With only a single day to spend in Shanghai, I wasn’t quite sure how to tackle this megalopolis of nearly 25 million people. How is one supposed to go about making sense of such a massive and dense place in so little time? Furthermore, Shanghai is in a constant state of change, meaning that information about the city from even just a couple of years ago is often out of date.
The monumental Shanghai Tower, for example, was only just fully opened to the public in 2017. It took away the crown of the city’s tallest building from the Shanghai World Financial Center, which was completed in 2008. But what will come next?
Upon further research, I decided that there’s no better way to get a feel for Shanghai’s past, present and future in a short amount of time than by simply admiring its architecture. Though my eventual goal for the day was to reach the observation deck of the Shanghai Tower (the highest in the world), Shanghai is much more than just skyscrapers. From classical gardens to colonial-era buildings, Shanghai has a little bit of everything.
Though I’m sure there’s plenty more to see, I was surprised by how many faces of the city I was able to witness in a single day. My self-guided architectural tour took me through neighborhoods like Xintiandi, along the scenic waterfront of the Bund, and finally, to the ever-evolving Pudong district.
Coming from the nearby city of Hangzhou, I took a subway from Hongqiao Railway Station and began my journey from People’s Square. What better place to start, I figured, than a museum entirely dedicated to Shanghai’s architecture and transforming skyline?
The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
Opened in 2000, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is the best place to go for a quick overview of how Shanghai’s landscape has developed into what it’s become today. The museum covers 5 floors in total. Throughout the building are various models of some of the most unique and significant neighborhoods in the city. And there are lots of old photographs being contrasted with newer ones, to demonstrate the development of areas like the Bund.
There’s even information on the ingenious building methods that architects have had to come up with to deal with Shanghai’s soft soil. Though it’s far from obvious by looking at its skyline, Shanghai is actually sinking. This is largely the fault of rapid development back in the 19th century, when too much groundwater was used up in too short a time. Though this may become a serious issue in the future, construction in Shanghai still shows no signs of slowing down.
The main highlight of the museum is its enormous 1/500 scale model of the entire city. I tried to spot some of the neighborhoods I’d be visiting later in the day, but didn’t have too much luck finding them. But my final destination, the Shanghai Tower, easily stood out.
At first glance of the city model alone, you could almost get the impression that Shanghai only has a couple of tall skyscrapers. The city, of course, is full of them, but the size difference between the very tallest buildings and all the others is astronomical.
As museum exhibitions point out, however, the local government has also made preservation of historical districts and particular old alleyways a major priority. And it’s this contrast of past and future, I would soon learn, that makes Shanghai such an interesting and diverse city.
I had a quick coffee at the cafe on the upper floor, which also features an excellent panoramic view of the skyline from its windows. It was then time to go and see some of the places firsthand that I’d just read about.
Xintiandi and the Shikumen Houses
While Shanghai can easily wow the newcomer with its enormously tall steel and glass buildings, much of the city’s architectural charm remains closer to the ground.
Following the Opium War in the 1860’s, Shanghai was designated as a treaty port by the British. The city was soon divided up into a number of foreign concessions. Powers like the French, British and Americans built Western-style architecture in their concessions, much of which still remains today. Formerly part of the French concession, the neighborhood known as Xintiandi is one of the best places to get a taste of how the city would’ve looked in this era.
Xintiandi may now be known as a place to shop for luxury goods and eat at trendy cafes. But it’s also known for its ‘Shikumen’ houses, one of the most notable trademarks of the city’s 19th century architecture.
Shikumen houses are made of brick and are typically two-stories high. Furthermore, the houses are often linked together with all the others on the block. Before the advent of high-rises, this setup allowed for lots of people to live within a relatively small area, but while still maintaining some semblance of privacy.
Though Shikumen houses used to be considered low-budget accommodation, many of the old residences have been turned into fancy restaurants and shops. Interestingly, recent developers have also been constructing new Shikumen style buildings to match the old 1920’s feel. There are, however, plenty of modern buildings popping up in the area as well.
During my visit to Xintiandi, I happened to come across a Shikumen Museum which allows visitors see how people used to live in them.
Inside you can see the master bedrooms and reception area on the first floor, along with a little office area. Considering entire families were living together in these, conditions were probably pretty cramped, but just short of being too bad. The best word to sum it would be ‘economical.’
Even though the houses weren’t huge, Shikumen residents often rented out the rooms at the turn of the staircase for extra income. Referred to as ‘Tingzijian,’ these rooms were known to get especially cold in winter and hot in summer. The cheap rent of these rooms attracted tons of aspiring writers and artists who were moving to Shanghai in the ’20’s and ’30’s with big dreams. The thrifty lifestyle of these creatives even inspired a brand new movement known as ‘Tingzijian literature’!
Back outside, I walked past plenty of outdoor restaurants which were packed with well-dressed Chinese and foreigners alike. This would an ideal place to stop for lunch – if you can afford it, that is. Budget aside, I was also running short on time. Foregoing the temptation to sit down and eat, I stopped at the nearest convenience store for a snack and continued walking to my next destination.
YuYuan Garden & The City God Temple
From the buildings of 19th century Shanghai, it was time to venture back even further in time. Yuyuan Garden (also known as Yu Garden), dates all the way back to the 16th century Ming dynasty. The garden remains one of Shanghai’s most visited landmarks, but that’s not all there is in the area. Around the garden you’ll find a large market where most of the buildings have been preserved in their ancient architectural style. Or at least they appear that way on the surface. The area is also home to yet another famous Shanghai landmark, the City God Temple.
Yuyuan Garden’s main architectural features are its central rockery and various halls. But like all Chinese gardens, you’ll find a central pond, plants like bamboo, pine and plum trees, and plenty of strategically placed viewing pavilions. The overall layout of the garden was greatly influenced by those in neighboring Suzhou, home to famous gardens like the Humble Administrator’s Garden and Lion Rock.
While a trip to Yuyuan Garden is certainly worth doing during your time in Shanghai, it shouldn’t be considered as a replacement for a tour around Suzhou. As beautiful as Yuyuan is, it’s just too crowded to fully enjoy a Chinese garden how it was meant to be enjoyed: as a place for quiet contemplation and to cultivate a deeper appreciation for nature.
Just nearby the garden is the Shanghai City God Temple. These temples are somewhat peculiar, as the concept of a ‘City God’ stems more from animism than it does from more organized religions like Taoism or Buddhism. In this particular case though, Shanghai’s City God temple was taken over by Taoists years after its original establishment.
But what exactly are City God temples? In essence, many Chinese believe in the importance of revering particular spirits to watch over and protect their cities. What’s interesting about the tradition is that the City Gods are often real-life people who have been assigned to the task post-mortem! In Shanghai’s case, there are three. All of them are government officials or generals, but their time on earth spans all the way from over 2,000 years ago to as recently as the 19th century Qing dynasty. We can only hope that these distant strangers have been getting on well together in the heavenly realms.
Shanghai’s City God Temple actually outdates Yuyuan Garden by a couple hundred years. And it was the popularity of the temple which resulted in the labyrinth of markets selling all kinds of crafts and souvenirs which you can still find today.
A Walk Along the Bund
“No visit to Shanghai is complete without a visit to the Bund,” I’d read in a number of articles before my trip. And after my visit to the area, I’d have to agree. The Bund is the name for the entire waterfront district along the west side of the Huangpu River. The area is known for its colonial-era architecture and its wide riverfront walkway. The Bund is home to over 50 buildings, among which you can find architectural styles like Gothic, baroque and more.
More and more modern skyscrapers are popping up in the distance behind the classical buildings these days. Even the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center has an exhibit dedicated to the riverfront’s rapid development over the years. But as most of the old buildings seem to be in great shape and are fascinating to look at, I had no problem with the riverfront maybe not looking as “pure” as it used to. And after all, just across the river is the futuristic Pudong, which couldn’t be a greater contrast.
Pudong, as mentioned earlier, is Shanghai’s most prominent skyscraper district. It’s home to modern-day Shanghai icons like the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Tower. And of course, the recently completed Shanghai Tower, which is currently the second highest building on the planet after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. While most of the other buildings have their own observation decks, my next destination was Shanghai Tower, whose observation deck is even higher than the one in Dubai.
Pudong & The World's Highest Observation Deck
I took a subway train across the river, getting a new perspective of Shanghai’s famous skyscrapers from just down below. As impressive as most of them are on their own, Shanghai Tower is like the mama elephant surrounded by her babies.
The structure stands at a height of 632 meters and contains 128 stories, with the observation deck on the 121st. It was designed by an American architecture firm called Gensler, also known for JFK and San Francisco airports. Notably, the tower twists a full 120 degrees from bottom to top. Not only does it look cool, but it’s also supposed to reduce wind loads.
I admired the building from the ground for awhile before finding my way to the entrance. I still had plenty of time to make it to the observation deck in time to view the sunset. Or so I thought. Apparently, roughly half of Shanghai also had the same idea.
It turned out that the tower was having a campaign that week for half off the entry fee. On the one hand, this was good news, as it meant I could save roughly $13 USD. But on the other hand, it also meant that the line outside was long. Very, very long.
I tried to remain hopeful that I’d still make to the top in time for the sunset. And by the time I got to the front of the line, my chances seemed pretty good. But upon entering the lobby, I encountered another, even longer line than the one outside!
It was well after dark by the time I rode up the elevator (also considered the world’s fastest) and reached the viewing area. Unsurprisingly, it was packed with people. And when I could finally squeeze in to get a decent view of the city down below, I realized that the concept of the “world’s highest observation deck” is something that sounds a lot better on paper than in reality.
Shanghai Tower is just so much taller than everything else in Shanghai that the experience is similar to looking down at the city from an airplane in the dark. It will likely take awhile for the rest of Pudong to catch up before the views get more interesting. To be fair, though, by looking at other people’s photographs, there’s definitely a lot more detail to take in during daylight hours. Nevertheless, if I had to do things over, I would’ve tried out an observation deck in a neighboring, shorter skyscraper.
Descending from the tower, I spent some time admiring the nearby skyscrapers now lit up in the darkness. I then made a brief stop at Shanghai’s main commercial street, Nanjing Road. But my time strolling down the street and taking in the neon lights was short-lived, as it suddenly started pouring rain. I got back in the subway and rode it across town to the railway station in order to catch the last train back to Hangzhou.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I was able to see in a city the size of Shanghai with no more than a single day. It’s a city of many faces, and one that I’d love to go back and explore more of in the future. And I have a strong feeling that by the time I do, things aren’t going to look quite the same.
Shanghai is one of the main travel hubs in China, if not all of Asia. Coming from abroad or within China, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding flights there. The city has two international airports: Hongqiao and Pudong.
Coming from within China by train, Shanghai has four main railway stations. Which station you arrive at will most likely depend on which city you’re coming from. You won’t always have a choice.
When visiting the city for the day as described above, I was coming from Hangzhou and took the high speed railway to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. From there I took a subway to People’s Square, which took an additional 30 – 40 minutes to reach.
To see all the sites above, you can use a combination of subway and foot, while throwing in a taxi ride or two if you wish. Shanghai’s subway system is excellent and can take you to most of the major areas of the city.
I did not stay in Shanghai, but in the nearby city of Hangzhou instead. Any of the neighborhoods mentioned in the article above, however, seemed like they’d make very convenient bases.