Ride the Pearl Tower's roller coster, visit old Shanghai, off beat museums, cycle routes, day trips and attractions. The best activities, attractions and things to do in Shanghai
Ride the roller coaster inside the Pearl Tower
Though now dwarfed by its neighbours, this bonkers, bulbous landmark (the design was based on a Tang dynasty poem) arguably remains Shanghai’s most iconic building and is worth a visit for the sheer kitsch value of the entertainment within. Tickets are priced according to floor access, so skip the ‘space capsule’ sightseeing floor in the uppermost ‘pearl’ and the mediocre buffet at the 267m-high revolving restaurant. Instead, take the lift up to the 259m-high skywalk – a 360 degree transparent observatory where the floors, as well as the walls, are made of glass, which makes for some hilarious ‘falling’ photo opportunities for those not prone to attacks of vertigo.
The real draw, though, is the surreal roller coaster located at 98 metres (claimed to be the world’s highest indoor ride). It’s not well signposted: to get there you need to descend to ‘Game City’, an eerily deserted, pink-neon lit arcade stinking of rancid popcorn. The ride itself is short but surprisingly thrilling, especially for younger kids, and for 30RMB extra you can take home a photo of yourself mid-squeal. The fun doesn’t stop there, as you descend to ground level via a glass elevator on the building exterior.
Take in the view from the SWFC Observatory
While every Shanghai resident has seen the Shanghai World Financial Center from multiple perspectives and angles, surprisingly few have actually made it inside. The Bottle Opener stages several fun events throughout the year – such as a yoga workshop and a vertical marathon – so it’s worth teeing up your visit to coincide with one of those, but if you’re strapped for time it’s still worth the (admittedly steep) entry fee just to stroll around the Garden Observatory. The world’s second highest viewing platform at 474 metres, topped only by Guangzhou’s Canton Tower, it’s a dizzying experience.
The outing begins with a basement exhibition hall that contains a brilliant scale model of Lujiazui and the Bund area with a 24-hour time lapse lighting effect. A lift then whisks you up at warp speed (5 metres/second) to the first observatory (94th floor; 423 metres), which is the cheapest option, but it’s worth paying the extra 40RMB to access the Garden Observatory on the 100th floor for truly jaw-dropping floor-to-ceiling views.
Key landmarks, from 1933 Old Millfun to Three on the Bund, are handily marked on photographs displayed alongside. If you visit during daylight hours, you might even spot a window cleaner or two dangling on the other side of the glass. If you’re looking to enjoy a drink with the view, there is a bar-café on the 94th floor, but you’ll get a far superior tipple in nicer surrounds just two floors down at the Park Hyatt’s 100 Century Avenue.
Join the old folks dancing in the park
Perhaps one of the most charming aspects of Shanghai nightlife are the early evening dances that spring up in parks and public spaces across the city. Chances are you already know where one of these goes down in your neighbourhood, but some of our favourites include the packed Sichuan Bei Lu strip (head to the eponymous metro station and you can’t miss the crowds) or the sedate ballroom twirls at Huashan Green Space, between Huashan and Xingfu Lus.
For some daytime dancing, the always enjoyable Fuxing Park provides plenty of entertainment, as should Hongkou’s Lu Xun Park when it reopens fully later this summer.
Get on your bike
Despite the rise of the car, Shanghai is still an incredibly bike-friendly city and there are few better ways to explore it than on two wheels. For some great cycle routes around lesser-travelled parts of town, including Fuxing Island, Suzhou Creek and more see our guided cycle routes around the city.
Find out where to buy the best bike for you, from Shanghai classic frames to slick fixed gear cycles in our guide to the top bike shops in Shanghai
Watch a bird singing contest at Guilin Park
The classical gardens of Guilin Park on Caobao Lu in Xuhui district are home to the area’s biggest gathering of bird keepers every May. Twitchers from across the region flock to the park to show off their prize pets. Physical battles, where the birds peck at each other through bound-together cages, can be cruel and often result in one of the creatures being injured, but a gentler competition can also be seen among the crowds – a Pop Idol for birds, with judges marking the contestants on volume, change of tone and length of song.
Can’t wait until May? The Shanghai Bird Association holds regular meets at the City of God Temple, while keepers often head to parks such as Yichuan Park just north of Zhongtan Lu metro station and Jiuzi Park beside Chengdu Bei Lu bridge and Suzhou Creek to hang their cages.
...or see crickets do battle
If insects are more your thing, then you’re in luck: cricket fighting season is nearly upon us. Although the ‘sport’ is on the wane in Shanghai, there are a number of associations, sellers and practitioners who keep it alive (purely for entertainment purposes of course, gambling is banned here after all). The Wanshang Flower and Bird Market on Xizang Nan Lu is a regular haunt for owners of fighting crickets with matches usually taking place from August until October.
Take a trip on the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
Shanghai is full of naff tourist attractions, but The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (45RMB one way) is one of those so-bad-it’s-good experiences that everyone should try just once. Bizarre, trippy audio-visual effects play as you travel in an automated car 'into the core of the Earth' under the Huangpu river and though the whole journey is somewhat baffling and devoid of any actual sightseeing, you’ll come away with photos that look like they were taken in the 2001: A Space Odyssey wormhole and a story for your friends.
Check out Chongming Island
While it’s best not to harbour any visions of quaint island life – pastel coloured beach huts or pretty little fishing boats nestled in the harbour – when undertaking a trip to Chongming, that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do on what’s often referred to as China’s third biggest island (that count includes Taiwan). You can visit organic farm Mahota, go birdwatching among the reeds at the eastern Dongtan nature reserve, go barbecuing or grass skiing (basically donning elongated rollerskates to descend a hill) at the Dongping Forest Park, or unwind at the newly opened Hyatt Regency resort if you decide you want to make a weekend of it (the hotel even offers special ‘Puppy Getaway’ packages so you don’t have to leave your dog at home).
Shanghai loves an expo, and we’re not just talking about the gathering of global clichés that took over a swathe of the city back in 2010. Practically every weekend there’s an expo of some sort taking place here. Sure, not all of them are particularly exciting (such as Annual China International Roofing and Waterproofing Expo and Pet Expo for example), but every year provides us with dog shows, wedding extravaganzas, sexpos, car and boat fests and all sorts of consumer craziness to gawk at. Sitting pretty at the top of the expo pile however, is ChinaJoy, which takes place at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre every August.
The computer game and cosplay spectacular features gaming launches, exotic costumes and hordes of photographers snapping away greedily at it all. Yes, there are some questionable outfits and use of ‘models’, but it’s still an incredible Shinjuku-esque assault on the senses that really has to be seen.
Stand with the ultras at a Shanghai derby
The Chinese Super League now features three of the city’s top flight teams in action. There’s the long-standing Shanghai Shenhua who play at Hongkou Stadium, the largely unloved Shanghai Shenxin and, while they may have dropped off the pace a little after their early season table topping performances, East Asia are still top of the Shanghai pile so far this season.
While attendances for games, and often the quality of football, fall short of major international leagues, the fans are passionate and friendly, especially if you sit (or more likely, stand) with the hardcore supporters. If you only go to one game, make it a Shanghai derby (preferably involving Shanghai Shenhua and East Asia) or Shenhua versus hated rivals Beijing Guoan for the fieriest atmospheres. Here's a fan's guide to Shanghai's Shenhua. See the full season fixtures.
Give something back
There’s really no excuse for not volunteering or donating to charity in Shanghai – every month there are plenty of events that enable you to do both, while there are dozens of non-profit organisations based in the city doing fantastic work who are in need of a helping hand. For more details of how you can get involved, click here.
Take a cruise on the Huangpu
Taking to the water is still one of the best ways to gaze upon both The Bund and the skyscrapers of Lujiazui. Though there are numerous overcrowded and often over-long tourist cruises (tickets for which can be purchased from sellers along The Bund or at the tourist desk beside Jinling Lu), you can enjoy views of the best bit just as well by taking the ferry between Jinling Lu and Dongchang Lu or vice versa. Tickets cost just 2RMB and the journey is over in only a couple of minutes, giving you more time to tick off the other items on your bucket list. We recommend going early evening as the sun goes down and the lights come on. Check out the ferry routes across the Huangpu.
If you’re after something a bit more upmarket, a trip out on the Huangpu doesn’t come much classier than on The Peninsula hotel’s yacht. Up to ten people can board the 15 million RMB vessel for private cruises (from 8,000RMB/person) with additional extras such as afternoon tea (580RMB/person including one glass of Champagne) and even on board yoga sessions (from 1,100RMB/50 minutes) available. Contact The Peninsula’s concierge for more details.
Cycle the streets of Hongkou
Hongkou’s former Jewish quarter is one of our favourite parts of town to explore on two wheels and while modern developments are increasingly encroaching upon its old streets, there are still plenty of fascinating historic sites to see. Highlights include the Jewish Refugee Museum housed in the Ohel Moishe synagogue, the adjacent Zhoushan Lu where you can often see residents playing carrom (an old Shanghainese game that’s a cross between snooker and Chinese chess) and the Tilanqiao Prison, once the biggest in Asia and still in use today. Here's a guide to cycling around Hongkou.
Head to the Propaganda Poster Museum
Often topping our list of recommendations to new Shanghai
residents or out-of-towners, the Propaganda Poster Museum
is a must for anyone with a couple hours to spare in the city.
Founded by Yang Peiming, the museum has been run out of its apartment tower basement setting for over a decade, but was only given official recognition two years ago and still maintains an air of secrecy. The vast collection of over 5,000 propaganda posters, many rescued from recycling centres and rubbish bins and spanning from the early days of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 to the late 1970s, is absolutely fascinating and more than worth the 20RMB entrance fee.
Wander Nanjing Dong Lu at dawn
Nanjing Dong Lu may be a tourist-filled nightmare much of the time, but head there just as the sun comes up and you’ll find it empty of the matching baseball cap wearing hordes and people trying to sell you wheels to stick on your shoes. Instead, nearby residents creep out onto the pavements to do a spot of tai chi (often with fans and swords) or play badminton. Start at People’s Square and head south toward The Bund (where you’ll find another clutch of early risers performing) and you’ll see the street in a completely new light. Here are some photos of the city in its morning glory.
Check out an off-beat museum
Shanghai has some fantastic museums – the Animation Museum, Urban Planning Exhibition Centre and Science and Technology Museum are all worthy of a visit – but some of our favourite institutions are the more unusual ones. The Museum of Public Security features everything from old police cars to gruesome murder weapons; the Municipal History Museum features some brilliant scale models of old Shanghai; and the Tobacco Museum details the history of China’s favourite product. Visit just one and we guarantee you’ll learn something new.
Head to a water town
Whether it’s Zhujiajiao for its convenience or Xikang for its beauty, everyone has their favourite watertown. Ours is Nanxun. It may mean a little more travelling time than suburban spots such as Qibao of Fengjing, but the rewards are relatively fewer tourist hordes and a pleasantly laidback feel throughout the two sections of old streets crisscrossed by waterways. We like the tranquil Little Lotus Garden, a grand former residential house with a small lake at the back, and the Jiayetang Library, home to a large collection of ancient tomes and tree-covered grounds, where locals sip tea and play cards beside the water. The main Shanghai Long Distance Bus Station (from 6.50am) and the South Station (from 10am) have regular services to Nanxun, costing 46RMB one way. The buses continue to Huzhou, so make sure your driver knows you want off at Nanxun. Here's our guide to the best canal-side towns worth a visit in Shanghai.
Tour Shanghai by sidecar
Discover another side of Shanghai by touring the city from the sidecar of a vintage 750cc Changjiang motorbike with Shanghai Insiders.
All Insider guides are extremely capable; completely at ease dodging Shanghai’s notorious traffic whilst recounting interesting tit bits of local history. It’s a unique way to see the city. See more alternative tours of the city, including bike, food and photo tours.