CAPA's 10 Hidden Gems in Shanghai

Apr 9, 2013 9:13:27 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

One of the most rewarding aspects of a studying abroad can be to step off the tourist trail and experience life as locals enjoy it. Here are 10 of CAPA's favorite hidden gems to discover when you study abroad in Shanghai.

1. LU XUN PARK. Visitors will surely go to People's Square in Puxi and possibly Century Park in Pudong, but to see a park where there are few tourists and many locals, consider Lu Xun Park (Lu Xun Gongyuan). The main entrance is in Dalian Lu, in the Hongkou area (metro lines 3 and 8). The park is named after a famous writer, Lu Xun and contains a beautiful lake and relaxing gardens. You will also see many locals (especially senior citizens) at rest and play - that includes badminton in the open (why not join in?), public exercise machines, loads of games of cards and chess, dancing and free music to listen to. There is also the Lu Xun Mausoleum and a memorial clock and stone symbol to encourage peaceful relations between China and Japan. A great way to pass at least half a day - see also number 2!

Photo: Locals playing badminton in Lu Xun Park by Colin Speakman

2. THE TE LI MING TEA HOUSE. This is located in Lu Xun Park and deserves a separate mention because of the importance of tea houses in Chinese culture. Sadly, too many visitors to the big cities in China find tea houses that have really become tourist traps. They are not used by locals and offer expensive tea tasting opportunities, even with hidden room use fees. A city which still has many authentic tea houses is Hangzhou, capital of neighboring Zhejiang province and home to the famous Dragon Well tea plantation (Longjing Tea). Enjoy it in tea houses by the West Lake or in the city. However, you don't have to go that far, as an authentic tea house can be found right in this park in Shanghai. CAPA's Director of Programs in China, Colin Speakman, was recently able to get a table on a busy afternoon and, as he went with a Chinese friend, he was the only foreigner present. It costs 11 RMB per person for a nice flower tea and a big jug of hot water for several refills. The locals just relax and chat and play cards inside. Note that a "no smoking policy" unfortunately does not exist here.

Photo: Locals at rest and play in Te Li Ming Tea House by Colin Speakman

3. FREE VIEWS FROM SKYSCRAPERS. It is understandable that a city with over 50 skyscrapers will have a few commercial opportunities for viewing impressive Shanghai scenery. However, entrance fees are getting above 100 RMB per person so it is up to the visitor if they want to pay for the view from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower sphere or the viewing gallery of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (that looks like a bottle opener!). Local Chinese friends of Colin's never do, preferring to take him to a high up lobby area of a major hotel - anything from 38 to 54 floors up - where you could spend a few minutes for no cost or decide to enjoy a coffee (for a lot less than 100 RMB) and a seat as well as a view while there.

Among the options are the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Lujiazui Financial District, Pudong and the lobby of the J.W. Marriott, in Tomorrow Square, near Peoples' Square in Puxi. A few thought to consider: The very tops of skyscrapers often get shrouded in mist so the view can be clearer part way up. Many photographers, once at the very top, strain on maximum zoom to get a detail shot. Go part way up and you don't need the zoom! Enjoy the view in the picture below!

Photo: Park Hotel and People's Square from a hotel lobby by Colin Speakman

4. WATCH A SOCCER MATCH. Shanghai locals actually have a choice of teams in the top flight of the Chinese Super League (CSL) this season - which kicked off in March and runs through October. However, the wealthiest and most famous is Shanghai Shenhua, who had well-known ex-Chelsea strikers Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba on the roster in 2012. Despite that, they finished below mid-table and both stars have since left. There will be new faces and renewed optimism for 2013 and you can help your new Shanghai friends cheer the team on (perhaps against megacity rivals Beijing Guo'an or champions Guangzhou Evergrande?) at Shanghai's impressive Hongkou Football Stadium (take lines 3 or 8 to the metro station of same name). Incidentally, look out for a CAPA World Connecting Global Cities post on "Soccer Unites the World" in a few weeks' time.

Photo: Hongkou Stadium by Colin Speakman

5. WANDER THE BACK STREETS. To many visitors, Shanghai looks very opulent. It is in many parts, of course. The city got quite a sprucing up for the 2010 World Expo (and where there were downtown areas the authorities did not have time to upgrade, they simply built high walls to hide them. They then stuck loads of symbols of the Expo mascot and pictures on the walls!) Yet, there has to be basic housing for low paid locals stretching back many decades as Shanghai grew into an economic powerhouse as well as the temporary "porta-cabin" housing for migrant workers on building sites. To find some historic housing, go to the famous Yu Garden (see number 10) and on walking back to the Yu Yuan Metro station, after passing a tourist coach park, veer right down a simple narrow street and see how essential local workers still live as in photos below. Keep walking through and you'll rejoin the main road.

Photo: Old Shanghai street near Yu Garden by Colin Speakman

6. EXPLORE THE FORMER FRENCH CONCESSION. This is an alternative free walking activity, but more up market. It is important to use the term "former" in describing these once upon a time foreign concessions, now sought after residential areas for wealthy Shanghainese. In 2012, a new pizza restaurant described itself as located in the "French Concession" was boycotted by locals and fined by the authorities. Foreigners tend to be attracted to Xintiandi on the fringes of the area and the famous HuaHai Lu shopping street, running right through it. But we recommend wandering more streets off the main roads connected to the Hengshan Lu and Huashan Lu to enjoy the architecture and settle into a local cafe.

Photo: In French style off the Hengshan Lu by Colin Speakman

7. TAKE A LOW-COST FERRY RIDE ACROSS THE HANGPU RIVER. Many visitors will be tempted by tour companies to take a Shanghai River Boat ride - especially to see the neon of the Huangpu river banks at night. This is a good experience, but again a cost into 3 figures in RMB. There's a much cheaper way to have a brief ferry ride. Many locals still use ferries to cross the river between the pier on the Bund side just north of the small Observatory Tower and Pudong a little east of Liujiazu and that is why the cost is only 2 RMB one way. Join the locals, take a short trip and grab some photos from the ferry.

Photo: One Shanghai river ferry from another ferry by Colin Speakman

8. TIANSHAN TEA CITY. This is the best place for visitors to find and sample of huge range of teas (at good value prices), to buy for home use or to carry in a traditional tea flask. Many of these teas are part of the country's traditional Chinese medicine. Located at 518 West Zhong Shan Road, in the Zhangning district, near South Yuping Road, Tianshan Tea City has 150 crowded stalls spread over four floors. This labyrinth of a market has many knowledgeable and friendly tea sellers, wholesalers and retailers, and also tea wares and antiques. Allow plenty of time to compare what's on offer.

Photo: Tianshan Tea City by Pustoslov N. via Foursquare

9. MU LAN HUA GE JIA LI CURIO COMPANY. Many visitors go to the huge XinYang Market which is under the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (line 2 metro station of same name) in Pudong. It contains a large range of souvenirs along with clothes and electronics but is essentially for Westerners and similar to Beijing's Silk, Pearl and Yashow markets.

For something more authentic (but always double check), visit the Mulan Hua Ge Curio Warehouse at 1788 Ji Yang Lu, near Shangpu Lu, exiting at Lingzhao Xincun metro station on Line 8, in Pudong, near the Lupu Bridge. This unique shop has one of the city's biggest collections of antiques and collectibles in Shanghai.

It has architectural salvage mainly from the pre-revolutionary period, stored in 20-meters-high piles of old trunks, chairs, stools, tables, musical instruments, old radios and televisions, Buddha statues and Oriental screens and much more. Be prepared to bargain by offering 50% of the asking price (silly discounts like 80% off are not likely).

Photo: Mulan Hua Ge Curio Warehouse from Flynneous

10. VISIT A GARDEN. This is in contrast to the large parks in item 1. Gardens are a big part of Chinese culture, typically with plenty of greenery, water, a small bridge or stepping stones over it, a rock formation and perhaps a sun house. Locals love to chill out in them away from the hustle and bustle of the Megacity. However, it is not so restful to have to trek across town to get to one. So we will give you no one specific recommendation here but a short list starting with the Yuan Garden.

Other alternatives are: Xujiahui Gongyuan, in Xujiahui District (Xujiahui metro station lines 1 and 9) built on the former grounds of the Great Chinese Rubber Works Factory and the EMI Recording Studio with entrances at Zhaojiabang Lu and in the west at the intersection of Hengshang Lu and Yuqin Lu. This garden has a man-made lake with a sky bridge running across the area.

Zhongshan Gongyuan, at 780 Changning Lu, Changning District (Zhongshan Park metro station lines 2, 3 and 4), is known for its extensive rose and peony gardens.

Jing An Temple Park, a small garden with a pond, artificial caves, cafe and restaurant is near Jing An Temple metro station, on lines 2 and 7. There are many smaller gardens to be found as one travels in downtown Shanghai. Take time to stop and smell the roses!

Photo: Illuminated garden on Hengshan Road by Colin Speakman

Live in Shanghai? Leave some of your own favorites in the comments!

Topics: Shanghai, China