Once known as the “Pearl of the Orient” and “Paris of the East,” Shanghai brings up images of glamour, mystery and intrigue. Today, Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world and is known for its sleek skyline and its east meets west cosmopolitanism. Visiting Shanghai is never boring, as there’s tons to do. Here are my recommendations on what to see and eat when you visit Shanghai.
WHAT TO SEE: MY TOP 5
- The Bund
The Bund is the iconic waterfront of Shanghai with colonial-era buildings lining the waterfront on one side and Shanghai’s iconic skyscrapers lining the other. The Bund offers amazing views, is open 24 hours, and its free! There’s always something to see at the Bund (like entire generations of Chinese families taking turns taking selfies). During the early morning you can also catch people doing tai chi along the waterfront. At night, you can enjoy the skyscrapers and gaudy lit up tour boats cruising the river. So get those selfie-sticks ready and strike a cheesy pose at the Bund.
2. Shanghai Tower
Shanghai Tower is the world’s second largest building with the world’s tallest observation deck. It also has one of the world’s fastest elevators. With all the superlatives to boast about, how could you not visit Shanghai Tower? Shanghai Tower offers one of the best views of the entire city. The Oriental Pearl Tower looks like a wee little baby from the top of Shanghai tower. There’s also a nice exhibition on skyscrapers and the building and future of Shanghai Tower. If you like a view from the top, Shanghai Tower is a must-see.
3. Jade Buddha Temple
While Shanghai is not known for being a spiritual center by any means (with all the soulless mega-malls and all), there are still some oasis of spiritual reflection to be found in the city. I have always loved going to temples, as I love taking a moment to reflect and pray (you don’t need to be Buddhist to visit a temple). My favorite temple during my time in Shanghai was Jade Buddha Temple. While there are showier temples in Shanghai, like Jing’an Temple, Jade Buddha Temple is more of a neighborhood temple than a tourist attraction. Jade Buddha Temple has a reverent atmosphere, and if you show up in the afternoon you may even catch the monks going into the temple to chant and pray.
Qibao Old Street probably isn’t on most tourist’s radars, but I have a soft spot for Qibao since that’s where I lived and worked. Qibao is a water-town and its name translates to “eight treasures.” Qibao was once a prosperous water town during the Ming dynasty (hence the name). Today, Qibao Old Street is a labyrinth of alleyways with vendors selling everything from papers fans, crickets, and traditional Chinese garb. Qibao Old Street also has some of the best options for street food with everything from meat on a stick, stinky tofu, noodles, dumplings, and more! Qibao Old Street is also less crowded and expensive compared to similar traditional areas in Shanghai like Yuyuan Gardens and Shanghai Old Street.
5. French Concession
The French Concession is one of the most charming areas of Shanghai with tree-lined avenues, boutiques, and amazing food and nightlife options. Just strolling through the French Concession you can get a feel for the “east meets west” cosmopolitanism that defines the area. Some of the most popular restaurants in town are in the French Concession. If you’re looking for a bite to eat check out Sichuan Citizen, a cozy little place that serves excellent Sichuan food (meaning spicy!). The area’s nightlife scene is constantly changing as several of the bars I frequented have either closed or relocated to other areas, but most of the options for boozing are top notch in the city!
WHAT TO EAT: MY TOP 3
- Xiao long bao A.K.A. Soup Dumplings
You can’t visit Shanghai without trying one of it’s specialties – Xiao long bao or soup dumplings! Xiao long bao are similar to regular dumplings, but the surprise is on the inside as xiao long bao are filed with soupy goodness. There are several places in the city which offer xiao long bao. Yang’s fry dumplings serve some of the best xiao long bao in the city for very cheap. If you’re looking for atmosphere to go with your xiao long bao (as well as premium prices), try Din Tai Fung, a well known brand from Taiwan
2. Shanghai Hairy Crab
Shanghai Hairy Crab is a popular autumn delicacy in Shanghai and around China. During fall, hairy crab pops up everywhere! I’ve seen them sold at the airport, and I have even seen commuters on the metro lugging bags of them home. While hairy crab isn’t the most delicious I’ve ever had, it is popular in the fall because according to traditional Chinese medicine, it has a “yin” or cooling effect on the body which correlates with the transition from summer to fall.
3. Moon Cakes
Moon cakes are another delicacy served in autumn to celebrate the Moon Festival, which happens in September (although you can still find them year-round). Moon Cakes (not to be confused with space cakes), are delicious pastry cakes filled with red bean or lotus seed paste. Moon cakes are shared between friends and family during the Moon Festival and moon cakes often have Chinese symbols imprinted on them for good luck or good fortune for the coming season. I love moon cakes and ate so many of them during the Moon Festival that I probably gained not just good fortune for the coming year, but also about five pounds.