Last Updated March 2019
What is there to do in Shanghai, really? We've already covered "dine" and "drink", which means we're left with the box marked "other." It's a big box. City's bursting at the seams with distractions, diversions, amusements, curiosities and activities that don’t involve booze or brunch (mostly).
You just have to ask yourself one question.
Indoors or outdoors?
This section comes first because the other one is only valid for the nine weeks out of the year where you're not huddled under the AC.
Shanghai is bleeding culture. Even if all forms of cultural expression have to toe a fine line, there's a non-stop cornucopia of museum exhibits, concerts, theater, art shows, movies and more.
There are so many buildings with old things in them in Shanghai. Some of them are even open to the public! The most popular ones are either directly on or very near People's Square. The tourist must-see is the kettle-shaped Shanghai Museum, free and open year-round, with halls dedicated to ancient jades, bronzes, coinage, calligraphy and furniture. If you don't mind browsing, you could see it all in a half-day.
Just across the street is the horrendously-named Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. Yaaawn! It's actually one of the city's best and most-visited museums, cataloguing its break-neck development. Highlight is the entire floor dedicated to a scale-model light-up replica of the entire city.
The recently renovated Shanghai History Museum occupies the old Race Course clubhouse, with nearly 10,000 sqm dedicated to the history of both old and new Shanghai. Cool objects include the lion statues from the Bundside HSBC building in 1932, and relics from the Majiabang culture from modern day Qingpu roughly 6,000 years ago. The displays are clean, well-presented, often interactive, and something like 80% of the descriptions are also in English. It's free. Go here.
The Natural History Museum, which opened in 2015, is a favorite of school children. Dino-bots, lots of taxidermy, live bugs and amphibians, fossils and skeletons, maximum educational entertainment. Great rainy day activity. It also has a 4D cinema with short nature documentaries and children's films. Entry is 30rmb, with discount/free entry for youngsters, students and the elderly.
If you don't mind going a bit further, you can try the Minhang Museum. Even further out in Songjiang is the stunning Guangfulin Ancient Relics Park, and the Maritime Museum at the end of Line 16 is noteworthy for housing a full-scale Chinese junk.
Off the beaten path are dozens of smaller museums. The Propaganda Poster Art Museum fills the small and unlikely basement of an apartment block on Huashan Lu, packed to the brim with… well, propaganda posters from the last 60-odd years. Top-notch gift shop. Or try the Film Museum to skip down Shanghai's celluloid memory lane.
There's the at-times macabre Shanghai Public Security Museum, the Shanghai Auto Museum waaay out in Jiading for the car fetishists, and the synagogue-turned-Jewish Refugee Museum, which doesn't have a lot in it, but is a must-see if you're interested in the history of the Hongkou ghetto. Also the Camera Museum on Anfu Lu and the (world's third largest!) Typewriter Museum, both small but excellent for enthusiasts. There's even a Tobacco Museum.
Madame Tussad's is also still permitted to exist, somehow.
This deserves its own section: Shanghai's art scene has exploded in the last twenty years, and display spaces are ballooning to meet it. The most iconic is the China Art Museum, the repurposed gigantic red pavilion that was China's contribution to the 2010 World Expo. It's massive, and the displays span modern and contemporary periods with a steady rotation of temporary exhibitions from abroad. It's free to get in, but you need to reserve a ticket online in advance.
The wide-open spaces and old factory districts around West Bund have lent themselves to a boom in art museums, often the personal display cases of very rich collectors. The oldest (nee 2012) and most well-known is the Long Museum, which houses the private collection of billionaire couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei. It's a must-visit for mostly high-quality Chinese art, spanning contemporary, modern, revolutionary and traditional genres. The reclaimed industrial area around it is also a favorite of photographers.
Opened in 2014, YUZ is the brainchild of Chinese-Indonesian collector, Budi Tek, and hosts rotating exhibitions sourced from his own massive collection of Western and Eastern (mostly contemporary) art in a gigantic warehouse.
The repurposed powerplant dominating the skyline around Nanpu Bridge is the Power Station of Art. It's Shanghai's answer to the Tate Modern, minus the staff and the budget. But it's great value for money, hosting biennales, visits from the Warhol museum and the Centre Pompidou, and, in 2014, a memorable Cai Guoqiang solo show.
MoCA Shanghai occupies a corner of People's Park. Smaller than the others but bathed in natural light from its floor-to-ceiling windows, its wheelhouse is international exhibitions, from Antoni Gaudi and Salvatore Ferragamo to compilations by modern graffiti artists.
Dubbed Shanghai’s first 'night museum,' for its later opening hours, HOW Art Museum is a 7,000 sqm, 3-story building that feels similar to YUZ, catering to a younger audience with impressive (and also expensive) contemporary art collections. Alumni include Joseph Bueys, Damien Hirst, and a little surprisingly, Ai Weiwei.
The non-profit show-and-tell space of a high-profile real estate mogul, Powerlong Museum is a 23,000 sqm museum is anchored by a stunning minimalist ramp that spirals up the center of the building. Xu’s collection is on permanent display, covering renowned Chinese painters of various generations..
If you'd like to keep up to date with exhibitions and the likes, we curate a fairly comprehensive Art Calendar.
Take in a show! High-profile shows keeping dropping in to say, despite the red tape. Can't get any further into this paragraph without mentioning Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, probably the single best theatrical experience to come to a multi-story fully-immersive office block near you. It's amazing.
Next up is the Shanghai Grand Theatre, the modern hub for Shanghai's premier performance acts including ballet, drama and classical music since it opened in 1988. This is probably where you'll end up if it's a big-name musical like Mamma Mia! Close runners-up are the Shanghai Culture Square which regularly host musicals, concerts and theater ranging from Les Miserables to kid-friendly shows like Paw Patrol, and Shanghai Center Theater, which hosts everything from big-name comedians to JZ Spring performances. On the classical music circuit, the heavyweights are the flower-shaped Shanghai Oriental Art Center and the sleek, modern Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall, but you can also count on interesting performances at MIFA 1862 and Daning Theater. Shout-out to the eternal Shanghai Circus World (temporarily relocated to Era Castle).
Special mention goes to the Children's Theater, the city's only professional-level stage designed specifically for children's drama performances. ET Space mostly hosts family shows as well.
There are also smaller clubs around town for jazz fans. Jazz At Lincoln Center, Shake, JZ Club and House of Blues & Jazz continually host an ever-rotating rogues gallery of jazz acts.
Shanghai's also got a lively, if recently diminished, comedy circuit. Despite the death of Kung Fu Komedy, we've still got the burgeoning Comedy UN and the venerable Shanghai Comedy Bunker operating out of the Cages backroom.
The big screen! We did an entire article on the highest spec cinemas in Shanghai on this, so I'm not going to go over it again, but let's just say that we're spoiled for choice of large screens. Less so when it comes to what to see on them: international releases are occasionally pretty limited (we try to keep you updated), but the domestic film industry has taken off and sometimes they even have subtitles in English. Get your tickets via WeChat. It's easier and often cheaper.
Book shopping, like all shopping, is mostly done online now, but brick-and-mortar bookstores have made a slight comeback as trendy spaces to hang out. See The Mix Place. For actual book-getting, try the English sections along Shanghai's historical bookstore street, Fuzhou Lu. The largest selection is at Shanghai Foreign Language Book Store, but Boocup's very good for children's books. Spots like Old China Hand Style and Garden Books have a quieter café atmosphere (with less than stellar coffee). Both of those are great for browsing for obscure Shanghai-related publications.
If you need somewhere else quiet to read (or browse your Moments), Shanghai's in the middle of a coffee shop tsunami. There are something like 7,000 coffee shops in the city and they range from your street-corner espresso machines to captains of the second-wave Starbucks and Costa to imported statement pieces like % Arabica. There's even Tim Hortons! In-between lie dozens of low-key, casual spots with diverse personalities like Coffe Compass Lab and Tian Café and uber-hip local brands like Seesaw and WAWY, perfect to go through your Tinder matches or get some work done on your novel. Downside? Average lifespan of a mayfly.
There's even a subgenre of cafes with furry friends to keep you company. They vary greatly in size, quality and especially cleanliness, but we visited a couple that we hope are still open when you read this.
If it's a tsunami of coffee shops, it's a double-tsunami of yoga studios and workshops. If you're looking for something more conventional, there are plenty of gym chains, including some that stay open 24-hours. Be warned: prices in Shanghai are inching up, and while there are always tons of free trial classes, package deals and first-time discounts, signing up is not a financial decision to be taken lightly.
Get a massage! Not the suspect kind, that's fallen off, the legitimate kind. There are dozens of street-front spots that'll give you a vigorous foot massage, Shanghai's also been graced with chains like Dragonfly and Subconscious Day Spa which do all kinds of soothing physical therapy things (and some weirder stuff) to your body at low-to-mid rates. If you're into something a little more esoteric, you could try acupuncture... or ear cleaning.
Or try a bathhouse! The three big bathhouse chains in 2019 are New Star, Cheersum (Qianshen), and Gokurakuyu. New Star is super popular and often crowded with younger people and families as it's cheap (around 100rmb entry, massages starting at around 108rmb). Cheersun (Qianshen) is more peaceful, luxurious, grown-up, and expensive (different locations have different entry fees). Finally, Gokurakuyu, a Japanese chain in the suburbs, is massive, family friendly, and crowded, though the outdoor bath section is nice on cold days.
If the fault's not with your body and you're really not finding a lot of joy on the weekends, you can try signing-up for a weekend retreat at a Buddhist Temple. It's entirely in Chinese, so you can count it as a language immersion experience too.
No idea how to categorize these, so we're just going to throw them in here!
Karaoke featured in our nightlife article, but we mentioned that not everyone goes to karaoke to get black-out wrecked and/or snort things off each other. Mostly not everyone. For groups of friends, colleagues or families who just like singing together, Haoledi is the wholesome KTV chain you're looking for.
Other good team-building/bonding experiences include Escape Rooms aka Puzzle Houses. Essentially a locked-room puzzle in real-life, the gold standard has been Mr. X south of Xintiandi, with about six puzzle rooms. The Alcatraz one is a highlight. There was also a knock-off on Dingxi Lu, but that closed. Seems to happen fairly often with these places. For a more haunted house experience, you can try Shanghai Dungeons (entirely in Chinese), or Pulupulu.
More kid-friendly but no less likely to result in injuries if you aren't careful, trampoline parks like Jump 360 are moving in from the outskirts of the city, though the biggest and best ones, such as DB Jump, remain steadfastly at least as far as Minhang. Pay a low price and spend the rest of the day hurling yourself into foam ball pits and dunking on ten-year olds.
Though the regular arcades such as the D-Mall Arcade and Lie Huo Game Center still exist, the past five years have seen Shanghai’s virtual reality scene take off. It's reasonably priced and, possible motion-sickness aside, it’s good fun with friends. Some places worth hitting up would be Machouse Arcade in north Jing'an, Mofamen in Xujiahui, Joy’s VR in Wujiaochang, and Dream Dog near People’s Square. Plus, there's always the Pearl Tower Rollercoaster. Not a single instance of pink-eye at any of them (that we experienced).
Taobao and JD.com have made buying things in meatspace preposterously obsolete, but bright and gleaming malls keep springing up every week or two. If you see shopping as an activity rather than a shameful emotional crutch, we recommend the malls around Lujiazui (Super Brand Mall, IFC, etc) or places like IAPM for a good, cathartic browse. I'm sure you've heard of the East Nanjing Road Shopping Street: the seething hordes make it a Styxian river you have to wade through to get to expensive brand flagships, where you'll have to elbow your way through even more tourists. Recommended exactly once. Same goes for Xintiandi.
The era of the fake market has come to an end, but AP Plaza remains hugely popular. You can also hit up Yu Gardens for at-times-hilarious touristy tat, or just a saunter through the commodities buildings for some wholesale deals on plastic doohickeys. Tianzifang is also worth a visit for cheap but occasionally cool tat, but for the crowds. Alternatively, PAWNSTAR is good for some consignment store browsing, and there's a monthly flea-market at Abandon.
Ah, the great outdoors! The problem with Shanghai is that the winter is cold, wet and miserable, while the summer is scorching, wet and saps your will to live. Spring and Autumn are less "seasons" and more labels for the ambiguous no man's land between the other two.
There's an ambiguous no man's land between indoor and outdoor activities too! They're called covered driving ranges.
Maybe you like running? Shanghai has developed some excellent dedicated running routes in recent years, taking advantage of the expanded green spaces. Similar situation for bicyclists: the Huangpu riverside promenades have clearly marked, scenic and only occasionally pedestrian-infested bike trails.
If you're looking for something more sedate or somewhere to cool off, Shanghai's outdoor pools are a popular option, though they're getting whittled down as housing complex committees start enforcing the "residents only" rule we've been allowed to flaunt in the past. We do an annual pools article with as much up-to-date information as we can get, but the opening hours and policies are often murky. Mandarin City Pool has been a long-time favorite, and Shimao Riviera Garden and New Star in Minhang aren't shabby either.
DISNEY DISNEY DISNEY DISNEY. The House of Mouse landed in Shanghai in 2016, marking its birth as an actual city. Taking up a solid chunk of Pudong, the Shanghai Disney Resort is the greater municipality of Mayor Walt's domain, including shopping street Disneytown (with its own Cheesecake Factory), cuddled up against the Disneyland Theme Park perched in the middle. It's perennially packed.
Too sanitized and corporate for your taste? Gucun Park's own Jurassic Park is as perplexing as it is magnificent, and blissfully free of crowds. Same goes for Oriental Land, with its landlocked aircraft carrier. Both are 120% worth the price of admission.
Jinjiang Action Park is this hulking, aged monstrosity crouched right next to the Yan'an Elevated Highway with its own metro stop: four roller coasters, a ferris wheel, a ghost train, a log flume, and a boat adventure. Two of the roller coasters go upside down, including the Giant Inverted Boomerang, the wildest ride in the park.
Songjiang hosts the massive Happy Valley, which has seven (middling) roller coasters and a bunch of other rides featuring drops and splashes. The summer lines can get really long, but there's lots to do in the park. There's also Playa Maya right next door which, apart from the cringeworthy Mayan theme is a world-class water park filled with a dozen full-sized water slides and a lame "wave" pool filled with a sub-district worth of people. Hail the giant Mayan God who dumps water on everyone. We're going to include Yu Garden here because even if it's not a theme park per say, it's kitschy, several areas charge for entry, and the crowds are heaving. Take your family when they visit and then never again.
Shanghai Zoo has been open in its current state since about the 1980s, holding around 6,000 animals, including giant pandas in… let's say tolerable living conditions. Go for the green spaces: actual grass and trees where you can run and climb. Shanghai Wild Animal Park has better facilities, and offers your regular zoo experience, or a safari trip in a caged bus through the more dangerous areas.
Shanghai Ocean Aquarium is the largest and most varied of its kind in China, and the longest glass tunnel in the world. It's genuinely a terrific day trip for the kids or adults with souls left to marvel with. Go on an afternoon and don't go on weekends.
Out by Dishui Hu is the Haichang Ocean Park, which opened in 2018. It's big, it's well-funded, and it mixes rides with animal, aquarium displays and killer whale shows. Depending on your tolerance for ocean wildlife kept in captivity, it's an option.
Shanghai is eminently walkable, so long as you can navigate the Mobike thickets and the occasional narrow sidewalks. The Bund and West Bund Promenades are the most well-known riverside strolls, but the Pudong side's new pathway is just as nice. Good way to get a dose of Shanghai euphoria, until your tolerance acclimates and you have to start delving into alleyways for a stronger fix.
Despite the aggressive redevelopment (read: demolition) of the city's historic neighborhoods, especially the old city around Laoximen, there's still plenty of architecture, lanes and alleyways to explore. Apart from obvious spots like Cite Bourgogne at Shaanxi Nan Lu and Jianguo Lu, Zhangyuan and the areas around Maoming Lu, you're likely to find slices of lane culture all over Xuhui, Hongkou, Jing'an and Huangpu Districts. Just duck down the nearest alley. Historic Shanghai regularly schedules well-researched tours with scholars and authors around noteworthy neighborhoods and landmarks.
There's always, always, always people watching. Shanghai loves nothing more than a bit of sidewalk theater, and if you perch yourself in one place with enough foot-traffic for long enough, you're guaranteed to see some. If nothing else, you'll get an eyeful of stylish, stylish people.
Shanghai's dozens of parks range from the enormous expanses of Century Garden or Gongqing Forest Park to the serene glades of Yanzhong Guangchang Park to the hottest hangout for septuagenarians in Lu Xun Park. Always something exciting happenin gin a park. There's the odd, slightly depressing Marriage Market in People's Park, or the regular waltz and salsa dancathons at Xiangyang Park. Statistically, you've probably got a green space within a 15 minute walk of you. Fly a kite, throw a frisbee, walk your dog! Look! Grass! You probably can't walk on it without inviting the ire of a bao'an. We do an annual parks round-up with updated opening hours. Please note: you'll have to travel a bit further afield to find somewhere to hold a BBQ.
What about just leaving the city? Maybe not all the way, although hiking trips to Shaoxing and Zhejiang are absolutely an option, but just a bit outside your usual radius. You can hit up a watertown like Zhujiajiao, which just recently got its own dedicated metro stop, visit the concrete ponds at Luyuan Fishing Leisure Center, or take a trip out even further to the Nanhui Wetlands for some genuine bird-watching. Just saying, Shanghai is way more than just the steel and glass maze around Lujiazui.