An Alternative Guide to Shanghai

Suzhou Creek
Suzhou Creek | © Asian Development Bank/Flickr
Rachel Deason

Everyone needs to see the Bund at least once during their trip to Shanghai, but the city is about so much more than big buildings and high fashion shopping. If you want to experience the Shanghai that locals and longtime expats love, skip the tourist traps and do these things instead.

1. Visit a bathhouse

Spa, Health Spa

Often a favorite activity of tourists looking to relax, spas in Shanghai are plentiful and world-class. However, such spas can be found the world over. For a more unique experience in the same vein, try visiting a Korean bathhouse in Shanghai. The best and most popular is New Star. Each location of this chain is totally nude and separated by gender, with a joint (clothing required) recreational area in the middle. Pools are set at varying temperatures around 40°C and come in a variety of styles. There is also a Chinese restaurant on site, as well as a fully outfitted gym.

2. Take a tour of Shanghai's Art Deco heritage architecture


Art Deco architecture gained popularity throughout much of the world in the early 20th century, but in Shanghai, its dominance persisted well into the 1940s before the Communist takeover. Its lasting influence can be witnessed all over town, particularly in the Former French Concession and the former International Settlement. Traditional Chinese design elements were often incorporated into the Art Deco palates, and buildings were situated to optimize feng shui. To get a taste of this culturally significant architecture, head to the 1933 Slaughterhouse in historic Hongkou district. This converted industrial-chic space is now home to shops, cafés, and performance art venues and is a favorite of budding photographers, who see photographic opportunities in its labyrinthine steps and cold concrete angles.

3. Travel to Europe...without leaving Shanghai


Thames Town
© Huai-Chun Hsu/Flickr
In 2001, the Shanghai Planning Commission announced “One City, Nine Towns” in an effort to encourage the city’s swelling population to move to the suburbs. As a result, Shanghai now has towns based on Italy, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and three other European locales. The plan wasn’t exactly successful — China’s once-impressive economic growth slowed and the towns’ real estate failed to attract buyers. The towns were left largely empty with little more than a handful of sweethearts taking wedding photos there, and of course the occasional curious tourist. The most popular of the towns in Shanghai is Thames Town, modeled after an idyllic British village.

Trek to a weird museum

Shanghai has its fair share of world class museums, but its quirky niche museums are just as deserving of your attention. There’s the Shanghai Museum of Glass, which sees art in functionality, and the tiny but fascinating Shanghai Chopsticks Museum. There’s a museum devoted entirely to the Shanghai metro and one that commemorates the history of China’s public security forces. There’s even a Jackie Chan museum. No matter your bizarre hobby, chances are that a Shanghai museum has been honoring it for years; it just might take a little bit of searching to find.

4. Ride the metro to the end of line 11

Building, Park

© 小康Coins/Flickr
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 northwesternmost 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.

5. Walk along Suzhou Creek

Natural Feature

5. Walk along Suzhou Creek
©Asian Development Bank/Flickr
Suzhou Creek flows from Tai Lake all the way to the Bund in Shanghai’s Huangpu District. But as a neighborhood, Suzhou Creek refers to the area around the river in northeastern Shanghai. During the colonial period, this stretch of river separated the British and American settlements. Afterwards, it quickly became heavily industrialized, meaning that now the area is kind of an odd mix of colonial architecture and cold industrial buildings. It is home to the city’s number one art district, M50, on and around Moganshan Rd, and is gearing up to become one of the coolest alternative neighborhoods in the city. And thanks to Shanghai’s commitment to urban renewal projects, the area is getting brand new bike paths and walking trails.

6. Explore the natural side of Shanghai on Chongming Island

Natural Feature

6. Explore the natural side of Shanghai on Chongming Island
©hui yang/Flickr
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.

Okay, go to the Bund…the West Bund.

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.

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