Night view of the Shanghai Skyline

With a futuristic skyline that dances nightly with neon, Shanghai has become not only China’s largest city, but an increasingly popular cruise and tourist destination.

Cruisers from around the world arrive here through two terminals, Baoshan, a sprawling port development outside Shanghai that houses megaships such as Quantum of the Seas and Norwegian Joy, and the smaller International Cruise Terminal, where luxury cruise lines dock, in the heart of the city. River cruisers, too, come to Shanghai at the beginning or end of their Yangtze River cruise tours, run by operators such as Viking and Uniworld.

If you’re traveling as far as Shanghai for a cruise, you’ll want to spend a few days exploring the city as you adjust to the time change. Tours that delve into the Shanghai’s founding as an international trade center help you understand its sophisticated vibe, while culinary walks bring you into less-touristy corners for savory soup dumplings. See the city as the Shanghainese do — by bike — or educate yourself on Shanghai’s role during World War II as a haven for Jews fleeing Europe.

Here are four Cruise Critic-tested tours that are worth taking before or after you join your cruise.

1. The Bund

Shanghai’s expansive waterfront, a promenade known as The Bund, is where most tourists begin. Flanked by historic Art Deco and Edwardian buildings bedecked with Chinese flags, the Bund draws international and Chinese tourists alike for morning tai chi, afternoon strolls and photo shoots and the light show that the Pudong skyline across the river puts on every night.

Our Introduction to Shanghai: The Bund and Shanghai in the ’20s tour with Context Travel began at the north end of the Bund, not far from where the British first settled in 1843 after the First Opium War. Based in Philadelphia, Context Travel operates walking tours worldwide that focus on culture, history and architecture; groups are limited in size to six people and are led by experts with academic or professional credentials in their subject matter. Our tour, led by Nicolas, a French former journalist, consisted of just three of us, meaning we could have a conversation instead of a boring tour lecture.

Over three hours, we wandered through the grand buildings, with Nicolas connecting the dots between their early 20th-century owners, who turned Shanghai into a trade powerhouse, and the city’s current status as China’s financial center. While we stuck to the older side of the Huangpu River, Nicolas talked us through the architecturally groundbreaking buildings of the continually emerging Pudong skyline — a government-encouraged initiative representing “New China.”

After the tour, Nicolas marked up our map with other neighborhoods we should visit, made shopping recommendations and gave us his email in case we had any questions while we were in Shanghai. An excellent overview to the city, and well worth the $80.

Refreshements from a Shanghai food tour

2. Culinary

Shanghai is a paradise for adventurous eaters, with local dishes that are influenced by the city’s status as an international hub. While soup dumplings — xiao long bao — are Shanghai’s most famous street food, other dim sum delicacies and noodle dishes abound.

We met up for our Authentic Local Food tour with Jimmy, one of the founders of Shanghai Foodie, at a subway station in the fashionable French Concession neighborhood. Our group of 10 came from Australia, South Africa, Belgium and Canada. All of us wanted to dive into Shanghai’s specialties, but were concerned about finding places that were clean; communication in Shanghai is also a factor as most streetside vendors and small sit-down restaurant owners do not speak English.

The tour began at a trendy Western restaurant, Cobra Lily, where we sampled craft beer from Boxing Cat, popular among young Shanghainese. From there on out, Jimmy led us into the streets of Shanghai’s old Chinese quarter, taking us to places that lacked English names. Noodles were dished up with a variety of condiments, ranging from pork to sweet tofu to stir-fried eel. At another establishment, a woman took us through a variety of tea options, which we sampled with dried fruit and a seasonal crab soup dumpling, topped with ginger root and accompanied with a shot of baijiu, a strong Chinese grain alcohol. If you love Chinese food, the tastes were familiar, although some of the ingredients — such as snake bean and sesame balls — were not. We finished the three-hour tour full, but not uncomfortable (and best of all, with no tummy troubles!)

A day later, Jimmy sent out a recap of what we ate and the restaurants we visited, as well as a list of other places to try and even a recipe for green beans. Howveer, due to the changing character of Shanghai, sidewalk restaurants are constantly opening and closing, Jimmy warned — so if we come back to Shanghai, we can take the $75 tour again and find ourselves in a new slate of restaurants. Seeing as we’re still dreaming about dumplings, we think we will.

3. Jewish History

Shanghai has special significance for many Jewish families around the world, as the city was one of the only places that took refugees escaping Germany’s Nazi regime in Europe during the late 1930s and 1940s. More than 20,000 Jews ended up in Shanghai, where they were confined by Japanese guards to a three-quarter ghetto known as Little Vienna.

The Tour of Jewish Shanghai is led by Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli former journalist driven by a passion project to recover Jewish gravestones that were stolen from the neighborhood after the Communists took over during the Cultural Revolution. Dvir has been petitioning the Chinese government to create a memorial from these stones since 2002. 

The tour began on The Bund, where Dvir noted that many of the drivers of Shanghai’s international concession came from Baghdahi Jewish families immigrating from Iraq and India; names that are still famous today include the Sassoons and the Kadoories. These families became global billionaires, emerging as key figures in early Chinese-Western trade (and some still are; the luxury Peninsula Hotel, which anchors one end of The Bund, is owned by the now-British Kadoorie family).

While Shanghai’s first Jewish families massed enormous wealth, subsequent waves of immigrants were not as fortunate. Russian Jews arrived in Shanghai after the Revolution of 1917, setting up small businesses. It wasn’t until the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and in particular, Kristallnacht in 1938, when Jews began to come to Shanghai in large numbers. Rebuffed by other countries, refugees were able to settle in Shanghai because visas were not required to enter.

Dvir’s tour took us through this time period, bringing us to the Hongkew neighborhood where the Jewish ghetto existed. While the facades still exist, the residents of the time are long gone; after World War II, most of Shanghai’s 23,000 Jews left for more promising conditions in the United States, Australia and Israel. The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, where the tour stops, offers photos and firsthand accounts; we did find Dvir’s explanations more personal, delivered with a dry humor.

We found Dvir’s tour to be a little long at four and a half hours, but fascinating nonetheless and a must-do for those interested in Jewish heritage or World War II history. It’s bookable on Viator for $73 or direct from Dvir’s website,

Shanghai bike tour

4. Active

Bikes are a major mode of transportation in Shanghai and you’ll find them everywhere, along with scooters and motorcycles. Most roads have bike lanes and the city has an active bike-sharing program, where you can go up to any orange bike on the street and rent it right there, paying only for the time you use it (people simply leave it when they are done).

We entered the biking fray with Culture Shock Tours, a company led by expats that has been convincing tourists to see Shanghai on two wheels for the past four years. The company offers two different four-hour tours several days a week, although they’ll put together a tour for cruisers with limited time in the city, if interested. The morning bike tour introduces you to Shanghai breakfast, and brings you to Fuxing Park in the former French Concession, where you’ll see locals playing mah-jong, dancing and practicing tai chi.

We chose the night tour, which winds its way through the old Shanghai. Here you can still see longtangs — traditional alley neighborhoods where several families live behind a single gate — although most are slated for demolition. Our friendly guide Mike introduced our group of six (the maximum that he’ll take at night for safety) to the vintage bikes that Culture Shock uses. All had baskets, flashing safety lights at the front and rear, and — most importantly — a bell that we could ring to let other bikers, scooters and the stream of people walking in the street that we were right behind them.

For our first stop, Mike took us to a traditional street canteen, where we downed large bowls of beef noodle soup (options are available for different food preferences, although we were warned that it’s hard to stay gluten-free in Shanghai). Fueled up, we rode through dark alleyways, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the old neighborhood. Perhaps the most fascinating stop came at a Chinese pharmacy, where Mike showed us exotic-sounding remedies such as birds nest, sea cucumbers and caterpillar mushrooms that carry big price tags.

By the end of the ride, we felt a sense of accomplishment at navigating Shanghai’s busy streets, as well as a better knowledge of the neighborhoods outside the touristy Bund. For $70, it’s a way to stay active, while seeing much more than you can on foot. Both morning and night tours are bookable through the Culture Shock website, but if you don’t see one available for the day that you’re in town, send Mike an email and the company might set one up for you.

—By Chris Gray Faust, Managing Editor

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