Alternative Shanghai tours

Discover a new side of Shanghai with these quirky city tours

Photo: Shanghai Insiders
Been there, seen that, done it all in Shanghai? Discover another side of the city as Time Out checks out five alternative tours around the city taking in cycling, food, photography and more.


Crossing the street can be a dangerous business in Shanghai. So, to some, braving Shanghai’s roads on just an old bicycle might seem foolhardy. However, the China Cycle Tour guides exude nonchalance, leaving it up to us to decide whether or not a ride around the streets of Shanghai necessitates use of a safety helmet. The company bikes are of the robust, utilitarian style you see lining just about every street in Shanghai. They may not be pretty, but they’re local makes and feel appropriate for a touristy spin around the city.

On this particular night, our group of six customers is joined by three instructors. This ensures no one falls behind and that there is always someone on hand who you can ask questions of (though you might not always get the best answer). The tour isn’t particularly informative; if you’re seeking to learn anything except trivialities then look elsewhere. For instance, it’s disappointing that the sole information imparted during our ride down The Bund is how barren Pudong has been until relatively recently. In their defence, what our guides lack in knowledge they make up for with general enthusiasm, making them extremely amiable companions.

Even if we aren’t told much about Shanghai’s history we at least get to see some of it. One highlight of the tour is our visit to the old city where we head down narrow streets, past houses boarded up and marked for demolition. This provides a glimpse of the ‘old Shanghai’ that most tourists are looking for and which is increasingly hard to find, especially in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, no time was spent to stop and take it in.

The tour is certainly not one for any old hands. Our ride takes us past the essential tourist spots – a bit of the old town, The Bund, Nanjing Lu, Tianzifang – and though visually appealing, there’s little new for anyone who’s spent any time here. That’s not to say the journey wasn’t a lot of fun, but given its cost and the lack of specialist information learned, it’s recommended for first-time visiting friends only.

Duration Three hours

China Cycle Tours (1376 111 5050; Bikes and safety helmets provided. Times and prices vary.


Photo: UnTour Shanghai

‘The best way to get to know a culture is to eat a trail through it,’ or so say UnTour founders, and self-confessed foodies, Kyle Long and Jamie Barys (former dining editor at Shanghai Talk). To that end, the pair run a range of guided walks designed to feature some of Shanghai’s most authentic and delicious eats.

The tours are small enough to avoid the familiar herded-sheep style of groups shepherded up and down The Bund, with routes purposely planned to keep you away from such tired tourist hotspots. Opting for the ‘Dumpling Delights’ itinerary, our route takes us round the charming but less frequented Gaoan Lu to Guangyuan Lu area; a pleasing respite from other well-trodden trails around the former French Concession.

The eating starts with street side guotie (pot stickers) from a crumbling, decades-old hole in the wall. While we nibble at the parcels, tour guide Long talks us through the history of the dish and the difference between it and the classic, more round shengjianbao (the secret is yeast in the dough, apparently). We then move on up the road for two steaming longs of xiaolongbao, followed by boiled Harbin dumplings and an unobtrusive peek into the tiny kitchen for the chance to see the parcels being made.

Then there’s time for a fancy Cantonese dim sum lunch complete with xia jiao (shrimp dumplings) before rounding out the afternoon with ‘1,000 mile fragrant’ miniature wontons in a delicious aromatic broth, complete with more background regarding the ingredients and the dish’s origin. Given the numerous dishes available to try, be sure to come with an empty stomach.

While historical facts about Shanghai are at a minimum, the tour is packed with insightful knowledge about Chinese cuisine and street food, utilising the various dumpling dishes as a jumping-off point.

Taking in many gritty jiaozi joints of the kind one passes daily around the city, the tours may not be a giant leap into the unknown for dedicated street food eaters, but for anyone else they are a great way to enjoy authentic Chinese cuisine away from the sanitary confines of Din Tai Fung.

They’re also an enjoyable and delicious introduction to hole in the wall dining for people unsure of what to order, or put off by the brusque service and all-Chinese menus of many a neighbourhood eatery. Even long-term Shanghai residents will find enough insights here to come away feeling satisfied, and not just in the stomach region.

Duration Three hours

UnTour Shanghai ( Times and prices vary. UnTour offer an alternative take on the city, including a range of culinary tours and running tours. Public Dumpling Delights tours run every Wednesday at 10.30am. Book tickets online for meeting point.

Contemporary Shanghai

Photo: Jan Siefke

While numerous tours go to great lengths to reveal the history that city planners have done so much to remove, photographer Jan Siefke is a proselytizer for the marvels of contemporary Shanghai.

Our Shanghai Flaneur-organised tour begins at the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre and we head straight to the third floor and the vast scale model of central Shanghai. The panorama, the only real reason to visit the centre, covers just about everything within Line 4 and Siefke, a resident in Shanghai since 1999, uses the overview provided to dissect the city and explain the factors behind its recent growth and development.

Afterwards we amble out on to People’s Square and Siefke takes us to the nearby Le Meridien Hotel. We head up to the top floor and an area usually reserved for private functions. Presented before us is a spectacular view, the real life version of the model we’d just admired. We take seats by the window, and from this position high above the city, Siefke reveals the full extent of his impressive knowledge.

Pointing to the structures below us it seems like there’s not a building he doesn’t know something about. He discourses about the historic importance of the Park Hotel, the traditional heaven and earth design of Charpentier’s Grand Theatre, the effort involved in physically relocating the entire Shanghai Concert Hall whilst still in tact, and, among further topics, the construction of Line 2 that lies far beneath us.

But Siefke’s wealth of information isn’t just confined to the city centre. At one instance he indicates the distant Lupu Bridge and recounts its construction, and later he takes us round to another window to begin enthusing about the development of Pudong as the famous skyline lays bare before us.

It has already been two hours but it seems like Siefke could talk about modern Shanghai’s development endlessly. Regrettably we only had time for the short version and although we haven’t experienced the full tour, which involves actually visiting areas like The Bund and Pudong on the ground, we’ve nonetheless covered a vast swathe of the city from our high altitude perch.

While it may not be as light-hearted or active as some of the other tours on this list, Siefke’s in-depth knowledge and thorough explanations make this tour by far one of the most informative, even for those who have been living in the city for years.

Duration Two hours

Shanghai-Flaneur (138 1892 2040;; Times and prices vary.

Motorbike and sidecar

Photo: Shanghai Insiders

Before the start of this tour we are a little worried about how much of a guide our driver, Shane Ullman, will be able to be. It seems doubtful that we’ll be able to hear much over the noise of our vehicle and the wind in our face.

Fortunately, such fears are unfounded. There’s a persistent rumble from the Chang Jiang 750 bike, but it’s not the deafening roar we’d feared. In fact, looking at the city from the road like this is probably one of the best ways to see Shanghai. As you’re driven down the middle of the road, through the centre of the city, you’re free to observe everything on either side. Observing the city from the road instead of the pavement seems like a minor, superficial adjustment, but it truly makes you feel in the middle of the city, not pushed out to the side.

It’s good the noise isn’t excessive because Ullman proves to be an extremely capable guide; completely at ease dodging Shanghai’s notorious traffic whilst recounting interesting titbits of local history. When we dismount and visit the colonial era lanes and alleys behind Baoshan Lu market, Ullman demonstrates a real interest in the history on display, pointing out, for instance, a decorative piece of stonework that somehow survived the tumult of last century intact. It’s something easy to miss but Ullman makes sure we take note of it.

Shanghai Insiders are proud of their guides. There are no new arrivals given charge. All Insider guides are expats who speak good Mandarin and have lived at least three years in the city and, with Ullman at least, their extensive local knowledge shows.

Riding pillion with Shanghai Insiders isn’t the cheapest way to see the city - the cost of the company’s recommended four hour tour is 975RMB per person for two people (with one person behind the driver and one in the sidecar), although they do offer shorter and cheaper options. However, if you’re feeling flush, it’s a unique way to see the city and to learn a thing or two.

Duration: Two hours

Shanghai Insiders (138 1761 6975;; Call or email for availability. From 400RMB/passenger.


Photo: Antoine Icard

The former French Concession area is replete with samey, unadventurous walking tours, but if you found Chow Yun Fat’s most recent movie, The Last Tycoon, kindled your interest in Shanghai’s gangster past, then this is just the thing for you. Even if the movie passed you by, this is an informative tour, full of surprises, that’s well worth attending.

The first surprise is our tour guide’s mockney alter-ego ‘Billy’ (founder Daniel Newman) and his deputy ‘Johnny’ (aka Chris Pegg), one of Al Capone’s guys, apparently. Initially we roll our eyes and inwardly despair at the corny idea of role-playing tour guides. But credit where credit is due, we are quickly dragged into the spirit of the event and we soon forget our initial misgivings. In fact, when the act is dropped during the halfway point drinks at Prime 1921 we feel disappointed, rather than relieved, at the loss of immersion.

The tour begins with us travelling back in time to the lawless world of 1930s Shanghai and we visit the former residences and hangouts of the era’s most notorious gangsters. The walk starts at Changle Lu metro station, near the old police station, and we head east on Huaihui Lu before eventually ending up at Hengshan Lu.

The tour winds its way along main roads that will be familiar to the average Shanghai resident. However, as we walk we’re regaled with trivia relating to the import and export of opium and learning about the drug trade is compelling. We hear why ships were deliberately sunk in the Huangpu and just how brutal gangster Big Eared Du (the inspiration for Chow’s character in The Last Tycoon) did away with his enemies. A quick look inside the charming, if slightly tired-looking Mansion Hotel and a series of archival photos are notable highlights.

The other major surprise of the tour comes just before the end, which is an optional 30-minute cops ’n’ robbers shooting competition with air guns (for which you’ll need to show a copy of your passport). This burst of action occurs at a modern shooting gallery in Hongkou where the tour eventually concludes. This may not sound like a game for your little ones, but rest assured that it is child friendly and kids over ten years old are welcome to join in. In addition, lollipops are given out throughout the tour, with further prizes for the best shooter. It’s an exceptionally fun end to the tour and an experience that made big kids out of even the most sceptical adults.

Duration Two to three hours

Newman Tours (138 1777 0229;; From 190RMB/adults, with discounts for students and concessions.

See more tours in our Visiting Shanghai section