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Shanghai skyline | © Stefan Wagener/Flickr
Shanghai skyline | © Stefan Wagener/Flickr
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12 Reasons Why You Should Visit Shanghai at Least Once in Your Lifetime

Picture of Rachel Deason
Updated: 6 June 2017
Shanghai may not have pandas like Chengdu or rice terraces like the south, but it is every bit as worthy of your time as any other spot in China. In fact, there are endless reasons to visit this dynamic Paris of the East. Sit back, and let Culture Trip introduce you to your next favorite travel destination.

It’s paradoxical

When people think of Shanghai, they picture glitz and glamour, with many even accusing it of not being the ‘real’ China. Not only is Shanghai as much a part of the ‘real’ China as anywhere else, it also has rural areas and cheap, down-to-earth amenities. One great thing about Shanghai is that you can always go cheaper and you can always go more expensive. It’s easy to find a full meal for ¥10 ($1.46) without sorting through the garbage. Conversely, acclaimed restaurants like Ultraviolet, which serves up a 20-course menu that starts at ¥5000 ($735) per person, offer big spenders an opportunity to spend it like only Shanghai’s nouveau-riche know how. Additionally, old Shanghai and new Shanghai come to play in unique and exciting ways throughout much of the city, from half-demolished lanehouses in front of shiny skyscrapers, to industrial-era factories converted into art spaces.

Old Shanghai
Old Shanghai | ©Wenjie, Zhang/Flickr

There’s always something new

If there’s one word that can describe Shanghai, it’s ‘dynamic’. Old restaurants, shops, and buildings are constantly being overhauled for new and renovated models. Where a dumpling restaurant existed yesterday, today it’s a florist’s shop. What used to be a crumbling neighborhood is now a luxury shopping mall. All this change can be overwhelming at times, but it can also be thrilling to be in an environment that keeps you on your toes.

The skyscrapers are record-breaking

The world’s tallest building award may still belong to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, but Shanghai’s buildings are not far behind. Opened in 2016, the Shanghai Tower is officially the world’s second tallest building at 2,074 feet (632 meters) and boasts the world’s second fastest elevator, which travels at a staggering 67 feet per second (20.5 meters per second). Gaze out over the Bund waterfront from the world’s highest observation deck, or grab a drink from the Park Hyatt in neighboring Shanghai World Financial Center, and relax in what was, at the time of its construction, the tallest hotel in the world (now the third tallest).

Shanghai skyscraper
Shanghai skyscraper | ©hans-johnson/Flickr

The nightlife is varied

Shanghai is home to countless remarkable nightlife spots that make for guaranteed good nights out. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Shanghai gives it a run for its money. There are bars for every possible niche you can imagine. Fascinated by speakeasies? Shanghai has them in spades. Want to spend no more than ¥100 ($15) to get stupid drunk with your friends? Just go to Perry’s or Helen’s or Window’s, or even the convenience store down the street. Not only does Shanghai have a bar or club for everything, new ones pop up every day. You always have the opportunity to be one of the first people to try what may become a world-famous nightlife spot.

It has trendy architecture

Shanghai is home to a unique style of lane house called shikumen, which combines western and Chinese elements. At one time, the style comprised 60% of all Shanghai housing. Today, many lanes are being preserved and turned into trendy shopping and dining areas. The most popular is Xintiandi, a fashion-forward, walking-only entertainment district in the heart of the city. Another, Tianzifang, is the perfect place to get lost among the crowd.

The restaurants are world famous

The Michelin Guide came to China in 2016 by way of Shanghai, when restaurants in the city collectively garnered 31 stars from the prestigious culinary compass. Even if fine dining isn’t your thing, the city still offers a wide array of flavors from around the country and world. Chances are you’ll have a great meal no matter which part of the city you’re in.

The history is fascinating

Shanghai is a young city by Chinese standards. Up until the 1800s, it was little more than a fishing outpost. While the Opium Wars had a devastating effect on the country as a whole, kicking off China’s ‘century of humiliation’, modern Shanghai has the wars to thank for its very existence. The treaty that ended part one of the war opened Shanghai as an international port city, and opium itself turned Shanghai into a depraved and decadent haunt that has never really escaped its 1920s reputation. You can learn all about this history and more at one of Shanghai’s incredible museums.

There’s art that even non-art lovers can appreciate

Shanghai’s museums don’t just focus on history. In fact, the city’s many art museums alone make a trip to Shanghai worth your while. Yuz Museum is housed in an old airplane hangar and highlights contemporary pieces. Rockbund Art Museum is free and always has a unique exhibition going on. Shanghai Museum of Glass will convince you that glass is much more than purely functional. By the time you’ve visited just a few of Shanghai’s art museums, you’ll be convinced that you’ve been an art fan all along.

Yuz Museum
Yuz Museum | ©wondereye/Flickr

There are numerous water towns around the city

Take a day trip to one of Shanghai’s many water towns that surround the city. These ancient areas built on canals offer a tranquil getaway from the fast-paced city center. Some are more commercialized than others, but all offer a beautiful look into traditional bridges and houses that once typified this area of the country. One town, Qibao, is even accessible by metro.

There are cities within the city

If, for some mysterious reason, you get tired of Shanghai itself, go to one of its nine mini-towns that are modeled on places like Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, Germany, and Spain. You can practically do a whole world tour without stepping outside of the city. Of course, when the towns’ real estate failed to attract buyers, these little cities within a city became ghost towns, making them characteristically Chinese – as much as they try to be otherwise. Spend a day by Shanghai’s very own Lake Malaren, or take some photos of wedding-gown-donned brides and their grooms to be with British cottage architecture as the backdrop.

Thames Town
Thames Town | ©Drew Bates/Flickr

It’s the perfect jumping off point to other Chinese destinations

Once you’ve had your fill of Shanghai, if that ever happens, it’s simple (and cheap!) to get out of town. Whether you want to travel by way of one of Shanghai’s two international airports, via slow or high speed train, or by bus, Shanghai is well-equipped and perfectly located to get you on your way to other destinations around the country. Plus, there are tons of great under the radar spots just a short distance from the city.

You don’t have to learn Chinese to get by

Worried about not speaking the language when you visit a new place? You don’t have to worry in Shanghai! Due to its history of multiculturalism and rising wealth, many Shanghainese speak enough English to ensure that your ni hao (‘hello’) and xie xie (‘thank you’) are all you need to get by. Even large international cities like Beijing require at least a pocket dictionary in order to navigate. All signs in Shanghai are written in Mandarin and English, and the street posts are cleverly marked with block numbers and the cardinal directions, so you never have to get lost (unless that’s what you want to do).