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Things to Do in Shanghai

With its futuristic skyline, traditional shikumen (stone gate) architecture, and vibrant bursts of neon, Shanghai seamlessly combines glamour, history, and Chinese flair. The Bund (Waitan) represents the colonial center of Shanghai and evokes the architectural spirit of a European city, while the Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si) pays homage to China’s religious heritage. Shanghai’s Old Town (Nanshi) offers an abundance of historic charm, and the Old French Concession wows with lofty mansions and an international culinary scene. Guided city tours—from walking and biking to minivan and hop-on-hop-off bus options—help you easily navigate these areas and tick off can’t-miss highlights such as Yuyuan Garden, the Freshwater Pearl Gallery, People’s Square (Renmin Guang Chang), and the city’s picturesque lanes and alleyways. Come evening, when the Shanghai skyline lights up like a firework, take a Huangpu River cruise followed by an evening food tour. Popular day tours leave Shanghai for the traditional water towns of Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, as well as Hangzhou, home to the UNESCO World Heritage–listed West Lake. Some full-day and overnight tours whisk travelers from Shanghai to Beijing’s iconic Great Wall of China and Forbidden City; the enchanting landscapes of Guilin; or the Army of Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an.
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The Bund (Waitan)
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The Bund (or Waitan) is the grand center of Colonial architecture in Shanghai. The former International Settlement runs along the waterfront of the Huangpu River, facing the Pudong district ('Bund' is a word of Indian derivation meaning 'embankment'). Loosely known as the "museum of international architecture," the Bund attracts visitors who are interested in the artsy side of Shanghai.

When foreign powers entered Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, the Bund existed as a towpath. It quickly became the center of Shanghai as Western traders built banks, trading houses and consulates along its length, and has been synonymous with Shanghai's east-meets-west glamor ever since. Today the Bund faces the new wave of trading development - the vast towers of Jin Mao, the World Finance Center and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the financial district of Pudong.

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Zhujiajiao
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For a genuine experience that not only show you the history of China, but also showcase its beauty, try a visit to China’s great ancient water town known as Zhujiajiao. Formed over 1,700 years ago, this wonderful canal laden town that was once an important trading hub, has seen the days of both the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties, and has flourished today as a an up-and-coming bohemia of Asia.

In order to truly have an understanding of this beautiful place, one must visit the towns many bridges and canals. The Fangsheng Bridge is the biggest around, wonderfully engraved with eight dragons coiling around a shining pearl. Once you’ve done that, take a boat ride on the canal gondola, where you will experience wonderful views of this historic and well-preserved town. You can also take longer boat rides lakeside, experiencing the town from a different angle and perspective.

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Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si)
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Yufo Si is a working Buddhist community - one of the few in China - but the star attractions of the Jade Buddha Temple are two figures brought to Shanghai by a Burmese monk in the 19th century.

The most impressive is the sitting Buddha, a 1.9 m (6.5 ft) giant encrusted with semi-precious stones. This Buddha is sitting in the pose which captures the moment of his enlightenment by meditation. The other Buddha is smaller and in the attitude of 'happy repose', as he goes peacefully to death. Both Buddhas are carved from white jade. Facing the reclining Buddha is a large copy in stone, brought to the monastery from Singapore. These are the main points of a visit to the temple, but take a look at the halls while you're there, particularly the Grand Hall with its golden 'Gods of the Twenty Heavens'. There's also a restaurant that serves the public, with a simple downstairs and a swankier upstairs.

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Xin Tian Di
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Xin Tian Di (Xintiandi) is a sleekly restored area of Shanghai, where the more successful of the city's young come to play. It's also a popular strolling area for tourists, who like to check out the 19th century architecture.

The district abounds in shikumen, stone houses that were a popular residential form in the late 19th century and early 20th century city. When the districts that contained these houses were being razed, developers stepped in to save and restore this area. Today the shikumen house galleries, bookshops, antique stores, upmarket boutiques, bars and restaurants. It's particularly ironic that this Westernized playground should be cheek-by-jowl with the Site of the First Conference of the Communist Party of China.

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Nanjing Road (Nanjing Lu)
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Nanjing Lu (Nanjing Road) is a shopping street with a history. When the British began trading in Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, this was one of their commercial centers. In those days it was called Nanking Road, the 'k' being a more popular form of Anglicization.

Today it's not only the hectic heart of Shangai's shopping and tourism scene, but the longest shopping district in the world (6 km/3.5 mi of go-go-go). Even back in its earliest days when it served the International Settlement, it quickly became dominated by big department stores. The chains have well and truly moved in here, but really it's for the experience as much as anything that you should come. The street is divided into two lengths, east and west. The eastern section is pedestrianized. Avoid the Western generic stuff and concentrate on what are still the Shanghai specialties - silk, jade, clocks.

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Shanghai French Concession
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Shanghai’s Old French Concession, an area once leased to the French in the Luwan and Xuhui districts of the city, is a reminder of an older Shanghai. The visitor-friendly area is packed full of beautiful colonial mansions and hotels dating back to the first three decades of the twentieth century. The French took control of the area in 1849, but it wasn’t until the 1920s when the neighborhood reached its peak of popularity as one of Shanghai’s most elite neighborhoods.

When you walk through the heart of the area on the tree-lined streets between Julu Road and Huaihai Road, you’ll find a collection of nicer restaurants and boutique shops occupying the surviving historic structures alongside Shanghai locals going about their day to day life. The French Concession is a good place to grab some food as there are so many choices; you’ll find almost everything here from Indian to French, Spanish and Thai food.

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Shanghai Museum (Shanghai Bowuguan)
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The first thing to note about the Shanghai Museum (Shanghai Bowuguan) is its unusual design. The building, constructed in the 1990s, is supposed to resemble an ancient type of bronze cooking pot called a ding. It's a reference to the objects on display in the museum's five stories of rooms.

The museum's structure - a round building on a square base - also holds echoes of China's history. Ancient buildings in China were constructed like this because of the belief that heaven was round and the earth square. The collection, although sensitively ordered, is so large as to be somewhat overwhelming. Pick and choose your areas, or you may run out of steam. Definitely take in some of the ceramics, through which you can trace China's history from the Neolithic Age onwards. There are also furniture, calligraphy, religious sculptures and jade to enjoy.

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Huangpu River
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The Huangpu River, extending over 71 miles (113 kilometers), flows through the middle of Shanghai’s, dividing the city into two parts – Pudong to the east and Puxi to the west. The port where the river empties into the East China Sea has now become the largest port in China and in 2012 became the world’s busiest container port.

Walking along the Huangpu River juxtaposes the colonial buildings of Old Shanghai with the towering, ultramodern skyscrapers that now dominate the skyline. While it’s possible to experience the Huangpu River from the banks with a walk along the Bund, the best way to see both sides is on a river cruise.

Most cruises start from the Bund and go upstream before turning south towards the Yangpu bridge. Boats depart throughout the day, but after the sun sets and the buildings to either side of the river light up, the Shanghai skyline becomes even more impressive than usual.

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More Things to Do in Shanghai

Pudong

Pudong

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Pudong, the area of Shanghai east of the Huangpu River, is home to many of Shanghai’s most famous modern buildings. Formerly an agricultural area, Pudong is now Shanghai’s financial district and commercial hub -- a stark contrast to the colonial buildings of the Bund just across the river.

Pudong’s skyline includes notable buildings like the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV tower, Jinmao Tower Observatory, Shanghai Ocean Aquarium and the International Convention Center. Pudong New Area is also home to Century Park, the largest park in the city, as well as some of Shanghai’s best shopping opportunities, like Nanjing Road. Before visiting Pudong, take a walk along the Bund for the best views of the iconic Shanghai skyline across the river. Once you’ve crossed over, set aside some time to ride to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower, the 1,535-foot (468-meter) tall space age building that stands out among the other skyscrapers of Shanghai.

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Shanghai Old City (Nanshi)

Shanghai Old City (Nanshi)

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At first glance the Old Town of Shanghai might seem like just another tourist trap, but Nanshi, as it used to be called (or Southern Town as most of the residents of the city call it) has a genuinely fascinating history.

This part of town predates the colonial presence in Shanghai. It's bordered by Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu, roads that echo the line of walls built in the 15th century to keep out Japanese pirates and since demolished. You'll get a feel for a brand of Chinese urban living that's fast disappearing - and you might just find a bargain in the process.

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People’s Square (Renmin Guangchang)

People’s Square (Renmin Guangchang)

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Located in the heart of Shanghai, People’s Square (Renmin Guang Chang) is the home to the city’s municipal government headquarters and, more importantly, serves as a major landmark and meeting point in Shanghai.

What was once an elite horse racing venue before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is today a hotspot of cultural attractions. Within People’s Square, you’ll find some of the best museums in Shanghai, including the excellent collection of Chinese art housed within the Shanghai Museum and the impressive Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, where visitors are treated to a look at Shanghai’s past, present and future. The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai Art Museum and the all-glass Shanghai Grand Theater are also worth a look. The park within People’s Square offers cultural insights of its own, especially early in the mornings and on weekends when locals come out to practice tai chi, exercise or play card games.

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Oriental Pearl Tower (Dongfang Mingzhu Ta)

Oriental Pearl Tower (Dongfang Mingzhu Ta)

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The Oriental Pearl TV Tower once used to be the highest building in Shanghai, and it's still up there. It's certainly one of the most hyperbolic and striking features of the horizon. Many people hate it; others have developed an odd affection for its bulbous form.

The design aside (it has been compared to the sound of pearls, large and small, dropping onto a jade plate - a conceit borrowed from a poem), the tower has some pretty impressive stats. It's 468 m (1,535 ft) high and the third highest TV tower in the world - the highest in Asia. Only Jin Mao Tower and the World Finance Center dwarf it on Shanghai's horizon.

You can take a ride up the lifts to its observation deck - choose from the reasonable height or the vertigo level.

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Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (Shanghai Chengshi Guihua Zhanshi Guan)

Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (Shanghai Chengshi Guihua Zhanshi Guan)

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Located within People’s Square, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall may not sound like something a tourist would be interested in, but it’s actually one of the city’s best museums. Opened in 2000, the exhibition space within the modern, fives-story building showcases Shanghai’s development from ancient times well into the future.

The museum’s crowning jewel is a massive scale model of the city as it might look come 2020 (with the inclusion of buildings green-lighted for construction) and a wraparound 3D theater that gives visitors a glimpse into Future Shanghai. The museum space also features art and design exhibitions by Chinese and international artists. To fully appreciate your time in Shanghai, kick off your time with a morning or afternoon at the museum. Be sure to pick up an English audio guide -- well worth the extra fee -- to help you understand each of the exhibits.

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Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (Shanghai Youtai Nanmin Jinianguan)

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (Shanghai Youtai Nanmin Jinianguan)

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The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum houses the history of as many as 30,000 Jewish refugees who fled the Holocaust in Europe to settle in the Tilanqiao district of Shanghai during WWII.

The museum is made up of 3 parts: the Ohel Moshe Synagogue (Ohel Moishe), a permanent exhibition hall and a rotating exhibition hall. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue played a central role in the lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during WWII. Built in 1927, it was the center of the Jewish community and one of the only two synagogues built in Shanghai at the time. In the 1930s, Shanghai was one of the only cities in the world giving shelter to the Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. Although the synagogue is no longer fully in use, visitors to the museum can witness the fully restored building and learn about its turbulent past.

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Shanghai Disneyland

Shanghai Disneyland

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Shanghai City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao)

Shanghai City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao)

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The Shanghai Temple of the Town God (Chenghuang Miao or Chenghuangmiao), located in the walled portion of Old Shanghai next to the Yuyuan Garden, is an orthodox Taoist temple dedicated to three local deities or “city gods,” General Huo Guang, scholar Qin Yubo and General Chen Huacheng.

Almost every city in China has a Town God temple, and Shanghai’s dates back to 1403. It was converted into a City God Temple in 1403 during the Ming Dynasty. As the popularity of the temple grew during the Qing Dynasty, businesses started popping up in around it until the entire area turned into a busy marketplace until its near destruction during the Cultural Revolution. While the temple was restored in the 1990s and again in 2005, its renovations have held true to the building’s fifteenth century beginnings. You’ll still see local Shanghai residents burning incense to statues of Huo Guang and Qin Yubo.

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Jin Mao Tower

Jin Mao Tower

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There are few more potent symbols of Shanghai's drive to go stratospheric than the Jin Mao Tower. In fact, there's only one. Jin Mao is the city's second-highest skyscraper (the highest is the nearby Shanghai World Finance Center), and ranks up there in the list of the world's tallest buildings. It clocks in at 421 m (1,381 ft).

The architecture of the 'Golden Prosperity Building' gestures at both the Western skyscraper and the Chinese pagoda. It's built around the number 8, which is auspicious in Asian culture - 88 floors, octagonal forms. Most of the floors are taken up by offices, but the upper floors are devoted to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai. An observation deck offers you the chance to take the lightning-speed lifts and see what it's like up there in the rareified air.

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Shanghai History Museum (Shanghai Lishi Bowuguan)

Shanghai History Museum (Shanghai Lishi Bowuguan)

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Located in the basement of the Pearl TV tower, the Shanghai History Museum displays more than 30,000 cultural relics and artifacts covering 100 years of Shanghai’s modern history, from the opening of the port of Shanghai to the world in 1843 to the Cultural Revolution in 1949.

If you’ve ever wondered what Shanghai might have looked like before its massive modernization, head down to the basement level of the museum, where you’ll find wax dioramas depicting street scenes from Shanghai’s past. Exhibits show life when Shanghai was primarily a farming and fishing town as well as city scenes from its Opium War days. You’ll also find a hall full of scale models of Shanghai’s most iconic buildings, many of them located on the Bund. The museum is very easy to miss but well worth an hour or two of your time, particularly if you’re traveling with children. If you’d like a deeper insight into Shanghai’s history, pick up an English audio guide when you purchase your tickets.

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Shanghai Maglev Train (SMT)

Shanghai Maglev Train (SMT)

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If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to travel at speeds upward of 260 miles per hour (418 kilometers per hour), the Shanghai Maglev train is your chance. Using magnetic levitation technology that allows the train to literally “float” along the tracks, the world’s fastest train can take you from the Pudong International Airport to Shanghai proper in a quick 8 minutes. Using technology purchased from Germany, construction of the Shanghai Maglev began in 2001, and by the time the project was completed two and a half years later, it had racked up a $1.2 billion price tag. If you’re planning to ride the Shanghai Maglev to or from the airport, you’ll have to get on or off at the Longyang Road Station in the outskirts of Shanghai and switch to the subway or hail a taxi from there. If you want to know more about the Shanghai Maglev project and the technology behind the train, spend a few minutes browsing the Shanghai Maglev Museum, located within the Longyang Road Station.

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