This post is contributed by Arianna Bennett!
Hi there! I’m Arianna, a seasoned ex-pat and travel photographer who spent 2 years living and teaching English in Shanghai, China.
Like most Americans in China, I spent my time searching for the hottest spots to hang, the best Chinese food in the world, and the coolest coffee shops that aren’t Starbucks. A huge, international city like Shanghai can be overwhelming for newcomers.
So, leave it to a local to guide you through the best this city has to offer.
Here’s my local’s guide to visiting Shanghai!
The Best Time to Visit
The best weather in southeast China is during the springtime; it is the sweet spot between when the rainy season is letting up and right before it gets too hot to be outside.
However, avoid going during the month of May at ALL costs. The first weekend in May is China’s Labor Day, and the entire country has it off. March and April are ideal, but it is the beginning of peak season and prices are high.
If you are booking on a budget, opt for September/October. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to squeeze in your trip before the monsoon season and save a little money.
Shanghai’s metro system is extensive and cheap at about ¥3-¥6 (40¢-90¢). It’s ideal for traveling moderate to long distances at a reasonable pace.
If you’re in a hurry, you’d be better off taking a DiDi, given that it’s not rush hour. DiDi is China’s version of Uber, and widely used by foreigners because the app is English-friendly.
My favorite way to get around town is to take a public bicycle.
The most popular ones are the blue Hello Bikes. By preloading money to your Alipay or WeChat account, you can connect to Hello Bike by scanning the QR code on the handlebars.
The fee is ¥12/ month ($1.78) and so worth it. It’s cheap, easy, and user-friendly.
Where to Stay
Luxury: InterContinential Shanghai Wonderland
This world-class hotel is a hidden gem; meaning it is literally hidden underground. The InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland is a stunningly unique work of architecture, built into the side of a quarry 288 feet below the surface of the earth.
Standard rooms start at $350 with stunning views of the quarry and cascading waterfalls; the deluxe suite can range upwards of $2,400. A small price to pay for essentially a penthouse with a built-in floor to ceiling aquarium.
Mid-Range: Pullman Shanghai Jingan
At under 100 USD per night, the Pullman Shanghai Jingan is one of the top choices for mid-range travelers.
A mere 2-minute walk from Shanghai Railway Station and a few miles away from People’s Square and the Bund make this a perfect home base. Guests can also enjoy the 2 restaurants, bar, fitness center, and pool.
Budget: Mingtown Shanghai Etour International Youth Hostel
In the heart of downtown, just 8 minutes from East Nanjing road, is a tiny, stone grey hostel tucked away from the bustling streets in a side alley. Although it doesn’t sound or look like much on the outside, the inside is Instagram-worthy. This is the Mingtown Shanghai Etour International Youth Hostel.
Central outdoor Koi pond, 24/7 bar with beer, iced lattes, and everything in between, and a rooftop garden to sit and enjoy your drink with a view. For less than $10 a night, that’s what a budget backpacker would call a steal.
What to Do + Local Highlights
Visit Yu Garden
Yes, Yu Garden is on every must-see listicle for Shanghai, but for good reason. This unmissable sight is a classic botanical garden with traditional east Asian architecture planted smack in the middle of a modern city, and the contrast is stunning.
Plan a few hours to wander along the waterways, exploring each tiny nook and cranny of every incense- scented temple. Yu Garden is especially beautiful in spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming, and in fall when the leaves are changing color.
The Bund is considered the hotspot of central Shanghai. Located on the bank of the Huangpu River, the surrounding skyscrapers make great viewing platforms for the city and the riverboats gliding down below.
The iconic Oriental Pearl Tower is found here and no trip to Shanghai is complete without seeing this quintessential landmark.
Tipsy Roller Skating at RIINK
Enjoy cleverly crafted cocktails under pulsing pink and blue neon lights, strap on a pair of roller skates, and twirl the night away at RIINK. This roller rink/bar is a local favorite and remains undiscovered by the tourist crowd due to its off-beat location.
It is quite an adventure to find the place but driving or biking through the city at night is one of the most memorable scenes anyway.
Bargain Hunt at a Night Market
China is the wonderland of knockoff brands. You will come across all kinds of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and household items, for prices nowhere to be found in the States.
The best part is everything is negotiable. The greatest way to go bargain hunting in Shanghai is to visit a night market. Vendors sell anything and everything from knickknacks to wedding dresses to pets, and every price is up for debate.
Night markets can get wild, so I suggest either brushing up on your Chinese or bringing a Chinese friend to help translate.
Karaoke TV is a right of passage for every foreigner living in China. KTV is almost considered an essential service and one can be found on every street corner. Packed past 9 pm every day of the week, karaoke is the most common social activity among locals.
Drinks plus good friends and terrible singing always make for a memorable night.
Yuyuan Old Street
Those looking for the real feel of China must take a stroll down Yuyuan Old Street. The ancient architecture line cobblestone streets where hundreds of tiny shops selling rice paper sunhats, jewelry, and porcelain leave their doors ajar all day welcoming customers.
Yuyuan is street food heaven.
Baskets full of steamed buns, vegetables, exotic fruits, and strange, jiggling pastries are sold from so many little carts that they outnumber the people. If authentic China is what you’re looking for, plan on spending all day here.
Things You Have to Eat
Although most known in Sichuan for its fiery flavors, hot pot is a social meal popular all around China. Due to the city’s port history and proximity to the coast, hot pot in Shanghai often features seafood and vegetables. It’s really the chef’s choice, meaning you.
A flavored (or not) pot of boiling hot liquid is placed in the center of the table while raw ingredients are brought for you to cook in the pot yourself. The options are limitless: choose from crab, tofu, beef, mung beans, crawfish, onion, and more.
Jianbing is the Chinese version of a crepe. Crafted on a hot plate from wheat batter and eggs, they are a popular and cheap breakfast choice among locals.
Also, like crepes, jianbing is sold on a cart around every street corner where you can decorate your breakfast with an array of toppings like sesame seeds, green onions, black bean paste, and chili oil.
Steamed Bun (bao zi)
Another favorite street breakfast item is the steamed bun. A soft, doughy bun stuffed with ground pork and vegetables make for a cheap and filling on the go meal.
One of China’s few dessert options, tangyuan is often eaten around the holidays. Made from glutinous rice flour and water, it’s typically boiled and served in hot water. The wet spheres are typically either filed with red bean paste or black sesame paste.
Mostly served in restaurants, with the exception of the Spring Festival, when tangyuan is sold by every street food vendor in the city.
Known in the US as bubble tea, boba is a milk-based tea that features chewy tapioca balls at the bottom. It is a fun and sweet treat that you can drink either hot or iced. If you have a sweet tooth, try using vanilla ice cream as your base in place of milk.
Where to Eat
For Breakfast: Si Ji Xuan
For those who want to experience brunch the Chinese way, Si Ji Xuan is where you must go. Serving the classics such as dim sum and the unusual like goose wings, the food is traditional, yet unique.
For Lunch: Haidilao Hot Pot
As previously stated, you cannot go to Shanghai without trying hot pot, and there is no better place to do that than Haidilao. Guests rave over the wide selection of ingredients and unparalleled customer service. The classiest hot pot joint on the coast.
For Dinner: The Captain
This one is for my budget backpackers. The Captain is a bar located on the rooftop of a local hostel donning the same name. A great view, amazing food, cheap drinks, and a few good friends is really all you need.
- To stay connected to Google and social media during your time in China, download a VPN (a virtual private network) before you go!
- In a big city like Shanghai, many people are bound to speak English; but many people don’t. Brush up on your Chinese during the 15-hour flight.
- Download WeChat to communicate with friends and family back home!
- Bring your favorite hygiene products; likely you won’t be able to find them once you arrive.
- Eat all the street food.
- Be prepared for culture shock by being excited and willing to embrace it!
Want more info to help plan your trip? Check out this blog post: How to Spend 48 Hours in Shanghai.