12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Shanghai
Shanghai, China's largest city, offers many exciting sightseeing opportunities for those unconcerned with having to deal with large crowds. But despite having a population of more than 24 million, this fun city also offers quieter historic districts and attractions alongside its many newer tourist sites. One of the world's busiest container ports thanks to its position at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the city also provides opportunities for exploration by water along the Chinese coast and its inland waterways. Highlights of a visit include a number of world-class museums and art galleries such as the Shanghai Museum and the China Art Museum, numerous lovely gardens and parks, and many fine old temples and traditional pagodas. Shanghai - famous as the birthplace of the Communist Party of China - also serves as an excellent jumping off point from which to explore other areas of China and boasts an excellent international airport, as well as a first-rate modern transit system, including high-speed rail connections to other major cities such as the nation's capital, Beijing.
See also: Where to Stay in Shanghai
1 Shanghai's Promenade: The Bund
Best known by its Anglo-Indian name of Bund (Wàitān), the Zhongshan Lu is a lovely broad promenade running along the west bank of the Huangpujiang River. It's particularly popular among tourists as the area has retained a European feel (it was once the location of the city's International Settlement) that is particularly noticeable in the many old English and French buildings now serving as restaurants, boutique stores, galleries, and offices. Always bustling, it's a splendid place for a stroll as you take in the Bund's 52 unique buildings constructed in a variety of styles including Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Renaissance influences, along with what amounts to one of the world's most impressive collections of Art Deco architecture. Moving from south to north, the dominant buildings are the former headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation with its splendid cupola, the harbor customs office with its bell tower, the old Peace Hotel, and the Bank of China. The Bund is also a great place from which to embark upon a sightseeing tour aboard a boat around the port and the confluence of the Huangpujiang and Yangtze rivers.
Address: Zhongshan East 1st Rd, Huangpu, Shanghai
2 Yu Garden
To the northeast of the old town and laid out in 1559, the splendid Yu Garden (Yù Yuán), also known as the Garden of Happiness, covers an area of more than 20,000 square meters and consists of an outer and an inner garden. The oldest section is the Outer Garden with further changes being made in the 18th century when Sansui Tang, the park's main hall, was added (the building is notable for its lovely roof ornaments, figurative representations in bas-reliefs, and window openings, as well as its dragon-adorned walls). The best-known building is the Hall of Spring where the Company of the Little Swords (Xiaodao Hui) had its headquarters between 1853 and 1855 when it ruled Shanghai. Of great historical importance are the artificial rocks in this part of the garden, the only work of the master garden designer Zhang Nanyang that has been preserved. The newer and much smaller Inner Garden dates from 1709 and includes features typical of a classical Chinese writer's garden: attractive little pavilions, decorative stones, and miniature mountain ranges, dividing walls and small ponds, and even a richly decorated theatrical stage.
Address: 218 Anren St, Huangpu, Shanghai Shi
3 The Jade Buddha Temple
In the Anyuan Lu district of Shanghai, the beautiful Jade Buddha Temple
houses two Shakyamuni statues, which the monk Huigen brought with him from Burma. The present building, erected in 1928 to replace the original temple built in 1882, is divided into three halls and two courtyards and includes the splendid Hall of the Kings of Heaven (Tian Wang Dian), notable for its statues of the four heavenly kings and two Shakyamuni sculptures. Carved from white jade, one of these impressive statues stands nearly two meters high in the Wentang Main hall, where a collection of Buddhist manuscripts is also kept (the smaller statue is in the west courtyard). Also of interest is the charming Hall of the Great Hero (Daxiong Baodian) with its Buddhas of the Three Ages, along with 18 Luohan figures. Another of Shanghai's many important Buddhist sites is the stunning Jing'an Temple on Nanjing West Road.
Address: 170 Anyuan Road, Jing'an, Shanghai
4 The Shanghai Museum
Founded in 1952, the Shanghai Museum remains China's most important museum of classical Chinese art. In a modern building that's something of a work of art itself - its unique round top and square base encompasses traditional Chinese concepts of the earth - the museum's four floors include impressive displays of bronzes and ceramics from prehistoric cultures to the 19th Century, ink drawings, calligraphy and seals, as well as large collections of art from ethnic minorities. It's also home to large collections of jade, coins and furnishings from the Ming and Qing periods (1368-1912). Also worth a visit is the excellent Shanghai Natural History Museum, one of the largest museums of natural sciences in China.
Address: 201 Renmin Avenue, China
5 Longhua Temple and Pagoda
In a pleasant park in the southwest area of Shanghai, the splendid Longhua Temple remains one of the oldest religious sites in China. Built along with the nearby 40-meter-tall wood and brick pagoda around 242 AD, this important place of worship was destroyed and rebuilt many times through the centuries, with the present structure dating back to the 10th century. The site is still used for regular Buddhist ceremonies and consists of five large halls, including the Maitreya Hall (Mile Dian) with its large Buddha statue, the Heavenly King Hall (Tian Wang Dian) dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings, and the Grand Hall of the Great Sage (Daxiong Baodian) with its fine statues and a 16th-century bell. Other highlights include the Bell Tower with an even older, two-meter-tall, five-ton bell from 1382 that is still used on special occasions; the Library with its old manuscripts and ceremonial instruments; and the impressive sight of some 500 gold-painted Luohan Buddhas.
Address: 2853 Longhua Rd, Xuhui, Shanghai
6 The Oriental Pearl Tower
A must-visit while in Shanghai is the 468-meter-tall Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower (Dōngfāng Míngzhūtǎ) in Pudong-Park on the east bank of the Huangpu River. In addition to its excellent views over the busy river and the new city, you'll be rewarded with superb views over the historic Bund promenade. Built in 1991, the tower takes its name from its 11 linked spheres of various sizes, the highest of which - the Space Module - contains an observation level at the 350 meter mark with a glass-floored outside deck. All told, the tower boasts 15 viewing areas, including the Sightseeing Floor and Space City, as well as a revolving restaurant with great views. Other highlights include a lower level shopping mall and the Space Hotel offering rooms with spectacular views. Even if you can't make it up the tower, you'll enjoy viewing it at night when the whole structure is lit up as part of a fascinating light show.
Address: 1 Century Ave, Pudong, Shanghai
7 Shop 'til you Drop on Nanjing Road
Nanjing Road (Nánjīng Lù), Shanghai's principal shopping street, was constructed in the second half of the 19th century and runs from the Zhongshan Lu for several miles towards the west. Along this largely pedestrian-friendly street, you'll find every conceivable type of consumer good from street vendors selling Chinese-themed souvenirs, to expensive boutiques selling traditional arts and crafts, as well as a number of large shopping malls and department stores such as the iconic Yibai and Jiubai. It's also a busy entertainment district, home to many restaurants and cinemas, as well as a hub for street performances (it's especially fun to visit during major holidays such as Chinese New Year when the street becomes a focal point for festivities and fireworks). Another dedicated shopping area to explore is Xintiandi, an affluent pedestrian zone that retains some of the ambience of the old city.
8 People's Square
Built on what was once the city's racecourse, the People's Square (Rénmín Guǎngchǎng) has been transformed over the years into Shanghai's premier public space. Home to the new Shanghai City Hall, the Shanghai Museum, and the state-of-the-art Grand Theatre, it's a perfect spot from which to begin touring the city. Be sure to spend time visiting the excellent Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where you'll find superb displays and models - even a 360-degree movie theater - showing both existing and planned-for buildings (be sure to view this massive scale-model from the upper galleries for a fascinating bird's-eye perspective of this modern metropolis).
Address: Wusheng Rd, Huangpu, Shanghai
9 The French Connection: Tianzifang
In what was once Shanghai's French Concession, Tianzifang has been transformed into a fascinating arts and crafts destination. While much of the older homes and buildings have been replaced, the character of this old European district has been carefully preserved in its architecture and layout, with numerous small laneways and alleys just begging to be explored. In addition to its many shopping opportunities - it has many small galleries and craft shops rather than the bigger stores found elsewhere in the city - it's also a fun place to visit at night due to its many restaurants serving traditional fare, its numerous cafés and music joints, as well as artist's studios and workshops.
10 Xujiahui Cathedral and the Sheshan Basilica
Built in 1911 in Neo-Romanesque style, Xujiahui Cathedral - also known as St. Ignatius Cathedral - is another splendid reminder of Shanghai's rich multi-national heritage. In the southern city district of Xujiahui, it's the largest place of Roman Catholic worship in Shanghai, and in addition to its splendid park-like setting is worth visiting for its twin 50-meter-high bell-towers and restored interior with fine stained glass windows. Another important religious site is the Sheshan Basilica (the National Shrine and Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan). This fine old Roman Catholic church stands on the western peak of the hill after which it's named. Like so many other religious sites, it was heavily damaged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution but in recent years has undergone extensive renovations and remains an important pilgrimage site. A highlight of a visit is following the 14 Stations of the Cross, which zigzag up the hill to the church, along with the many splendid views along the way.
11 Shanghai Science and Technology Museum
In keeping with its status as a world-class city, Shanghai is not without its fair share of top-notch museums. In addition to the splendid Shanghai Museum, the city is home to the huge Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the largest of its kind in China and one of the city's top draws with more than two million visitors each year. Opened in 2001, the museum includes numerous fun interactive multimedia exhibits, permanent exhibits, and state-of-the-art science theaters. Highlights include a large display of animals native to the region, scientific achievements, a fascinating exhibit on robotics, as well as exhibits focusing on space travel. Other fun attractions for families include the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, notable for its 120-meter tunnel that provides a close-up view of the region's diverse marine life, and the Shanghai Zoo, famous for its large collection of native species, including giant pandas and South China tigers.
Address: 2000 Century Ave, Pudong, Shanghai
12 The China Art Museum
Also often referred to as the China Art Palace, the China Art Museum (Zhōnghuá Yìshù Gōng) - the largest art gallery in Asia - is home to the country's most important collections of modern art. Housed in the city's spectacular China Pavilion (the sole survivor of the city's Expo 2010 event and looking a little like an upside-down pyramid), highlights of a visit include fascinating collections of Chinese modern art, exhibits of prominent Chinese artists, as well as numerous works related to Shanghai's cultural development over the decades. Culture lovers should also invest a little time visiting the Oriental Art Center, one of the city's most important venues for performances of classical music, opera, and theatrical productions. Also of note is the splendid Shanghai Grand Theatre, well regarded for its regular roster of concerts, operas, ballet performances, and traditional theater.
Where to Stay in Shanghai for Sightseeing
If you're visiting Shanghai for the first time and want to see the top tourist attractions, the best place to stay is in the city center, near the Bund, Shanghai's famous waterfront promenade, which intersects with Nanjing Road, the bustling shopping street. Another popular base is near the People's Square, with the Shanghai Museum, Grand Theatre, and the exhibition center. Here are some highly-rated hotels in these convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: In a fantastic location right on the Bund, the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund exudes grand elegance, with its chandeliers, lavish marble, and soaring columns. Also on the Bund, overlooking Nanjing Road, and decked out in beautifully preserved Art Deco style, the Fairmont Peace Hotel, with a pool and spa, plush rooms, and attentive staff. Near the Shanghai Museum, the art museum, and the Bund, JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai at Tomorrow Square delivers the same impeccable service found at other luxury Shanghai hotels for more affordable rates.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Fresh and modern with textural Chinese accents, Hotel Indigo Shanghai on the Bund, near Yu Garden, is a popular boutique option with large city-view rooms and a glass-encased pool overlooking the river. Also on the Bund and near Yu Garden, Les Suites Orient, Bund Shanghai sits on the banks of the Yangtze River, a few blocks from Nanjing Road, while the Marriott Hotel City Centre is a 12-minute walk from the People's Square, near great shopping.
- Budget Hotels: Within walking distance of Nanjing Road and the Bund, Shanghai Fish Inn Bund offers clean, contemporary rooms and apartments, which are great value for groups, while the Jinjiang MetroPolo Hotel Classiq Shanghai Peoples' Square is a little pricier but offers excellent value for money in a fantastic location right next to its namesake attraction. Across the Yangtze River from the Bund, about 12 minutes away by car, Jinjiang Inn (Shanghai Lujiazui) offers clean, basic rooms for budget prices.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Shanghai
- Sightseeing Tour: A great way to see all the top attractions in Shanghai without worrying about navigating your way around the city is the Best of Shanghai Day Tour. Board an air-conditioned mini-van for this full-day guided tour, which gives you time to stroll along the Bund, experience the serenity of the Jade Buddha Temple, and learn about pearl cultivation at the Freshwater Pearl Gallery. The tour also visits the Yuyuan Garden and Shanghai Museum, among other sites.
- Day Trip Tours: If you want to escape the buzz of the city and see the traditional Chinese way of life, the Suzhou and Zhouzhuang Water Village Day Trip gives you a taste of two rural towns. This full-day guided excursion includes a visit to the gardens of Suzhou, a gondola ride along the waterways of Zhouzhuang, and a visit to a Chinese silk factory. Another day trip out of the city that offers insight into Chinese culture and history is the Hangzhou: Heaven on Earth Day Trip. Included on the itinerary of this full-day guided tour is a chance to explore the Six Harmonies Pagoda (Liuhe Pagoda), see a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, and cruise the beautiful West Lake in this UNESCO World Heritage-listed city.
Day Trips from Shanghai
If you're able to pull yourself away from the many exciting sights in Shanghai, the area around China's largest city offers many attractions worth visiting. One of the most popular day trips is the tiny village of Nanxiang, home to the lovely 16-acre Garden of Natural Beauty. Laid out in the 16th century, this splendid park is embellished with numerous pavilions, villas, pagodas, lakes, and flower beds, along with a collection of historic stone pillars from the Tang era (618-907 AD) with inscriptions from the Buddhist Sutra. Another park worth a visit is the Garden of Grand Scenery on the east bank of Dianshan Lake where you'll find a variety of historic buildings including the Aofeng Pagoda (the lake is also a popular public bathing area). Also of interest is Xingshengjiano si Ta Pagoda, the Four-cornered Pagoda, 30 kilometers southwest of Shanghai in the city of Songjiang. This fine 48-and-a-half-meter-high, nine-story pagoda was built during the rule of the Northern Song between 1068 and 1094 and is unusual due to its deliberate lean to the southeast and its longer canopies on the southeast façade, precautions taken by the builders against the region's notorious typhoons.