Four Perfect Days in Shanghai (and Beyond) on China Tours

Asia

Aerial view of Shanghai skyline at sunset, China

On China tours, many of the star attractions speak for themselves. If you’re planning a trip to China, the grandeur of the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Army are already etched on your imagination, probably alongside the space-age skyline of Shanghai’s Pudong district.

But what else is there to do in China’s largest city (and the world’s, depending on how you’re counting)? We’ve put together four one-day itineraries to help you get the most out of space-age (and traditional) Shanghai, plus a few of the surrounding cities.

The Cityscape of A-Bund-ance

Shanghai’s landscape is defined by the banks of the Huangpu River. Get an early start with the locals practicing their Tai Chi on The Bund, enjoy the morning view of Pudong’s surreal skyscrapers as you go. Then spend some time enjoying the early morning rush of Nanjing Road as you make your way to the popular Shanghai Museum. Arrive early to beat the crowds! When you’re done immersing yourself in China’s history, get some fresh air in People’s Park before diving into the story of Shanghai’s staggering development at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center.

Sunrise on The Bund, Shanghai, China
Sunrise on The Bund

In the afternoon, enjoy a little retail therapy (or just people watch), East Nanjing style, then hop the Waitan Sightseeing Tunnel bound for Pudong. If the Bund represents Shanghai’s stately past, then Pudong arrives straight from its eye-opening future. You don’t need to spend a lot of time exploring here since the main attraction is the skyline itself, but take in a view of the world’s (arguably) largest city from one of the various observation decks on offer. The 118-storey Shanghai Tower is currently the tallest, followed by the ever-popular, bottle-opener-shaped World Financial Centre. Both offer a view of the picturesque Jin Mao Tower and of course the iconic Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower, though air pollution can be a bit of a spoiler. After dark, get the best view of both the Bund and Pudong’s architecture on a Huangpu River Cruise, before Shanghai’s light show ends abruptly at 11pm.

Night view of Illuminated Shanghai skyline and Huangpu River at night, China
Night view of illuminated Shanghai skyline and Huangpu River at night

Traditional Treasures of Shanghai

Try to arrive early at the Yuyuan Garden to appreciate the serenity of its pavilions, ponds, and zig-zagging bridges before the tour buses arrive. You’re also right on the doorstep of Yuyuan Old Street, so you can always spend the balance of the morning shopping, or sampling the wares of the numerous local tea houses. Alternatively, catch some fresh air over the road in Gucheng Park. Then catch the metro down to Xintiandi, where traditional styles of Shanghai architecture have been preserved amid fine dining and designer boutiques.

Covered bridge in Yu Yuan Gardens, Shanghai, China
Covered bridge in Yu Yuan Garden

From here, it’s an easy transfer on the metro to Quibao, one of the famous water towns of the Shanghai region, and possibly the most accessible. You probably don’t need to visit here if you’re planning a visit to one of the larger canal cities such as Suzhou, but on a quick trip to Shanghai, Quibao is perfect for an afternoon’s taste. The Quibao Ancient Town dates back to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, and makes a good focus point while you’re here. Comic fans should note Quibao is also the former home of Zhang Chongren, a close friend of Belgian cartoonist, Herge. The basis of a character in the popular Adventures of Tintin series, Chongren also served as a consultant to ensure the comic painted a fair and sensitive portrait of China and its culture.

Art and About in Shanghai

Shanghai’s innovations extend well beyond its space-age Pudong skyline. Linger over a quick taste of the past with breakfast in the former French Concession. Follow it up with some gallery hopping, and meet some of the artists who are defining modern day creativity in China. Perhaps focus your exploration on Tianzifang, a rare and exquisitely preserved section of the city filled with intimate laneways and top notch shopping and people watching.

Narrow laneway in Tianzifang district, Shanghai, China
Narrow laneway in Tianzifang district

Hop the metro or a taxi to the gorgeous Jade Buddha Temple. Established only in the late 19th century, it is nonetheless a major spiritual centre of the city today. Onsite guides can help put some context around your discoveries, and you can even go face down in an affordable lunch at the temple’s restaurant. A short walk away, return to China’s cutting edge of creativity at M50 Creativity Space. Housed in a former industrial area, this community of over 100 artists offers visitors a chance to browse, buy, and meet its artists and discover what contemporary Chinese art is all about.

Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai, China
Jade Buddha Temple

Best Day Trips from Shanghai

A major air and rail hub, centrally located on China’s extensive coast, Shanghai offers an ideal base for day tripping to some of the historic surrounding cities while on China tours. We recommend overnighting in these cities to properly give them the time they deserve, but if you only have a day up your sleeve, these itineraries will help you get the most out of Suzhou, Hangzhou, or Nanjing.

Suzhou

A 35-minute train ride from Shanghai, Suzhou is also one of Eastern China’s most impressive cities. Crossed with picturesque canals, it reminded Marco Polo of his native Venice, securing a place in the explorer’s heart, and in the hearts of those who followed in his footsteps. Beyond the canals, which cover about 45% of Suzhou, the city is best known for its classical gardens. A single day visit gives you enough time to visit the Lion Grove Garden, conveniently located right next door to the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum, and the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest in Suzhou, which also holds live performances into the evening. Those in search of something a little different might choose to visit the Kun Opera Museum to learn about a uniquely Suzhou art form.

Ancient town of Suzhou, China
Ancient town of Suzhou

Hangzhou

As much as Marco Polo loved Suzhou, he saved his most gushing praise for Hangzhou. It’s a longer train ride at 85 minutes from Shanghai, but the reward is a visit to what Polo called, “the finest and most splendid city in the world.” A top day out in Hangzhou will probably centre around West Lake, recharging at one of the traditional tea houses along Qinhefang Street in between exploring intricate Buddhist temples and gardens. Tea and silk have defined this beautiful Yangtze River Delta city since its beginnings.

Beautiful scenery at West Lake, Hangzhou, China
Beautiful scenery at West Lake, Hangzhou

Nanjing

Being slightly less than a 2 hour train ride from Shanghai, Nanjing is an historic city that definitely warrants an overnight stay. Besides being one of China’s most serenely pleasant cities, Nanjing has served as the country’s capital on ten different occasions. That history remains in evidence in its 600 year old city wall and the Ming Emperor Tomb. In more recent additions, it includes Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum on Purple Mountain, and the Hall of Victims in Nanjing Massacre, which commemorates the horrors the city endured during World War 2. Nanjing’s story is one of China’s most chaotic, but also one of its most fascinating.

Ancient city walls and temples in Nanjing, China
Ancient city walls and temples in Nanjing

How to plan an amazing Eastern China tour without a visa

While most China vacations will require you to have a tourist visa, China does offer a handy loophole for visitors on their way elsewhere. Several of its most popular “gateway” cities offer a visa-free layover over up to 6 days (depending on the city), provided you’re flying on to another destination outside China (Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan all count as separate countries for this purpose), or are on your way back to your home country. Six days means 144 hours from the time you arrive. Treat this period as you would any visa and make sure you don’t overstay.

For instance, if you’re flying to Japan from North America onboard China Eastern, which hubs in Shanghai, you’ll be able to enjoy up to 6 days in the Shanghai region, including the provinces of Jiangsu, which includes Suzhou and Nanjing, and Zhejiang, which includes Hangzhou. It isn’t enough time to explore all that Shanghai and its surrounding cities have to offer, and you won’t be able to extend your China vacation to other parts of the country. But for a Shanghai city break with the chance to visit the neighbouring cities, this is an option worth considering on your next Asia tour.


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