After three weeks spent traveling through the rest of China, arriving in Shanghai felt like stepping into a totally different world. With wide, tree-lined streets, classical architecture, and stylishly dressed locals, the European influences are obvious everywhere you look. At first, we were turned off by just how European it felt, walking the streets we could easily have mistaken it for Paris or London. Where were the run-down hutongs and crowded night markets that we had loved in Northern China? After a few days however, we began to appreciate the ease at which the old and the new mix in Shanghai. On our block in the French Concession there were multiple trendy coffee shops and a fancy French restaurant side by side with vegetable stands, $1 noodle joints, and the local seafood vendor with live fish, frogs, and turtles in tubs on the sidewalk. Throughout the city there is the same blend of traditional and modern that makes it such an interesting place. Although the other cities we had been to were more interesting to visit as first-time travelers in China, Shanghai was the one city where we could imagine ourselves living for a while. Here are some of the things to do and places to eat that we enjoyed during our week there.
The most iconic spot in the city and for good reason, The Bund is a stretch of riverfront in downtown Shanghai that offers incredible views of the skyscrapers of Pudong across the way. Join the other tourists and take a stroll during sunset to watch the sun fade on the river and the lights of the city come on. If you are willing to splurge a bit there are some great rooftop bars here where you can take in the same incredible view as you sip a cocktail.
This beautiful Shanghai neighborhood, run by the French for almost 75 years at the turn of the 20th century, is now a popular and expensive residential area with tree-lined boulevards. Nowhere else is that mix of Chinese and European influence more apparent than here where the grand old houses and classical apartment buildings have laundry hanging from every window. You can find a little bit of everything in this neighborhood, from busy tapas bars, to quiet cafes, to dumpling stalls. Although it’s worth it to walk the whole French Concession if you have the time and energy, a few pockets stand out from the rest. The streets north of Shanghai Library station for cafes, bars, and quiet neighborhood vibes, Fuxing Park and surrounding area for great people watching, and Tianzifang area for shopping (more on that next).
Full of little boutiques, street food stalls, and bars, this maze of back alleys in the French Concession is a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. Come for a few hours and get lost wandering the tiny streets while munching on some Chuan’r (grilled, skewered meat) or animal shaped dumplings. It has a similar vibe to Camden Market in London, and much like Camden, it can get uber-crowded at peak times. Come in the morning or on a weekday to avoid the worst crowds.
The West Bund
For a day of contemporary art in gigantic, strange venues go explore the burgeoning West Bund area. Recently the city has been redeveloping industrial buildings along the river into art and exhibition spaces, the most notable being The Long Museum, Yuz Museum, Shanghai Center of Photography and Power Station of Art. The museums are all dedicated to contemporary art and often showcase special exhibitions. Be sure to check the websites before you go to find out what exhibitions are being held. When we visited the Power Station of Art, there were only one or two small exhibitions going on and all of the unused space in the huge building made the place feel a bit like a ghost town. We would also recommend the China Museum of Art across the river, which has a Contemporary collection as well as some more classical Chinese art. Just don’t make the mistake we did in thinking we could walk across the river as apparently, none of the bridges nearby allow pedestrians. Take the subway one stop or grab a taxi instead.
If you are a Disney fan don’t miss the opportunity to check out the newest park! Although we had heard horror stories about insane 3-hour lines on every ride, our visit was relatively line-free and we had a great time. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride and Soaring ride were big standouts, incorporating new projection technologies to make the classic experiences even better. The Tron rollercoaster, in which you sit on a motorcycle style seat and zip around a dark, neon-filled space, is also a ton of fun. We loved the Tarzan show which showcased some very impressive acrobatic stunts and had Mandarin renditions of all the Phil Collins songs from the movie (hilarious). If you go, be sure to download the app which lets you book free Fast Pass tickets easily from your phone.
You will hear a lot about the different water towns while in Shanghai. There are a ton of these traditional, canalside neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city and they are all popular day trips for tourists. We only had the chance to visit one, so we don’t know how it compares to the rest, but we really enjoyed it and it actually wasn’t as touristy as we were imagining. You can take a cheap public bus from Peoples Park which will get you there in 1.5-2.5 hours depending on traffic. Once there, you can spend the day exploring the canals and alleyways of the old neighborhood. There are a lot of different traditional Chinese street foods and busy restaurants serving local seafood specialties. Be sure to turn down some of the quiet alleyways to find hidden cafes and to catch a glimpse of local life. Although we didn’t do it, many people take a short boat tour of the area which looked like fun.
Throughout most of China, we ate most of our meals at street food spots that either have no English name or no name at all, making it tough to put them in a guide. Every tiny, hole-in-the-wall place we ate in was tasty though. You can't go wrong with a huge bowl of noodles or 12 dumplings for about $1. If it looks busy with locals, its probably a safe (and delicious) bet. That being said, there are a few places we ate at in Shanghai that we can recommend…
Yangs is a popular friend dumpling chain with a few locations in Shanghai. They serve a slightly different style of dumpling that we have never had before – large, spherical, bready dumplings sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with flavorful juicy pork (almost like a fried soup dumpling). They were so good, and incredibly filling! We ordered 18 dumplings to share and that was more than enough.
328 Jianguo West
This French Concession bistro serving classic Shanghai cuisine was recommended to us by our Airbnb host. It is an adorable little place and the tasty dishes, while on the smaller side, are very reasonably priced.
Basically a hipster American themed diner, this joint is perfect at any time of day if you get tired of dumplings and noodles (for shame!). We went for breakfast and had some delicious egg sandwiches, although everything on the extensive menu looked tempting. There is also a to-go bakery downstairs serving donuts and pastries along with some of the best ice cream in the city.
Union Trading Co
A stylish bar and restaurant that has been awarded a spot on the Best Bars in Asia list multiple times. They are famous for their creative cocktails that use traditional Chinese ingredients like Sichuan peppers and Osmanthus wine.
One of the most recommended soup dumpling restaurants in Shanghai. We went to the second location in a shopping mall basement, which wasn’t particularly exciting. But what it lacked in atmosphere it made up for in flavor. We both left with burned mouths because we were too impatient to wait for the dumplings to cool before devouring them.