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?

20 Comments to “Micah and John on Touring Shanghai

  1. Great post guys.

    I’m heading down for october holiday as well, and this will certainly come in handy.

  2. Jeff says:

    Was surprised that both of you left off Moganshan Lu. Well worth a walking tour to explore M50 and the other galleries even if you have no intention of buying anything. I also like to walk the Jewish Ghetto in Hongkou on the weekend to get a real flavor for true Shanghainese street life.

  3. Tina says:

    I would recommend two blogs, both guys live in Shanghai and go out quite a bit. They may be able to assist you.

    Woaizhongguo, and I Spy Shanghai.

  4. ambrose says:

    I don’t know how many of your readers have kids, but if they do, then put the City Planning Museum on the to-do list. It’s about an hour, hour-and-a-half visit, and my then-four-year-old loved it. It is full of models of the city and lots of crazy hands-on stuff. For those without kids it is probably pretty boring. Also, for the with-kids set, the Aquarium can take easily up to three hours, but you will probably not notice the time fly. It is just that huge and interesting. So many species of marine life we’d never even heard of, and a lot of information available in English. The Zoo is okay, though it feels more like a huge park that happens to have animals spread around it. If you are used to American Zoos with their fancy immitation habitats, the Shanghai Zoo might be a bit sad and shabby. However, many kids love zoos, and if you can set aside three hours (just because it is so spread-out), it is a very fun trip. Bring a stroller for those that don’t like to walk, though, or you will end up carrying them. Did I mention that it was very spread-out?

  5. Brad says:

    The photography market near the train station closed more than a year ago. Most of the the shops moved to a new market on the corner of Luban Lu and Xietu Lu, but last time I went it seemed like a lot of the people selling secondhand lenses and old medium and large format equipment were gone.

    It may sound hipster of me, but Shanghai has a fairly large freelance expat (or unemployed english-teacher) population who spend afternoons hanging out in the tree-lined “French Concession” area. I like coffee at Boonna on Fuxing Lu or Amocca on Anfu Lu, followed by dinner in one of the small bistros in the same area. They’re not all good, but they’re mostly representative of the other side of expat life in Shanghai.

    I also recommend Southern Barbarian on Maoming Lu for decent Yunnan food and a good selection of beers.

  6. Pete Braden says:

    Good, comprehensive list. I would add that for a free (if you don’t mind slinking past pompous waiters) view of Puxi, you can go up to the 38th floor of Tomorrow Square (the Marriott Hotel near West Nanjing Road). Just pretend you’re a guest.

  7. Re: M50, I went there once for Wang Jianshuo’s photo exhibit so I’m not too familiar with it, and found it to be hard to get too. Also, the Shanghai art scene is too volatile for me, don’t know what/who is good and bad, who is hype and who is genuine. So no recommendation from me there.

    Re: the Jewish ghetto, the Hongkou/Yangpu area is great, but I’d save it for a second visit because it’s so spread out that the reward to time spent ratio is pretty low. But that may be a mistaken impression, and I’d be happy to be corrected if you have a certain area to recommend.

    I also enthusiastically support Brad’s recommendations and think they might be right up Matthew’s alley.

  8. Brendan says:

    Any other recommendations for…must-see parts of Shanghai?

    The back of it, receding into the distance. Haw!

    Actually, one thing I really like about Shanghai is how walkable it is. This doesn’t usually impress people who are visiting from abroad, but people who’ve spent time in pretty much any other Chinese city will appreciate it immediately. Spend some time walking around, if you’re the sort of person who enjoys walking, and you’ll find yourself thinking that maybe all the bad-mouthing you heard from everyone else in China was just jealousy.

    Seconding the recommendation to steer clear of the Yu Gardens. In June I took a couple of friends visiting from abroad there, and they had their camera ripped off within about 30 seconds, and then found that it was impossible to get a metered cab anywhere near there.

    Also, I thought the City Planning Museum was kind of cool — that scale model of Shanghai, particularly. But then I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. And the Shanghai Museum is really, really not to be missed — the porcelain collection alone is worth the price of admission (it’s a lot more interesting than it may sound), and it’s so nice to see a Chinese museum done right.

    Also, there’s a nice bookstore – I think run by the 上海古籍出版社 – not far from the Bund. I’m blanking now on the name of the street that it’s on, but it’s between the Raffles mall exit of the People’s Square subway station and the Bund. They’ve got a good selection of literature, which I thought was illegal in Shanghai.

  9. Ben Ross says:

    My advice would be DO NOT go to Shanghai during a National Holiday. I made that mistake once, and ended up spending most of my time waiting in long lines and choking for air on overflowing buses. Go out to the rural parts on National Holidays, and save Shanghai for some time when it isn’t a national holiday.

  10. krovvy says:

    The art stuff can be a bit off-putting, if you’re not an art person.

    I’d recommend a stroll past Shanghai Railway Station any time after midnight. Hundreds of people sleeping outside, with no stench of urine, no theft, no Katrina-like armageddon, just a bunch of honest working people bedding down without any fuss. Imagine the same scene in your home country – how would it be different? That’s a REAL cultural experience.

  11. Feds says:

    Micah,

    Jing’an Temple over Longhua? Get out! Jing’an’s just a facade, and a cheesy one at that, with all of the shops lining the outside. Inside (in 5 years living here and taking friends and relatives there) it’s always been scaffolding and a couple of parked cards. No hints that it’s supposed to be a temple. Longhua rules: pagoda, quite a few buildings inside to wander through, actual worshipers and a general sense of peacefulness… perhaps because it’s out of the hubbub of downtown.

    Other than that, I agree completely, especially on the Jewish ghetto area – very hard for the 1st timer to find, but worth a couple of long afternoons walking about.

  12. I’m reading a book now called “China Road” and it mentions the beggars in Bund, too, actually! Since the book is about traveling along the national road going through China, it doesn’t focus on Shanghai, but there are some interesting bits of information in it. I thought the bit about the Hooters was really weird, not like what you’d hear about from the US.

  13. Jeffrey D says:

    Personally, I really like Yuyuan Gardens, even if the surrounding shops are to be skipped…

    The camera store near the train station re-opened. The Xietu Lu one is more fun for browsing, though.

  14. Jeffrey D says:

    A little more: Din Tai Fung is a definite skip. It’s cleaner than other xiaolongbao, but really they are not particularly good. Jia Jia Tang Bao, near People’s Square, would be an easy recommendation for xiaolongbao.

    C’mon, Shanghai cuisine isn’t the best, but there’s a hundred good places. Chun on Maoming, Xiao Bai Hua in Xujiahui (there’s a couple other good ones in Xujiahui), Lan Ting near Xintiandi, 1221 is foreigner-oriented and near the American Center…

  15. light487 says:

    Hey.. Well having never been to shanghai personally io can’t make any useful contribution to this discussion.

    I would like to ask the experts (that’s all of you :)) what is the best time of year to visit China in general? I don’t really want to go BeiJing or Hong Kong. I want to spend about a week in ShangHai and the neighbouring cities, then head out to the middle, possibly to WanSu where I know a couple of people through the internet.

    Basically I am not a touristy type person, so most of the suggestions I am seeing here are good ones for me. If I went to America, I wouldn’t even bother going to Disneyland… I prefer to hit up the local restaurants, markets, bars etc and try to feel what it is like to live there.. Because ultimately I would like to live in China someday soon..

    Having said that… I wouldn’t want to go in midwinter… but what is a good time in the next 6 months?

  16. Jeffrey D says:

    light487: sometime when it’s not midwinter – it gets too damn cold. Except for that, I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    Beijing and Hong Kong are both worth the visit, though.

  17. light487 says:

    I don’t know.. The usual tourist traps are too common for me.. I want a rich cultural experience.. Not a fake, plastic, tourist experience. I am sure there are legitimate places of interest in Beijing and I am sure it is worth going but it would be like me going to paris to see the Eiffel tower rather than hanging out in the rural areas sipping wine.. It’s a completely different experience with a totally different purpose.

    Just wanted to correct a typo I made in my last post as well. I will be going to Wuhan in the Hubei province, Wansu or whatever I said.. Hehe.. I’m not good with names :)

    Shanghai to me seems to be the sister city to Sydney here in Australia. Not a lot of tourist stuff really.. As it’s more about the commercial districts and nightclubs..

    Wuhan is like a city with twice as many people as Sydney, so I don’t think I will cope with too much exposure in Beijing, Hong Kong and even Shanghai as I am sure they have a lot more than 8 mil people each.

  18. Jeffrey D says:

    Please believe, Wuhan is not the place to go for a rich cultural experience.

  19. Feds, maybe I’m just not a big fan of temples. For me, Jing’an’s strengths are its brevity (enter, see the Buddhas and people praying, leave) and its proximity to other interesting things/foods. I will give Longhua that it is close to the Old City, which is definitely worth a walk through.

    I met Matthew today and we ended up going to Jiajia for tangbao. Overall, satisfied with the food but unhappy about most of the menu being sold out by the time we arrived shortly after noon.

  20. Tim P. says:

    As a tourist, I would say that I found the Bund at night fascinating. Maybe you’re already inured at seeing the entire sides of buildings as lighted, animated billboards but I thought that they were neat. There’s also the touristy night boat ride on the river at the Bund.

    You might want to go to Google Earth & home in on Shanghai. Get in close enough that you can see the camera icons. Clicking on these will show you pictures taken in that area. Those pictures might show you something that you want to check out in person. Of course, by the time that you see this post, you’ll have returned home from Shanghai.

    I found the “old town” area of Shanghai of interest too.

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