Shanghai city guide: Things to do in China’s megacity

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Sign up to receive Simon Calder’s free travel email for expert advice and money-saving discounts. Shanghai, China’s most international city, is a bustling and captivating metropolis. Despite its massive size, Shanghai is making efforts to become more attractive, cleaner, and more enjoyable. The city was heavily impacted by lockdowns during the pandemic, but it is now working towards a fresh start. Pedestrian paths have been created in the Bund district and Nanjing Road, making them more pleasant for walking. Additionally, new shopping districts with stylish stores are popping up all over the city. The West Bund Art Museum, designed by David Chipperfield Architect, is just one of the many new museums and galleries that are solidifying Shanghai’s art scene.

There are plenty of things to do in Shanghai. Explore the former International Settlement on the Huangpu River, a stunning display of colonial architecture that draws inspiration from Gothic, Greek, and Victorian styles. The Custom House, alongside the old headquarters of banking, telegraph, and railway companies, transport visitors to a time when foreigners dominated trade in China’s main hub. For a breathtaking view of Shanghai, ascend the Oriental Pearl Tower, one of the tallest structures in China. From here, you can admire the sprawling city and the iconic Bund.

Take a fascinating stroll along the West Bund, one of the newest districts of the city. Begin your walk at Lunghau and follow the course of the Huangpu River for a two-hour journey back into the center of Shanghai (the entire path is over 40km long). Along the way, you’ll encounter old dockyards with permanently anchored boats and new squares and skate parks built on former industrial land. Keep an eye out for the many poodles being walked in the area.

Discover the literary connection between Shanghai and JG Ballard, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai, and the city greatly influenced his work. After surviving the Japanese camps at Lunghau during World War II, Ballard moved to England. His experiences in Shanghai are depicted in his novel “Empire of The Sun,” which also inspired Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation. You can visit the house where the Ballard family lived at 31A Amherst Avenue, which now stands at 508 Panyu Lu.

Shanghai is home to two prominent contemporary art galleries along the riverside. The Yuz Museum, designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, is the vision of entrepreneur Budi Tek. It occupies a former part of the Longhua Airfield, a location central to “Empire of The Sun.” The Power Station of Art is housed in a former power station by the Huangpu River. It was built in 1897 and provided electricity to the city until newer power stations were constructed. At night, the building resembles a Christmas tree, with red lights illuminating its chimney.

When it comes to accommodation, the Pullman Shanghai South offers convenience and comfort. Located near the exhibition center and the Shanghai South Railway Station, this modern hotel features minimalistic charcoal and white rooms, as well as a pool, spa, and fitness center. Another option is the Waldorf Astoria, a grand hotel situated on the Bund. Its rooms offer stunning views of Shanghai’s skyline across the river. For a trendy and design-focused hotel, consider the Sukhothai. Located near West Nanjing Road Station, this hotel features stylish interiors, minibars, and an underground spa.

For dining options, Efes is renowned as the best Turkish restaurant in Shanghai. Their kebabs, chops, dips, and flatbreads rival those found in Dalston or Kreuzberg. Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy a variety of salads, hummus, and pide. Yi Long Court, located inside The Peninsula hotel, is a two Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by Chef Tsui Wai Fai. With stunning views of the Bund, this restaurant offers a tasting menu that includes dishes like wok-fried beef with lily bulbs and asparagus and shrimp dumplings.

If you’re looking for a place to grab a drink, Punch Room at the top of the Edition hotel offers stunning views of the Pudong and Bund at night. Enjoy a negroni while taking in the twinkling lights and impressive skyscrapers. Another notable drinking spot is the Intercontinental Wonderland Hotel, which is located in an old quarry. Enjoy a Scotch with one of their signature rock-shaped ice cubes while marveling at the unique, half-submerged hotel. They also have a roof terrace, lobby bar, and an underwater restaurant called Mr Fisher.

For shopping, head to the area near Nanjing Road West Station. This new development features a collection of designer stores and independent boutiques, all housed in tastefully designed architecture. Champion, Coach, and even the largest Starbucks Reserve Roastery in the world can be found here.

Shanghai’s Pudong Business District showcases a stunning forest of skyscrapers that are particularly impressive at night when they are illuminated. The buildings are often used as a canvas for laser light shows, featuring advertisements and messages. To experience this free spectacle, join the crowds on the Bund and admire the view across the river. This type of multimedia display would have fascinated JG Ballard, considering his interest in advertising and modern media.

When visiting Shanghai, the currency used is the RMB (Yuan), and the primary language spoken is Mandarin. English is spoken by hotel staff, but having a translation app on your phone may be helpful. Tipping is not common practice in China. Shanghai operates on GMT+8, and getting around the city is easy with its fast, clean, and affordable Metro system. Buses are even cheaper and can provide a budget-friendly tour of the city. Don’t miss the opportunity to ride the Maglev train, which travels at 430kph from Pudong Airport into the city. Finally, be sure to visit the famous marriage market in People’s Park, which takes place every weekend afternoon and offers a unique glimpse into Chinese matchmaking culture.

For more information on the best winter sun hotels and travel tips in Asia, read our other articles.

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