Best sites to visit in Shanghai

The Bund

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The skyline of the Bund in Shanghai on a clear sunny day

Once little more than an embankment with a muddy waterfront, Shanghai's Bund was made a major financial centre in Asia during the concession era. Its signature skyline featuring early 20th century art deco and neoclassical buildings has come to symbolise the city's colonial past. The grand edifices stand in stark contrast to the glitzy skyscrapers on the opposite side of the Huangpu River and serve as a potent reminder of Shanghai's hedonistic zenith when banks and trading houses brought increased wealth to the city. Today it's a firm favourite with visitors whether just to amble along the riverfront admiring the architecture or splash cash at the many luxury shops and gourmet restaurants.

Yu Yuan Gardens

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A traditional wooden pavilion and walkway in the attractive Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai

Originally founded in the mid-16th century, the Yu Yuan gardens are a beautiful example of classical Chinese garden design with green ponds where fish swim beneath the surface and traditional wooden chambers and pavilions interlinked by zigzagging bridges and walkways. The gardens suffered extensive damage during the Opium War of 1842 and again during French rule in Shanghai but have since been restored to their former glory and are now one of the city's most popular attractions. Despite the high numbers of visitors each day, the leafy pines, willows, gingkos and cherry trees touching the sky from the rockeries below make this a peaceful retreat in the heart of the city.

Jade Buddha Temple

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The milky-white jade reclining Buddha housed in Shanghai's Jade Buddha Temple

Housing two jade Buddha statues brought to China by a Burmese monk in 1882, the Jade Buddha Temple is Shanghai's most popular and venerated Buddhist temple. Comprised of courtyards and grand halls fashioned in perfect symmetry, the temple buildings date back to 1928 after the originals were destroyed during the Chinese Revolution and today serve as one of the city's few active Buddhist temples. The centrepiece of the temple is the near two metre tall white jade seated Buddha statue, encrusted with jewels and semi-precious stones. The second smaller statue is of a milky-white reclining Buddha, housed in a separate hall with a further three gold-plated Buddha statues contained within the Great Treasure Hall.

Shanghai Museum

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The exterior of the Shanghai Museum

The scope and depth of the Shanghai Museum makes it a must-see for visitors to the city. Covering a millenia of China's illustrious history and its many crafts from bronze to ceramics, paintings to furniture, ethnic costumes to coins, the well-presented exhibits are housed within a unique modern building that was designed with a round top and square base symbolic of ancient Chinese cosmology. With some one million objects divided into eleven galleries and three exhibition halls, the museum could easily absorb an entire day of your time and it's best to allow at least half a day though get in early as the number of daily visitors is capped at 8,000. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm.

Oriental Pearl Tower

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The futuristic spheres and columns of Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower

If the Bund is the face of Shanghai's past then the Oriental Pearl Tower is the bold symbol of the city's present and future aspirations. Situated on the east bank of the Huangpu River known as the Pudong district, the bulbous structure was completed in 1995 and towers over the city at a height of 468 metres making it one of Asia's tallest buildings. Easily identified thanks to its unusual design of spheres linked by columns, the tower features a revolving restaurant, exhibition facilities, a small shopping centre and fifteen observatory levels offering impressive panoramic views of the city and Huangpu River. It's also boasts the world's first wholly transparent elevator.

Recommended things to do in and around Shanghai

Cruise on Huangpu River

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The bright city lights of the Pudong skyline seen from an evening pleasure boat cruise on the Huangp

Snaking its way from the Dianshan Lake to its mouth at the East China Sea, the Huangpu River is Shanghai's main artery and divides the city into two sections - Pudong to the east, home to the colonial architecture of the Bund, and Puxi to the west where Shanghai's more modern skyscrapers stand tall. One of the best ways to fully appreciate the two sides of the city and their individual appearance is from the water with a pleasure boat cruise on the Huangpu River. Cruise boats operate throughout the day with the Pudong skyline, including the distinguishable Oriental Pearl Tower, illuminated with bright neon lights for a spectacular display at night.

Canal Towns

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The traditional timber buildings of Zhujiajiao water town near Shanghai

Outside of Shanghai are a number of rustic canal towns where you can discover the China of days past. Step back in time away from the high-rises of the city where charming water towns developed along east China's extensive canal system with imperial-era timber buildings, stone bridges and quaint alleyways lined with traditional town houses and shop fronts. Just 30km west of Shanghai is the easy to reach town of Zhujiajiao with an attractive garden, plenty of cafes and restaurants, and small gondolas waiting to take you on a leisurely cruise. Other great options include the highly photogenic town of Tongli, the scenic Xitang and the popular town of Suzhou.

The Sky Walk

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Shanghai Highlight 1

For a fabulous bird's eye view of Shanghai's cityscape, head to the observatory of the Shanghai World Financial Centre, a giant window in the sky with incredible vistas across the Huangpu River and beyond. Within the world's seventh tallest building and the second tallest in China, the observatory is located on the 100th floor 474 metres above the ground. The observatory features a 55-metre-long transparent glass-walled walkway, known as the Sky Walk, offering vertigo-inducing views of the city below. Opening times are between 8am and 11pm with sunset a particularly popular time to visit.

Acrobatic Performance

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Acrobats in Beijing | China

Watch China's evolution performed in the mediums of martial arts and acrobatics at the Shanghai Circus World, from the country's humble beginnings and ancient culture to modern achievements and its role as a global superpower. The popular 'ERA Intersection of Time' show is performed nightly making incredible use of lighting and special effects with showstopper routines using props including bicycles, trampolines and motorbikes. The show lasts around an hour and a half with four tiers of seating available. It's a great choice for families and is a jaw-dropping way to spend the evening.

Eating out in Shanghai

1221 Restaurant

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For creative local Shanghainese cuisine and top notch staples of the wider Chinese cuisine, the 1221 restaurant is hard to beat. A favourite among expats living in the city, it's a little out of the way with a taxi ride required but the plentiful meat dishes and extensive vegetarian options make it worth seeking out. Highlights on the menu include the eye-watering chilli chicken, the perfectly crispy roast duck and aromatic onion cakes. Those with a sweet tooth should try the pan-fried sticky rice and sweet bean paste.

Meal prices: $$$

Jin Xuan Chinese Restaurant

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Located on the 53rd floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel, the Jin Xuan Restaurant is a discerning choice for those seeking refined Chinese cuisine in a superb setting. The high ceilings and large windows allow for incredible views of the city looking out across the main financial district in Pudong while the deep colours and ornamental decor add a touch of luxury. Cantonese dishes feature prominently on the menu with wonderfully presented dishes and an extensive choice of teas.

Meal prices: $$$$

Jen Dow Vegetarian Restaurant

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With a menu that perfectly complement its location behind the Jing’an Buddhist Temple, the Jen Dow Vegetarian Restaurant is the ideal spot for those looking for meat-free dishes. Part of a restaurant group that started in Taiwan, the restaurant serves a tasty and varied range of noodle dishes and soups as well as hotpot with a second floor sister restaurant serving typical Chinese dishes and Western classics without the meat. Prices are inexpenisve and portions large at this buffet restaurant and it usually fills up come lunch time.

Meal prices: $$

Yang’s Fry Dumplings

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This is the place to come for unbelievably good fried dumplings known as shen jian bao in Chinese. The ridiculously cheap prices are no indication of the quality with portions of three to four dumplings served in steamer baskets for as little as $2. Don't expect any glamour here - it's all about the dumplings with an uninspiring seating area and nondescript exterior. If you're having trouble locating the place just look out for the never-ending queues lining the street with chains dotted throughout the city.

Meal prices: $

Shopping in Shanghai

Nanjing Road

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Nanjing Road is Shanghai's premier shopping destination home to over 600 stores from well-known international brands to specialty stores selling silk goods, jade and embroidery amongst others. The 5km-long road starts at The Bund and runs near to the Jing'an Temple further west, separated in the middle by the Zhong Xizang Road. There's also a plethora of cafes and restaurants for die-hard shoppers in need of refreshment as well as a trackless sightseeing train that provides an energy-saving way of soaking up the atmosphere on the street.

Tianshan Tea City

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Spread across three levels, this sprawling collection of individual stalls is devoted to tea and all the objects needed to brew the perfect cup. A 10 minute walk from the Yan'an Road (W) metro station, the 150 or so shops sell a staggering variety of tea leaves with knowledgeable shop owners and tasting opportunities on hand to help you identify your favourite. The ground level is where you'll find the tea while the upper levels stock teapots and various wares used for brewing. Prices are fixed and reasonable, and quality of tea and goods high.

Tianzifang

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The fashionable shopping quarter of Tianzifang is packed with an array of artsy spoils stocked in boutique shops, designer stores and local studios. Located in the French concession area, the quarter is a labyrinth of attractive alleyways lined with shops, bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. Here you'll find handmade jewellery, ethnic embroidery and tailored Chinese fashion as well as contemporary ceramics, propaganda prints and original art pieces. The arts and crafts enclave grew out of a residential area so Tianzifang has a shabby charm with laundry airing from terraces above the shop fronts making it an interesting place for a little meander and spot of souvenir shopping.

Yu Yuan Bazaar

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A visit to the Yuyuan Gardens can be easily combined with a shopping jaunt to the adjoining bazaar. An impressive range of specialist Chinese goods are on offer including calligraphy, paintings, wood carvings, jade and bronze ware. Over 100 shops line the streets with plenty of curios that make great souvenirs and there's also numerous street stalls selling steamed buns and dumplings. It's a hit with families thanks to the different toys on sale though its location near the popular gardens does mean this bazaar gets quite busy and haggling is a must. The traditional Chinese architecture makes it an attractive spot perfect for street and market photography.

Transport links in Shanghai

Flying In

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The majority of international visitors to Shanghai will likely arrive into Pudong International Airport (PVG) located 40km east of the city. Depending on traffic, the average transfer time by road from the airport to the city centre is around 50 minutes. For a thoroughly unique journey, consider taking the Maglev - a magnetic levitation train using magnets to create both lift and propulsion. It was the first of its kind to be used for commercial purposes (the second launched in South Korea in February 2016) and gets passengers to the outskirts of New Pudong in just 8 minutes travelling at a top speed of 430km/hr and an average of 300km/hr. The Maglev terminates at Longyang Lu subway station which means transferring to the subway to continue the journey into the city centre. Shanghai is also home to a second airport, the Hongqiao Airport (SHA) which is located 15km west of the city and mostly serves domestic flights across China with two terminals. A handful of international flights also depart from this airport flying to destinations across Asia.

Subway

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The extensive Shanghai subway network is a quick, efficient and convenient way to get around the city. At present 14 subway lines are in operation connecting the popular districts of Puxi and Pudong. A further seven lines are planned and by 2020 it's expected that the city will have over 500 stations. Tickets are cheap and maps of the network are available at most stations, identified by a large letter M in red. At peak times during the day - the morning and afternoon commutes especially - it's nigh on impossible to bag a seat with trains packed to their capacity but outside of these times the Metro is the best way of getting around the city. Trains generally begin operating at 6am and run until 10:30pm-11pm, so not the best option for those planning a late night out - here's where taxis come into their own. With over 45,000 taxis in Shanghai you should have no problem flagging one down. Prices are reasonably cheap and the majority of drivers speak at least some English.

Railway Services

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Shanghai is a major transport hub with many major high-speed rail lines either terminating/starting here or passing through. As such the city is well connected to many destinations across the country with the bullet train to Beijing taking just 5-6 hours while the regular services take roughly 14 hours to Xi'an. There are four main railway stations: Shanghai Railway Station - the largest in the city, South Railway Station used for destinations in southern China, West Railway Station - the smallest of the four serving only a handful of destinations, and Hongqiao Railway Station where high-speed trains largely travel from. All four railway stations are connected to Shanghai's city centre by the subway system and thanks to extensive renovations in recent years provide modern facilities and bright, airy waiting halls.

By Road

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Four national highways and four expressways pass through the city connecting Shanghai with nearby cities and beyond on generally smooth and well-maintained roads. As one of China's largest cities the roads are often crammed with traffic making journey times longer than necessary. For this reason trains are the better option - the network across China is vast, journey times reasonably and comfort levels good.

Best Time to Visit

The spring months of March to May are largely considered the best time to visit Shanghai with pleasant warm temperatures and with only light rains that will have little impact on days of sightseeing. It's also at this time of year that flowers are in bloom making the city's classical gardens and charming local water towns even more picturesque. The autumn months of October and November are another good time to visit with temperate conditions.

Shanghai Map