Things to do in Shanghai

The Bund

Like the architecture on the west bank of the Huangpu that it describes, the word ‘bund’ was imported. Along with opium, it came to Shanghai from India with the British. The word means embankment, and the Bund was, at first, a place where people and products could be loaded and offloaded. Later, it was here that the business of empire in China took shape.

The Bund is a long line of historic buildings, constructed in a long list of architectural styles (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco), which are, again, the premises of big banks, insurance companies and trading houses. Big brands, small boutiques, exclusive restaurantsand some of the city’s liveliest nightclubs have also moved in.

The buildings are now a little further from the water than they used to be. The river was pushed back in the 1990s, by erecting a long flood barrier, when Zhongshan road, which runs between the buildings and the Huangpu, was widened. Tunnels and bridges at quite short intervals along the road allow you to cross – to catch a ferry to Pudong (or elsewhere), a sightseeing boat, or to turn your back on Shanghai’s past and look across the river at its future, Lujiazui.


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On Drinks and Observation Decks

You can visit the tops of Liujiazui’s towers in two ways: by either paying to enter their observation decks, or by going to the only slightly lower down bars and restaurants for a drink or a meal.

Entrance to the Pearl Tower depends on how many of the building’s three spheres you’d like to visit. The middle sphere costs RMB70. Adding the bottom sphere costs another RMB15, and you can visit all three for RMB100.

Entrance to the observation deck on the 88th floor of the Jinmao Tower costs RMB70. Entrance to Cloud Nine, a bar on the 87th floor, is free, but drinks are pricy.

The World Financial Centre has numerous observation decks. Their website explains your options. On Wednesday, ladies can drink sparkling wine for free in the Park Hyatt’s bar on the 94th floor.

Duolun Lu Cultural Street

Duolun Lu is a well restored, pedestrianised street, lined with curio shops, art galleries, teahouses and cafés. Although it’s in most guidebooks, very few tourists visit Duolun Lu, probably because it’s outside the city’s dead centre, and is served by two of the Shanghai’s less used metro lines. It’s a good place to buy genuine relics of concession era Shanghai, as well as Cultural Revolution posters, badges and pamphlets. Dashanghai, at number 181, is the best of the curio shops.

The road was laid in 1911, under the administration of the International Settlement. In the early 20th century, some of China’s most famous modern authors lived on the street, including Lu Xun; together they established the League of Left-Wing Writers. Statues of the writers are now dotted now along the street, and the house where the league used to meet, down lane 201, is a political museum (RMB5).

Hongde Tang, near the middle of the street, was the first church built in a Chinese style. It has the curling eaves typical of Chinese architecture, above stained glass windows and a large red cross, and is a popular place for newlyweds to have their pictures taken. The Old Film Café, at number 123, has a large patio and is a good place to stop for coffee. The tea house directly opposite it has balconies on both sides and is an equally good place to stop.

Lujiazui

Just before the it joins the Yangzi, the Huangpu River bends slowly west, turns east, and bends slowly back, wrapping itself around an area of about 30 kilometres – a peninsula, almost, that juts out towards the Bund. In this neatly defined space, called Lujiazui, on land occupied by factories, warehouses and soggy farmland twenty years ago, China has built its loudest and largest modern buildings.

The Oriental Pearl Tower was completed first, in 1995. Next, in 1998, came the Jinmao Tower, which was followed, in 2008, by the Shanghai World Financial Centre. All are among the tallest structures on earth.

The construction of a new, even taller building, will soon be underway. Some fear these enormous enormous towers, constructed using thousands of tons of steel, are slowly pushing Shanghai’s ground level down. The city has sunk by two metres over the past 40 years, while global warming pushes sea levels up.

Shanghai Museum

The Shanghai Museum is often said to be China’s best, though the recently opened Capital Museum in Beijing now competes for the title. The well organised museum contains over 120 000 artefacts from China’s past.

Highlights include a collection of bronzes on the ground floor, some dating from as far back 1800 BCE, and a collection of coins from the Silk Road, minted under the likes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn, on the top floor. The museum also has a good shop, where you can buy English books about China for much less than at Shanghai’s foreign bookstores.

Urban Planning Exhibition Hall

Follow the signs toward the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, from inside People’s Square metro station, and you will pass Chinese fast food stands, stalls selling glitzy plastic jewellery, and milk tea kiosks.

Turning a corner, and you’re transported back to a cobbled street in 1930’s Shanghai, complete with the bluest sky that has ever graced the roof of a metro station. Frescoed shop fronts, advertising French coffee and Italian Gelato, are dotted between a few real cafés, where you can sit and have a decent cup of coffee.

The main entrance to the museum is at street level. The first floor houses a scale model of the Lujiazui skyline. Photographic, multimedia and interactive exhibits about past and present Shanghai give you a sense of the transformation that this city is perpetually undergoing.

The third floor is undeniably the highlight. As visitors recover from the shock of an escalator that accelerates when you step onto it – presumably to save energy while it’s not being used – and arrive on the third floor, they inevitably gasp. Almost the entire floor is taken up by a scale model of Shanghai’s inner ring area, as it will appear in 2020.

Already, much of the Shanghai Municipal City Planning Administration’s vision has been realised. Models of the Jinmao Tower and the World Financial Centre stand beside a clear plastic model of what may become the world’s tallest building. All structures not yet built are indicated by this clear plastic. An encouraging number of green patches are dotted along virtually every street. Either these are purely decorative, or Shanghai is set to become a lot greener.

Xinchang

Xinchang is a reasonably well preserved water town in Nanhui, which became a part of Shanghai in May 2009, when Pudong’s boundaries were extended. The old town centres on a market street, about a kilometre and a half long, intersected by canalised rivers and crumbling alleyways. A Taoist temple marks its northernmost point, and a Buddhist temple its southernmost. Although domestic tourists come here on festival days, foreign tourists hardly ever visit Xinchang, and most locals will be surprised to see you.

Xinchang is about an hour and a half from the centre of Shanghai on public transport and about an hour away by car. For more on the old town, including how to get there, read Holiday Fu’s article about spending a day in Xinchang.

Massage

Massages are one of Shanghai’s great pleasures, and the city has a long, long list of outlets. As you’d expect, the big hotels all have luxury spas, but you’ll also find Korean bathhouses, cheap, grubby foot massage joints, pricey massage parlours run solely for the expat market and parlours run solely by blind men. Prices vary wildly, from RMB20 for the cheapest foot massage to thousands for a spa treatment.

A word of warning: Shanghai also has a long list of brothels, and many are disguised as massage parlours. It’s often difficult to tell the two apart. You can ask, or try to extricate yourself if you’re being sold more than you want to buy.

Fabric Market

Shanghai is a cheap place to get clothes tailor made. All three floors of the Fabric Market, in the city’s old town, are filled with big bolts of fabric. Expats, whose figures are less diminutive than is normal in China, do a lot of their clothes shopping here. You can get a three piece suit, a qipao or a pair of jeans made in a few days.

Find more things to do at TripAdvisor

Where next?

This page by Iain Manley, who arrived in China at the end of an eighteen month overland journey from London and stayed for three years. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium pedlars of old Singapore, was published last year. You can find him at Old World Wandering, his award winning collection of overland travel stories.

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