48 Hours in Shanghai: The Ultimate Itinerary

Shanghai's skyline

Yongyuan Dai / Getty Images

Dynamic, glamorous, a meeting point of the east and west, Shanghai is known for many things. After the British opened its port in the 1840s, Shanghai grew into a mega-city, over 24 million people strong. Now, past and future meet here too: swirls of history are found throughout the former concessions, and a look across the Huangpu River at Pudong’s skyscrapers makes one feel they as if they are seeing the world of tomorrow. Nanjing Road alone holds new luxury malls with five-star hotels, as well as classic street vendors peddling cheap wares. Opposites combine in sharp contrast here.

Years ago, when former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared it was okay for Chinese citizens to pursue wealth, Shanghai took the go-ahead and galloped into capitalism full-on, churning out millionaires and even a few billionaires in the process. That wealth can be seen not only in its impressive buildings and VIP clubs but also in the high-end food and fashion trends of the city, leading to the tastemaker reputation it enjoys.

So indulge yourself in its history, rich foods, and extreme entertainment, but don’t forget to take it in quietly, as well. Some of its magic can only be found by sitting by the river early in the morning or sipping a coffee as you wander around shikumen houses. Enjoy the great and little pleasures of the city, and you’ll get an authentic taste of Shanghai.

01 of 06

Day 1: Morning

People practicing tai chi on the Bund. Oriental Pearl Tower and Pudong skyline in background.

Scott E Barbour / The Image Bank / Getty Images Plus

 

2 a.m.: After landing at Pudong International Airport, catch a taxi (or use the complimentary airport transfer service) to the Pacific Hotel. Located in the middle of Shanghai next to People's Square, all of the Pacific's rooms have balconies overlooking the city or Huangpu River, the heartbeat of Shanghai. Stand on your balcony, marvel and the city's lights, and then get a few hours of shuteye before exploring the city.

6 a.m.: Sunrise, Bundrise! Hop out of bed, freshen up, and head to The Bund, Shanghai's famous riverfront area, for a stunning sunrise. Walk (or jog, if you're sporty) along the river, and take in the orange-yellow early morning glow of the infamous Pudong skyline across the river, complete with the Shanghai and the Oriental Pearl Towers. Look out for early morning groups of tai chi practitioners, dancers, and runners, ushering in the first light with vigorous exercise.

7:30 a.m.: Catch the subway to the Shunchang Lu Breakfast Market near the Madang Lu metro stop (about a 15-minute ride) to have your pick of stalls selling Shanghainese breakfast staples. Your mission? To find and eat the "four warriors" of Shanghainese breakfast: youtiao (油条) fried dough sticks, dou jiang (豆浆), hot soy milk, da bing (大饼) sesame pancake, and ci fan (粢饭) glutinous rice balls.

9 a.m.: Take a taxi back up north to Nanjing Road to experience the most famous shopping street in China. Here, you'll find the Shanghai No.1 Department Store (the city's oldest department store), luxury malls Plaza 66 and the Jing An Kerry Centre, old-fashioned street vendors, and the largest Starbucks in the world. Stick to the western part if you want high end stuff or go east for more local flavor and cheaper deals in silks, Traditional Chinese medicine, calligraphy artwork, and many other souvenirs.

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02 of 06

Day 1: Afternoon

Yu Garden in Shanghai, China.

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12 p.m.: Either walk or take the subway from East Nanjing Road to Yuyuan Gardens. Admire the Ming Dynasty architecture of these 400-year-old walled-off gardens rife with pavilions and pagodas. Stroll along the waterways and dragon headwalls. Gape at the five-ton jade rock of unknown origin, and bring yourself luck by walking across the Jiu Qu Bridge to Shanghai’s oldest teahouse, Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse.

1 p.m.:  Make your way into the Yuyuan Bazaar for more shopping, and fantastical street food like or just go straight to lunch at the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant to feast on xiaolongbao, delicious soup-filled dumplings full of pork or shrimp broth. Open for over 100 years, Nanxiang is one of the most famous and time-honored xiaolongbao restaurants in the city. Pro tip: go to the top of the restaurant if you want to be seated immediately, you’ll pay more but save time and not have to deal with line pushers.

3 p.m.: After lunch, take the metro to the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project. The space is both cultural institution and art museum housing three art galleries (some featuring Chinese contemporary art), a book store, and a café all perched on the Huangpu River. The installations, workshops, and other offerings aim to bring patrons a “full-sensory artistic experience” in this Franco-Sino exchange.

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03 of 06

Day 1: Evening

Steam hairy crab

Duy Doan / Getty Images

 

6 p.m.: Hop in a cab and head to The Swatch Art Peace Hotel and make your way to its rooftop bar to catch some sunset views of the Pudong skyline. Kick your feet back on one of their lounges, order a cocktail, and enjoy the laid-back vibe. If drinking isn't your thing, but river lights, bridges, and famous buildings like the Customs House are, opt for a river cruise instead, casting off from Shiliupu Wharf.

7:30 p.m.: After a short metro ride back to the hotel, freshen up (option to power nap, too), then hail a cab. You're on your way to experience one of the most Shanghainese dishes ever: the infamous hairy crab. After all the walking, shopping, and speeding around, you'll appreciate the peaceful atmosphere of Fu 1088 (福1088), as much as their xiefen, a steamed custard of crab roe and their hong shao rou (red braised pork belly), another Shanghainese classic dish. Located in a 1920s Spanish-style mansion, each room is decorated with antiques, while music wafts through from the grand piano downstairs. Make sure to reserve your table well in advance and be aware of their 300 yuan (about $43) minimum spending requirement.

9 p.m.: From Fu 1088, hop in a cab to The Pearl, (not to be confused with the Oriental Pearl Tower) where you can experience everything from the opulent to the eclectic side of Shanghai nightlife. The club occupies a former Buddhist temple and each night features a different kind of entertainment: cabaret shows, fire performers, stand up comedy, big band jazz, and gospel music acts, all perform within this two-story, three-bar, live entertainment venue. Try a craft cocktail or one of the frozen margaritas and prepare to boogie.

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04 of 06

Day 2: Morning

Xiangyang Park, Shanghai

Patrick Donovan / Getty Images

 

9 a.m.: Sleep in, then walk 20 minutes to Yang’s Dumplings on Ningbo Road for another Shanghainese breakfast staple: pan-fried pork buns. Known as sheng jian bao in Chinese, these cuties are a plump fried Shanghainese dim sum dish with juicy pork broth inside and fresh sesame seeds and chives on top. Chew and slurp as many as you need to fuel you up for a walk around the Former French Concession. 

10:30 a.m.: Take the metro to Xintiandi station and meander through Fuxing Park, where you’ll find an odd mix of beautifully landscaped rose gardens and giant Marx and Engels statues. Afterward, walk some more or take a quick taxi ride to the Lost Bakery for a croissant—it is the French Concession after all—and a solid cup of joe.

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05 of 06

Day 2: Afternoon

tourist standing at Shanghai tower top floor observation deck looking Puxi city

Xie Huang Yu / Moment Unreleased

 

12:30 p.m.: Continue walking or take a taxi to the Propaganda Poster Art Centre, a private museum that displays around 6,000 Mao-era propaganda posters depicting coy-looking women in qipaos, fantastical military parades, and children flying planes, among many other things.

1:30 p.m.: Take your pick of what to do: architecture buffs should check out the Wukang Mansion (the flatiron building designed by the famed Shanghai-based architect László Hudec), history nerds should go to the former residence of Madame Sun Yat-sen (known as the Soong Ching Ling Memorial Residence 宋庆龄故居), and shopaholics will want to browse the shops of the Shikumen houses (classic Shanghai-style houses) in Tianzifang for unique handicrafts, clothing, and jewelry.

2:30 p.m.: For lunch, try another traditional Shanghainese dish: yellow croaker noodles. Conveniently, one of the best places to slurp down a bowl of this delicate broth is right next to your starting point of the Xintiandi metro station at Xie Huang Yu.

4 p.m.: You’ve seen Shanghai at sunrise, sunset, and up close. Now it’s time to get an aerial view from the second tallest building in the world. Jump back on the metro and take it to the other side of the river, to the Lujiazui station in Pudong. Head straight to the Shanghai Tower and ride one of their 45 mph elevators to the 118th floor, a whopping 1,791 ft above the city. Take a moment to admire the panoramic view of Shanghai in its grandeur, and reflect on the highlights of your trip. Stay for a while, or if you want to do some shopping at one of China’s famous “fake markets,” head to A.P. Plaza for sensory overload and reasonable prices on clothes and electronics (if you know how to haggle).

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06 of 06

Day 2: Evening

Mag-Lev Train Streaking Through Shanghai

Keren Su /Corbis NX / Getty Images Plus

 

6:30 p.m.: Walk to Dongchang Road Pier and take the ferry across to Puxi to experience the quintessential mode of transportation of old Shanghai. From the pier, grab a taxi to Wujie, a Michelin-starred veggie restaurant with set menus, seasonal ingredients, and innovative dishes, like chestnut wintertime soup, crackling yellow curry, and Shepherd’s Purse, a medley of pine nuts, gingko, and rice.

8 p.m.: For your last drink in Shanghai, take a taxi to the Union Trading Company, arguably one of Shanghai’s best bars, and named one of the world’s top 50 bars. In this narrow but cozy neighborhood spot, toast your departure with the appropriately bittersweet Witchy Woman (Campari, rum, citrus juices, and Angostura bitters) or another one of their “alluring cocktails,” like the slightly tropical Waltzing Matilda.

9 p.m: Swing by the Pacific to grab your bags and get on the metro for one last ride to Longyang Road. From here, take the fastest commuter train in the world: the Maglev train to the Pudong International Airport in a mere 10 minutes. Check in and rest easy until your flight to your next destination.

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