Shanghai – the poster child of China’s economic growth – is a sprawling world-class metropolis that’s more than five times the size of Hong Kong. Each of its 16 districts comprises multiple neighbourhoods and pockets that are all charming in their own ways. We’ll take you deep into eight of the most interesting corners of Shanghai – from guidebook favourites to off-the-beaten-path gems – and show you the best things to see and do in each.
The glamorous riverfront heart of heritage Shanghai
Of all the Shanghai neighbourhoods, most first-timers – and even repeat visitors – make a beeline for the Bund, which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River. It was the city’s financial centre for foreign banks and trading houses from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, and that foreign influence is visible today in the dozens of European-style landmarks that still stand proudly side by side along the promenade.
A strikingly contemporary entry is the Fosun Foundation, opened in 2016 with a dazzling, shape-shifting exterior. Nowadays, the Bund is also Shanghai’s premier fine dining and entertainment destination. Prominent global F&B brands like Hakkasan and restaurants by celebrity chefs Joel Robuchon and Jean-Georges Vongerichten brush shoulders with some of Shanghai’s finest clubs and bars, such as Bar Rouge and the Jazz Bar at the art deco Fairmont Peace Hotel. Book a stay, and you’ll wake up to a front-and-centre view of the modern skyline across the Huangpu.
Financial centre of architectural marvels
Located directly across the Bund, on the eastern bank of the Huangpu, Lujiazui is Shanghai’s new financial district, boasting Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers and the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower. Along with the regional offices of major domestic and international firms, you’ll find fancy malls, as well as the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium. To get the best view, head up the 632-metre-tall Shanghai Tower – China’s tallest building and the second tallest in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. After travelling up 118 levels to the observatory, visitors can walk around the circular space and take in a 360-degree panorama of Shanghai from the highest possible vantage point. If that’s not enough, check in to the Park Hyatt Shanghai – located between levels 79 and 93 of the Shanghai World Financial Centre – for a nightcap followed by breakfast in bed, all served with a bird’s-eye view of the streets below.
Former French Concession
Tree-lined streets and alleys with shops and cosy cafes
‘The Paris of the East’ isn’t some nickname dreamt up by officials to attract tourists; it’s rooted in Shanghai’s history. A large part of the city centre – now known as the Former French Concession – was the designated home base for French diplomats and merchants for nearly a century, beginning in 1849 after the First Opium War. Art deco buildings and London plane trees line the streets, making this one of the most picturesque Shanghai neighbourhoods. It’s a mix of modern office towers, residential complexes and popular shops, restaurants and bars.
Grab a coffee to go at cafe Egg, followed by street food like fried dumplings and scallion pancakes at the nearby intersection of Xiangyang Bei Lu and Changle Lu. Then pop into Madame Mao’s Dowry to browse souvenirs by Shanghai-based designers. After dark, say hello to mixologist Yao Lu at go-to neighbourhood bar The Union Trading Company, and wash down a plate of Sichuan spiced chicken with seasonal cocktails. Call it a night at the Intercontinental Shanghai Ruijin, a century-old property featuring several historic buildings and 40 hectares of landscaped gardens.
Multi-faceted area where historic meets hip
Jing’an Temple is the neighbourhood’s namesake and most famous landmark – a Buddhist temple with an attractive park. It’s flanked by futuristic skyscrapers and a growing contingent of hipster shops and hangouts. Shankang Li is a complex of restaurants, bars and even a roller-disco rink converted from a construction materials market. A few blocks away on Tongren Lu, local streetwear label Doe serves its own specialty coffee.
Another standout is Design Republic on Jiangning Lu for contemporary home décor and furniture curated by Shanghai-based architecture firm Neri&Hu. One trend-proof Shanghai experience is eating a basket or three of xiaolongbao (pork soup dumplings) – and in Jing’an, the place to go is Fu Chun Xiao Long on Yuyuan Lu. This ’hood is one of several central business districts, so there’s no shortage of luxury hotels. The Middle House, a boutique hotel within HKRI Taikoo Hui mall, has design elements referencing Shanghainese culture and shikumen-style buildings across the 111 rooms and public spaces. It’s a 15-minute walk from the hotel to Prada Rong Zhai, a gorgeous 1918 villa remade as a gallery and events space.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University Area
Budget-friendly spots and eclectic charms
Some of the city’s more affordable and lively dining and nightlife options have naturally sprung up around Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Xuhui Campus. At Xingfu Li complex on Panyu Lu, for instance, you’ll find casual al fresco restaurants; Insta-friendly cafes that serve specialty coffee and bubble tea; and Nice to Meet You, a beautiful bookshop that stocks quirky gifts and home products. Shanghai insiders often refer to this part of town as the ‘gaybourhood’ thanks to LGBTQ-friendly venues like Lucca 390, which hosts parties and eccentric themed nights every week. If you’re in the mood for some Yunnan food, Lotus Eatery on Dingxi Lu delivers some deeply flavourful renditions of dishes such as pan-fried goat cheese and black chicken salad with lime and chillies.
The area is more residential than visitor-minded, so we’d recommend staying at one of the hotels back in the Jing’an Temple area – a short drive away on the Yan’an Elevated Road. The PuLi Hotel & Spa, which brands itself as an urban resort, is a great place to escape Shanghai’s buzzing lights and crowded streets and tuck in for a restful night.
Museum-hopping in the city’s rising art district
Covering an area of 9.4 square kilometres along the Xuhui Waterfront, West Bund is Shanghai’s largest cultural destination, featuring more than a dozen art spaces of all shapes and sizes. This fast-developing neighbourhood also has an abundance of public green spaces that make it appealing to explore from museum to museum on foot or by bike. Check out the architecturally unique Long Museum West Bund on Longteng Avenue – the largest private institution in the nation (there’s also a Long Museum in Shanghai’s Pudong district). Head further down the road to Yuz Museum, an expansive contemporary art venue converted from the hangar of the old Longhua Airport.
And save some time for the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project, one of the newest additions to Shanghai’s Museum Mile. The Paris institution’s first-ever project in Asia presents exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art inside a 25,000-square-metre space designed by British architect David Chipperfield. After a long day of being immersed in art, kick back at the Shanghai Marriott Hotel Riverside, which is just a stone’s throw from the main thoroughfare.
Trace the present and past along this lesser-known river
Ask any avid Shanghai runner about the best trail to hit and they’ll guide you to the long and winding Suzhou Creek. It runs east-to-west through several Shanghai neighbourhoods and is just as great for a stroll, if that’s more your pace. Start exploring the tranquil area from northern Jing’an on Moganshan Lu’s M50 Art District, which counts dozens of independent galleries, art studios and coffee shops. Then continue eastward down the creek to encounter landmarks such as the Sihang Warehouse Battle Memorial – the site of a famous six-day stand-off during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Afterwards, head further downstream to see the impressive General Post Office Building. Built in 1924, this four-storey, classical structure with baroque-style clock tower and Corinthian columns now serves as the city’s Postal Museum.
Move further east towards the Bund to the historic Waibaidu Bridge – the first all-steel bridge in the country – located right where Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu River converge. For a refuge and unobstructed vistas, book a stay at the Bulgari Hotel Shanghai – or pop in for lunch at Il Ristorante or rooftop cocktails with a side of that glitzy, million-yuan view.
North Bund and Hongkou
The quieter end of the Bund
About a decade ago, there was little reason to go to Hongkou and North Bund unless you lived or worked in the area. But things have picked up since the opening of W Shanghai – The Bund, which regularly throws some of the hottest parties in town at the WET BAR and the outdoor swimming pool that overlooks the Shanghai skyline.
If loud music and boozy parties aren’t your thing, check out 1933 – an old art deco-style abattoir that’s been converted into a conclave of creative studios, galleries, boutiques and cafes. Afterwards, step back in time with a visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which commemorates the tens of thousands who fled the Holocaust from Europe to settle in the nearby Tilanqiao area during the Second World War.