Chinese New Year began on February 19th this year, ushering in the ‘Year of the Sheep’. The start of Chinese New Year also marks the beginning of the Spring Festival in China, which runs through until the Lantern Festival on the 15th day (March 5th, for 2015).
I know this because my husband and I had the honor of celebrating Chinese New Year this year in Shanghai, China.
As one of the premiere destinations for celebrating Chinese New Year, Shanghai boasts an extensive list of potential options for things to do during this most festive time; you’ll never go wrong with the classic attractions of the city: a stroll along the Bund to see the iconic Pearl Tower, a visit to Yu Yuan Garden, or shopping for souvenirs at one of the Bazaars, but I’d love to share with you the list (in no particular order) of our favorite things to do and see.
12 Awesome Things to Do In Shanghai:
1. Visit a temple.
China’s temples are must see, if for no other reason than simply because they’re often impossible not to see – they often have strikingly dramatic architecture, and they can be ginormous, as is the case with Jing’an Temple (pictured below), which takes up the better part of an entire city block. Beyond that, however, they are also just so much a part of the history of the people of the area, that it would be all but impossible to grasp their significance to the area and the cultural development of the people, without a first hand viewing.
Jing’an Temple (the Temple of Tranquility) is a Buddist temple, built in 247 AD.
2. Sample the food – especially the dumplings.
The local food is in plentiful supply and very affordable, so be sure to sample as much of the local cuisine as your sense of adventure, as related to food, allows. Admittedly, much of the food is strange looking (from most Americans’ vantage point), but I’ve tried a lot of Chinese dishes, and have found most all of it quite tasty. That said, one of the ‘less strange’ looking items you’ll find in plentiful supply there, and which I highly recommend since it happens to be my favorite go to Chinese meal/snack, is Chinese dumplings.
Chinese dumplings are steamed or fried, purse shaped, pockets of dough which have been stuffed with meat and/or vegetables prior to cooking, and generally served with vinegar as a condiment for dipping. (Not being a huge vinegar fan, I did not expect to enjoy the use of vinegar as a dipping sauce, but I REALLY did). You’ll find dumplings on every street corner and on most restaurant menus. The steamed ones at Yu Yuan Garden, and the fried ones from Yang’s Fried Dumplings, however, are the citys’ favorites (and ours!).
Yang’s fried dumplings (pictured below) are our all time favorite with their crispy, golden brown, bottom crust. Just don’t bite into one before allowing it a minute to cool, because there’s a lot of steam still trapped inside and if you bite into it right away, you’ll have a big ‘blow out’, where the hot, steamy, broth trapped inside shoots out all over the place. (Ask me sometime how I know…)
3 . Take pictures with a monkey.
We ran across this Chinese man, along with his (slightly scary) monkey pal, panhandling outside of Jing’an Temple. Being a sucker for all such novelties, I, of course, had to get a picture with them to document the event.
4. Book more upscale accomodations than you think you’ll need.
Obviously, not everyone travelling to Shanghai will have a travel budget that affords staying at one of the only 5 star rated hotels in the city, such as the Ritz Carlton where my husband and I were privileged to stay (only because my husband already had to be in Shanghai for business, and his company always books reservations at the Ritz since it’s just across the street from their Shanghai office), but whatever your budget, DO plan to seek out more upscale lodging than you think you’ll need. The reason for this, is that with the good exchange rate you can do so affordably, and also (and perhaps most importantly), because as with most foreign travel, the star ratings outside the United States will generally not be the same as you’d find in the states (i.e. If you’d normally stay in a 3-4 star rated hotel in the states, plan on looking for 4-5 star locations outside the US.)
(Candle lighting ceremony held at the Ritz Carlton, in Shanghai)
5. Visit a Museum.
The Shanghai Museum is free to the public and boasts an amazing array of historical Chinese artifacts; which includes things like jade sculptures, antique coins, costumes, and calligraphy, Chinese pottery, and lots more…
The Science and Technology museum, although not free like the Shanghai Museum, is also a very popular museum, especially for families with children due to its fun and engaging robotic exhibits: they have everything from giant bugs that operate robotically, to synchonized robotic arms for automobile assembly, to clever Rubix cube puzzle solving robotic spacemen.
6. Watch TONS of fireworks.
The celebrabratory activities of Chinese New Year in Shanghai is something like a cross between Christmas, New Years Eve in America, and Hanukkah, because there are lots of family oriented activities that go on: cleaning house and hanging decorations, enjoying family meals together, and reunions with loved ones, and these activities go on for days, and then there is the little matter of fireworks – tons and tons of fireworks. Starting early on the eve of the lunar new year, the fireworks begin being shot off, and that goes on for hours. The volume and intensity of it all grows as the night wears on, and gets especially dramatic around midnight, but continues well beyond 1:00 am. They continue (to a lesser extent) every day of the festival season, with added emphasis on the new years’ eve, the day to honor the god of wealth, and (probably) the end of the festival season (I say probably simply because we returned home before the final day of the spring festival, which will be on March 5th.
7. Use the subway (and other forms of mass transit).
Shanghai is laid out logically, on essentially a North-South, East-West configuration, so navigating, in general, is easy. In addtion, its mass transit system of subways and buses are affordable, safe and clean, and run on frequent and predictable schedules. We’ve used the subway every time we’ve been to Shanghai, and even added some bus routes this time (to save walking to the metro stations on those chilly February mornings), and experienced good success with that as well.
8. Stroll through Fuxing Park
Fuxing Park was a private, Parisian-style garden until 1908, when it was converted a public park. It is a gathering place for many locals and thus a great people watching spot for visitors and guests. On any given day there, you are likely to see couples practicing ballroom dance, groups of people playing cards and Chinese checkers, and individuals doing Ti Chi.
9. Drink tea.
The Chinese love their tea, and you will see the locals drinking it pretty much everywhere you go there, even on the subways. We actually attended a formal tea service in Bejing, several years ago, and found it both educational and loads of fun. Huxingting Tea House, in Yu Yuan Garden, is the best place to go for such an experience in Shanghai.
10. Be on the look out for Lions and Dragons dancing in the streets.
During Chinese New Year, and sometimes for other special occasions like weddings or grand openings, you will see performers performing one of the ancient traditional Chinese dances like the Dragon or the Lion Dance (pictured below). Such dances were performed historically for the purposes of attracting good luck and/or warding off bad luck or evil forces.
11. See an acrobatics show.
The performance of amazing acrobatic feats by highly skilled Chinese acrobatic troupes, runs deep in the history and culture of China, and such world-class performances are still being performed in Shanghai today. For that reason, a trip to the circus to watch ‘ERA-The Intersection of Time’, an acrobatic show that portrays Chinese acrobatics throughout Chinese history, is a must see for anyone visiting Shanghai. (Note: The performers generally perform without the benefit of ANY safety equipment, which adds to the amazement…and often breathless suspense of the viewer…of the feats being performed.)
12. Embrace being one of millions.
Whether you’re taking a stroll along the Bund to check out the iconic, Shanghai Pearl Tower, or shopping for souvenirs at a Bazaar, or riding the subway, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about Shanghai (and all of China that I’ve experienced), is the sheer magnitude of people mass you’ll find there. Given the numbers (Shanghai boasts a resident population of over 9,800 people for every square mile of land mass), it’s astounding just how calmly and serenely the city does, in fact, operate.
And since you couldn’t change it even if you tried (China’s government did try to change it, when it enacted its one child per family law a number of years ago…), it’s best to just dive in, experience it for yourself, and as much as possible, embrace its vastness and enjoy being part of it all.
Note: Blue eyed people traveling in China, for the majority of people who live there, are still a novelty, so if, like me, you happen to be travelling there, and also have fair skin and blue eyes, you’ll notice people constantly doing a double take at you, and often breaking into a smile and even wanting to practice their English on you with a big American style ‘Hello’, even asking permission to take a picture with you, and generally treating you like a rock star. And that, will always be my all time favorite thing!