China’s largest city is a playground of skyscrapers and glamorous hotels; full of cosmopolitan pastimes that include excellent restaurants, fascinating museum districts, traditional temples and tranquil parks hidden amongst the metropolitan sprawl.
With a population of 24 million, however, the crowds can get tiresome for some, and a breath of fresh air outside the city is the perfect remedy.
Shanghai’s positioning at the mouth of the Yangtze River means it’s perfectly located to use as a base to explore the Chinese coast and the various inland waterways flowing into it.
From lakes and forests to coastal villages and towns, the area surrounding Shanghai is brimming with possibilities for day trips.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
A short 45-minute ride away on the incredibly efficient high speed rail is the captivating city of Hangzhou.
With a population of over 9 million, it’s by no means a small city, but it does have a completely different and refreshing atmosphere to Shanghai.
One of the undisputed highlights here is the West Lake, widely considered to be one of the most well-known natural attractions in China.
You can walk or cycle round its perimeter, marvelling at its beauty while discovering various traditionally designed bridges and pavilions on the way.
Other popular pastimes in the city include visiting the many picturesque tea-houses and sampling the excellent cuisine.
The city of Suzhou has long been hailed as “The Venice of The East” by poets and writers, and once you arrive, it’s easy to see why.
A vast network of interconnected canals and waterways spread out across Suzhou, which, coupled with the plentiful blossom and bonsai trees growing around every corner, give it a gorgeously serene ambience.
You can lose yourself for hours taking in the scenery and wandering across the traditional bridges before heading over to look at some traditional Chinese gardens.
These can be found at Tiger Hill or the Humble Administrator’s Garden, both impeccable examples of Eastern horticulture in China.
Otherwise known as Mount Mogan, Moganshan is the ultimate escape into the highlands, a world away from the densely-populated city of Shanghai.
Only 60 kilometers away from Hangzhou (easily reachable from town), the area is slowly becoming a community of wealthy locals building their villas and resorts in the breath taking mountain settings.
The number one attraction in Moganshan is hiking through its verdant green hills and valleys peppered with rivers and lakes.
Particularly popular are routes that take you through bamboo forests and tea fields, both of which grow in abundance.
The most widely recommended water town nearby to Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is one of eight similar towns that exist on the canal system stemming from Lake Tai.
Easily reachable by bus from Shanghai, the quaint water town is emblematic of these types of settlements and as such is rich in history and culture.
This is apparent in the traditional architecture and ancient bridges present throughout the whole town, anchoring it to a time long gone.
Also worth a visit is the stunning and enormous Dianshan Lake, almost 12 times as large as Hangzhou’s West Lake and surrounded by idyllic hills, broad meadows and intersected by gorgeous islands like Sun and Moon Island, or Rainbow Island.
The lake is heavily commercialized, boasting golf courses and resorts, but you can guarantee you won’t get bored there.
A wildly popular alternative to the costly Great Wall of China tour, Linhai is a charming city that has its own wall dating back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty, circa AD265 – AD420. The resemblance to its larger, more famous counterpart is uncanny and the city itself is a pleasure to explore.
Circled by the Ling River, the city is a hotbed of architectural history, with an ancient street even running from its center directly to Longxing Temple, many miles away.
Also a fascinating insight into the past is the city’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
As a major Chinese city, Nanjing is a buzzing hub of activity, but one particular attraction for many people is the fascinating history that can be found here.
The metropolis was once the capital of many ruling dynasties throughout the nation’s past and has a huge number of culturally significant attractions.
From beautiful temples to the former Presidential Palace and Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, history buffs and casual visitors alike will be captivated by the various sites.
Also on the to-do list are some local hot springs, numerous picturesque parks and gardens, and even an island you can visit.
For a town with similarities to the beautiful cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou, but without the crowds, make your way to Changshu; a pristine, canal-filled town that is only an hour and a half away from Shanghai.
Here you’ll find the same style of ancient houses, mountain backgrounds and a nearby lake, but with a much more small-town, local feel.
The Shanghu Scenic Area is a picturesque canal network with bamboo-lined banks, and is a perfect place to amble along.
Further afield, you’ll find Xingfu Temple on top of Mount Yu, where you can wander around the surrounding forests filled with tea plantations.
Two hours away from Shanghai by high speed rail lies the port city of Ningbo.
It’s also coincidentally one of the oldest cities in China, and as a result has a strong Buddhist presence which takes the form of countless temples, some of which are the oldest in the world and well worth a visit.
The Asoka Temple is over 1700 years old and houses relics belonging to the founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni.
The Baoguo Temple is also one of the best-preserved wooden structures of its type in China.
In the neighbouring province of Jiangsu, you’ll find the picturesque city of Zhenjiang, famous for being the place where Nobel Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck was born, but little else.
People have, however, been heading on day trips to Zhenjiang because of the charmingly picturesque Jiaoshan Park that can be found there.
The park is attractively maintained, partly on an island in the Yangtze River, giving it the impression of being disconnected from urban life and at one with nature.
The most popular highlight here is the beautiful Ten Thousand Buddha Pagoda.
10. Dongqian Lake
This lake, close to Ningbo city, happens to be the largest one in the province of Zhenjiang, and is a perfect day trip for Shanghai locals and tourists looking to escape town for the day to enjoy peaceful solitude rarely found elsewhere amongst the region’s popular lakes.
The most highly recommended of the three lakes that comprise Dongqian is North Lake.
Here you’ll find the nearby mountains and shores filled with tiny villages and temples dating as far back as AD960, as well as a charming sculpture park.
11. Shanghai Sculpture Park
Only a short moto ride away from Shanghai, you’ll find the wonderfully attractive and entertaining Shanghai Sculpture Park, situated in the Songjiang District.
An ideal family day out, you’ll marvel at the lush swathes of grassy areas to relax and enjoy a picnic, wooded hills and even a man-made beach to soak in some sun.
There are excellent restaurants in the area, pools, and boat rentals, making this park an excellent getaway from the concrete jungle of the city center.
Less than 40 minutes away from downtown Shanghai, you’ll find the beloved district of Nanxiang, famed as being the birthplace of the widely enjoyed xiaolongbao dumplings and home to some gorgeous classic gardens.
The best of these is the Guyi Garden, where you can spend hours wandering around over paths and bridges under the tree canopies.
Nearby you’ll find the serene Yunxiang Temple, one of the largest near Shanghai and noticeably calmer than the others, perfect for some quiet reflection while you explore.
An hour and a half away from Shanghai lies the historic town of Shaoxing, famous for the rich history contained within its borders and affectionately dubbed the “Museum without Walls” by the locals.
The sometimes sleepy and always welcoming town is home to cultural sites like the Archang Ancient Town and Baicao Garden, while a little further afield you can explore Kuaji Mountain or the serene East Lake.
You’ll also have the opportunity to try the delectable Shaoxing Wine, a particular local brew of Chinese rice wine the town is famed for.
A traditional Chinese lake town, Yangzhou also combines elements of Hangzhou and Suzhou, whilst managing to remain unique in its beauty and appeal.
The Slender West Lake is a smaller but no less gorgeous version of its larger counterpart; you can spend a couple of hours strolling its shores, or amongst the trees of the Ge Yuan Garden, populated by bamboo forests.
One of the highlights is the Tomb of Puhaddin, an ancient Muslim prophet whose grave neighbours a mosque and some gardens which form a fascinating contrast between Islamic and Chinese architecture.
The famous Buddhist resort of Putuoshan is around four hours away from Shanghai, but with an early start it is easily achievable in a day.
Here you’ll be blessed with the chance to see some truly authentic sites, visited by a great number of Chinese locals.
Among these is the Purple Bamboo Forest, located at the foot of Mount Putuoshan, famed for the purple colour of the rock.
Also not to be missed is the breath taking temple of Pu Ji; containing two large sakura trees indoors that, when in bloom, transform the interior into a surreally beautiful sight.