Must see places to experience the real Shanghai in one day

Shanghai is such a large metropolis that foreign tourists rarely consider it for a short citybreak destination. It’s more often that people plan their visit months ahead and put at least a week aside for discovery. While there will be things to do, I’d rather recommend you to plan a short visit instead. Preferably a weekend. If you have a few days to spare for an exciting new destination then consider Shanghai as there is now no need for a visa for less than 144-hour travel journey for many nationalities. Travel just got easier. 

If you have more time planned for your China visit then a day or two in Shanghai will be perfect as it is the mildest, most Westernised place to start from in China and if you really want to get to know the country, I’d suggest you spend more time in other regions.

That being said, Shanghai is a must-visit place and let me walk you through how to get the most out of your short visit.


Prefer walking over subway or taxi to see the real Shanghai

Contrary to popular prejudice, Shanghai is a walkable city. The roads are wide, pedestrian tunnels everywhere and the main points of interest are close enough to walk between them. Indeed, Shanghai has a very advanced, easy to use and relatively cheap metro system but I would still opt out of buying the whole day pass for the subway and rather use one-time tickets for the morning and evening.

You’ll miss out on a lot of the “real” China if you don’t walk because a lot of what’s there to see is experienced on the streets. Expect to see people drying their clothes on a rope tied between two traffic lights, four men sitting on the sidewalk smoking and playing cards, a youngster walking while snacking on dried cockroaches or an old woman dragging a cart filled with cardboard and a live goat on top of that. This will be the fun part that will give you more memories than the beautiful temples or museums would. 

There are plenty of English language Shanghai offline maps available as apps to download to your smartphone. Download an offline map as well as the Shanghai subway system application and you’ll be good to go. 


Start your morning by visiting the marriage market

Yes, that’s just it. Every Saturday and Sunday, hopeful parents and grandparents gather to the People Park in People Square to find life partners for their offspring. It may seem like a joke to people from different cultural backgrounds but it’s an absolutely serious matter in Shanghai. Expect to see hundreds of people sitting on the sidewalk with open umbrellas laid in front of them. On top of the umbrellas, you’ll find pieces of paper with descriptions regarding the candidates. 

marriage market

What is interesting to see is that you’ll hardly find any posters with pictures on them. The standard information included is regarding the gender, height, weight, education and zodiac sign of the person. People are direct in their wishes and thus, the expectations regarding the potential partner’s lifestyle habits as well as their parents’ position are often mentioned. For example, I read a poster where a person would not qualify if their parents were divorced. 

Even if you are not there looking for a partner, it will be quite a sight to see. Everything is in Mandarin but you’re likely to meet several curious locals who in hopes of practicing English or learning about foreign places, are more than willing to translate and explain what’s going on.  


Visit the Yuyuan Garden for classical Chinese architecture

A good next destination is to head towards the Yuyuan garden. This is among the top tourist destinations in Shanghai so expect your day to get a lot more crowded. A temporary loss of personal space is still a worthy price to pay for experiencing the true crowdedness that locals in many cities feel each morning when boarding the bus to work. You can test yourself to see whether life at a busy Chinese metropolis could be for you.

It is located just over 2 km away from People Square so I would very much recommend you to walk there. A lot of the vehicles in Shanghai are now electric and thus it’s a surprisingly quiet and pleasant walk. 

Your destination, the Yuyuan garden presents an example of classic Chinese architecture from the Ming dynasty. It was first built in 1559 and used to be the largest and most prestigious private garden in Shanghai. This is due to its extensive detail-orientedness and symbols carved both in wood and stone all around you. You’ll also get to see hundreds of koi fish fighting for food that tourists often throw at them from the bridges outside the garden. Almost every person leaves the premises with a photograph of the colorful fish stacked together. 

Yuyuan garden Shanghai

The garden can be visited for a fee but I would even say that just walking around the area is enough to experience it. All the buildings around are in the same beautiful Ming dynasty architectural style and thus, if all the crowdedness is already making you dizzy, I would rather recommend to sit down at one of the restaurants and enjoy a local lunch instead.


Head to the Bund for a spectacular skyline

Shanghai the Bund

A short walk away from Yuyuan garden is the Bund. This is where all the famous skyline photos of Shanghai are taken from. Find the closest road that takes you to Huangpu river and start walking along the promenade. It is listed as one of the most famous sights in Shanghai but don’t expect there to be much to do other than just taking a few photos of the beautiful view of the business district across the river.


Finish the day walking along Nanjing Road pedestrian street

About a kilometer from the Bund is the Nanjing Road pedestrian street – the main shopping street of Shanghai. Even if you don’t want to shop, it’s still a wonderful sight to be seen as when the sun sets, all the flashy signs of the major stores light up and offer an impressive view. There you’ll really feel that you’re in a large vibrant city. In a way, it’s part of seeing the “real” Shanghai as Western brands (even fast food chains) are considered very prestigious and you might get to see the huge shopping rush that is going on among the affluent locals. 

Conveniently, Nanjing Road leads you back to People Square where you started the day. It will be easy to take the same subway line back to your accommodation.


Have fun like a local – sing karaoke or get a foot massage

If you feel up to it then you could either finish the day by going to a KTV to sing karaoke or get a Chinese reflexology foot massage. Both of these centers are open until way past midnight and there are plenty of these around all over Shanghai.

Alternatively, going back to your accommodation is by no means a lesser choice as you’ve experienced a lot during this one day in Shanghai. 

Eeva Metssalu

I’ve been lucky enough to have been injected with the travel bug since childhood – this yearning has carried me across the world always looking for the next adventure. Along the way, I’ve also spent time living and studying in Wales, France, China, Singapore before moving back to my native Estonia. After having made the decision to move back, buy an appartment and build a more stable life for myself, I still cannot seem to stop moving around. This here is my attempt to figure out why – what is it that keeps the soul looking for another journey and the mind dreaming about a job as a National Geographic expeditioner.