When people come to Shanghai, they usually don’t know what the city has to give. They may go see the Bund, look at a museum or two, and try to enjoy the local cuisine. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but Shanghai has so much more to offer. By all means, do the touristy things, but do the following as well.
Take a Tour of the Old Jewish Ghettos
During WWII, Shanghai offered protective visas to Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, and Poland. As a result, more than 18,000 Jewish immigrants poured into the city in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1943, the occupying Japanese army required these 18,000 refugees to relocate to a 0.75 square mile (1.9 square km) area of the Hongkou district. Conditions there were poor, and the Chinese residents already living there refused to move, leading to overcrowding. The 1940s character of the ghetto alleyways has been well preserved and offers visitors a glimpse into a unique and little known time in history. Start your tour at the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, now known as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
62 Changyang Rd, Hongkou District, Shanghai, China, 200082
Explore an Outer District, Like Jiading
Shanghai’s outer districts get no love from tourists, but with an extensive public transport network, there’s no excuse for missing out on the hidden gems they have to offer. Shanghai proper may have been little more than a fishing village until the 19th century, but nearby Jiading was a thriving town as early as the Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Today, Jiading has been absorbed by Shanghai to become its northwest-most district and is characterized by factories and industry. Yet its historic charm remains. Located at the end of the southern fork of metro line 11, you will find one of the best-preserved Confucian temples in the country. Surrounding it are a museum, pagoda, canals, and parks. This uncrowded area is the perfect place to spend a day.
Buy Something at the Flower and Bird Market
Shanghai is home to several fake markets where you can buy Louis Buitton purses and Bylgari watches, but the city’s best markets are the ones frequented by locals. The Caojiadu Flower and Bird Market is bursting with life and has surprises at every turn. You will find beautiful orchids and hearty succulents, flighty birds and the crickets to feed them on the first floor of the market. But up an escalator that looks like it leads to nothing is a floor full of wholesale interior design ware. The third floor is worth a visit as well for its look into the gaudy world of Chinese wedding supplies. Whether you come out with a souvenir or not, you’ll be glad you went.
33-5 Wanhangdu Rd, Putuo District, Shanghai, China, 200042
Catch a Show at the Pearl or Dashijie
Located in a former Buddhist temple built in 1931 is now Shanghai’s most retro theater, The Pearl. From burlesque to stand up comedy there is always something going on. The space itself is classic: box seats, gallery, long red curtain. As soon as you walk in you’ll feel like you stepped back in time.
Shanghai Dashijie (Great World Theater) is soon to reopen. Built in 1917, it was once the most influential theater in Shanghai, even garnering the epithet “No. 1 Entertainment Venue in the Far East.” It closed in 2003 but is set to reopen March 2017.
The Pearl: 471 Zhapu Rd, Hongkou District, Shanghai, China, 200080
Dashijie: 1 Xizang S Rd, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China, 200000
Go to a Dog or Cat Cafe
In Shanghai cats and dogs are well-loved as pets. In fact, walking down any street in the city you’re likely to see a few brown poodles dressed in full outfits and shoes. Interact with the locals (pets, that is) at Shanghai’s dog cafe or one of its several cat cafes. The dog cafe, Canil, is located in the 1933 Slaughterhouse, which is worthy in its own right of a traveler’s attention. For a RMB50 ($7) minimum spend, you get to play with, pet, and cuddle dogs all just as excited for you to be there as you are.
Canil, 3/F 611 Liyang Rd, Hongkou District, Shanghai, China, 200086
Try North Korean Food
Okay, so it’s not exactly “local cuisine,” but you sure wouldn’t be able to try it at home. Pyongyang Koryo, a North Korean government-run chain of restaurants operating throughout East and Southeast Asia, is the perfect place for people looking for something different. The food is delicious but don’t go there to dine. Go instead for the nightly 7 o’clock performance. Enjoy musical selections from “The Phantom of the Opera,” Tchaikovsky, and more. It’s unclear how the set was put together, but it’s impossible to look away from, and it will definitely make for a good story when people ask what you did in Shanghai. There are seven Pyongyang Koryo locations throughout the city.
Experience a Ghost Town
In 2001, the Shanghai Planning Commission announced “One City, Nine Towns” in an effort to encourage the city’s swelling population to move to the suburbs. As a result, Shanghai now has towns based on Italy, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and three other European locales. The plan wasn’t exactly successful—China’s once-impressive economic growth slowed and the towns’ real estate failed to attract buyers. The towns were left largely empty with little more than a handful of sweethearts taking wedding photos there, and of course the occasional curious tourist. The most popular of the towns in Shanghai is Thames Town, modeled after an idyllic British village.
Thames Town, Lane 900 No. 699 Sanxin N Rd, Songjiang District, Shanghai, China, 201620
KTV is much more than the karaoke you know from back home. This is no bar with drunken patrons butchering “Tubthumping,” but instead a grand hub of individual singing rooms for groups of friends to enjoy. The major KTV establishments in Shanghai offer a wide selection of English language songs, so don’t worry about not being able to keep up. It is recommended to go with no fewer than five people, as it is meant to be a group activity. Done best, KTV should involve a healthy amount of imbibing, and you will certainly see many Chinese patrons who have had a little too much themselves.
Become a Fan of a Local Sports Team
China really wants to be a major player in soccer and basketball, but no matter how much money the government pours in, the local teams still disappoint. As a foreign spectator, however, these sports make for a fascinating juxtaposition between talent level and fan enthusiasm. If you’re in Shanghai during basketball season, catch a Shanghai Sharks game. The basketball team is owned by Yao Ming, but the games seem more like high school than professional matches. Or go see one of Shanghai’s two premier soccer clubs (Shanghai Shenhua and Shanghai SIPG) play, preferably against each other. Culture Trip won’t repeat the fan chants, so you can probably get a good idea of how explicit they are.
Sell Yourself at the People’s Square Marriage Market
Not long ago in China, all marriages were arranged. Although the country has mostly discarded such traditions in the race towards modernity, this one keeps hanging on, if only by a thread. One of the last remaining vestiges of arranged marriage in Shanghai can be witnessed every weekend from 12-5pm at the People’s Square Marriage Market. Parents line up marriage resumes of their children attached to umbrellas. Big ticket items include salary and property ownership. You can go to the market to simply observe the goings-on, or take part in it yourself as long as you are respectful of the fact that for many of the families involved, this is the children’s last chance at marriage before being written off as “leftover” men and women.
231 Nanjing W Rd, RenMin GuangChang, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China, 200000