First time Shanghai: discovering the best of the city

From the rickety charm of the Old Town to the space-age architecture of Pǔdōng, Shanghai is a city that’s hard to pin down. For first-timers it can be as daunting as the vertigo-inducing views from its skyscrapers and as challenging as trying to eat xiǎolóngbāo (soup dumplings) without ruining your shirt, but with a few tips and a bit of know-how you’ll have Shanghai worked out in no time.

Once you’ve shopped and dined your way around the former French Concession, zipped up to the tops of Pǔdōng’s shiny architectural feats, people-watched along the Bund and soaked up the scenery of the Old Town and temples of Jìng’ān, head to some of the more off-the-beaten track neighbourhoods to get a sense of the city’s history and local life.

A stroll along the Bund at sunrise offers a great view across the Huangpu River to the skyscrapers of Shanghai’s Pudong district © Spreephoto.De / Getty Images

Must-see sights

The Bund: The first port of call for most visitors to Shanghai is roaming along the curve of The Bund promenade, with heritage architectural landmarks on one side and some of the city’s best panoramas across the Huangpu River to skyscraper-filled Pudong on the other. The best time to take a wander is in the early morning haze when you’ll catch locals enthusiastically engaging in exercise like no one’s watching, from taichi and kite-flying to walking backwards.

Yuyuan Gardens: Don’t miss exploring these traditional gardens in the Old Town, one of the best in China. This is one popular sight so try to arrive early in the day to avoid elbow-to-elbow jostling with the crowds.

One of the many gold statues on display at Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple © Sebastian Schulze / Getty Images

Jade Buddha Temple: Shanghai is not all boutique shopping and high-end dining and any trip to the city will be more rewarding by seeking out its cultural and spiritual side. The best place to do this is in the Jade Buddha temple with its Burmese jade statue of Sakyamuni standing at 1.9m-high.

M50: To get an overview of the city’s emerging art scene, spend at least half a day exploring the studios and galleries in the cool M50 district, located in a former cotton mill.

Shanghai Museum: Set aside hours to peruse the standout collection of art and antiquities at the excellent Shanghai Museum. You’ll find stunning Chinese landscape paintings, Buddhist statues and some of the finest ceramic pieces from the Qing dynasty.

Natural History Museum: Having just moved into a brand new home, the Natural History Museum is a must-visit not only for the impressive exhibits and life-size mechanical dinosaurs, but also for its striking architecture. The gardens surrounding the museum are home to the Jing’an Sculpture Park, complete with a giant thatched fox and lazing cows on the lawn.

Shanghai is a happy hunting ground for foodies, whether your preference is street food or haute cuisine © Andrew Rowat / Getty Images

Where to eat

  • Yang’s Fry Dumplings: These moreish sesame-seed-and-scallion-coated shengjian (生煎; fried dumplings) hit the spot any time of the day. Watch out for boiling, soupy juices that squirt out as you bite into them.
  • Jian Guo 328: For a taste of authentic Shanghainese cuisine at very reasonable prices, the MSG-free Jian Guo 328 hidden away in the French Concession is one of the best.
  • Fu He Hui: Tuck into gastronomic vegetarian cuisine in an elegant villa setting at one of the city’s finest restaurants.
  • Commune Social: UK celebrity chef Jason Atherton creates excellent tasting dishes in this open-kitchen tapas bar in Jing’an.
  • Mr & Mrs Bund: Dine on modern French fare in a relaxed Bund atmosphere.
  • Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant: Shanghai’s most famous dumpling restaurant at Yuyuan Bazaar draws long queues for its famous xiaolongbao.
  • Weixiang Zhai: Slurp up a bowl of very tasty majiang mian (savoury sesame noodles) for next-to-nothing at this no-frills local spot.

Linger over a drink on a terrace with a view of the city’s iconic Oriental Pearl Tower © Andrew Rowat / Getty Images

Where to drink

Top tip: Drinks don’t come cheap so be sure to target happy hour, usually from 5pm to 8pm.

  • Glam: Settle in for sensational views with top-notch drinks on the Bund at Glam bar.
  • Speak Low: This classy speakeasy in the French Concession has some of the best cocktails in the city.
  • Boxing Cat Brewery: Work your way through the rotating line-up of brews at this popular French Concession spot, and pair it with some Southern home cooking classics.
  • Sumerian & Dogtown: Whether you’re after an expertly brewed single-origin coffee or something a bit boozy, Sumerian café and its next-door hole-in-the-wall Dogtown bar deliver. Rock up on Sundays for free Asahi from noon til the keg runs out!
  • Flair: Watch the night fade around the Oriental Pearl TV Tower from the outdoor terrace at Flair in Pudong.

Shanghai’s Old Town is a good place to look for that must-buy souvenir © SHX / Getty Images

Where to shop

  • Tianshan Tea City: Taste-test and stock up on oolong, pu’er, jasmine, you name it, over three floors in West Shanghai.
  • Old Street: The Old Town has you covered with this strip for all of your souvenir shopping.
  • Spin: Peruse the beautiful Spin showroom in Jing’an for chic ceramic dinnerware and tea sets.
  • Dong Liang: Check out some of the best local fashion in this stylish French Concession store.

Where to stay

Budget

  • Mingtown E-Tour Youth Hostel: Loads of features make this one of the best hostels in Shanghai, from its atmospheric setting and tranquil courtyard to the pleasant rooms and split-level bar.
  • Le Tour Traveler’s Rest: Le Tour is an excellent youth hostel with exposed brick walls and polished concrete floors in an historic setting in Jìng’ān.

Mid-range

  • Pentahotel: Design-savvy Pentahotel is a cool boutique-style good-value spot right near Zhongshan Park in West Shanghai.
  • Kevin’s Old House: You won’t want to leave your homely spacious suite in this 1927 four-storey French Concession villa.

Top-end

  • Langham Xintiandi: Peer down from huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Xintiandi before taking a dip in your Japanese-style wooden tub.
  • Waldorf Astoria: Housed in a former exclusive gentlemen’s club on the Bund, some of the premium suites here come with sensational views and an old-worldy feel.
  • Urbn: China’s first carbon-neutral hotel, located in Jing’an, comes with open-plan rooms made from recycled brick and timber from a French Concession shikumen (stone-gate house).
China, Shanghai, Pudong District, Longyang Road Station, Maglev Train
The Maglev train whisks visitors from Pudong International Airport to Longyang Road, where they can change to other metro lines © Alan Copson / Getty Images

Getting around

From the airport: The high-speed Maglev runs from Pudong International Airport to Longyang Road metro stop on line 2 in eight minutes. From here you can transfer to other metro lines. Hongqiao International Airport is connected to central Shanghai by metro lines 2 and 10.

Metro: Shanghai’s metro is fast, efficient and inexpensive though try to avoid rush hour when it gets overcrowded and getting on or off can resemble a game of Twister. Take note that it does stop running early at around 10-11pm.

Taxis: Taxis are cheap and a great alternative once the metro shuts down at night.