Rated: Shanghai attractions

Guidebook suggestions vs our expert opinions

Are Shanghai’s big attractions any good? Our experts rate the usual guidebook suspects and offer alternatives off the beaten path.

The Yu Gardens



All the guidebooks will tell you to go to the Yu Gardens, classical Chinese gardens dating back to 1559 that are surrounded by a tourist bazaar. The two-hectare gardens themselves are beautiful, but the problem is that you’re forced to share the elegant doorways, whitewashed walls, rockeries and carp ponds with huge crowds, many from tour groups wearing matching caps. The signs are uninformative, with only some in English (sample quote: ‘Viewing the scenery of the big rockery, one feels carefree and joyous’), and the ‘antique’ shops in the gardens are hellish, with tacky, overpriced wares including a pair of hideous jade carp for 15,600RMB. Things aren’t much more fun in the bazaar outside – there’s a Starbucks, lots of shops selling tourist-y tat, and lots of people.

Is it really unmissable? No 
 

Alternatively, try
The Dongtai Lu antique market. If you want to buy Chinese knick-knacks, you’re better off going to the Dongtai Lu antique market, which is far quieter than the Yu Bazaar.

Where is it? In the Old City, a ten-minute taxi from People’s Square. See address details.

 

The Shanghai Museum

Yes, the Shanghai Museum does boast a huge repository of ancient Chinese art, which includes calligraphy, painting, bronzes, ceramics and jade. The problem is that, unless you’re an expert, it feels like overkill, with repetitive exhibits and dry, uninformative signs – the Chinese Currency room, for example, displays thousands of identical-looking ancient coins with little explanation of their significance. The museum would benefit by slashing its collection in half and introducing more varied displays. These are important artefacts, we just don’t think it makes for a fun visit. See address details. 

Is it really unmissable? No

 

Alternatively, try

The Urban Planning Exhibition Hall doesn’t sound fun, but it provides an interesting insight into the city, with a huge 1:500 scale model of central Shanghai and a cinema showing a virtual tour of the city. There are also exhibits on Shanghai’s transport links and the rehabilitation of Suzhou Creek, which runs through the city. More interesting than bronze coins and jade, we think.   

Where is it? Right by People’s Square. See address details.

 

East Nanjing Road



The 3.4 mile-long pedestrianised stretch of Nanjing Dong Lu often gets billed as Shanghai’s premier shopping street, and is just about worth stopping by for a photo at night when it’s bathed in neon. But with hordes of people and a mediocre selection of shops – Zara, UNIQLO, Dunhill, Mont Blanc et al in the dingy old department stores that line the street – most Shanghai residents avoid this street entirely.   

Is it really unmissable? No

 

Alternatively, try

If you want to explore the area behind the Bund, you’re better simply wandering the streets that run parallel to the Bund or run off it – Sichuan Lu is packed with Art Deco buildings, and Fuzhou Lu is lined with art and book shops. If you want to shop, a guilty pleasure is buying fake goods at the Taobao Market, a four-floor emporium of fake Ray-Bans, Chloe bags, Loboutin heels and cheap (real) Benefit makeup and more. Our pick of the stalls is no 84 on the third floor, which sells ‘Mulberry’ bags made with top quality leather. It’s impossible to tell the difference between them and the real thing.

Where is it? On Nanjing Xi Lu in Jingan district, a 10-minute taxi ride from People’s Square.

 

Pudong’s tall buildings




The three tall buildings in Pudong – the Pearl Tower, Jinmao Tower and Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC) – all have spectacular viewing platforms, where you can see panoramic views across the city. They’re impressive, and worth doing, but for the prices (88-200RMB), you can buy a cocktail in a number of places with almost-as-stunning views and sit back as you survey all before you.

Is it really unmissable? No

 

Alternatively, try

Book afternoon tea in the Living Room at the Park Hyatt hotel, on the 79th floor of the SWFC building. As you eat tasty sandwiches and cakes from a classic cake stand, you can look out over the top of the Jinmao Tower, the building that the SWFC replaced as Shanghai’s tallest (booking a seat by the window is advised). For an equally spectacular view, Vue Bar, on the 32nd floor of the Hyatt on the Bund, not only serves great cocktails but has stunning views that take in both the Bund and Pudong.

Where are they? The Park Hyatt is in Pudong’s Lujiazui district, a 15-20-minute taxi ride from People’s Square. The Hyatt on the Bund is north of The Bund, a 5-10-minute taxi ride from People’s Square.

 

Xintiandi



Xintiandi, a collection of restored traditional-style shikumen buildings, does have some things going for it – quality fine dining at T8, great dim sum at Crystal Jade, and the best xiaolongbao soup dumplings in the world at Din Tai Fung. But we just don’t like it all that much – it just feels a bit fake, like Shanghai done up for tourists, and a lot of the venues are mediocre and overpriced.

Is it really unmissable? No

 

Alternatively, try

Tianzifang, a series of tight narrow lanes crammed with shops, art studios, cafes and restaurants. It’s tourist-y, and a lot of the goods on sale are fairly generic, but it’s charming, more genuine than Xintiandi, and there are gems to be found. We like Link Shanghai for beautiful illustration books and tote bags, and Shanghai Code for retro glasses and lamps. For eating and drinking, Kommune, a cool cafe with an outdoor seating area, serves decent sandwiches and drinks.

Where is it? In the southeastern part of the French Concession, a 15-minute taxi from People’s Square.

 

The Bund

Okay, you can’t come to Shanghai and not see the Bund. The key is doing it with class when you’re there. We’d recommend taking glamorous cocktails in the Waldorf Astoria’s Long Bar, once the longest in the Far East, or watching Shanghai’s oldest jazz band at the Peace Hotel’s Jazz Bar, who play nightly at 7.30pm (booking a table is advised). For glitz and glamour, the two key restaurants on the Bund are M On The Bund (European and Middle Eastern) and Mr & Mrs Bund (creative French) – the food’s good at both, but plays second fiddle to the views and the people-watching.

Is it really unmissable? Yes


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