When people come to Shanghai, they usually don’t know what the city has to give. They may go see the Bund, look at a museum or two, and try to enjoy the local cuisine. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but Shanghai has so much more to offer. By all means, do the touristy things, but do the following as well.
Not long ago in China, all marriages were arranged. Although the country has mostly discarded such traditions in the race towards modernity, this one keeps hanging on, if only by a thread. One of the last remaining vestiges of arranged marriage in Shanghai can be witnessed every weekend from 12-5pm at the People’s Square Marriage Market. Parents line up marriage resumes of their children attached to umbrellas. Big ticket items include salary and property ownership. You can go to the market to simply observe the goings-on, or take part in it yourself as long as you are respectful of the fact that for many of the families involved, this is the children’s last chance at marriage before being written off as “leftover” men and women.
Gongqing Forest Park may be Shanghai’s second largest park, but it somehow gets little attention from travelers and expats, perhaps because of its somewhat-remote location in Yangpu district. Sure, getting there requires a bit of a trek, but once you’re there, you can easily spend an entire day enjoying the tall trees and wide open spaces, as well as the endless activities. Enjoy everything from go karts to a roller coaster, paddle boats to paintball. The park seems to stretch for miles, with a unique activity at every stop. It costs RMB15 ($2) to enter the park, and most activities start at RMB25 ($4).
At the intersection of downtown Shanghai’s two busiest highways is a curious sight: a gaudy, glittering pillar adorned with dragons. It’s easy to pass by without a second look, and the pillar is certainly not a point of interest in the same way as everything else on this list. However, for the discerning traveler, this pillar, with its incredible story, can be one of the lasting memories you leave Shanghai with. Legend has it that the ground at the point of the pillar was impossible to dig, so impossible that the highway construction workers visited a Buddhist priest for guidance. The priest revealed that beneath the stubborn earth was a dragon’s lair, and the dragon wouldn’t move until the workers honored it. The city commissioned the pillar, and construction crews finally broke the earth. Make sure to stop by long enough to snap a picture and pay your respects to the dragon who really hates urban development.
Shanghai’s outer districts get no love from tourists, but with an extensive public transport network, there’s no excuse for missing out on the hidden gems they have to offer. Shanghai proper may have been little more than a fishing village until the 19th century, but nearby Jiading was a thriving town as early as the Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Today, Jiading has been absorbed by Shanghai to become its northwest-most district and is characterized by factories and industry. Yet its historic charm remains. Located at the end of the southern fork of metro line 11, you will find one of the best-preserved Confucian temples in the country. Surrounding it are a museum, pagoda, canals, and parks. This uncrowded area is the perfect place to spend a day.
Previously accessible only by ferry, Chongming Island off the northeast coast of Shanghai feels like a separate world, and it’s only an hour’s bus ride from downtown. Chongming is the third largest island in China and contains a national forest, protected wetlands, migratory bird sanctuaries, eco-farms, and one of only three Confucian temples in Shanghai. And that’s just the beginning. Depending on when you go, you may get to celebrate one of Chongming’s unique annual festivals with the locals, festivals like the Chongming Hairy Crab Festival, the Mingzhu Lake Cup Fishing Competition, the Qianwei Autumn Ecological and Cultural Festival, the Chongming Cook Stove Painting Festival, and even a national cricket fighting tournament.
Once nothing more than an industrial area devoted to airplane manufacture, Shanghai’s West Bund is now the city’s best alternative to the congested historic Bund. In an effort to turn the West Bund into an arts and cultural hub that rivals London’s South Bank, the city government has encouraged the rapid establishment of art museums and galleries along this lively waterfront. Among the picnickers and skateboarders are now the hippest artsy types who come here for the Long Museum, Yuz Museum, and other up and coming creative venues that will turn anyone into an art critic.
During WWII, Shanghai offered protective visas to Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, and Poland. As a result, more than 18,000 Jewish immigrants poured into the city in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1943, the occupying Japanese army required these 18,000 refugees to relocate to a 0.75 square mile (1.9 square km) area of the Hongkou district. Conditions there were poor, and the Chinese residents already living there refused to move, leading to overcrowding. The 1940s character of the ghetto alleyways has been well preserved and offers visitors a glimpse into a unique and little known time in history. Start your tour at the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, now known as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
Brick and mortar shopping may be dying in the west, but it is not going down without a fight in China. If you find yourself marveling at a fancy-looking building in Shanghai, chances are it’s a mall. There are malls for everyday shopping, malls for upscale shopping. There’s a mall that specializes in board game cafes and another that houses electronics shops. Then there’s Joy City Mall. The “City” in the name isn’t a coincidence. In fact, there is practically an entire city within Joy’s four walls. This place has everything: four – four! – separate food courts, a movie theater, a floor dedicated to handicraft workshops (cookie baking, bookbinding, terrarium building), a bar “street,” and even a giant London Eye-style Ferris wheel on the top.
For a city whose name translates as “On the Sea,” Shanghai has a surprising dearth of beaches. If you ask most locals for a nice water spot in town, they’ll likely direct you towards man-made Dishui Lake in nowhereville Pudong. But there’s no swimming allowed and no barbecuing allowed, so what’s the point other than fresh air? A nice alternative to this is Jinshan Beach, located in Shanghai’s southernmost district. You will have to take a bullet train from Shanghai South Railway Station to get there, but you can use your metro card and the trip is only RMB10 ($2). Like at Dishui Lake, swimming isn’t allowed; however, the water is clear and you can wade out to a comfortable distance before the lifeguard blows his whistle at you. All other beach activities are a go, from barbecuing to boating, and the sand is clean and the skies are (mostly) blue.
Every Friday from 11am-3pm, a wonderful thing happens on a little stretch of street just outside of the Huxi Mosque: local Chinese Muslims gather before their services to share the freshest Halal foods with the people – and sometimes dogs – of Shanghai. As cars beep their horns wildly to get through the crowd of hungry market-goers, tented stalls dish out everything from seasoned lamb kebabs to homemade sour yogurt. Bring plenty of cash, because even though the culinary treats are well-priced, you will want to try everything, and then try everything again.