While Shanghai offers a lot in the way of a big city, it lacks the depth of cultural and historical sights that cities like Beijing and Xi'an offer. But that can work in your favor as you can combine a trip to Shanghai with one or more day trips outside the city and take advantage of the interesting places nearby.
Suzhou is famous for many things: silk production, legendary temples, and its well-preserved traditional gardens. No fewer than nine of them are on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. It's certainly worth an overnight stay in Suzhou to tick more than one of the city's renowned gardens off your list.
Suzhou also sits just about two hours outside Shanghai and is easily accessed by train but you can even hire a taxi from Shanghai to get you there. Traffic between Shanghai and Suzhou can be very congested so be sure to allow plenty of time.
Chinese people believe that Hangzhou is one of their most lovely cities and it's easy to understand why. Visited by Marco Polo in 1290, the Italian traveler marveled at Hangzhou's beauty. At the center of this historic town that once served as the capital of the Song dynasty is the West Lake or Xi Hu. Relatively untouched by modern (read: ugly) architecture, the whole of the lake offers views on the wooded hills around the city, pagodas, and temples.
Two hours by train from Shanghai, you can make a day-trip of it; but, it's better to make it an overnight or weekend trip so you can take it slow and see some of the surrounding attractions.
Picture narrow canals, round bridges, little river boats, green willow fronds hanging leisurely down from the riverside swaying softly in the breeze. This image can be re-created in nearly every "water town" near Shanghai. Each has a claim to fame of its own but any of them make an interesting diversion from the big-city feel of Shanghai.
Water towns dot the countryside between Shanghai and Suzhou. Most take about an hour by car (book a taxi or organize a car through your hotel) from Shanghai although expect delays during peak traffic times. The best time to go is in the morning or very late afternoon. Most tour groups arrive in the early afternoon after spending the morning in Suzhou.
Relax at the Sheshan Sculpture Park
Take in modern art at the Sheshan Sculpture Park just 45 minutes outside Shanghai. Sheshan is a recreation area with golf courses and a "mountain" (shan in Mandarin means mountain) with a church at the top. Opened in the last few years around a man-made lake, the Sculpture Park is a large area where it's very enjoyable to spend an outdoor day. Full of large-scale sculpture, walk around the park and enjoy lunch at a café there or better yet, take a picnic. Kids will enjoy the large section devoted to them including a giant jumping structure and water feature. In the summer, join the droves of Shanghai families escaping the city for the weekend at the Sheshan Le Meridien.
Discover Yixing and the Art of Clay Teapots
Yixing is a little cluster of villages about a two-hour drive outside Shanghai. Getting there can be difficult so it's best to organize a car for the day. It's not beautiful or idyllic, but if you're interested in tea, then this is THE place to buy a teapot. Famous all over China, these little clay-colored teapots are remarkably artistic and many are still fired in the traditional "dragon" kilns that dot the hills. These teapots make wonderful souvenirs, and although you can buy them anywhere tea is sold in China, it's fun to make the pilgrimage to where they are originally made.
Kunshan Faimont at Yangcheng Lake
Just outside Shanghai a little over an hour is the town of Kunshan. It is here that the Yangcheng Lake is home to locally famous hairy crabs. The grounds of the hotel have not only an extensive park, playground and swimming pool, but also a large organic garden where you can pick vegetables and extensive biking paths to get some exercise. It makes for a very nice overnight family retreat.
The Bamboo Forests of Moganshan
If it's outdoors you're after, Moganshan is a good alternative. Just over an hour with the high-speed train to Deqin station, Moganshan has a wealth of great hikes for all ages and levels. The mountain itself is not high, but the area is lush with bamboo forests and clear streams.