Experiencing a city at a deeper level is tough when you’re only in town for a short time, and you don’t know any residents. Whether you’re a foodie, a history head, a party animal or a ghost hunter, these top Shanghai tours offer real insight into the city.
Shanghai, the world’s largest city by many counts, can be intimidating to explore alone. Sure, it’s easy to get around – whether by metro, bus, taxi, foot or bicycle – but first-timers with a sense of adventure often feel the urge to go deeper than street level. That’s where these 12 unparalleled Shanghai tours come into play.
With a commitment to honouring China’s fading street-food culture, UnTour Food Tours has adventures in cities around the country, including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong. As Shanghai, in particular, works to improve food safety, many street-food institutions have sadly seen themselves shuttered in the past few years. An UnTour is now one of the best ways for visitors to truly experience this vanishing phenomenon. Several tour options each target a different aspect of street-food culture, including breakfast, night eats and a dumpling tour that any xiao long bao fan would be mad to miss. Tours can be private and are customisable, plus seasonal tours will introduce you to some of Shanghai’s more unusual culinary traditions – such as on the Hairy Crab Dinner Tour.
Historic Shanghai is much more than just a tour – the foundation (which has been around since 1998) tries to raise awareness of Shanghai’s building heritage and social and cultural history by organising walking tours, presentations, author talks and film screenings. Its tours are informed by extensive research on the city through interviews, photographs, maps, directories and books. The entertaining and intriguing walking tours are all customisable, with a focus on Shanghai’s Art Deco heritage, sacred architecture, the city’s revolutionary past and other integral features of the area that are often overlooked.
You can’t really experience Shanghai without taking part in its nightlife. Every Saturday at 9.30pm, people from all walks of life gather at Bar Gatsby to embark on a night of debauchery with Pub Crawl Shanghai, and every week it’s a little bit different. Visit three of Shanghai’s coolest bars and clubs – the selection changes every time – with a welcome shot at each one, as well as free shots on the party bus, an hour of open bar, drink specials and table service at the club. Those travelling on their own will find plenty of courage to go solo and are guaranteed to end the night with a bus full of new friends.
No matter the hour, night or day, Culture Shock Tours promises to change your perception of Shanghai, and its bike tours ideal for anyone who wants more from their experience in the city than can be found in guidebooks. The popular morning join-in tour takes you down the peaceful lanes of the former French Concession, where you will discover beautiful 1920s villas and pass by local ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ practising tai chi in Fuxing Park. The four-hour jaunt also promises a local breakfast, a visit to a Buddhist temple and a ride through an open-air wet market. The shorter night tour gives a unique insight into Shanghainese after-hours culture, incorporating a visit to a traditional Chinese medicine outlet, the bright lights of The Bund, local street snacks and a lesson in ghost wedding rituals at Yu Garden.
If you like your history gruesome and engrossing, the Shanghai Gangster Tour is the one for you. Let a trilby-donning gangster from Shanghai’s roaring colonial era lead you through the city’s seedy but fascinating past via the former haunts of crime bosses, corrupt police officials and underworld legends. Learn why opium king ‘Big-Eared’ Du had dried monkey heads sewn into his clothes, how to cheat at blackjack and how one of Shanghai’s wealthiest families met its end at the paws of its pedigree dogs. Tours start from Exit 3 of Changshu Road metro station.
Spook yourself silly at the Shanghai Ghost Tour, a night-time exploration of a city packed with supernatural happenings. Visitors will be introduced to Shanghai’s most haunted locations and scariest stories on this walking tour for thrillseekers. Discover why you should always keep an eye on the fourth-floor windows of the historic Paramount Theatre, which ghosts have a particular appetite for foreigners and why innocent activities like shopping can also come with a fright here. And if you’re the type of cynic that needs proof, prepare to get shivers down your spine as your guide shows you video footage of Shanghai’s legendary ‘granny ghost’ or China’s bizarre bouncing zombies.
Shanghai’s Old City Secrets tour is led by a true expert, a Russian journalist who has been obsessing over and writing about the city’s architectural anomalies for over a decade. As Shanghai’s old neighbourhoods are transformed into skyscrapers at ever faster rates, this three-hour tour allows visitors to discover what remains untouched in an evolving city. Explore the knot of winding lanes around a Confucius temple, and see the hidden villa that hosted Einstein and his wife for dinner. Also, peek inside a private courtyard that was once one of the city’s grandest complexes.
There’s nothing quite like a night out in a new city with a resident who really knows their stuff. The Bespoke Cocktail Experience, led by the former food and drink editor at Time Out Shanghai, will give you access most visitors can only dream about. Those with a taste for top-shelf tipples will be taken to three off-the-beaten-track drinking holes and given one-on-one access to the expert resident mixologists within, who will craft, shake and stir exquisite customised cocktails depending on the spirits and flavours you choose.
If vacations are all about eating and drinking locally for you, don’t miss Lost Plate’s Evening Walking Food Tour. Starting at South Shaanxi Road metro station, a local foodie will guide you through the former French Concession, making culinary pit stops at four beloved and long-running eateries. Throughout the 3.5 hours, you’ll try no less than 10 local delicacies, including the quintessential Shanghai snack, xiao long bao soup dumplings. The tour, which is vegetarian and family-friendly, finishes up at a pub where visitors can sample a glass of local craft beer on the house.
There’s probably no better way to travel the city than with a Shanghai Insiders tour. Sit back and soak up the skyline in an open-top vintage Jeep equipped with suntan lotion, refreshments and Wi-Fi. Visitors can choose from a variety of tour options. The Little Paris Ride will take you on an exploration of the leafy and historic former French Concession, while The Chic Ride meanders among Shanghai’s most dazzling neon-lit nightspots. Meanwhile, The Modern Architecture Ride has been designed in collaboration with Ben T Wood – the American architect behind Shanghai’s beloved Xintiandi development.
For a Chinese history lesson that doesn’t sugar-coat the darker patches, the Shanghai Propaganda and History Walking Tour tells it like it is. This three-hour event includes a visit to the tricky-to-find Propaganda Poster Art Centre, where you’ll learn about the many weird, wonderful and sometimes sinister campaigns that the country has witnessed. The local guides are honest and open, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Chinese people view their chequered modern history.
Wontons, fried potstickers and soupy xiao long bao all feature on this practical dumpling tour. After trying a variety of local specialities at street stalls and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them family-run restaurants, you’ll have the chance to give har gow a go – these steamed potato wrapper dumplings are stuffed with shrimp and are a staple of dinner tables in Shanghai and around the world. Any keen cook will love learning how to make them from scratch – right from shopping at a local market through to proper steaming methods.