from clothes to antiques and plenty of traditional snacks such as “Five Fragrant Beans”.
12 – Cruise Along the Huangpu River
Known as the mother river of Shanghai, the 70 mile Huangpu River divides the city into two parts: Pudong in the east and Puxi in the west. Though you can experience the river whilst looking across from the Bund, nothing beats cruising along it. You’ll get the chance to see the contrast between past and present with the colonial architecture of the Bund and the modern skyline of Pudong.
There are several tours ranging from trendy modern-style bar to traditional Chinese styles. They also vary in length from a 30-minute to a 3½-hour cruise. Naturally, the best time to experience it is at night when Pudong is at its very best. Those on a tight schedule or looking to save some money, a 2 yuan ferry crosses the river and achieves the same. Either way, it’s one of Shanghai ‘s must-see highlights!
13 – Xintiandi
Next to Tianzifang in the former French Quarter, Xintiandi has been a Shanghai icon for over a decade. Translated as “New Heaven and Earth” it has become a lifestyle centre of the city. The upmarket entertainment and shopping district was modelled on traditional alleyway homes. It became one of the first sites in the city to prove that historical architecture makes big commercial sense.
14 – Shanghai Tower
China’s tallest building dramatic twists is yet another structure that dominates the city’s skyline. The spiral-shaped tower acts as office spaces, entertainment venues, shops and even a luxury hotel. The top of the tower has yet another of Shanghai ‘s best attractions, the world’s highest skydeck. To get there, you’ll take the world’s fastest (64km/h) and tallest lift!
Considered one of the top four museums in China, Shanghai Museum is famous for its large collection of rare cultural pieces. The museum remains the country’s most important home of classical Chinese art. The museum holds over 120,000 precious historical relics that range through twelve categories, including Chinese bronze, furniture, ceramics, ancient coins, paintings, calligraphy, jades, and sculptures.
16 – Nanjing Road
Though Shanghai isn’t short of incredible shopping districts, Nanjing Road has to considered the very best! Located in Huangpu District, Nanjing Road has a history of over 100 years. It also includes the entire spectrum of shops from humble souvenir vendors and monstrous department stores. The street also serves as an entertainment district with a number of restaurants and cinemas, as well as being the prime site for street performers. It is said that over 1,700,000 people visit the street every day. As such, the road has become known as the “Golden Belt“.
17 – The Skywalk
Now you’ve heard plenty about Shanghai’s biggest structures, why not hang off of one? Jin Mao Tower offers that opportunity with a skywalk, otherwise called an opportunity to “wander in the cloud“. Visitors walk across a 60-meter-long and 1.2-meter-wide piece of glass without any rails. Don’t worry, of course there’s safety measures! Being on the 88th floor, there’s few better views of the city than from here. For many, it’s amongst the best highlights in Shanghai.
18 – Shanghai Natural History Museum
Shanghai isn’t even short of amazing museums! The exhibits include dinosaurs, interactive features, life-sized animals, and models of marine animals hanging from the top floor. The museums various exhibitions span a number of topics such as ecologies, geology and evolution. The museum also has a number of unique dinosaur fossils. Easily the most unique feature of the museum is a 30m-high glass molecular cell wall with a courtyard and waterfall within.
This speaks for itself! For some, this could be the biggest of highlights in all of Shanghai! Nestled in the Pudong district, this Disneyland Park was the first in all of China the first Disney theme park in mainland China. It also happens to have the largest castle of any Disney park and the only one to represent all the princess.
20 – Xujiahui Cathedral
Standing on the peak of the hill it’s named after, Xujiahui Cathedral is yet another reminder of Shanghai’s multi-national heritage. Also known as St. Ignatius Cathedral, the building boasts a pair of impressive 50-meter-high bell-towers and fine stained glass windows. Like many other structures in the city, it was sadly damaged during the Cultural Revolution. However, in recent years big restorations has brought it back to life.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.