A favourite destination for families travelling through China, Shanghai is a city crawling with impressive culture, shopping haunts and restaurants. Not to mention the stunning view of the Bund at sunset. Read on for our favourite stops through the city, a swanky hotel to gaze at the Bund from, and relaxing day trips to towns and countrysides from the city.
Many families travelling with children bypass Shanghai in favour of Beijing, because it has fewer landmark tourist sights. But this cosmopolitan city of 23 million has much to entertain young minds. Given that Singapore already offers children great waterparks and zoos, there’s not much point spending time at similar attractions when there are some of the world’s tallest buildings and unique neighbourhoods to explore.
Though the landmark 468-metre Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong is no longer the city’s tallest building (it was overtaken by the Shanghai World Financial Centre in 2008), it does house the impressive Shanghai History Museum. Through models, dioramas and special effects, it lays out the story of the city from its beginnings as a village 1,000 years ago to global prominence in the 1930s, along with its present-day obsession with skyscrapers.
Also in Pudong is the semi-completed Shanghai Tower; at 632 metres, or 121 storeys, it will become the world’s second-tallest building when it is completed next year. Across the Huangpu River (which is crisscrossed by 10 tunnels and 10 bridges) is the 1.5km riverfront promenade known as the Bund. Whether you walk, drive or take a boat cruise to see its 25 century-old buildings, it’s handy to have a guide or a brochure with information about each building.
The labyrinthine Yu Garden is one of the city’s biggest attractions. Separated into small courtyards by dragon-shaped walls, the gardens were built in 1559 in traditional style and overflow with wooden pavilions, koi ponds, pagodas, stunning trees and a 12-metre-high rockery.
In complete contrast are the European concessions, designated areas of the city that were granted to foreign countries in the 1800s. Shanghai operated as a treaty port, which meant that foreign countries had their own jurisdictions; the respective neighbourhoods subsequently developed strong cultural identities. Taking a self-guided walking tour around the tree-lined back streets feels, at times, like strolling through a European city.
Many people head for Xintiandi, where upmarket boutiques and restaurants have gentrified the traditional 19th-century shikumen houses. (Shikumen is a traditional Shanghainese architectural style marked by grey- and red-brick walls and arches.) Ironically, this lavish commercial area was also the location of the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
In Shanghai’s rush to modernity, traditional handicrafts have thankfully not been forsaken. At the Museum of Arts and Crafts, visitors can watch dozens of artisans at work, including jade- and wood-carvers, paper-cutters, embroiderers, jewellers and painters. Housed in a stately 100-year-old French mansion with sweeping staircases, it’s a place to find authentic souvenirs; the artisans will intrigue curious children, too.
Amongst the myriad shopping and tailoring options, it’s hard to beat the AP Markets in the basement of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. Directly accessible by the Metro station named after the museum, the markets are the place to bargain hard for knock-off goods.
Tip: Visit the warren of laneways known as Tian Xi Fang, a bohemian mix of studios, cafe’s and quirky shops all hemmed inside narrow alleys teeming with atmosphere. Whether you’re shopping or not, it’s a unique neighbourhood to get lost in.
Hotel Highlight: Pudong Shangri-La
Some would argue it’s better to look at the Bund, rather than the opposite outlook of Pudong’s futuristic buildings. The 950-room Shangri-La was Pudong’s first luxury hotel and sits comfortably in Shanghai’s top 10 hotels according to TripAdvisor.
Room: Request a river-view room for a priceless outlook of The Bund; it’s stunning enough by day, but really comes into its own when lit up at night. The rooms are elegant with subtle Oriental touches in the wallpaper and art, complemented by crystal chandeliers and marble bathrooms. Horizon Club guests enjoy L’Occitane toiletries in their rooms, plus 24-hour access and complimentary services at the Horizon Club Lounge on the 32nd floor.
Restaurants: There are 11 restaurants and bars in the Pudong Shangri-La, including Japanese and Chinese eateries, a wine bistro and Jade on 36, the signature restaurant and bar. Yi Café features 10 lively show kitchens and a cosmopolitan food selection for the huge buffet breakfast (there’s even a map, it’s so big) – don’t miss it.
Recreation: Alongside the award-winning spa, CHI, there are two swimming pools, two health clubs and an outdoor floodlit tennis court.
Rating: The promise of high tea in the Lobby Lounge, an elegant Michelin-star dining experience, or a long hot bath, makes the Shangri-La a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of a city that doesn’t sleep.
Day trips from Shanghai
It’s the home of China’s famed West Lake, a domestic tourist magnet and an area of natural beauty (when the smog cooperates, of course). Of China’s 72 lakes, this is the most popular. Catch misty scenes of tai chi being performed on the water’s edge at sunrise, drink a cup of longjing tea made with leaves plucked in nearby plantations, tour the many temples and monasteries that dot the area, and book a seat at Impression West Lake, a spectacular outdoor performance directed by Zhang Yimou, the mastermind behind the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. Stay in the remains of a 300-year-old tea village next to one of area’s most sacred temples, Longyin Si, by booking a stay at Amanfayun.
Water villages of the Yangtze River delta
On the edge of Shanghai’s urban sprawl, a dozen or so ancient villages line the small lakes and waterways of the Yangtze River delta. Zhujiajiao is pleasant enough to warrant a half-day trip, though be aware that anything authentic has long disappeared, and most of the quaint town shops now sell food and souvenirs. Still, the old Ming- and Qing-dynasty architecture, including that of bridges across the narrow canals, is atmospheric, and many visitors take a leisurely boat ride. This is a domestic tourism magnet, so it’s best to visit late in the afternoon on a weekday. Take the hour-long bus ride from People’s Square in central Shanghai, or arrange a car and driver.
Trace the steps of artists, scholars and Chinese high society through gardens, canals and arched bridges in this picturesque town. Express trains can get you from Shanghai to Suzhou in less than 30 minutes. Highlights include the West Garden Temple, the Taoist Temple of Mystery, and an hour-long boat ride around the outer canal every evening starting from the Renmin Bridge.
China guides by city
– Head here for Beijing
– Head here for The Great Wall of China
– Head here for Xi’an
– Head here for travelling tips around visas, manners, water and more
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