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11 unique experiences to have in Shanghai | Insight Guides Blog

11 unique experiences to have in Shanghai

From Buddhist temples and traditional tea houses to intriguing museums, world-class shopping and a futuristic skyline, Shanghai has something for every type of traveller. Here is our guide to 11 unmissable things to do in this dynamic city.
Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai. Photo: Raki_Man/Wikimedia Commons
Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai. Photo: Raki_Man/Wikimedia Commons

1. Take a tea break at the historic Bund Tea Trading Company

Set back from the Bund on a quiet street corner, the red-brick Gibb, Livingston & Co. building dating from 1908 is a little rundown today, but still bears its gracious history and Queen Anne Revival style architectural detailing. On the ground floor, in a high-ceilinged tea salon, The Bund Tea Company pays homage to the building’s original tenants and their story of exporting tea from Shanghai.

Founded by two Scotsmen in 1836, Gibb, Livingston & Co imported British cotton and wool to China and in turn, exported Chinese tea and silk. They were the second trading company to open for business in the British Concession after the Shanghai port was opened to international trade, and their high-speed tea clippers often won the races between China and London to deliver the fresh tea harvest.

With its cool clipper-inspired logo and sleek packaging, the tea brand stocks an extensive selection of premium Chinese black, pu-erh, oolong, green, jasmine and white tea leaves with samples so you can take a whiff. The Shanghai sampler packs make excellent gifts to bring home, or take a seat in the old-world salon and enjoy a carefully steeped in-fusion. 

2. Follow the trail of Xintiandi's top shopping opportunities

Whether you’re looking for souvenirs or one-off pieces by local fashion designers, the streets around Xintiandi offer some unique shopping finds. The grey-brick lanes of the luxury lifestyle development itself are home to designer boutiques like ‘Paris of the Orient’-inspired global label Shanghai Tang and hipster hotspot I.T.. Adjoining the south block, Xintiandi Style mall showcases an impressive mix of home-spun Chinese design talent and international styles. Get acquainted with Wang Yi Yang’s conceptual androgyny at Zuczug and find stand-out-from-the-crowd tailoring and materials at Content. Shanghai fashion designer Uma Wang’s flagship store is draped with gothic-inspired womenswear in sensuous fabrics such as tulle, cashmere, and silk, though the spotlight belongs to her exceptional knitwear. 

Cruise boat at Huangpu RiverCruise boat at Huangpu River. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Step aboard a cruise boat and sail along the neon-lit Huangpu River

The Huangpu River is more than just Shanghai’s visual centrepiece – it is the city’s lifeblood. Connecting the East China Sea and the mighty Yangtze River, it facilitated the earliest fishing vessels whose owners formed Shanghai’s original riverside settlement. 

Shanghai’s tidal economic artery pulses with an additional revenue source: tourism. Day and night river cruises are extremely popular with Chinese tourists. It’s easy to see why, as the broad river offers a unique photographic vantage point contrasting Shanghai’s east and west banks. Several cruise operators (mostly offering a similar route and price point, and ranging in size from 80-seaters to a 1,000-person multi-deck cruiser) depart from the revamped Shiliupu wharf south of the Bund (in front of Hotel Indigo). The route heads north to view the Pudong skyline and international cruise terminal, then loops south along the Bund towards the city’s impressive bridges and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo site. The most photogenic river trip is after dark, when the skyline of modern towers and heritage buildings is illuminated.

Evening cruises run each night between 6.30 and 9.30pm, departing at 30-minute intervals and taking approximately 45 minutes. Tickets (RMB100) can be bought at the terminal before boarding. 

4. Try out tai chi at Jing An Park or light an incense stick at Jing An Temple

The area around Jing An Temple was formerly called Bubbling Well Road after a natural spring that once bubbled to the surface. A temple has existed on this revered site since 1216. For anyone passing Jing An Temple today, sandwiched between shopping malls and a busy intersection, it’s clear that the large gold-capped Buddhist temple is not an ancient construct. In fact, it is in a constant state of development as the wealthy abbot continues to add grand embellishments. Latest additions include a 63-metre (207ft) lotus-shaped gilded pagoda and a five-storey Precious Hall of the Great Hero made of Burmese teak. Jing An Temple was the richest Buddhist temple in China prior to closure in 1949, when its abbot was famed for having seven mistresses and a White Russian bodyguard. Perhaps not surprisingly, the temple is hugely popular in prosperity-hungry Shanghai. Locals pack the grounds praying for luck and fortune, especially at Chinese New Year, when the monks charge hundreds of yuan for admission. The most impressive view is from outside, as the interiors of the temple suffered heavily during the Cultural Revolution when it was used as a factory.

A much more Zen-like retreat is Jing An Park, opposite the temple. Filled with shady groves, lily ponds, and walk-through rockeries, this small urban park is a hive of activity throughout the day. From the large crowds of elderly tai chi enthusiasts engaged in early morning shadow boxing, to the groups of men huddled over games of Chinese chess, and the couples that come to ballroom dance in the early evening, there’s always plenty of activity. The Chinese garden (RMB2 entrance) has a lovely little alfresco teahouse perfect for peaceful contemplation.

Shanghai, Tai Chi Classes in the Park.Shanghai, Tai Chi Classes in the Park. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Indulge your sweet tooth at Shanghai’s most decadent dessert emporiums

Chocolate lovers are in for a real treat in Shanghai. Leading the charge is Malaysian pastry chef Brian Tan, whose light-textured but rich desserts, truffles and cocktails are available at Hof just off Huaihai Road. The tempting menu offers chocolate mousse cake, creamy gelatos and Valrhona hot chocolates. By evening, the carob-toned café morphs into a boutique dessert, wine and cocktail lounge.

CH2 by Whisk offers a full dinner menu with a focus on cheese and oysters, but the real reason people pack this low-key café is its slabs of rich chocolate nut brownie, thick white chocolate shakes and other decadent desserts. Singaporean chain Awfully Chocolate also deserves a mention for its heavy balls of dark chocolate ice cream and whole chocolate cakes.

For tempting Asian-style desserts, head to Hong Kong’s Honeymoon Dessert which has several branches throughout Shanghai. Made from nutritious ingredients like red and green beans, sesame, nuts, Thai black rice and tofu, these sweet soups and puddings taste better than they sound – especially the signature Mango Pomelo and Sago Sweet Soup.

6. Discover Communist-era art at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre

Shanghai’s future-focused energies overshadow contemplation of its more recent history. The hidden Propaganda Poster Art Centre in a basement apartment is a treasure trove of retro China from the 1950s–70s. The museum was created by Shanghai local Yang Pei Ming to preserve and showcase Mao-era propaganda artworks. Over the years, he amassed a collection of more than 5,000 posters, book covers, newspaper ads and artefacts exhorting China to achieve monumental national feats fuelled by the glory of Mao’s ideological vision. The poster images depict peasants, workers, school children and ‘model Communists’ pulling together for the greater good of the motherland, with phrases such as the ubiquitous ‘The East is Red’. Mao himself is deified in several ways, often with beams of sunlight radiating through his body, or in heroic poses speaking to the Chinese people.

The style and detail of the Communist Party posters change significantly from the 1949 Communist Revolution to Mao’s death in 1976, although the dominating themes remained Communism’s superiority, the wolfish aggression of Western capitalism and the benefits of universal brotherhood in China. This skillfully curated exhibition presents a unique chronology of these changes during an era of colourful, yet crudely socially manipulative, mass propaganda. Some of the posters, plus a collection of memorabilia, are available for purchase in the museum shop.

Propaganda Poster Art Centre.Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Photo:  Nicor/Wikimedia Commons

7. Become a wok wizard and learn local dishes at a Chinese cooking school 

Can’t imagine how you’ll survive without Shanghai dumplings or hand-pulled noodles once you leave China? Happily, you don’t have to. You can learn the techniques behind preparing your favourite Chinese dishes with hands-on classes in different cuisines provided by The Kitchen At... Huaihai Lu.

Founded by a professional hotel chef in 2007, the school is located in a 19th-century French Concession home that has been fitted out with a large, well-equipped kitchen for group cooking and a cosy dining space for sampling the results of your efforts. There’s even a small garden planted with fresh herbs.

Ninety-minute classes led by professional chefs are held throughout the week covering a range of cuisines and styles. All skill levels are welcome and the multilingual chefs switch between Chinese and English depending on the class. It’s very hands-on – so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and start chopping and stirring.

As well as mastering specialised cooking techniques, you’ll get to explore China’s best-known cuisines, from refined Cantonese, to spice-laden Sichuan and the sweeter Shanghainese flavours as you prepare dishes like hot and sour soup, bitter melon braised with pork sparerib in a claypot, and soft tofu with hairy crab meat.

8. Scale the heights of Shanghai’s sky towers and take in sweeping views 

In the early 1990s, the Shanghai government announced plans to build three monumental skyscrapers on a triangle of land in Pudong, symbolising the status of the district as a rising global financial centre. Two decades later, the triptych proudly dominates the Pudong skyline. The 88-level Jinmao Tower opened in 1999, the 101-floor Shanghai World Financial Centre followed in 2008 and topping these super-tall siblings, the 121-floor Shanghai Tower was unveiled in 2015.

Echoing elements of Shanghai’s 1930s Art Deco heritage and a silhouette of Chinese pagodas, the glistening tiered pinnacle of Jinmao Tower quickly became a cherished Shanghai landmark. It comprises office floors, convention facilities, the J-Life retail complex and the Grand Hyatt hotel from the 53rd to the 87th floors. The 88th-floor Observatory affords magnificent vistas. One floor below, Shanghai’s original sky lounge, the Grand Hyatt’s Cloud 9 bar, yields similar 360-degree views – but with the added benefit of cosy armchairs and classy cocktails.

Japanese Mori-built Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC) is nicknamed the ‘bottle opener’ because of its rectangular opening at the top. Occupying this extraordinary structure are retail and dining on the basement and ground levels, multiple office floors and the Park Hyatt Shanghai between the 79th and 93rd floors. Most exciting of all is the vertigo-inducing SWFC Observatory, featuring three above-the-clouds observation platforms. The crowning glory is the 100th-floor Sky Walk 100 – a 55 metre (180ft)-long glass corridor overhanging the trapezoidal gap at the building’s summit. Transparent inset floor panels enable visitors, quite literally, to look almost half a kilometre (a third of a mile) down to the city below.

Miraculously dwarfing its super-tall siblings, the Shanghai Tower stands a staggering 632 metres (2,073ft) tall, making it the second-highest building on earth.

Jin Mao TowerJin Mao Tower. Photo: Shutterstock

9. Have a picnic with the locals in Century Park

Although appearances may be deceptive, Shanghai isn’t all about skyscrapers, elevated highways and apartment blocks. It’s a surprisingly green city, if you know where to look. Century Park is the largest public green space in the metropolitan area. Acting as a lung for the city, it is a popular spot for biking, walking and relaxing amid the greenery. Anchored by a huge lake, this beautifully landscaped stretch of parkland rarely feels busy, even at weekends.

Century Park blends Chinese and Japanese styles in the layout of its gardens, lakes and paths as well as grassland and wilderness. Around the lake are several scenic spots, and the perimeter path is popular with joggers. As well as plenty of attractive scenery to admire and landscapes to explore, the park offers a variety of recreational activities. Visitors can hire boats on the lake, or try their hand at tandem bike-riding along the wide paths and avenues (regular bikes are also available). If it’s breezy enough, you can pick up a kite to fly at the park gates. 

And if all that physical activity has you yearning for a drink or a bite to eat, there are convenience stores and tea-houses dotted around the park.

Bird's-eye view of Century Park in ShanghaiBird's-eye view of Century Park in Shanghai. Photo: Shutterstock

10. Follow the literary trail along Duolun Road

Hongkou district was home to several progressive Chinese writers, artists and intellectuals, who settled around Duolun Road in the 1930s. Most famous of all was Lu Xun (1881–1936), a writer, thinker and revolutionary who is regarded as the father of modern Chinese literature. He was instrumental in founding the League of Leftist Writers in 1930 to ‘struggle for proletarian liberation’ through writing. The league is commemorated with a small museum in one of the writer’s well-preserved houses. Lu Xun lived out his final years in Hongkou and his legacy is writ large. His plain red-brick Japanese Concession house has been left just as it was when he lived here. Lu Xun Park – a delightful green space with lakes, pagodas, and hordes of locals that gather tosing opera and play chess – also contains the writer’s tomb, with memorial calligraphy inscribed by Mao Zedong, and the Lu Xun Memorial Hall exhibiting his letters, personal artefacts and photos from the period.

The L-shaped pedestrian stretch of Duolun Road, designated a ‘cultural street’ by the government, is lined with galleries, bookshops, teahouses, antique stores and several heritage buildings, along with bronze statues of famous residents in various states of writerly repose. Highlights of the street include the Hong De Tang, a church built in 1928 with upturned Chinese eaves and red columns, the proud Xi Shi Zhong Lou bell tower, and state-run Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art. Stop for a look at the lavish Moorish-style house at the end of Duolun Road, built in 1924, for financier HH Kung.

11. Explore the meandering Suzhou Creek and visit a chocolate factory

Shanghai’s secondary waterway, Suzhou Creek (also known as Wusong River) runs 125km (78 miles) inland from the Huangpu River to Lake Tai. Historically, it was a commercial barge route for transporting goods from the Shanghai docks to neighbouring cities. During the booming 1930s, warehouses, factories and glamorous residences sprang up along its meandering banks. By the end of the century, however, the water was heavily polluted and the area badly neglected. A multi-million dollar clean-up operation was launched in the mid-1990s to restore Suzhou Creek as a place to live and work. Art galleries and studios began occupying old warehouses, trendy office spaces and event venues were created in derelict factories, and high-rise apartments emerged to the detriment of several historic neighbourhoods that were razed.

Today, Suzhou Creek merits a visit to see how this industrial hinterland has been re-landscaped as part of Shanghai’s greater urban plan. Some fine examples of 1930s residential and industrial architecture reside along both banks. As you head inland, don’t forget to look back – the views of Pudong from ‘The Creek’ are superb.

A short taxi ride away in Hongkou district, Zotter Chocolate Theatre let’s you realise your Willy Wonka fantasies. The Austrian chocolatier produces exquisite organic, fairtrade chocolate in 365 creative flavours (cheese chocolate, anyone?). The huge Shanghai atelier – the first outside Austria, housed in a heritage cotton storage warehouse – takes visitors on an endorphin-fuelled journey through their ‘bean to bar’ production processes. Tempting tastings of the fine-quality chocolate en route are part of the experience.

Shanghai's Pudong viewed from Suzhou RiverShanghai's Pudong viewed from Suzhou River. Photo: Shutterstock

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