The One Week Guide To Shanghai: 14 Things To See, Do, and Taste
Welcome to Caffeinated Excursions’ very first Asia blog post! There will be many more to come, but I’m so excited to finally be writing about a city I consider a second (or third?) home: Shanghai! I’ve been visiting various parts of China since 2010, and I first went to Shanghai as a senior in high school in 2013. Since then, I’ve kept going back and collecting a ton of Chinese stamps in my passport, and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon! My most recent trip ended just a few days ago because I just moved to Vietnam and wanted to reacquaint myself with this city before embarking on my Southeast Asia adventure!
Even though I only spent a week in Shanghai this time, I lived there from 2013 to 2014 as part of a study abroad program, and I also did a summer internship there in 2016. As a very dynamic city, things in Shanghai always feel slightly different each time I go back, but the overall vibe has always been the same: a truly gargantuan metropolis that looks like it’s straight out of a science fiction movie. Shanghai is also a place where I met many of my dearest friends, so it definitely holds a special place in my heart.
During this trip, I was intent on revisiting some of Shanghai’s famous points of interest since I wanted to document them here and give an honest and up-to-date review of the city’s most important attractions. Admittedly, many of them are very touristy, but most are still iconic and worth a visit. However, the real character of the city is best felt by simply exploring on foot and taking in the little details. The list I provide in this post is a roadmap for getting out and about, seeing some of the city’s most important central neighborhoods, and trying some of the city’s most classic culinary offerings.
Here’s a disclaimer: if you’re headed to China for the first time, you really want to do your research beforehand. Unlike many countries, China is not a destination to just book a last-minute flight and figure things out when you land. I could write an entire blog post just on how to prepare for a trip to China, but I don’t want to focus on that here. In this post, I want to show you why Shanghai is such an amazing city that all serious travelers should aim to see at some point in their lives. If you’re headed to Shanghai (or any city in China) and have a specific logistical question, feel free to ask it in the comments at the end of the post.
But enough about that. Keep reading to learn all about Shanghai and how to have an amazing one-week trip in this incredible megacity!
- Take a walk on the Bund when the weather is good
- Taste xiaolongbao and shengjian, Shanghai’s most delicious dumplings
- Buy some souvenirs and explore the alleyways at Tianzifang
- Walk from People’s Square to the Bund on the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street
- Go to Haidilao for a hot pot dinner and phenomenal service
- Visit the observation deck in Shanghai Tower, the world’s second tallest building
- Get caffeinated at one of Shanghai’s countless coffee shops
- Take a taxi on one of the city’s elevated highways
- Explore Jing’an, a Buddhist temple nestled in a central business district
- Be awestruck by the size and scale of Shanghai’s shopping malls
- Try a restaurant that specializes in local cuisine
- Try a restaurant that serves food from another region in China
- See a traditional Chinese garden at Yuyuan
- Ride the Maglev, a train that goes 190 mph, back to the airport
1. Take a walk on the Bund when the weather is good
Chances are good that you’ve seen a picture of Shanghai’s skyline that looks like this:
That particular view is seen from the Bund: a massive, public riverfront walkway with a wide open view of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The Bund is shown on the map below, and all of the buildings which can be seen from it are located Lujiazui (陆家嘴), across the Huangpu River (which is the city’s biggest and most important waterway).
As you might imagine, you’ll probably want to check out the view both during the day and after sunset. Note that the lights shut off abruptly at 10:00 p.m. though, so be sure to visit before then.
The other side of the Bund looking away from the waterfront may not have this iconic skyline view, but it does have a long row of interesting buildings (many of which are hotels, government buildings, and banks, among other things).
2. Taste xiaolongbao and shengjian, Shanghai's most delicious dumplings
小笼包 & 生煎
For a quick and cheap meal, try either xiaolongbao or shengjian (also called shengjianbao). These are Shanghai’s two most famous types of dumplings. Both varieties have meat inside, but xiaolongbao have a much thinner skin and also contain a little bit of soup. For that reason, they’re eaten with both a spoon and chopsticks, because if you just eat it whole, there’s a very good chance that it’ll burst and burn your mouth!
Shengjianbao have a much thicker, more doughy exterior which is crunchy because they’re grilled in a massive iron skillet. If you want to try them, go to Yang’s Dumplings (小杨生煎), a local chain with locations all over the city.
While xiaolongbao can be found in many restaurants, my friends recommended trying them at Fùchūn Xiǎolóng (富春小笼), which was indeed quite good. They also had many other dishes on the menu (which, fair warning, was all in Chinese and without pictures).
3. Buy some souvenirs and explore the alleyways at Tianzifang
This interesting semi-outdoor shopping area is the perfect place to buy any kind of souvenir you might want to bring back home. Even if you’re not looking to pick up gifts, Tianzifang is a lot of fun to explore because it’s housed in a maze of alleyways and many of the stores are a little quirky.
In addition to all the gift shops, there are a bunch of restaurants, bars, and snack stands in Tianzifang. They’re on the pricier side, but many offer international cuisine, which in general is more expensive than Chinese food in Shanghai. My favorite place here is Bell Bar; it’s a perfect spot to chill and have a drink if you’ve been out and about for a while. I also remember liking an Indian restaurant here when I went a number of years back.
4. Walk from People's Square to the Bund on the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street
Shanghai’s main subway line running east to west is the light green Line 2. If you want to check out the Bund and arrive by subway, this is the line to take, and the closest stop to the waterfront is East Nanjing Road. However, I recommend getting off one stop away at People’s Square instead, which is home to a ton of shopping centers, a huge public park, and more. This way, you’ll be able to walk the pedestrian-only portion of one of Shanghai’s most famous streets.
It’s not exactly equivalent in terms of size and scale, but this street does have a bit of a Times Square type of feel to it. If you walk its entirety from People’s Square to the Bund, it’ll take you about twenty minutes. It’s an interesting sight to see, especially at night, but prepare to be approached (many times) by people who want to sell you things.
5. Go to Haidilao for a hot pot dinner and phenomenal service
Another great meal option while you’re in Shanghai is hot pot, which for those who aren’t familiar is basically a boiling stew in the center of the table that you dip raw meat and vegetables in to cook and eat. There are a bunch of options for this, but the most famous restaurant is called Haidilao. It’s another chain with locations all over the city, but it might be best to avoid peak hours if you don’t want to have to wait too long for a table.
Haidilao is famous for amazing service, and they really delivered on that when we went for my very first meal in the city this trip. If there is a long wait, they have a huge waiting area and even offer free nail painting as well as other amenities to make your wait more comfortable. In addition to the service, the food is also quite an experience. They have a sauce and condiment bar to make and customize your own dipping sauce. Hot pot is great especially if you visit Shanghai when the weather is cold.
6. Visit the observation deck in Shanghai Tower, the world's second tallest building
With so many tall buildings, you absolutely need to go up one or two of them and see this stunning city from above. As you might guess, there are a bunch of options, but why not be above everything else and go up the tallest one?
Shanghai Tower is the tallest and newest major skyscraper in the city. It’s not only that; it’s also the second tallest building in the world (as of March 2019), after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. You’d think that with such an impressive title, you might have to wait in line for hours just to get in. That wasn’t my experience at all. It took all of four minutes to purchase my ticket, go through security, and take the elevator from ground level to the 118th floor where the observatory was. Granted, that was on a weekday afternoon, but I was shocked that with no reservation, it was really that quick and simple!
As you can see, the view from the Shanghai Tower is absolutely stunning. Perhaps the reason it was so empty is that more tourists tend to visit the Pearl Tower (东方明珠), which is pictured directly above. I went there in 2013 and it felt very much like a tourist trap: long lines, overpriced tickets, a tacky space theme, and a really crowded observation deck. They do have a glass floor, which is quite interesting (and a little bit freaky), but I’d say the Shanghai Tower is a much more classy, hassle-free experience. The fact that observatory was so empty made it so much easier to enjoy the view!
As I mentioned, Shanghai Tower may be crowded on weekends, so go on a weekday if you can. Also check the sky beforehand! If the weather is really foggy or the city has a high level of air pollution on any given day, it’s better to wait for clear skies. Tickets cost 180 RMB (about 30 USD) and at least in my experience don’t require reservations or pre-booking.
7. Get caffeinated at one of Shanghai's countless coffee shops
Shanghai is home to a growing specialty coffee scene, so there are tons of interesting and quirky cafes to check out while you’re here. There are family-owned shops, but also international chains that you won’t find in the US such as Costa (from the UK) and Gloria Jean’s (from Australia), so these are also interesting to try if you’ve never had them before.
Even Starbucks in Shanghai has a pretty different menu from what’s offered at home. Since I visited in spring this time, all of these places had some seasonal flavors of lattes and macchiatos, such as peach and cherry blossom. Those might sound strange, but they ended up being really good! Give some different places a try and see what you like most!
8. Take a taxi on one of the city's elevated highways
Although the Shanghai tower offers a truly stunning view of the city from above, it’s not the only (or best) way to see how extensive and impressive the city really is. Shanghai is a real-life Gotham City, something straight out of Blade Runner. So far, I’ve never been to any city in the world that can compare.
You’ll get some sense of it just walking around on the streets, but my favorite views can only be seen while riding in a car. Since most of Shanghai’s highways are elevated above the city, they are the perfect place to see the landscape while on the way from one place to another.
If you’re wandering around the city, you’ll likely end up taking a taxi ride on the elevated highway whether you intend to or not. Unless you’re only traveling a really short distance (e.g. less than 10 minutes), these highways are the most efficient way to move between various parts of the city. Just keep your eyes out and you’re sure to be surprised by how tall the buildings are and how many skyscrapers the city has.
9. Explore Jing'an, a Buddhist temple nestled in a central business district
Jing’an Temple almost looks out of place as a large, golden temple surrounded by office buildings. There’s a metro station that will take you right to it, and if you pay a small fee (about 5 USD), you can enter the ground and see some interesting Buddhist artwork. Many people come here to pray, so you may see some rituals as well.
Even if you don’t go into the temple, much of the structure can be seen from outside the entrance gate, so you don’t have to pay to enjoy it. Jing’an Temple is located in the district of Jing’an, which is one of the city’s nicest neighborhoods. This is a good area to shop, have a nicer meal, or go for a walk.
10. Be awestruck by the size and scale of Shanghai's shopping malls
You might be noticing a bit of a theme in this list: things in Shanghai seem to be bigger, grander, and more flashy than in other major world cities. Malls are no exception in this regard. Be sure to at least step into one of the city’s many high-end malls. They’re absolutely massive and often home to not only the traditional stores and restaurants, but also movie theaters, grocery stores, art galleries, painting workshops, and even a ferris wheel (at Joy City, 上海大悦城).
The mall pictured here is Global Harbor, which is the closest major mall to the university where I studied abroad. Back in those days, we used to spend so much time wandering its many floors trying to decide what restaurant to try or where to get a coffee. In terms of shopping, malls tend to have more luxury brand boutiques, but because they’re so big, most of them also have more affordable stores for clothes and whatever else you might be looking for.
11. Try a restaurant that specializes in local cuisine
Once you’ve tried xiaolongbao, shengjian, and hot pot, try a restaurant that offers traditional food from Shanghai (or the surrounding provinces). I tried and loved Grandma’s Home (外婆家), another chain that offers a huge menu of local options. Whether you want fish, meat, rice, veggies, or something else, Grandma’s Home is bound to have a delicious choice on the menu to satisfy your craving!
This is another restaurant like Haidilao to aim to visit during non-peak hours. Wait times can get really long, so be prepared!
12. Try a restaurant that serves food from another region in China
If you think Chinese food is the same in all parts of the country, think again! China is about as big as the contiguous US, so cuisine is as varied there as it is in the States. Since Shanghai is the country’s most global city and a center for finance, people from all over China live here, and they’ve brought their culinary traditions with them.
Be sure to try at least one other regional cuisine if Shanghai is your only destination in China. Whether you love really spicy food and want to try Sichuanese or Hunanese, or you want to try some southern-style dim sum, there are a ton of options. This trip, I met an ex-coworker at Xibei (西贝莜面村), a restaurant chain that specializes in northwestern (meaning Mongolian style) food. We had dumplings (which were really different from either xiaolongbao or shengjian), an interesting noodle dish with a tomato paste on top, and a lamb soup. If you try this place, be sure to ask for some of their yogurt. I’m not sure if it’s made with goat milk or something like that, but it was really delicious and distinct from American yogurt. Each table has a bottle of honey to mix in with it, so I think it’s one of their specialties!
13. See a traditional Chinese garden at Yuyuan
Yuyuan is the name of the garden itself, and it’s also sometimes referred to in English as “Yu Garden.” However, the nearby area is also interesting because the architecture of all the buildings and shops is very traditional. Most neighborhoods in Shanghai don’t look like this!
This area is very touristy and streets are always crowded with visitors, and things can seem a bit hectic. If you’re looking for souvenirs, this is another good area to shop in addition to Yuyuan, but trinkets are probably overpriced in most of the stores here.
Once you approach the entrance to Yuyuan, you’ll see a walkway built over a pond. The entrance to the garden isn’t free (it’s about 5 USD), but you might as well do it since you’ve already made it this far. Things become a lot quieter once you step through the main gate. It’s a surprisingly large labyrinth of courtyards and buildings, but it’s much less crowded than the streets just outside. It’s possible to walk through in about half an hour or so, but there are even some hidden caves and passageways in the complex, so wandering through Yuyuan slowly has its rewards!
Many of the decorations and ornaments here are also really detailed, as you can see in this roof tile which is inscribed with the name Yuyuan (豫园). Finding unique things like this can make the actual garden a worthwhile place to visit.
14. Ride the Maglev, a train that goes 190 mph, back to the airport
Last but not least, Shanghai’s incredible Maglev train! If you’re heading out of the city via Shanghai Pudong International Airport (NOT Hongqiao Airport), then the Maglev is a perfect option. As a magnetic train that levitates above the tracks, it’s able to travel at almost 200 miles per hour, so it’s significantly faster than taking a taxi to airport, which happens to be quite far from the city center. The ride doesn’t offer a particularly scenic view, but it is interesting to zoom past cars and buses on the adjacent highway.
15. Bonus option: Explore one of Shanghai's most beautiful college campuses
This is a bonus option mainly because I visited the college campus where I studied abroad for a jog down memory lane, not because it’s a must-see attraction. However, if you really like seeing college campuses abroad, this might be a good way to spend a sunny afternoon. In general, colleges in Shanghai aren’t as ornate or pretty as their American counterparts (there are fewer quad-like areas, and the architecture doesn’t tend to be gothic). But seeing a country’s university campuses still provides insight into the local culture, especially as it pertains to education.
The college campus I visited which is pictured here is the Putuo campus of East China Normal University, and as you can see, it features traditional gardens and Asian architecture. This campus is known for its beauty and green spaces, so this might be a good one to visit in case you’re really interested in exploring a university while in Shanghai. It’s also fairly centrally located; some college campuses can be really remote, although technically still within city limits.
In Conclusion: A Perfect Start to Being Back in Asia
I know that this is probably one of my longest posts, but I’m hoping that this list is a helpful guide for anyone who may be heading to Shanghai soon. The city attracts a number of foreigners for work and study abroad, and although it’s not a typical vacation destination, it’s my belief that everyone should really put this city on their bucket list!
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I departed from Shanghai and landed this week in Ho Chi Minh City! I’ll be living in Vietnam for the foreseeable future, so keep an eye out for an update on that! I’m also aiming to explore many new cities and countries in Southeast Asia now that I’m here, so if there’s a place you’d like me to cover in the blog, leave a comment below! Thanks for reading, and stay caffeinated, y’all!