With its estimated population of 23 million people, Shanghai is the largest city in China and the largest city proper on earth. Straddling the Huangpu River near the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is a city of contrasts—between rich and poor, east and west or old and new—and nowhere is this more apparent than at its most famous attraction. At the Bund, you can admire the classical Western architecture on the Puxi side of the River, then glance across and take in the ultra-modern skyline on the Pudong side. Shanghai is an endlessly fascinating city and one of my favorites, much nicer than the capital Beijing—I liked it so much, I stayed for two years.
Best Time to Go
Shanghai summers are very hot and humid and winters are deceptively cold—the high humidity and the wind make temperatures seem much lower than they actually are. Autumn is by far my favorite season in Shanghai, with mild temperatures and many sunny days. Spring is comfortable too, but it can rain quite a bit.
Getting to Shanghai
Shanghai has two airports: Pudong, the main international gateway and Hongqiao, which serves mostly domestic flights. Both airports are connected to line 2 of the Shanghai metro (opposite ends) and the subway serves as one of the cheaper options for getting between the airports or into the city.
From Pudong airport, you can additionally take one of the airport shuttles that stop at various places around town. These are easily the best options as they only cost slightly more than the subway, but are much less of a hassle if you have luggage.
Alternatively, you could take the maglev (the world’s fastest train), but it is a little expensive and only goes part of the way downtown, so you’ll have to change to the subway or get a taxi the rest of the way. The taxi will be steep, but still much less than taking one all the way from the airport.
While the airport shuttles are great from Pudong, very few (if any) shuttles are still in operation from Hongqiao airport, so you’ll have to rely on public transport if you want to save money. It’s not really a problem though, as line 2 takes you right downtown and numerous buses stop at the airport as well. You are also within walking distance (or one stop on the subway) from Hongqiao Railway Station.
Shanghai has six railway stations (with plans to build another one), but travelers will likely only make use of three. Shanghai Railway Station is located right downtown and while it used to handle virtually all traffic into and out of Shanghai, recently more and more trains are being shifted to Shanghai South Railway Station for southern destinations and Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station for high speed trains. All stations are well connected by several subway and numerous bus lines.
Shanghai has several long distance bus stations, the main one being the Long Distance Bus Terminal just to the west of the Shanghai Railway Station.
The Shanghai metro system is cheap and fairly extensive. For those places not served by the subway, the bus system is even cheaper and even more extensive, but is generally only signed in Chinese. You hotel staff will be happy to guide you to the correct bus.
Even if you don’t have a destination in mind, I’d recommend riding the bus at least once, as it is a great way to experience life in Shanghai. You never what what kind of craziness you might run into—I was commuting to work one morning, when two elderly men got into an all-out brawl on the bus.
I’d advise against relying on taxis, as Shanghai is a large city and fares can add up. Most drivers are honest and should you encounter one who refuses to use the meter, just get out and find another.
Know that many drivers will only stick to their side of the city and even then they may not be very familiar with it, as they are likely recent arrivals from elsewhere. They also likely won’t speak any English. It does not accomplish anything to get angry at your driver if he or she is not getting you where you want to go, as this is very common and almost always unintentional.
Shanghai has accommodation options in every price range, although you’ll pay a bit more for them than you would in most parts of China. When I first got to Shanghai, I stayed at the Mingtown Hiker Youth Hostel, while I was looking for an apartment. It’s cheap, clean, well-run and located right next to the Bund. I stayed there again, when I was back in Shanghai a few years later.
Of course there are countless hostels and hotels in Shanghai. The Shanghai page of Agoda is a good place to start looking. Even if you don’t want to book in advance, their city accommodation maps are excellent and I always use them to scout out some locations before arriving.
Eating & Drinking
Shanghai has far and away the best nightlife in China. You’ll find everything from glitzy and expensive nightclubs to cheap, grungy basement bars. My favorite was Bonbon on Huaihai Road and Changshu Road, but that was several years ago. Things change quickly in Shanghai. You’re best off asking the staff at your hostel or looking through one of the expat magazines (That’s Shanghai, City Weekend, etc).
Shanghai cuisine enjoys a pretty bad reputation and rightfully so. It is often described as “sweet and oily”, mainly because it’s sweet and oily. And neither of those in a good way. Luckily, you’ll find every cuisine imaginable in Shanghai and you’ll find most of them in all price ranges. You won’t go hungry and this is one place where I would recommend NOT bothering with the local cuisine.
One possible exception is the Shanghai Hairy Crab which is available in the winter months. People go crazy over these and they might be worth giving a try, although I did not get the appeal. I’ve had much better crabs elsewhere and they came from much less polluted waters. I generally avoided eating seafood in Shanghai and if you take a look at some of the surrounding bodies of water, you’ll likely do the same.
Violent crime is rare, but petty theft is common in crowded areas like stations and tourists attractions. Be especially aware of pickpockets (gypsy women with babies are commonly working with them).
Scams are very common in touristy areas (Nanjing Road and People’s Park especially), including the notorious tea house scam, where locals, usually young women, befriend you and invite you to join them in a tea house. When the bill arrives, it will be much higher than expected and the friendly young girls will be replaced by threatening men.
Pollution could also be a problem for those with respiratory disorders, but that is true in most Chinese cities. The air in Shanghai is actually cleaner than in most others (that still doesn’t make it healthy by a long shot).
Don’t drink the tap water unless it has been boiled. Even then, you’re better off avoiding it, as it contains heavy metals which are not removed by boiling. Bottled water is cheap. At least it should be—if you’re finding it expensive, you’re being ripped off. Buy it at convenience stores or supermarkets.
Things to Do
- Yuyuan Gardens: beautiful garden surrounded by old neighborhood with classical Chinese architecture; very touristy and very crowded; entrance to the garden is ¥40, walking around the old town is free
- The French Concession: great area to walk around and admire the architecture; good sections are along Shaoxing Rd, Hunan Rd, Fuxing Rd and Hengshan Rd. You will also find numerous boutique shops and great restaurants along Xinle Rd, Changle Rd and Anfu Rd
- Oriental Pearl Tower: I never bothered to go up, but if you’re interested, it’s 120 RMB (I’ve heard it’s worth it, but I’ve also heard it’s not)
- The Bund: Shanghai’s most famous site, this waterfront strip boasts great classical western architecture as well as great views of the modern architecture across the river; definitely beware of pickpockets and scams in this area—that friendly local or fellow tourist you just met is anything but…
- Huangpu River Boat: great way to see the Shanghai skyline, but some tour companies are very overpriced, so shop around; should be around 25 RMB for an hour or 55 RMB for three; boats depart from the Bund’s southern ferry port; a much cheaper alternative is to simply take one of the many ferries that cross the river for 2 RMB—the views won’t be as good though
- Bund Tourist Tunnel: called a tourist attraction for some reason, it features a very slow tram moving through a tunnel lit up by a very cheap and cheesy light display; at ¥40 perhaps the biggest waste of money in all of China; if you just need to cross the river, take the subway or a ferry; if you want to see something interesting, do anything else
- Jinmao Tower: China’s third tallest skyscraper; as an alternative to the Pearl Tower observation deck, you can have a meal near the top of the Jinmao Tower for around the same price; alternatively, you can simply have a drink with a view in the bar
- Shanghai World Financial Center Tower: Shanghai’s tallest building and one of the world’s tallest; ¥150 for the observation decks or simply have a drink in one of the bars or restaurants at the top
- Zhujiajiao Water Town: one of many water towns near Shanghai—villages crisscrossed by canals and a maze of little paths and bridges—and probably the most picturesque; cheapest way to get there is by bus from the Puanlu station near People’s Square or the station at the Indoor Stadium (from Puanlu, take the bus line called Huzhu Gaosu Kuaixian; it’s an express and only takes an hour and costs 12 Yuan)
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport; take the airport shuttles for convenience and low cost or the subway to save even more
- avoid taxis in general; stick to the metro and the buses, especially for longer distances to the outlying sites; due to heavy traffic, the subway is often the faster way to go as well
- don’t go to the bars on the Bund or in Xintiandi if you are trying to save money; you’ll pay less anywhere else
- eat street food—there’s something for every taste; I hated Shanghai’s food, but even in the middle of the touristy Nanxing West Road, you can walk one block and be in the middle of a little Muslim district, which was much more to my liking (and quite cheap, although they might try to overcharge you, if you let them)