Shanghai's best museums

Shanghai's best museums

A culture vulture's travel itinerary in China’s most commercial city

Shanghai sometimes gets dismissed as a shallow city, a vortex of shopping, snacking and spending, but rewarding cultural explorations do exist in China's commercial center. 

Here are six of Shanghai's best museums (in no particular order) to add to your travel itinerary, from a comprehensive state-run establishment to a hidden-in-the-basement private institute.

1. Shanghai Museum (上海博物馆)

Shanghai MuseumImpress the ladies with your knowledge of batik and embroidered textiles.
Visitors might be tempted to avoid the Shanghai Museum, the city’s most official temple to Chinese culture. For starters, it’s ugly -- the 1990s construction on People’s Square looks like a massive bathroom sink.

Get over that first impression and you’ll find treasures inside.

One highlight is the ceramics collection and its Tang Dynasty (618-907) tomb guardians, including a ferocious beast that seems part dragon, tiger, horse and goat.

The museum houses galleries for paintings, ancient bronzes, jade sculptures and calligraphy.

Upstairs is an arresting parade of embroidered costumes crafted by the country’s ethnic minorities, as well as painted Tibetan ceremonial masks covered with skulls and feathers.

Admission is free, so you can hit only the galleries that interest you without feeling compelled to spend hours getting your money’s worth.

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Shanghai Museum, 201 Renmin Da Dao, near Huangpi Bei Lu
 人民大道201号, 近黄陂北路, +86 21 6372 3500, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., entry: free,

2. Shanghai Science & Technology Museum (上海科技馆)

Shanghai Science and Technology MuseumParents come to boost their kids’ I.Q. Kids come for the playground.

Children will adore the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum in Pudong, which features nifty robots, IMAX films and stuffed tigers pouncing on prey. The four-story complex also houses a faux rain forest and jungle gyms. What’s not to love?

The museum is designed to make science seem fun and welcoming. One exhibit features a robot that can solve Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. Another robot challenges visitors to an archery contest, and still another paints visitors’ portraits.

For preschoolers, a gallery called Children’s Rainbow Land offers slides, jungle gyms and crawling tunnels. It’s not all that scientific, but it’s a colorful space for kids to run around in on a rainy day.

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Shanghai Science & Technology Museum, 2000 Shiji Da Dao, near Jinxiu Lu 世纪大道2000号, 近锦绣路, +86 21 6862 2000, Tuesday-Sunday: 9a.m.-5:15 p.m.,
Entry: RMB 60 for adults. Children under 1.3 meters free, otherwise RMB 45. 

3. Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (上海宣传画艺术中心)

Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art CentreBig Brother is watching you at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.

For fans of Chinese history and underground culture, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre fits the bill.

The collection is housed in a basement in an apartment block, and the gallery ceilings are covered with cracks and spider webs.

The tiny museum offers a glimpse into the kitschy Cultural Revolution aesthetic, which foreign visitors find fascinating but the forward-looking contemporary China prefers to brush off. 

The posters are filled with ruddy-faced peasants, joyful soldiers and chubby children. Naturally, Chairman Mao’s apple-cheeked face gazes down from every wall.

Some of the most fascinating posters decry U.S. involvement in the region during the Korean War. One 1951 print shows a Chinese soldier stepping on a green-faced, devilish-looking G.I.

Exhibits do a good job of explaining the evolution of propaganda over time -- including the 1979 move to abolish and destroy the posters, which explains why originals are hard to find today.

The gift shop sells original as well as duplicate souvenirs, including posters, maps and Cultural Revolution music records.

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Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, Room BOC, 868 Huashan Lu, near Wukang Lu 华山路868号总统公寓BOC室, +86 21 6211 1845, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., entry: RMB 20,

4. Shanghai Municipal History Museum (上海城市历史发展陈列馆)

Shanghai Municipal History MuseumOn your left, a wax doll. On your right, an actual human.

The Shanghai Municipal History Museum is a maze of Old Shanghai scenes peopled with life-size wax dummies. It sounds dated and a bit creepy, and it is. But it’s also surprisingly informative and evocative.

The museum resurrects a lost world where newsboys and nuns roamed the streets, where silk-clad drug addicts lounged on opium beds and where old men trained crickets for fighting.

The museum is housed in the basement of the Oriental Pearl Tower, the iconic skyscraper that looks like it swallowed a few giant golf balls.

After touring the Shanghai of yore downstairs, visitors can take the elevator up the tower to see modern Shanghai’s futuristic skyline.

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Oriental Pearl Tower, 1 Shiji Da Dao, near Fenghe Lu 世纪大道1号, 近丰和路, 8 a.m.-10 p.m., entry: RMB 35,

5. Shanghai Museum of Glass (上海玻璃博物馆)

Shanghai Museum of GlassKlutzes should abstain from visiting.

Be forewarned -- the Shanghai Museum of Glass is in a run-down industrial neighborhood some way out of the center. But for architecture fans, it’s worth the trip.

The 6,250-square-meter museum, which opened last year in a former glass factory, is a maze of glittering windows, flashy LED screens and translucent floors.

The downside is that the dazzling architecture and museography overshadow the collections themselves, with their antique glass bead necklaces and snuff bottles. Other exhibits focus on science and innovation, in prisms, fiberglass and bulletproof glass.

Kids will enjoy the glass-blowing demonstrations in a warehouse behind the museum, and the museum’s airy café is a trendy setting for sipping a coffee.

The space is also a quiet respite from Shanghai’s noise and crowds. Visitors are sometimes outnumbered by the cleaners busily wiping down all the shiny windows and display cases.

The best way to reach the museum is to take Metro Line 1 to Tonghe Xincun (通河新村) or Metro Line 3 to Changjiang Nan Lu (长江南路) take a 10-minute taxi ride (around RMB 15).

A taxi ride directly from the city center costs about RMB 60 and will take around 45 minutes.

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Shanghai Museum of Glass, 685 Changjiang Xi Lu, near Jiangyang Nan Lu 长江西路685号, 近江杨南路, +86 21 6618 1970, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., entry: RMB 20,

6. Shikumen Open House Museum (屋里厢博物馆)

Shikumen Open House MuseumEvery lady deserves a place to powder her nose.

The Shikumen Open House provides a nostalgic vision of historic Shanghai. A stop here is a respite from the skyscrapers that are relentlessly replacing Shanghai’s shikumens, the historic brick family residences with stone gates.

Located in Xintiandi, the three-story museum is the place to go if you’re a fan of 1930s Shanghai decor.

It recreates a traditional family home, with cozy displays of club chairs, worn leather suitcases, painted fans, enameled compacts of ladies’ face powder, wicker baskets, retro film magazines and old wedding photos.

Popping into the museum for half an hour will make you feel less guilty about whiling away an afternoon in an aseptic shopping district frequented by tourists, expats and wealthy locals.

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Shikumen Open House Museum, No. 25, Lane 181, Taicang Lu, 
near Madang Lu 太仓路181弄25号, 近马当路, +86 21 3307 0337, Sunday-Thursday: 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m., entry: RMB 20 per adult, RMB 10 per child,