Cheap and free things to do in Shanghai

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The images that come to mind when we think of Shanghai are sleek skyscrapers and the high-end boutiques that line up the Bund. This first-class Chinese city, once called the Paris of Asia, may seem all luxury, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. Despite its ritzy reputation, Shanghai is manageable, even on a budget. The city is serviced by low-cost airlines Cebu Pacific and Air Asia, and offers tons of things to do that are not only cheap, but many free. So, find a flight (on, obviously) and read on for all the affordable things you can do once you land.

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Visit ancient water towns

China is known for its ancient towns beautifully set on canals, lakes and other bodies of water (think Venice, but in the East). And Shanghai is not only home to some of the most picturesque water towns, but also the friendliest to budget travelers. If you’re only able to visit one, make it the Fengjing Ancient Town. Accessible via a train and bus from the city center, the water town is the largest in Shanghai and also the best-preserved. It is home to 52 bridges, with the oldest one, Zhihe Bridge, built over 700 years ago.

Take advantage of free museums

free museums in Shanghai
Kenneth Moore, Shanghai Museum, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Take advantage of the great museums in Shanghai that are absolutely free. Two of them include Shanghai Museum and the China Art Museum. The former, located on People’s Square, is home to an expansive exhibition of ancient Chinese art spread throughout its 11 galleries, while the latter, formerly known as Shanghai Art Palace, boasts some of the country’s best contemporary art.

Free movie nights

While watching a movie may not be the most sound idea when you’re on limited travel time, if you’re looking to save money and enjoy a relaxing evening, it can be a great option. And, the good news is, the city is host to a number of free movie nights. The Pearl theater on Zhap Lu hosts free movie nights every Tuesday, provided you book e-tickets online (recently they even did a screening of the new season of “Game of Thrones”). But The Pearl isn’t the only venue to offer free movies, there are others that do it on the regular, too, including Boxing Cat Brewery (every Wednesday).

Check out contemporary art at M50

Check out contemporary art at M50
jo.sau, Shanghai M50, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

50 Monganshan Road (known as M50)  is a warehouse complex converted into an art district. Much like its Beijing counterpart, 798 Art District, it’s home to over a hundred artists, art galleries and studios. You can visit a lot of them for free, and you can even chat up the artists themselves if you’re lucky enough to catch them there. While the main attraction is the graffiti wall on Main Street, a walk around will reveal other amazing street art, so don’t forget to check out every corner if you have the time. And if you get thirsty or hungry, you can find drinks at several cafes inside the compound, as well as cheap eats at restaurant, Bandu Cabin.

Hang out at the parks

Need to take a breather? Shanghai is home to many parks, and most of them are free. Located on the Zhongshan Lu Metro Station, the Zhongshan Park is among the best parks you can check out if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet. Aside from the lake, bike trail, ponds and greenery, the park also features amusement park rides, making it an ideal place to chill out if you’re also traveling with children.

The Bund waterfront

Bund waterfront
Mike Behnken, The Bund – Shanghai, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Bund waterfront is one of Shanghai’s biggest attractions and has a little something for every type of traveler. If you’re into history, the stretch is lined with many heritage buildings such as the Gutzlaff Signal Tower, the Sassoon House and the China Merchant Bank. For people into fashion and window shopping, the boardwalk is also lined with luxurious boutiques such as Chanel, Cartier, and Prada. At night, don’t miss the chance to see the skyscrapers over at the other side of the river light up.

Walk along the French Concession

The French Concession is a part of Shanghai occupied by France from 1849 to 1943. But, even after the hand over by the European nation, much of the French influence can still be felt. Aside from the beautiful architecture and romantic tree-lined streets, the district exudes a laid-back Parisian flair with its chic line of boutiques, hip bars and cafes, as well as art galleries — definitely a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. While you can explore the district on your own for free, there are also numerous walking tours that you can avail for cheap.

What’s the first thing you would do in Shanghai? Share with us in the comments, and start your flight search on

Cheap and free things to do in Shanghai was last modified: June 27th, 2019 by L. Bautista
Author: L. Bautista (46 posts)

A self-confessed breakfast-skipper, who likes to spend her time exploring new places and cultures.