A dynamic city of almost 20 million people, no single discernable centre point and few iconic landmarks does not make for an easy stroll, and if you have down-time in Shanghai between business meetings, making the most of it might not come easy. Depending, however, on the time of day you find yourself with a few spare hours, there are plenty of worthy diversions – if you only know where, and when, to find them.

Hit YuYuan Gardens and Bazaar early (218 Anren Jie, Old Town) before the tourist hordes do to explore this beautiful Ming-era gardens full of carp pools, pavilions and rockeries. Look out for the Hall of Heralding Spring (Dianchun Tang), the 1853 headquarters of the Small Swords Society, and the Exquisite Jade Rock, then grab breakfast at the Nanxiang Steamed Bread Store beside the Nine-Bend Bridge.

Mid morning:
Life is more fun with a few startling contrasts hurled your way (witness Shanghai's own marriage of atmospherically historic and achingly modern). Take this to the extreme with a juxtaposition of a visit to the serene Chenxiangge Nunnery (29 Chenxiangge Road, Old Town), a beautiful yellow-walled temple home to around 40 nuns, and a trip through the highly bizarre, decidedly Wonka-esque Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (300 East Zhongshan No 1 Rd, The Bund), where puppets wave, piped music plays, and everything gets just a little psychedelic. If, however, you value tranquility over kaleidoscopic lights, consider instead a stroll around Lu Xun Park (146 East Jiangwan Rd, Hongkou) where, amid the blossoms, locals come for tai chi, and elderly musicians practise their tunes.

If it is Friday, peep in at the Peach Garden Mosque - built in 1917 and Shanghai's main mosque - when worshippers flock for Friday prayer. If not, look in on the glittering Taoist gods at the Qinci Yangdian Temple (476 Yuanshen Rd, Century Ave), Shanghai's largest Taoist temple. Next spice up your lunch at Di Shui Dong (2nd floor, 56 Mao Ming South Rd, French Concession), a bustling local joint where the gorgeous Hunanese dishes come with a liberal sprinking of red peppers. If you are feeling adventurous, try the boiled frog; if not, stick to the fiery chilli chicken. For something swisher and slightly less spicy, try Shanghai Uncle (222 Ya'an Dong Lu, People's Square), locally famed for its spare ribs cooked with cabbage, bacon and pine nuts.

Spend an afternoon exploring Shanghai's burgeoning arts scene, first at the 50 Moganshan Road Art Centre (50 Moganshan Rd, Jing'an), where edgy contemporary artists emerge, then at Art Scene China (No. 8, Lane 37, West Fuxing Rd, French Concession), housed in a beautifully restored villa. Alternatively, spend a fascinating afternoon exploring the vast Shanghai Museum (201 Renmin Ave, Renmin Square), whose tens of thousands of stellar exhibits lead you through the story of China's civilisation. Make sure you find time, however, to pause for champagne high tea, served between 1430 and 1730 local time at the Portman Ritz Carlton's (1356 Nanjing Xi Lu) comfortable lobby lounge. 

Early evening:
Whisk yourself up by fast-moving elevator to the 88th-floor observation deck of the soaring Jinmao Tower (88 Century Avenue, Pudong) as dusk settles over Shanghai, to see the lights go on across the city, then pop just one floor down to Cloud  9, to sip an aperitif with a view in one of the world's highest bars.

If, as evening descends, you find yourself craving old Shanghai more than a gourmet dinner, head directly to Yong Fu Elite (200 Yongfu Road), where the unspectacular Shanghai-style food is more than compensated for by the nostalgia of a candlelit 1930s villa, once a private members' club, set in a gorgeous garden on a beautiful street. Alternatively, head to Yin (Jinjiang Hotel Gate No. 2, 59 South Maoming Rd, French Concession) with a similarly vintage feel, and wonderful regional food from across China.

Sip a final cocktail or two in the quirky Salon de Ning, hidden away in the Peninsula Hotel (32 Zhongshan Dongyi Rd, near East Beijing Rd), or catch some live tunes on Friday and Saturday night at Ark Live House (No. 15, North Block, Xintiandi, Lane 181, Taicang Rd, French Concession). And, if you have finally tired of the fancy soaps and trouser presses of the colossal five-stars, opt for a night at the luxurious little Hengshan Moller Villa (30 Shanxi Rd), a house straight from the pages of a gothic children's story, with its own intriguing Poe-like history to match.

The article 'Whistle-stop Shanghai on business' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.