When you travel to Shanghai, don’t be surprised when you get inundated with recommendations from guidebooks and travelers telling you all about The Bund, The Pearl Tower and The Yu Gardens. Don’t get me wrong…these are all worthy places to see in Shanghai. But trust me when I say that there is so much more!
Feel free to spend hundreds of renminbi to take an elevator to the top of China’s tallest building (at least the tallest building for now), but if I were you, I would consider budgeting some time to explore some of the lesser-known destinations in Shanghai.
Sometimes it’s fun to find your own way around Shanghai and I know most budget travelers to China will opt for this route, but when it comes to history and culture, I often advise friends to spend a little cash on a local guide to provide context to what you’re seeing. In Shanghai, there are companies like Jenny’s Shanghai Tours that can provide a memorable look around Shanghai that you’ll completely miss out on your own.
Whichever you decide, here are seven of my favorite, what I’ll call “under-appreciated destinations” in Shanghai, China. 🙂 Enjoy!
#1 Meander Through “Old Shanghai”
While you’re making a visit to the well-known Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, budget some time to meander through “Old Shanghai”. This is a district that is filled with 100 year old homes, traditional neighborhoods and infinite stories.
The good news is that Old Shanghai is easy for visitors to find and free to walk around. There’s plenty of history hidden within these alleys: walled up homes, weird markings on the wall, etc. So fascinating! If you have learned Chinese, stop and talk with the locals. If you can’t speak Mandarin Chinese, consider walking through with a local friend or guide. You’ll love this place so much more!
#2 Explore the Ancient Town of Qibao
Shanghai is known for having some amazing “water towns” similar to Venice just an hour train ride away (see how to travel from Shanghai to Suzhou, for example). But why travel that far when you can visit Qibao, an ancient town located just south of Shanghai’s Hong Qiao airport? This is true, especially since it’s located right near a subway stop on line #9.
This ancient town is full of historic streets, arches, building and canals. It’s a buffet of beautiful scenes for a photographer and a quaint step away from the “big city”It’s a feast for the eyes, but going with a guide can give a deep understanding of this 1000 year-old district of Shanghai (only a metro ride away) as it tells its story from the Ming Dynasty to today.
#3 Visit the Historic Longhua Temple
The Longhua Temple is a beautiful Buddhist temple that exemplifies the architectural design of China’s Song Dynasty. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s the most authentic temple that is rich in history and not usually teeming with tourists. If you have the time, this is a fun place to venture!
#4 Soak in the French Concession
The French Concession is certainly a popular destination in Shanghai that is quite easy to find on the map. Unfortunately, most travelers who follow their guide book here end up leaving with a feeling of “So what was that all about?”
It’s important to understand the role that the French Concession played in Shanghai’s history of colonial Europe after the opium wars and through the Communist Revolution. A good guide or local friend can entrance you with stories that contextualize the famous architecture and fascinating history here.
#5 Truly Appreciate “The Bund”
The Bund is one of the most iconic destinations in all of Shanghai, with amazing views of Pudong and its unbelievable skyscrapers. It’s also home to the row of 100 year-old banks whose architecture seems a bit out of place in China.
Hidden behind these brick buildings are incredible stories of Shanghai’s modern history and what has made this the most important economic hub in China. Take, for example, the Peace Hotel. It was once used as a home for Mao ZeDong’s leader’s during the revolution, who seized the hotel (they considered it an example of western decadence) and then expelled all of the western staff. Crazy!
The are also stories of historic jazz bars, Japanese occupation, etc. It truly is a wealth of fun history to explore.
#6 Experience Shanghai’s M50 Art District
The M50 Art District in Shanghai may not appeal to every traveler’s taste, but it’s a quirky part of the city that most people miss. It can be quite an interesting experience to walk through the studios and talk with the local artists about what makes this type of art so unique.
#7 Take Part in Shanghai’s Marriage Market
Ah, the infamous Chinese marriage market! In Chinese culture, marriages were often arranged by the parents (that is less true now, of course).
This marriage market, which happens only on certain days in People’s Park, is an interesting bit of China heritage that strangely still exists today. It’s a bizarre experience for westerners to see, since parents still are on the look out for the perfect partner for their kids.
Perhaps you could go and find your perfect “mate”? Ha!
Conclusion | Exploring the “Real” Shanghai
It’s too easy to spend a few days walking around Shanghai’s PuDong district (the “new” part of town with all of the skyscrapers) or following your favorite Shanghai travel guide book to your next tourist trap. You’ll make good memories, but you’ll likely miss out on all of the history, stories and quirks that make this city so fascinating.
Take a moment and check out Jenny’s Shanghai Tours to see if a more intimate tour group fits in your budget. You’ll learn so much from your time walking around with a local guide and you’ll appreciate the sites so much more!
I hope you enjoy your time in Shanghai, whenever that may be. Even if you decide not to do an intimate walking tour, there are plenty of other great Shanghai guided tours to consider. If you’ve already been, do you think there are any other under-appreciated Shanghai destinations that are missing here? Leave them in the comments below!