Shanghai, now home to 19 million people, is a city of unbelievable contrasts and is a prime example of China’s explosive growth. Old China and new China have merged to create an exciting and exotic city that must be experienced to be believed. On our recent Mandarin Journeys guided tour in China, we explored Shanghai with 10 and 12 year old boys. We were thrilled and fascinated to observe that the kids were 100% engaged in the experience.
In fact, my son Devon has traveled extensively and has never been so enthralled by an urban environment. This is in part due to the fact that Shanghai is so visually distinctive with a significant ‘wow’ factor; we also found that the Mandarin Journeys approach of mixing engaging activities into sightseeing worked very well to capture school-age attention in a meaningful way.
We were all mesmerized by the skyline — much of which didn’t exist before 1995. Between the oddly shaped buildings and the neon lights at night, Shanghai is so striking that it takes zero effort to get kids to realize that the city is special. Our boys were really excited to explore Shanghai’s skyscrapers and insisted on going up in at least one elevator.
The 120-floor Shanghai Tower is under construction and will be the tallest building in China and the 2nd tallest in the world. It’s not ready for visitors but we sure loved standing under it and understanding its mass. The second tallest building in China is the Shanghai World Financial Center, located in the same area of Pudong. It houses the Park Hyatt Shanghai and you also can visit one of the three observation decks on the 94th, 97th, and 100th floors. It’s really only worth it in clear weather, but our boys enjoyed it, even in the clouds.
The best place to appreciate Shanghai’s mega-buildings is from the walkway on the Bund. Start from one end and walk to the other. This is where we really got a full view of the skyline (both day and night are amazing), including a front-and-center view of Shanghai’s landmark, the Oriental Pearl Tower.
After getting a sense of new China, it’s startling to visit the Old City of Shanghai with traditional Chinese architecture. The streets are crowded, chaotic, and filled with people buying and selling everything imaginable. Take Chinatown in any U.S. city and multiple that by 10. It’s a feast for the senses. This is a good place to buy trip souvenirs and trinkets.
Our Mandarin Journeys’ guide used this as an opportunity to introduce us to silk production and we visited a shop that explains where it comes from and how it is made. The exhibit is small but provides good hands-on information.
A look at Mandarin Journeys' kid-friendly itinerary in China >
The Yu Garden, translated as the Garden of Happiness, is a five-acre historic garden dating back to the Ming Dynasty and provides a kid-friendly, active introduction to Chinese culture. It’s a fun place to wander with winding pathways, ponds, pavilions, rocks, and rock gardens.
We used it as the backdrop of our Flytographer photo shoot, a fabulous service where a professional photographer takes a myriad of candid and posed photos of families on vacation. We never would or could have taken such amazing photos of our visit to Shanghai without this service.
Mandarin Journeys set up an early morning Tai Chi lesson for us with a local instructor in the garden across from our hotel, the glorious Four Seasons Shanghai at Pudong. Alongside locals, we met in this beautiful, urban green space and learned about this traditional practice. Our lesson was entertaining, educational, and an example of a meaningful way to understand a cultural tradition. Doing is much more impactful than watching!
The highlight of our visit to Shanghai was a vintage sidecar ride through the French and British concessions. The weather didn’t cooperate, but we all loved it, even in the rain. This is a great way to cover ground in a participatory way and really see more of Shanghai’s diverse neighborhoods. Given the somewhat precarious perching on the side of the motorbike that is required to participate, I’d recommend this for ages 10 and up only.
Although you can see Chinese acrobats as they tour the U.S., there was something about seeing them in China that made the experience enticing. The kids were thrilled by this performance of unbelievable acrobatics and magic. Mandarin Journeys got us great seats toward the front of the stage. If you have at least a few days in Shanghai and won’t fall asleep in your seat, I’d make time to do this with kids. Our boys loved it.
We visited a pet market where small vendors sell pet-related wares from crickets to bunny rabbits. Its a curious place; because it is filled with both fuzzy and creepy pets, we found it quite intriguing. Cricket fighting, anyone? The pet market is an entertaining glimpse of local life.
Likewise, while the moms got some shopping in, our guide took the boys kite flying in a square where the locals go with kids to relax and play. A win-win for retail-hungry parents and their offspring.
The one thing we missed out on was time to wander and really get lost in some of Shanghai’s neighborhoods. Make sure you leave time meander beyond the main tourist paths. It doesn’t take long to feel immersed and ‘lost’ in another world.
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China with kids tips and advice on Ciao Bambino
Editor’s Note: Mandarin Journeys provided a media trip for us to experience their version of China with kids. As always, all thoughts and opinions expressed here are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy except where noted.
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