Shanghai is one of those cities that people talk about, but that few Americans ever have the opportunity to visit. For most of us, China is a 14-18 hour plane ride away. The language barrier can make it seem like an incredibly daunting place to visit.
Earlier this year, Josh and I were fortunate enough to be able to take the trip of a lifetime. We began in Shanghai. Then we boarded a cruise ship and went to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Phillippines before ending our trip in Hong Kong. I hope to be sharing more about the other locations in the future. This trip is something we’ve been planning for four years and it was better than we could have ever dreamed.
Getting Over the Language Barrier in Shanghai
I am a Midwestern American who only speaks English. Traveling to Asia, especially to parts of Asia where very few locals speak English, was incredibly intimidating to me. After spending 21 days there, I can admit my concerns were unfounded. My eyes and heart are now open to a part of the world I hadn’t given much consideration to previously.
While we visited several different countries, I want to start by sharing with you about our experiences in Shanghai. It was a perfect place to start our journey through Asia.
Isn’t Shanghai Crowded?
By population (26.32 million in 2019), Shanghai is the largest city in China. It is the second most populous city proper in the world (second only to Chongqing). Nine million of Shanghai’s 26 million residents are long-term migrants. They came to work and provide money to their families back home. While the population density of Shanghai is over 3,800/km2, we didn’t feel overly crowded in Shanghai.
Shanghai is one of the major financial centers in the world. As China developed into a more capitalistic economy, Shanghai grew into its major financial hub. It has embraced that role and stands in parallel with financial hubs across the world like New York and London.
The Visa Situation
If you’re traveling to Shanghai from the United States you have a couple of options for Visas. Full disclosure: Please always check current rules, regulations, and travel notifications from the US State Department and Chinese Embassy. I am not a travel agent.
Most travelers to China will need to apply for a full visa. This can be done in a couple of ways. You can visit a Chinese Consulate or you can hire a document service to handle that. If you need a full visa, plan ahead. This this can be a time-consuming, expensive process if you have to go through a document service.
144-Hour Transit Visa
If you’re just transiting through Shanghai on your way to another country, you may qualify for the 144-hour transit visa. Josh and I traveled using the transit visa and it’s very easy to do as long as you meet all of the qualifications.
When we arrived in Shanghai, we went to immigration line that specified that we were applying, on-site, for a transit visa. We completed the forms, confirmed with the agent managing the line that we qualified for the transit visa (they check all of your travel documents, including your lodging reservation while in Shanghai, your forward ticket, and the full itinerary for your trip – note that if you are returning to China at any point during your trip, you DO NOT qualify for the transit visa).
If you’re unsure whether or not you qualify for the transit visa, I recommend having a conversation with your travel agent. They will be able to help you determine your eligibility.
If you are eligible, it’s a really easy way to spend a few days in China without the time and expense of getting a visa.
Getting Around Shanghai
There are several options for getting around Shanghai that I’d recommend. When you arrive at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, you’ll be able to take a taxi into the city or you can take the Maglev train to the Longyang station, where you can transfer to the Metro or get a cab or rideshare.
The Maglev train is a pretty cool way to get into the city. It travels faster than any other commercial passenger train in the world (as of April 2019 – before the 2020 Olympics, Japan is set to unveil a faster Maglev train) at 267mph. The link I’ve shared here gives some great information and photos so you’ll know what to expect as you look for the ticket counter, purchase your ticket, and board your train.
One thing you should know when you arrive at the Longyang station is that you should either plan to transfer to the Metro here, or you should summon a rideshare. I do not recommend getting in a taxi at this station, even if you use the official taxi line. We had a pretty scary experience in an official taxi, from the official taxi line, when we got off the Maglev. Only later did I find out that taxis who frequent this station tend to target tourists and scam them out of additional money by claiming not to know where the passenger’s destination is.
Note: For this option to work, you must have cellular data (not just WiFi) on your phone in Shanghai. If you’re looking for a great option for cellular service that works, without additional plans or SIM cards in most countries across the globe, I recommend Google Fi.
The first thing you should know is that Uber and Lyft don’t exist in Shanghai. If you’re a regular Uber or Lyft user though, you’re in luck. DiDi (Apple | Google) works just like Uber and Lyft and it’s in English. It even allows you to choose from standard phrases to send your driver that will show up for them in Mandarin. Getting your account set up can be a bit of a struggle, but I recommend downloading the app and setting up your account before you ever leave the United States. I was really lucky in that I was able to connect my Chase Sapphire Reserve card without any issues. Some credit cards will not allow you to connect them to DiDi, so you’ll want to check this ahead of time.
After our bad experience with a taxi, we only used DiDi to get around the remainder of our time in Shanghai, including a 45 minute ride to the International Cruise Port, on the outskirts of Shanghai.
The Shanghai Metro is really easy to use. We were fortunate enough to have a guide for most of our time in Shanghai, so she helped me navigate purchasing of Metro tickets. This site is super helpful, as well.
The Shanghai Metro is clean, fast, efficient, and safe. If you can’t get DiDi to work on your phone, the Metro is a fantastic alternative. Shanghai Metro offers several ticket options, including rides between individual stations and and single-day and multiple-day unlimited passes.
One thing you should know about maps in China is that they’re generally not completely accurate. While we didn’t have any issues using Google Maps (with our Google Fi service, which has a built in VPN for cellular data) while we were in China, I did notice weirdness when I returned home and was looking at the GPS data for some of our photos.
China uses a different system for mapping than the rest of the world does, so maps don’t necessarily line up when you’re looking at streets and satellite imagery. In this example screenshot, you can see that the pier seems to be completely mis-aligned with the street map overlay.
Half as Interesting has a great video explaining the map quirks and if you’re planning to visit China, or you’ve always wondered why satellite images of maps in China don’t line up correctly, I recommend taking the minutes to watch it.
Where to Stay in Shanghai
When researching where we wanted to stay in Shanghai, we considered Airbnb locations and hotels. We decided to go with a hotel due to the police registration requirement for foreigners visiting China. Hotels generally register guests, but if you stay at an Airbnb, with a local family, or through another home-share method, you have to register with the police yourself. If you choose not to register with the police, you could face deportation or be banned from China in the future.
Once we decided we would be staying in a hotel, we had to determine what the most important features of a hotel would be. We ultimately decided that, if we could find a hotel that provided us with the iconic view of the Shanghai financial district skyline, we wanted to make that happen. While researching our options, we found the Hyatt on the Bund and it hit the skyline view requirement out of the park.
If the Hyatt is out of your budget, I would recommend looking into hotels in the area of the Hyatt on the Bund. Any hotel on the Puxi (west) side of the river should feature photos of the skyline on its website if it has a good view. We found that the Puxi side of the river has more to do and more of the historic area of the city, as the Pudong (east) side of the river is newer and has been built up in the past 30 years.
What to see in Shanghai
There’s so much to see in Shanghai and never enough time to see it all. Here, I’ll feature some of our favorite spots from our trip, but please don’t limit yourselves to only doing what I’m recommending. There are many spots we didn’t get a chance to visit and I’m sure they’re absolutely worth checking out.
The Jade Buddha Temple was a great way to start our exploration in Shanghai. It’s full of incredible history and is remarkably well preserved. Unfortunately, the site does not allow photos of the actual Jade Buddha, but we were able to capture photos in other areas of the temple grounds with no issues.
Yuyuan Garden was a really unexpected and super pleasant discovery. It’s tucked into a shopping area and if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d never know it was there.
Another hidden gem in Shanghai is the Shanghai Confucian Temple. When we were there, we were literally the ONLY people at the temple. In a city of almost 30 million people, that’s an incredible feat. While we were at the Temple, we were fortunate enough to be able to participate in a private tea ceremony and tasting of teas that can only be found at this particular temple. I definitely recommend participating if you visit. It’s like nothing we’d ever experienced before and we have a whole new appreciation for tea.
One of the more unique traditions of Shanghai is the Umbrella Market at People’s Park. When we originally visited, it was a Friday, so the market wasn’t happening, but we were able to come back the following day to experience the market.
This isn’t what you would think of when you think of a traditional market. The vendors are parents of adult children and the goods being marketed are those adult children. Each available person has their information listed out on a sheet or two of paper, with details about age, occupation, education, etc. The papers are taped to open umbrellas and other parents browse the market looking for potential spouses for their children.
It’s a really fascinating tradition to experience and shows how western culture is very different from Chinese culture.
Nanjing Road is a fantastic and lively pedestrian shopping district that becomes even more lively at night when the neon turns on and the atmosphere becomes electric. We visited on a pretty rainy night and you can see from our photos that the rain didn’t really dampen the experience for anyone. If the rain or walking gets to be too much for you, you can hop in one of the very inexpensive shuttles and take a ride from one end of the pedestrian area to the other.
We didn’t end up shopping at all, but just the experience of walking through the area and listening to the sounds was an amazing experience on its own.
The Bund is a definitely “don’t miss” spot in Shanghai. If you have the opportunity to walk it at night, it is breathtaking to stand along the water and look across to the financial district, while basking in the golden glow of the buildings along the Bund.
The Bund was part of the original international settlement in Shanghai and you can see western influences on the architecture everywhere in this area.
Just across the river from the Bund is the Shanghai financial district, or Lujiazui, in the Pudong district. Here, you’ll find iconic buildings like the Shanghai Tower, Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, and Jin Mao Tower.
If the weather is clear enough, you’ll want to experience the view from the observation floor of the Shanghai Tower. It is the tallest observation floor in the world at 1,841 feet (inside the world’s 2nd tallest building, behind only the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai). The tower makes it very easy to determine whether or not is it worth it to take the trip to the top of the tower. At the base, outside of the building, there is an information booth that has monitors showing video of current views from the top. You can take a look at the monitors and determine if it’s worth your time and money to go to the top.
Your ride to the top will be in the fastest elevators on the planet, taking you up 118 floors in 55 seconds. The elevators have a timer inside and you can definitely tell you’re ascending quickly when your ears pop all the way up and the rush of wind hits you as you step out of the elevators and onto the observation floor.
Capturing the photos of Shanghai from above at night is not to be missed. Even a little fog didn’t deter us from making the journey into the sky for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Where to Eat in Shanghai
One of the most intimidating things, aside from the language barrier, for a lot of western tourists in China is the food. When you step off the plane in Shanghai, you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, and the food you’re about to experience is going to change your life and open your eyes to things you’ve never considered before.
Obviously, we didn’t get to every amazing restaurant in Shanghai, but we signed up for three separate tours (I’ll talk more about a couple of those a little later) that included stops at various restaurants (two tours that were solely food tours) during out time in Shanghai and I feel like we got a really great list of places to recommend to others who are planning to visit.
Shanghai Hall is a place we stopped for lunch on our first full-day tour with a private guide. She gave us some recommendations from the menu (all of which have associated photos, so ordering, even without a guide, is super easy) and we choose from those recommendations.
The restaurant is inside of a shopping mall (just like SO many great restaurants in Shanghai) and was absolutely huge. We arrived after the lunch rush, so we were some of the only people in the entire restaurant, but the service was fast and friendly and I had some of the best green beans (I didn’t get a picture, unfortunately) I’ve ever had.
This was also our first experience with soup dumplings, and if you’ve never had them, you HAVE to add them to your must-try list. If you’re unfamiliar, soup dumplings, like the name implies, are filled with soup. You have to be very careful eating them, so you don’t bite in and dump soup all over your lap, but they are absolutely worth the trouble. I’ll never look at dumplings the same again.
Nanjing Impressions is probably the most authentic restaurant we encountered while in Shanghai. We were truly the only non-locals in the restaurant and the entertainment was truly unique. We tried potstickers, chicken feet, mixed vegetables, and beef noodle soup here and would have stayed all night trying all the fantastic dishes.
Again, the menu included photos of all the dishes, so ordering by pointing is completely acceptable.
Taoyuan Village was a complete surprise, and part of a food tour offered by our cruise line, Holland America, through a partnership with Food & Wine magazine. It’s a Taiwanese style restaurant with multiple locations throughout Shanghai.
We had several unique dishes that opened my eyes to a style of food I likely would never have thought to order on my own.
The soft tofu (bean curd) soup was a really unexpected surprise and I would absolutely get it again if I was presented with the opportunity.
The rice rolls with pork floss (dried pork) were like an amazing, giant sushi roll, without the fish.
The fried dough sticks were like Chinese funnel cakes with less of a mess.
It was all amazing!
Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant was another spot on the Food & Wine magazine tour from the cruise line. Here, we got to try four different kinds of soup dumplings, all made by hand, while we waited. By this point in our trip, I had already fallen in love with soup dumplings and I was thrilled to get to sample some more.
The Press was also included on the Food & Wine magazine tour. It’s a cute little restaurant and coffee shop housed in the former headquarters for the largest news press in Shanghai. We didn’t get to spend much time here, but we were able to grab a coffee and dessert and both were worth coming back for. I personally recommend the passion fruit cheesecake.
We unintentionally visited the world’s largest Starbucks twice while we were in Shanghai. Once, on our own, and once with the Food & Wine magazine tour. It’s definitely worth a stop for anyone who loves Starbucks. This location has food for days and drinks you can only get here. It’s a little overwhelming when you first walk in, but I recommend going on a weekday, if you’re able, as you’ll avoid the large crowds that visit on the weekend.
When you’re here, make sure you check out all of the different parts of the building and order a drink from the special menu. It’s a really unique experience and most of the staff speak English, so it’s very accessible for western tourists.
How to See it ALL
If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’re realizing that there’s no way we saw all of this in three days, on our own, without some help, and you’d be absolutely correct.
We booked several tours while we were in Shanghai so we’d be sure to see everything we wanted to.
We booked the Shanghai Incredible Highlights tour and the Shanghai Ultimate Night tour through Jenny’s and we would recommend it to anyone looking for a great way to see Shanghai. We ended up doing both private tours in one day, with the same guide, Summer (if you’re lucky enough to be paired with Summer, you’re in great hands – she was spectacular). Unfortunately, it looks like Jenny’s doesn’t offer the night tour any longer, but they do have lots of other night tour options in Shanghai.
Jenny’s guides typically meet you right in your hotel lobby and they handle coordinating all of the transportation for you (for an additional fee, but it’s well worth it). We felt like we were given rockstar treatment all day and Summer took amazing care of us. It was a long day, but one we wouldn’t trade for anything. Seriously, book with Jenny’s if you’re going to Shanghai – you won’t regret it!
The first of the food-focused tours we booked in Shanghai (and the one you can book too) was with UnTour Food Tours. We did the Shanghai Night Eats tour, and while it is focused on an area a bit outside of the normal “tourist zone” in Shanghai, I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. You’re not going to encounter anything more unique on a food tour than you will on this one.
In order to preserve the quality of the tour, I’m not going to share the names of the restaurants we visited, but I will tell you about the theme of the tour and show you some of the food.
The tour is focused on 5 main restaurants, all featuring dishes from different regions of China. The guides do a great job of telling you all about where the food you’re trying comes from and you can really tell how different food is in China, depending on the region you’re visiting.
If you’re contemplating a trip to Shanghai, I hope some of these recommendations and tips have helped to sway you toward booking the trip. It’s an amazing city, with a lot to offer. If you can get past the language barrier, it’s truly a wonder to behold and you won’t regret your time there!
Other blogs in my What Not to Miss series: