Conquering Shanghai: Travel Planning Guide

Overview

Perhaps the best way to characterize Shanghai is as China’s New York City.  While the political heart of China belong in Beijing, the financial heart is in Shanghai.  It also in many represents a modern China.  Remnants of the traditional China are disappearing in Shanghai.  They are being replaced with shiny new skyscrapers of a modern metropolis.  While many may come to Shanghai for business, there is plenty of reason to visit the city for leisure.     

Get to Know Shanghai

Shanghai means above the sea and is located just off the East China Sea.  The mighty Yangtze River sits right outside the city and the Humangpu River cuts right through the center.  Its location helped turn it into a key world port as well as a great center of fishing. 

Great location and natural resources helped it grow to what is now over 23 million people.  Today however industry and finance are the key contributors to Shanghai’s growth and wealth.  A treaty forged in 1842 allowed western banks to come in and set up shop.  This allowed Shanghai to flourish in an otherwise communist regime of mainland China.  Shanghai is the economic center of China.  The city is home to more than 1,000 buildings of at least 30 stories tall including the second tallest skyscraper in the world, the 2,000 foot Shanghai Tower. 

With so much business going on in the city there is wonder that Shanghai is one of the most culturally diverse cities in China, although most people who move to Shanghai come from other parts of China.  There are many museums and the city is the birthplace of Chinese cinema.     

When To Go

Shanghai has four distinct seasons.  The winters are cold and damp although snow is rare.  Summers are hot and humid.  Spring and fall are the best times to visit if good weather is a priority.

Summer is the busiest travel season, but keep in mind it is a business center first and foremost so it is always somewhat busy.  Spring time has blossoms blooming, but does bring increases in crowds.  October to November provides the best combination of lower crowds and good weather.  Be sure to check out a calendar of Chinese holiday’s as that will always increase crowds and hotel rates will rise. 

 

How Long To Stay

Shanghai is a marge metropolis that is impossible to see everything in a short stay.  4-5 days will give you a good overview of the city with and additional days tacked on will allow you to enjoy even more and get a better sense of the city as a whole.

Language Barrier

Shanghainese is the most common language spoken in Shanghai with Mandarin the official language of China coming in second.  As the city is an International business hub, English is widely spoken within business and tourist areas, but do not expect anyone to speak English.  You will most likely encounter English speakers in young people and those who work at hotels and restaurants frequented for foreign guests.

Getting To Shanghai

As one of the most populated and important cities in Asia, Shanghai is well connected.  It is a large transit hub and is one of the two primary ways to get into mainland China along with Beijing. 

Most foreign visitors are required to purchase a Visa prior to arrival.  American’s can choose between a single visit or multi visit Visa.  It typically involves at least one month to obtain a Visa.  There is a special Visa Free transit option that can be used under certain circumstances that allow you to not get a Visa prior to arrival.  Another note is that you are required to register as a foreign visitor upon arrival.  If you are staying in a hotel then this is taken care of for you.  If you are staying with a friend or through a home sharing service, you are supposed to register your visit at a local police station.        

By Plane

  • Pudong International (PVG) 25 miles outside the center of Shanghai lies the primary international airport.  The large modern airport has two large terminals connected to each other by shuttle.  You can get into the city by taxi, bus, or train.  Taxi is the most expensive and easiest, bus the cheapest and train the most fun.  In action lot the local metro train, the worlds first maglev train connects Pudong Longyang metro station in only 8 minutes and travels over 300mph. 
  • Hongqiao International (SHA) Hongqiao is approximately 8 miles outside downtown Shanghai.  It is primarily a domestic airport with select flights from locations around Asia.  Arrival in the city can be done by taxi, bus, and metro.  A railway station at the airport connects it by high speed train to cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou.

By Train    

Four major rail stations connect Shanghai to other cities around China.  In under 5 hours you can connect to Beijing and even Hong Kong via a sleeper car.  China is investing large sums in high speed train travel with new routes constantly being added.     

Getting Around Shanghai

Shanghai has a modern transportation network and it is relatively easy to get around even if you don’t speak the language.  Signs in metro station are in English and if you are familiar with other large cities transportation networks, Shanghai will look familiar.  It makes navigating this large metropolis manageable. 

Tickets can be purchased as a single ticket, 1 day, 3 day or reusable card that you can top up anytime.    

Metro – The metro is modern, clean, and cheap.  It offers the best combination of speed and cost to get around the city.  If you have experience in using other metro systems around the world, Shanghai is easy to get around.  It also involves the smallest language barrier.  As long as you can understand the metro map and can buy tickets from a machine, you are fine.

Bus – The bus system in Shanghai is cheap and extensive.  The problem is it can be confusing and there maybe no English translation.  Some stops only have Chinese characters.  Unless you are confident in where you are going, it’s probably best to avoid the local bus service.

Taxi – Taxi’s can be a good value especially for small groups and are usually the fastest method of transportation as long as you don’t hit traffic.  Most drivers do not speak English.  Have a local write down the address in the local language and present to the driver.  Or you may use a business card.  Always grab a business card fro meh hotel you are staying at.  Be sure though the meter is on so you don’t get ripped off. 

Boat – You can cross the Huangpu River in several spots by ferry.  They are not connected to metro stations, but if you are along the river bank and don’t want to walk to the nearest metro station, they are a great and cheap alternative. 

  

What To See

As you would expect, there is a lot to see and do in Shanghai.  You will never have time to see everything.  Below are some of the top sights and must sees around the city.   

  • The Bund – The most recognizable pictures of Shanghai are taken from the bund.  One one side of the river lies old European style buildings and the other is the magnificent skyline full of some of the tallest buildings in the world.  You haven’t been to Shanghai until you walk the bund.    
  • Oriental Pearl TV Tower – The defining feature of the skyline is the futuristic TV tower.  It may not be the tallest tower on the skyline, but it is one of the coolest looking. 
  • Yuyuan Garden – The traditional Chinese gardens has become a tourist trap with surroundings selling trinkets and restaurants catered towards toursits, but the gardens are wonderful to stroll through.
  • Jade Buddha Temple – The traditional Buddhist Temple is lesser known to foreigners so it offers a bit more of an authentic experience although still more crowded than its original intention.  Among the many relics is the famous Jade Buddha. 
  • Shanghai Science and Technology Museum –The modern museum is one of the better science museums you will see with plenty to see and do. 
  • Shanghai MuseumAn absolute must visit in Peoples Square.  It houses some of the most fantastic relics of Chinese history dating back thousands of years.
  • Peoples Square – The center of Shanghai features the Shgnahia Museum, Grand Theater, and several government buildings in the vicinity. 
  • Tianzifang – The charming neighborhood is full of shops and eateries.  It’s nice to walk around, but is a bit touristy so beware of the prices. 
  • Longhua Temple – The oldest temple in Shanghai dates back to 242 AD.  Walk around and take in the peacefulness as a break from the hectic life in the city.    

 

What To Do

  • Day trip to a Water Town – Think Venice with Chinese architecture.  There are plenty within a short distance of Shanghai with Qibao  being the closest.  They are traditional photogenic villages that maintain their classic charm. 
  • Visit to Shanghai Disneyland – Disney’s newest theme park offers plenty of thrills and fun for the entire family.   
  • See the city from above at one of the many Observation Decks – Shanghai Tower is the tallest observation deck in the world, but many of the tallest buildings in Shanghai offer views from the top overlooking the city.
  • Walk and shop along Nanjing Road – The primary shopping and dining boulevard of Shanghai.  You can bug almost anything here.
  • The Shangcheng Acrobatic Show – Be amazed by the incredible human feats of an acrobat show.  You wont regret it. 

Money

You will see the currency in Shanghai and all mainland China referred to as either RMB or CNY.  It’s all the same so don’t worry about one place saying one over the other.  The easiest place to exchange money is at an ATM and they offer the best exchange rate.  You should have little problem finding an ATM.  Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere.  Be sure to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.

Budget Tips

Shanghai is a moderately priced city when compared to other top places around the world.  It is more expensive than many other cities in Asia, particularly South East Asia, but more economical than places like London and New York.  There are still many ways to save on your time in Shanghai. 

Accommodations

  • Stay outside the high season.  Avoid the summer and holidays as prices skyrocket.  Be sure to check out a Chinese holiday calendar as there are many holidays specific to China that can make tourist destinations extremely crowded and hotels much more expensive. 
  • Use hotel reward points.  There are many western hotel brands in Shanghai.  They are also more likely to have English speaking staff if that is a priority for you.
  • Hostels are very budget friendly and there are many options.

Attractions And Food

  • Visit free museums.  The Shanghai Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Rockbund Art Museum are all free and fantastic. 
  • Take a free walking tour.  There are plenty to choose from and are very informative.
  • Eat at a local restaurant and avoid western chains.  You’ll get a better meal at a cheaper price. 
  • Buy food at a supermarket.
  • Eat at happy hour.  Pubs and even near west end productions will offer happy hour pricing.

Transportation

  • The metro is extremely cheap and efficient. 
  • Enjoy the city on foot.  Several districts are fairly compact.  Use the metro to get from one area to the next, but you can walk around in many areas with no problem.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things to know

  • As stated earlier foreigners need a Visa to enter the country under most circumstances.  Give yourself at least a month to secure a Visa.
  • Many western websites like Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China.  Use a VPN to be able to see these on your phone or computer.  VPN’s are blocked in China so download and activate them before you leave.
  • There are plenty of cultural differences.  You may get knocked over my a little old lady while trying to get onto a a train.  It’s acceptable and necessary to push your way through crowds.  There is a lack of personal space as well. 

Things to avoid

  • Don’t so too much.  Know you won’t see it all and give yourself a reason to come back.  Don’t rush your trip.
  • Beware of scams.  At the airport do not take a taxi fro anyone offering you a good price.  Go to the official stand outside.  There is a reason they are only shouting at foreigners.  You will likely be approached to buy a Rolex at a too good to be true price and a common hustle is for someone to approach you and offer to take you to a traditional tea shop for a real China experience.  They are taking you to a place where you will be overcharged.  Don’t do it.      
  • Driving.  It’s crowded and confusing with no signs in English.
  • Don’t talk politics.  You can get into trouble for speaking out against the Chinese government. 

Time Saving Tips

  • Buy tickets to attractions online in advance.  Don’t spend valuable time waiting in line.
  • Make a rough itinerary.  A little planning will allow you to be more efficient with your time.
  • Book accommodations in advance. 


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