Shanghai, China’s largest city, offers many exciting sightseeing opportunities for travelers. Despite having a population of more than 24 million, this always busy city offers quieter historic districts and attractions alongside its many newer tourist sites. One of the world’s busiest container ports thanks to its position at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the city also provides opportunities for exploration by water along the Chinese coast and its inland waterways.
Things to do here include visiting a number of world-class museums and art galleries, such as the Shanghai Museum and the China Art Museum; wandering through lovely gardens and parks; shopping (especially in the “New World” pedestrian area with its luxury boutiques and galleries); and exploring fine old temples and traditional pagodas. Plan your visit with our list of the top attractions in Shanghai.
Shanghai’s Promenade: The Bund
Best known by its Anglo-Indian name of Bund (Wàitan), the Zhongshan Lu is a lovely broad promenade running along the west bank of the Huangpujiang River. It’s particularly popular among tourists as the area has retained a European feel (it was once the location of the city’s International Settlement) that is particularly noticeable in the many old English and French buildings now serving as restaurants, boutique stores, galleries, and offices. Always bustling, it’s a splendid place for a stroll day or night as you take in the Bund’s 52 unique buildings constructed in a variety of styles including Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Renaissance influences, along with what amounts to one of the world’s most impressive collections of Art Deco architecture.
Moving from south to north, the dominant buildings are the former headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation with its splendid cupola, the harbor customs office with its bell tower, the old Peace Hotel, and the Bank of China. Huangpu Park, located at the north end of The Bund, opened in 1886 and is famous as the country’s oldest public park. It’s a pleasant place to visit, and has an interesting museum dedicated to The Bund’s history. The Bund is also a great place from which to embark upon a sightseeing tour aboard a boat around the port and the confluence of the Huangpujiang and Yangtze rivers.
2. Yu Garden
To the northeast of the old town and laid out in 1559, the splendid Yu Garden (Yù Yuán), also known as the Garden of Happiness, covers an area of more than 20,000 square meters and consists of an outer and an inner garden. The oldest section is the Outer Garden, with further changes being made in the 18th century when Sansui Tang, the park’s main hall, was added (the building is notable for its lovely roof ornaments, figurative representations in bas-reliefs, and window openings, as well as its dragon-adorned walls).
The best-known building is the Hall of Spring where the Company of the Little Swords (Xiaodao Hui) had its headquarters between 1853 and 1855 when it ruled Shanghai. Of great historical importance are the artificial rocks in this part of the garden, the only work of the master garden designer Zhang Nanyang that has been preserved. The newer and much smaller Inner Garden dates from 1709 and includes features typical of a classical Chinese writer’s garden: attractive little pavilions, decorative stones and miniature mountain ranges, dividing walls and small ponds, and even a richly decorated theatrical stage.
The Jade Buddha Temple
In the Anyuan Lu district of Shanghai, the beautiful Jade Buddha Temple houses two Shakyamuni statues, which the monk Huigen brought with him from Burma. The present building, erected in 1928 to replace the original temple built in 1882, is divided into three halls and two courtyards and includes the splendid Hall of the Kings of Heaven (Tian Wang Dian), notable for its statues of the four heavenly kings and two Shakyamuni sculptures. Carved from white jade, one of these impressive statues stands nearly two meters high in the Wentang Main hall, where a collection of Buddhist manuscripts is also kept (the smaller statue is in the west courtyard). Also of interest is the charming Hall of the Great Hero (Daxiong Baodian) with its Buddhas of the Three Ages, along with 18 Luohan figures. Another of Shanghai’s many important Buddhist sites is the stunning Jing’an Temple on Nanjing West Road.
The Shanghai Museum
Founded in 1952, the Shanghai Museum remains China’s most important museum of classical Chinese art. In a modern building that’s something of a work of art itself – its unique round top and square base encompasses traditional Chinese concepts of the earth – the museum’s four floors include impressive displays of bronzes and ceramics from prehistoric cultures to the 19th century, ink drawings, calligraphy and seals, as well as large collections of art from ethnic minorities. It’s also home to large collections of jade, coins, furnishings from the Ming and Qing periods (1368-1912), and a well-stocked gift shop.
Longhua Temple and Pagoda
In a pleasant park in the southwest area of Shanghai, the splendid Longhua Temple remains one of the oldest religious sites in China. Built along with the nearby 40-meter-tall wood and brick pagoda around AD 242, this important place of worship was destroyed and rebuilt many times through the years, with the present structure dating back to the 10th century. The site is still used for regular Buddhist ceremonies and consists of five large halls, including the Maitreya Hall (Mile Dian), with its large Buddha statue; the Heavenly King Hall (Tian Wang Dian), dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings; and the Grand Hall of the Great Sage (Daxiong Baodian), with its fine statues and a 16th-century bell. Other highlights include the Bell Tower with an even older, two-meter-tall, five-ton bell from 1382, which is still used on special occasions; the Library with its old manuscripts and ceremonial instruments; and the impressive sight of some 500 gold-painted Luohan Buddhas.
The Oriental Pearl Tower
A must-visit while in Shanghai is the 468-meter-tall Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower (Dongfang Míngzhuta) in Pudong-Park on the east bank of the Huangpu River. In addition to its excellent views over the busy river and the new city, you’ll be rewarded with superb views over the historic Bund promenade. Built in 1991, the tower takes its name from its 11 linked spheres of various sizes, the highest of which – the Space Module – contains an observation level at the 350 meter mark with a glass-floored outside deck. All told, the tower boasts 15 viewing areas, including the Sightseeing Floor and Space City, as well as a revolving restaurant with great views. Other highlights include a lower level shopping mall, the Space Hotel offering rooms with spectacular views, and a fun virtual reality rollercoaster ride. Even if you can’t make it up the tower, you’ll enjoy viewing it at night when the whole structure is lit up as part of a fascinating light show.
Built on what was once the city’s racecourse, the People’s Square (Rénmín Guangchang) has been transformed over the years into Shanghai’s premier public space. Home to the new Shanghai City Hall, the Shanghai Museum, and the state-of-the-art Grand Theatre, it’s a perfect spot from which to begin touring the city. Be sure to spend time visiting the excellent Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where you’ll find superb displays and models – even a 360-degree movie theater – showing both existing and planned-for buildings (be sure to view this massive scale-model from the upper galleries for a fascinating bird’s-eye perspective of this modern metropolis).
The French Connection: Tianzifang
In what was once Shanghai’s French Concession, Tianzifang has been transformed into a fascinating arts and crafts destination. While much of the older homes and buildings have been replaced, the character of this old European district has been carefully preserved in its architecture and layout, with numerous small laneways and alleys just begging to be explored. In addition to its many shopping opportunities – it consists of numerous small galleries and craft shops, rather than the bigger stores found elsewhere in the city – it’s also a fun thing to do at night due to its many restaurants serving traditional fare, its numerous cafés and music joints, as well as artists’ studios and workshops. Fuxing Park is another notable attraction with a distinct French flavor. The city’s largest park when constructed in 1909, it remains a delightful place to wander due to its many fountains, gardens, and pavilions.
Xujiahui Cathedral and the Sheshan Basilica
Built in 1911 in Neo-Romanesque style, Xujiahui Cathedral – also known as St. Ignatius Cathedral – is another splendid reminder of Shanghai’s rich multi-national heritage. In the southern city district of Xujiahui, it’s the largest place of Roman Catholic worship in Shanghai, and in addition to its splendid park-like setting is worth visiting for its twin 50-meter-high bell-towers and restored interior with fine stained glass windows. Another important religious site is the Sheshan Basilica (the National Shrine and Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan). This fine old Roman Catholic church stands on the western peak of the hill after which it’s named. Like so many other religious sites, it was heavily damaged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution but in recent years has undergone extensive renovations and remains an important pilgrimage site. A highlight of a visit is following the 14 Stations of the Cross, which zigzag up the hill to the church, along with the many splendid views along the way.
Shanghai Science and Technology Museum
In keeping with its status as a world-class city, Shanghai is not without its fair share of top-notch museums. In addition to the splendid Shanghai Museum, the city is home to the huge Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, the largest of its kind in China and one of the city’s top draws with more than two million visitors each year. Opened in 2001, the museum offers numerous things to see and do, including interactive multimedia exhibits, permanent displays, and state-of-the-art science theaters. Highlights include a large collection of animals native to the region, scientific achievements, a fascinating exhibit on robotics, as well as exhibits focusing on space travel. Other fun attractions for families include the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, notable for its 120-meter tunnel, which provides a close-up view of the region’s diverse marine life, and the Shanghai Zoo, famous for its large collection of native species, including giant pandas and South China tigers.