Things to Do in Shanghai
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Shanghai
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.
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.
Located in Pudong, Shanghai, the China Art Museum showcases a large and varied collection of modern Chinese art. In fact, it’s the largest art museum in the whole of Asia and is situated inside what was once the China Pavillion, which is a fascinating building both inside and out.
The museum is spread across five huge floors, all named according to different altitudes. Each floor explores the rise of modern art in Shanghai from the end of the 19th century onwards and showcases a variety of national and international temporary and permanent exhibitions. The permanent exhibition, “Along the River During the Qing Ming Festival” on the fourth floor, is a particular highlight. It’s a detailed and animated installation, with a virtual river running along its base.
Surrounded by the skyscrapers of modern Shanghai sits Jing’an Temple, a busy Buddhist temple with a history dating back to the third century, though it wasn’t relocated to its current site until 1216 during the Song Dynasty. While Jing’an Temple certainly has ancient roots, it’s been in a near constant state of renovation since it was rebuilt in 1984 after a fire destroyed it more than 10 years earlier. Despite the many renovations, the Song Dynasty architecture remains impressive, and the three main halls within the temple are filled with Buddhist statuary and works of art. One of the most significant is a 12-foot-tall (3.8-meter) seated jade Buddha. If you’re in Shanghai in the spring, try to plan your visit during the annual temple fair, when locals come to sell handicrafts and the temple grounds take on a very festive atmosphere.
Since its opening in 2000, the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel has become one of Shanghai’s most popular attractions among domestic tourists. Contrary to what the name would have you believe, you won’t be seeing any of the Bund’s sights when you ride the automated subway car from the Bund beneath the Huangpu River to Pudong on the other side.
This rather bewildering by nonetheless entertaining trip takes less than five minutes, and along the way, you’ll experience a bizarre LED light show with menacing sound effects and random flailing blowup dolls to complete the trippy experience. If you need to get across the river, taking a cab might be the cheaper option, but the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is certainly more entertaining, if not perplexing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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