Micah and John on Touring Shanghai

Blogger Matthew Stinson recently asked Micah and me about what there is to do in Shanghai. I thought the conversation might be useful to some readers, so here it is, edited somewhat:

Matthew asked:

I’m heading down to Shanghai for National Day [October 1st]. I have rather bizarrely never actually been to Shanghai before, so I was wondering what places you’d recommend I visit and what places you’d recommend I avoid during my time there. I have about 3.5 days to wander around the city.

Also wondering what district you recommend getting a hotel or hostel in.

Micah replied:

Three and a half days is enough to see all the major attractions and then some. However, a disclaimer: sometimes I get too gung ho about the city, so if John’s recommendations clash with mine then trust him over me.

For a hotel or hostel I’d recommend staying close to People’s Square, which is a good launching pad for visits to just about anywhere in the city because it’s the location of the subway Lines 1/2/8 interchange. I have two places in mind, depending on your budget. If you’re going cheap, stay at the Shanghai Mingtown Etour Youth Hostel. It’s just west of People’s Square, next to the quaint little pet market where I buy chinchilla food and the Shanghai Art Museum. It’s also a short hike away from Suzhou Creek, a good place for photography. If you’re willing to pay RMB 200-300 for a standard 标准间 hotel room, the 上海市工人文化宫东方宾馆 (Shanghai Worker’s Cultural Palace Far East Hotel?) is right on People’s Square, 2 minutes from the subway, in a historic building that’s now being used as a civic center but has a hotel on the upper floors. I tried to book it for my parents when they came for our wedding two years ago, but they were renovating at the time so now it must be even nicer now. Either place, call in advance and confirm rates/availability, of course.

Whoa, that was way too long. I’ll keep the “tourist attractions” in list form:

DO

  • Yu Gardens area (for the food and the antiques)
  • Taikang Road (trendy fixed-up old neighborhood)
  • People’s Square + Nanjing East Road + Bund (don’t mind the scammers, just chat them up and then brush them off)
  • Shanghai Museum (on People’s Square)
  • Lujiazui area (Aquarium, World Financial Center, Super Brand Mall)
  • Jing’an Temple
  • Yuyintang (this is a good live music venue, if you’re into that)
  • Science & Technology Museum
  • Wander around the French Concession area
  • Wander around the Old City (north from Dongjiadu)

SKIP

  • Yu Gardens themselves
  • Shanghai City Planning Museum
  • Longhua Temple
  • Anything else in Pudong besides Lujiazui and Sci-Tech Museum

John replied:

Heh, I always panic a little when people ask me about things to do in Shanghai. While I do like the city, I don’t feel like there’s really that much for visitors to DO when compared with a city like Beijing. This city is about business, shopping, dining, and nightlife!

Still, it’s not fair to say Shanghai has nothing to offer, and I think Micah did a pretty good job of listing the attractions. I’ll just add a few comments to Micah’s list.

HOTELS

I’m sure Micah’s suggestions are great, but don’t forget the traveler’s favorite: The Captain’s Hostel. It’s probably been booked solid for weeks, but you might still want to check it out.

DO

  • I’ve never been a fan of Yu Gardens; feels like it’s just for tourists from abroad. So while I would expect my parents to enjoy it, I wouldn’t expect you to.
  • Jing’an Temple is cool-looking, being right in the middle of the city, but don’t bother going in. The park across the street is quite nice, though, and both New York Pizza and Burger King are right there if you’re interested.
  • I went to the Science and Technology Museum with my wife last year, and we were both disappointed. We found it too child-oriented, run-down, and outdated.
  • You might consider the Xujiahui Computer Market (there are actually two separate markets right in 美罗城, plus a BestBuy nearby), and I hear there’s a photography market near the Shanghai Train Station that has lots of cool stuff for photo buffs [Editor’s note: Brad tells us that photography market is now closed].
  • Micah left off Xintiandi, a major tourist highlight. Yeah, it’s all fake and expensive, but I think it’s an important side of Shanghai. To me, Taikang Lu doesn’t feel much less fake… at least Xintiandi is honest about what it is. (Sorry, Micah!)
  • Check out the Liuli Glass Art museum on Madang Lu (right next to Xintiandi). Really amazing stuff by a Taiwanese artist, with a Buddhist theme. Make sure to go in early afternoon; it turns into a bar at night, and the exhibits go away.

EAT

To me, you’re missing one of Shanghai’s major highlights if you’re not here to EAT. Shanghai cuisine might be a bit sweet, but there are plenty of excellent restaurants, and tons of variety (both domestic and international). With a little planning, you could be eating one mind-blowing meal after another, if that’s something you’re interested in.

Micah replied:

In re: to John, I totally agree that there’s just not that much to do. Go out to eat a lot, have a massage, get some clothes tailored, climb the Pearl Tower… that’s the extent of what 90% of Shanghai tourists do because Shanghai is about quality of modern life, not so much about history or cultural production.

No comment on Xintiandi. I’m “against it” in theory, but I haven’t been there in ages and I’m not really familiar with the area. I believe John used to work near there, so he would know better than me.

Finally, John, I was trying to think of a Shanghainese place to recommend because it’d be a shame not to eat the local cuisine no matter how people from outside of Shanghai bad-mouth it. But I was coming up a blank — the best places I’ve eaten are hole-in-the-wall, out of the way, or too expensive to recommend with a clean conscience. Can you name a place off hand?

John replied:

You mention the Pearl Tower, but you didn’t put it in your “DO” list. I’ve actually never done it myself. Is that another one that should be on the “DO” list?

Not really sure about a good Shanghainese place… There’s so much fusion going on that I don’t really worry about where the food is supposed to be from too much.

Matthew, you might browse the restaurant listings on smartshanghai.com for the expat view, and on dianping.com for the Chinese view.

Micah replied:

The Pearl Tower is the no-brainer, average-Joe view of Pudong. The Jinmao Tower’s 88th floor observation deck is the more sophisticated option. That one lounge on top of the Jinmao Tower where you pay the bar’s cover charge to enjoy the view and a classy drink is the savvy-traveler’s choice. But the only view that made it onto my DO list is the new World Financial Tower, because it’s NEW and higher than all the others (though I hear it’s a bit pricey).

If I was playing tourist, maybe I’d go to Din Tai Fung. Even though it’s Taiwanese it wins all the contests for Shanghai 小笼包, and I betcha they have more Shanghai dishes than just that. Dianping has them at RMB 100 per. Jodi and I got invited to a birthday party at 1039 on Yuyuan Rd by a Shanghainese friend, very 本帮 [local Shanghai] and set in a semi-fixed-up colonial era home, but a little out of the way and RMB 200 per on Dianping.

And yeah, seconding smartshanghai and dianping.

Readers: Any other recommendations for good, reasonably priced Shanghainese food, or must-see parts of Shanghai?

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