By Alison Fox
Sep 27, 2021
JUST BY THE SHEER SIZE and age of the country, there are innumerable things that come to mind when you think of China: an ancient culture full of beauty and history, very large cities with towering skyscrapers, incredible food from the street vendors up to high-end restaurants… Shanghai blends all of that into one thriving city. Though pandemic precautions mean the country remains mostly closed off to international tourists, it’s still one of our favorite cities in the world and so we offer up this Shanghai travel guide as inspo for when China reopens.
Shanghai, which sits on the Yangtze River, is one of the most populated cities in the world and the most populated city in China. In a country known for its mega cities, Shanghai easily takes the crown. And so, a note up front: it would take us a year to create our ideal comprehensive listing of Shanghai, but the below primer travel guide is a good place to get started.
Often called the Paris of the East, Shanghai is a mix of modern towers that define its skyline, like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with its iconic circular design, and quaint neighborhoods that make visitors feel like they’ve been transported to the romantic streets of Europe. It’s rare to hear anyone who’s visited speak of the peaceful, tree-lined former French Concession without a wistful tone in their voices.
And then there’s the food. From classic xiao long bao to Michelin-star meals, top-floor observation towers to an after-dinner stroll along the Bund waterfront, Shanghai offers something for everyone.
China Standard Time (UCT+ 08:00)
Best Time to Go
One of the coolest times to visit Shanghai is around Chinese New Year, which tends to fall around late January or February. The city comes alive with vibrant decorations, special food, and an amazing lantern display.
Cherry blossom fans should head to the city in March to watch the blooms. There are thousands of cherry blossoms and dozens of varieties to see.
In September or early October, tourists can feast on traditional mooncakes (typically filled with red bean paste or lotus seed paste) for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
T+L Tip: Do be warned that during both of the national weeklong holidays, the entire population of the country is on the move, visiting relatives or taking their annual vacations, so public transit systems (planes and trains) are hectic and tickets need to be booked far in advance. If you want to travel from Shanghai around China, best to do use the lunar calendar as a guide for when not to visit (i.e., go outside of the Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn periods).
Things to Know
Shanghai is known for hordes of bicycles and scooters zooming by on the streets. It’s an amazing sight to see, but pedestrians should remember to be extra careful.
It’s great to post photos and Google everything you see while on vacation, but remember some websites are blocked in China, including Facebook. But a digital detox isn’t necessarily a bad thing and less social media just means more time for being in the moment.
Shanghai is a very safe city, especially compared to other cities of comparable size.
Citizens of most countries need to apply for a visa to enter China. Check the website of the embassy in your country. This is the U.S. Department of State’s website.
Currency: Chinese yuan (Check the current exchange rate)
Language: Mandarin, Shanghai dialect
Hello: Nǐ hǎo
Thank you: Xièxiè nǐ
Calling Code: +86
Capital City: The capital of China is Beijing
How to Get Around
Airports: Shanghai has two international airports. Shanghai Pudong Airport and Shanghai Hongqiao have similar drive times to the Bund (traffic willing) so if fares and flight-times are in the same ballpark, check with your hotel as to which airport is more convenient.
Trains: Shanghai’s metro has more than a dozen subway lines. Station announcements are made in both English and Chinese and fares are calculated by distance. The city also has a high-speed Maglev train, which can travel at 431 kilometers per hour (or about 267 miles per hour) between the city and the Shanghai Pudong Airport.
Buses: There are buses in Shanghai, but they tend to be more difficult to navigate for tourists and non-Chinese speakers than the metro.
Taxis: Official, licensed taxis in Shanghai use a meter to calculate the fare and tourists should rely on these.Car service: Those looking to order a car through an app on their smartphone can do so through China’s Didi Chuxing.
Where to Stay
This hotel just outside Shanghai offers all the luxury travelers would expect from the Aman brand as well as an escape from the city, immersing travelers in the tranquility of a 10-hectare forest park with giant camphor trees where guests can learn Tai Chi or go for a picnic. The hotel features both contemporary suites and antique Ming and Qing Dynasty villas and offers guests the ultimate in relaxation, including traditional Chinese medicine therapy. Read our review of Amanyangyun and the fascinating story of how it was built here.
Address: 6161 Yuanjiang Rd., Minhang Qu, 201111, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 8011 9999
This brand-new hotel sits in the tallest skyscraper in China (and the second tallest in the world behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), offering unparalleled views of the city and making guests truly feel as if they’re on top of the world. Each room is situated on the 86th to 98th floors and includes a personal butler service and unparalleled views of the city.
This Art Deco-designed hotel sits right in the middle of the action with the Bund and Shanghai’s famous shopping street, Nanjing Road, just steps away. The hotel, which features 270 rooms and suites with modern amenities, was once known as the playground of Shanghai’s elite. Capture some of that old world glamour with a visit to the hotel’s Jazz Bar, featuring cocktails inspired by the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Address: 20 Nanjing Rd. East, Shanghai, 200002
Phone: +86 21 6138 6888
This modern hotel, which sits right in the heart of the famous Nanjing Road shopping street, offers views of the city or the Bund in every room. Shop til you drop and then relax with a drink on the Roof where guests can take in the views from underneath a gorgeous ivy-covered trellis.
Address: 199 Nanjing Rd. East Huangpu, 200002, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 5368 9999
Relax in bed and enjoy the views of Shanghai’s incredible skyline and the Bund from the floor-to-ceiling windows, or head up to watch the sunset and have a glass of Champagne from the VUE Bar on the top two levels of the hotel. Simply step outside the hotel’s front doors to go for a stroll along the Huangpu River.
Address: 199 Huang Pu Rd., Shanghai
Phone: + 86 21 6393 1234
Courtesy of URBN Boutique Shanghai (2)
This carbon-neutral boutique hotel contains only 26 rooms and offers a green escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, featuring recycled and reclaimed local materials, including reclaimed bricks from the French Concession. Explore the neighborhood around the hotel, popping into the many independent bars and cafes, before ending the night at the hotel’s garden restaurant.
Address: 183 Jiaozhou Rd., Jing’an District, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 5153 4600
T+L reviews of some of our favorite Shanghai hotels:
Where to Eat
This three-Michelin Star, 10-seat restaurant delights diner’s tastebuds with a whopping 20-course “Avant-Garde” menu (think: Pop Rock oyster with green tea and citric or “A Chicken in a Jar” with vineyard smoke and foie gras). Everyone sits together at one large table where lights, sounds, scents, and even projections accompany each course. Advance reservations are necessary (bookings are open four months in advance) and guests must pay a deposit to confirm their booking.
Address: 18 Zhongshan Dong Yi Rd., Shanghai
Take in views of the Shanghai skyline and the Huangpu River from this classic restaurant, serving everything from crispy suckling pig and salt-encased slow baked leg of lamb for dinner to “M’s Very Famous Pavlova” for dessert. In the mood for a healthier meal? Head to the restaurant on Sunday’s for an all-vegan menu with dishes like maple-glazed heirloom carrots with pickled chili potato and kumara and cassava gnocchi with olive crumbs.
Address: 7F, No 5 The Bund, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 6350 9988
Courtesy of Din Tai Fung (2)
This famous restaurant was originally founded in Taiwan in 1958 and now has multiple locations throughout China, including several in Shanghai. Feast on the classic soup dumplings, or xiao long bao (theirs contains fillings like pork, crab roe and pork, chicken, or green squash and shrimp), or try the vegetarian mushroom buns. In the mood for a sweet treat? Try a steamed red bean rice cake with walnuts or even a chocolate xiao long bao.
Address: Multiple locations
Nothing brings luxury to that ever-important Chinese tea tradition quite like an over-the-top afternoon tea. At the Mandarin Oriental, tradition is combined with modern cuisine to create dishes like mint crab and cucumber sandwiches, grilled pork neck with BBQ sauce in a cone, and yuzu raspberry Swiss rolls.
Address: 111 Pudong Rd. (S), Pudong, Shanghai, 200120
Phone: +86 21 2082 9928
Eat your weight in xiao long bao at this famous spot in a city known for its steep soup dumpling competition. Go early (seriously) to get the popular crab and pork dumplings and be prepared to wait.
Address: 90 Huanghe Rd., Huangpu, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 6327 6878
facebook.com/pages/Jia Jia Tang Bao
Thing to Do
Courtesy of Untour Food Tours (2)
If you like to travel through your tummy, hire a guide for a gastronomy tour of Shanghai. Learn how to cook (and eat) dumplings while exploring the former French Concession or visit a traditional wet market and sample traditional Chinese breakfasts, like jianbing. Each tour is available in English and children are welcome.
Phone: +86 137 0172 9642
The biggest astronomy museum in the world just opened this summer and it will wow you. The massive architectural marvel offers a guide to the universe, allows you to travel beyond the stratosphere from central Shanghai. Click the link to read all about it.
This park offers everything someone would expect from the Happiest Place on Earth from favorite rides like Peter Pan’s Flight and Dumbo the Flying Elephant to character selfie spots, but it also has some distinctly Chinese flair. The park’s Garden of the Twelve Friends, for example, includes Disney characters to represent Chinese astrology.
Phone: +86 21 3158 0000
This free museum, first established in 1952, is focused on pre-modern Chinese art, including bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, jade, and more. The museum has ten permanent galleries along with temporary exhibitions and other showrooms, and sits in People’s Square, a central square in Shanghai.
Address: No.201 Ren Min Da Dao, Shanghai, 20003
Phone: +86 21 63723500
Travel up the second highest tower in the world with a view from the “Top of Shanghai Observatory” on the 118th floor where guests can take in a 360-degree view of the city and its iconic skyline — call it an aerial guide. While there, visit the Summit Art and Cultural space on the 126th floor which offers a 4D music experience.
Address: 479 Lujiazui Ring Rd., Pudong New Area, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 2065 6999
The highlight of this experience is the very detailed scale model of Shanghai — what better travel guide than a tiny one? — complete with the city’s impressive skyscrapers down to its individual homes. In addition to the scale model, the exhibition center contains a 150-meter-long underground street called the “1930 Shanghai-Style Street.”
Address: 100 People’s Ave., near Xizang Zhong Lu, Huangpu district
Phone: +86 21 63722077
Go on a river boat cruise
The Huangpu River serves as an important landmark in Shanghai and to travel by boat along it is a great guide to the city. A cruise is one of the best ways to take in the enormity of the city and its diverse architecture as a whole. While there are cruises available during the day, going in the evening and seeing the city lit up is a special experience.
Address: Varies by company
This modern art museum, known as MoCA, was founded in 2005 and features avant-garde art and design as well as hosted fashion-focused exhibitions. The museum also features the Pavilion, an art space dedicated to supporting young artists.
Address: Gate 7, People’s square, No. 231, West Nanjing Rd., Shanghai
Where to Shop
This is one of the main shopping streets in Shanghai, complete with a pedestrian-only stretch that weaves between local and international stores. While there, head to the Shanghai First Foodhall where visitors can sample local eats.
This concept store sells beautiful crafts from local designers and artists. The shop values design from the Mao Period (from 1949 to 1976) and has a large collection of propaganda posters and news photographs.
Address: 207 Fumin Lu, Shanghai
Phone: +86 21 54033551
Tianshan Tea Market
Tea plays a big role in Chinese culture and that holds very true in Shanghai. This massive tea-focused market is home to more than 100 vendors selling all kinds of tea along with other beautiful tea accessories.
Address: 520 Zhongshan Xi Lu, near Wuyi Lu, Changning District
This upscale shopping street has something for everyone from high-end stores like Prada and Tiffany & Co to popular brands like Levi’s. While some stores are directly on the street, many are located inside large shopping malls.
South Bund Fabric Market
No Shanghai travel guide would be complete without a bustling market, and this one will make any fashion-obsessed traveler’s dreams come true with hundreds of tailors and endless possibilities for custom-made outfits from suits to dresses and more. If you have a style in mind, be sure to bring a photo (or photos) of the clothing item, and don’t forget to go with cash.
Address: 399 Lujiabang Rd., Huangpu, Shanghai
This English-language bookstore is perfect for picking up a great novel or catching up on foreign newspapers and magazines. Stop by for one of the shop’s lecture events or grab a coffee and settle in with your latest riveting read.
Address: 325 Chang Le Rd., 200031, Shanghai
Phone: +86 021 5404 8728
Neighborhoods to Know
Shanghai French Concession is a leafy neighborhood full of trendy bars and restaurants that evoke a romantic vibe and offer a change from the high-rises in other parts of the city. The area got its name since it used to be administered by the French.
Pudong is a large area east of the Huangpu River where many of Shanghai’s most iconic buildings are located, including the Shanghai Tower and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower as well as one of Shanghai’s main airports. Beyond the skyscrapers, Pudong is also home to the massive Century Park.
Xintiandi is a car-free, pedestrian-only area full of cafes and cobblestone streets. The quaint feeling of the neighborhood is only enhanced by the preserved traditional shikumen buildings.
Xujiahui is a central commercial center in Shanghai, known for its bustling shopping centers. While the busy pace can be fun, the neighborhood’s green Xujiahui Park offers a bit of a respite.
People’s Square is home to some of Shanghai’s best museums and government buildings, and serves as a central landmark in the city. The bustling square sits at the entrance to Nanjing Road, a popular shopping street.
Shanghai has four seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.
Spring tends to be mild in Shanghai with temperatures hovering in the mid-teens to mid-20’s C (60’s and 70’s F).
Summer tends to be the rainiest season in Shanghai with temperatures hitting the 32 C (high-80’s) and frequent downpours.
Fall temperatures tend to drop into the mid-teens to mid-20’s C (60’s and 70’s F) and much less rain falls on the city, making it one of the best times to visit.
Winter in Shanghai gets somewhat cold with temperatures falling as low as 5 to 10 C (the 40’s and 50’s F), and even dipping down below 0 C (into the 30’s F) at night.