Shanghai, China Trip Planning Guide

This Shanghai city guide provides trip planning tips including the best things to do, where & in which hotels to stay, transportation info, and more about China’s largest and most modern metropolis. As the photo above illustrates, Shanghai is a breathtakingly cool and futuristic place, and we’ll try to help you plan for a visit!

In a basic sense, Shanghai is mainland China’s counter part to Hong Kong. Both are cosmopolitan world cities, serving as powerful economic and cultural hubs. There are obvious and pronounced differences between the two; Shanghai has undergone a meteoric rise in international prominence and redevelopment beginning only a few decades ago, and has not slowed since. This is reflected in the ultra-modern and ever-expanding Pudong skyline and its main highlight, the Oriental Pearl Tower.

Before we dig into the guide, we want to be upfront with the fact that we’ve only traveled to Shanghai once so far. Normally, we try to visit destinations at least a few times before writing these more ‘comprehensive’ guides to them, but we’ve had a lot of interest in the city of Shanghai from Disney fans who are planning trips to Shanghai Disneyland. Accordingly, this guide should be considered an incomplete work-in-progress.

While we always recommend consulting an array of resources for a broad range of coverage and opinions, in the case of Shanghai, using guidebooks–like Lonely Planet Shanghaiis strict necessity, as we’ve yet to experience many of the city’s highlights.

With that said, there’s no shortage of things to do in Shanghai, and even just wandering around this mega-city of 24 million people is a fun experience. In this guide, we’ll take a look at some of those popular tourist destinations, and cover a variety of topics that will help you plan your trip to this incredible city…

When to Visit

As noted at the top, we’ve only been to mainland China once, so our ‘when to visit’ is hardly a comprehensive window into when we made trips to Shanghai. However, we have been to Hong Kong numerous times (see our Hong Kong City Guide if you’re also traveling there), which shares similar weather patterns and is impacted by many of the same tourist trends, which usually result from national holidays.

In terms of national holidays, there are two week-long Golden Weeks in China each year; these occur during Chinese New Year and the first week of October. These are among the most crowded times of the year to visit, and unless there’s a specific event for Lunar New Year that you want to experience, we strongly recommend avoiding both Golden Weeks. In addition to crowds, you’ll be paying more for accommodations and flights during these travel periods.

More broadly, the main season we’d strive to avoid is summer, which is exactly when we visited Shanghai. Climate-wise, Shanghai is not as far south as Hong Kong, which can be brutally hot as early in the year as April and as late as November. It’s also not as far north as Beijing, where it can snow in the winter.

However, Shanghai does have a range of weather, with everything from subzero temperatures to oppressive heat. With this in mind, we view late-October through mid-December and February through April as the best times to visit Shanghai. This article covers other good/bad times to visit China.

To Visa or Not

Most visitors to mainland China are going to need/want to apply for a travel visa prior to visiting China. The Chinese Embassy website details how to go about this. There are a number of services that will make the process painless for you if you’re uncomfortable submitting the paperwork yourself.

For our first trip to China, we took advantage of the 144-hour visa exemption policy. Shanghai was our only stop in China, and staying just over 6 days (the clock doesn’t start ticking until the day following arrival) was plenty of time for us before continuing on to Hong Kong.

This rule only applies if you’re making a stopover in China and are visiting a third country on your trip. If your itinerary is Los Angeles to Shanghai to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, you are eligible for the exemption. If you’re taking a roundtrip flight to Shanghai, you are not eligible. Be sure to consult this comprehensive 144-hour visa exemption resource before taking advantage of this policy, as there are some tricks to it.

Note that this is a seldom-used rule and many airport agents may not be aware of it. This is especially true at airports that don’t have regular flights to China (for example, an agent in Los Angeles will be more well-versed than one in Orlando). Agents should be able to enter your flight info in Travel Information Manual Automatic (Timatic) system and be advised that you qualify for visa-free travel, so press for that if you have issues.

Flying out of Los Angeles, we had zero issues taking advantage of the 144-hour visa exemption policy. However, there are some horror stories on the 144-Hour Master Thread on FlyerTalk–but even more success stories, so don’t get too scared. We mention this not to dissuade you from taking advantage of the 144-hour rule, but so you arrive at the airport with ample time to address any issues that might arise.

Once we landed at PVG, we took advantage of the visa-free line at Immigration. If you’re utilizing the 144-hour exemption, make sure to look for this line. There was literally no one in it when we arrived at Immigration, as compared to a very long line for regular visa transit.

Where to Stay

We’ve only stayed at two hotels in Shanghai, so take our opinions with a grain of salt here, but one thing we noticed while researching where to stay prior to our trip was the opulence and lavishness of the top-tier hotels. Pretty much every luxury hotel brand in existence is represented in Shanghai, from Fairmont to the Peninsula.

From what we saw, these hotels are far less understated than their counterparts elsewhere. Generally speaking, things are ostentatious and conspicuous displays of wealth are common in China, and this is readily apparent in the hotels. The result is sort of like Las Vegas meets Texas meets Hong Kong. Everything is luxurious, but if subtle is your style, you’re in the wrong place.

Of course, not every hotel is a high-end, chained brand flagship location, and there are plenty of budget and mid-tier options as well. In our research, we found hotels across the entire spectrum to be cheaper than other major cities in the Asia market. Presumably, this is a result of the abundance of hotels.

In any case, here are some Shanghai hotels that we found appealing during our research:

  • Grand Hyatt Shanghai
  • The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong
  • The Peninsula Shanghai
  • Mandarin Oriental Shanghai
  • InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin
  • Park Hyatt Shanghai
  • Banyan Tree Shanghai On The Bund
  • Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund
  • Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai at Pudong
  • Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai
  • Fairmont W Hotel
  • W Shanghai – The Bund

If our research was any indication, the price points for these hotels was significantly lower than other locations of the same brand. Several of the above hotels can be booked for around $200/night, whereas the same hotel might cost you double that (or more) in Tokyo, Los Angeles, etc.

They’re still by no means cheap, but if you want to splurge on a luxury hotel, Shanghai’s competitive pricing gives you a good excuse to upgrade!

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai (our room is pictured in both photos above), and loved it. The room was spacious, well-appointed, and tasteful. We really enjoyed the breakfast, and found all of the amenities to be nice. The view from our room was a perfect view of the Oriental Pearl (the top photo in this post is from our room), and it was hard to go asleep at night with that view to gaze at.

If a nicer hotel is outside your budget, you might consider booking an Airbnb rather than a budget hotel. For less than the price of a small, barebones hotel room with minimal amenities in Shanghai you can book a spacious apartment via Airbnb that’s over double the size.

We know some people are apprehensive about apartment rentals, but it’s usually a much better option than budget hotels. We’ve used Airbnb dozens of times (literally) in Asia, including multiple month-long stays, and have never had an issue with language barrier, the rental provider, etc. (One time we couldn’t unlock a door, but that was user error on our part.)

Most units in Asia have a self-checkin process with a key-code or lockbox, meaning you never interact with anyone face-to-face. It’s super easy, convenient, and usually inexpensive. You can use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb! If you’re dead-set on a budget hotel but you’ve never stayed in a Asian-style hotel, be mindful of room sizes before booking, as some rooms can be glorified closets–right down to not having any windows…

Transportation

For flights to Shanghai, we recommend that you start by checking out ITA Software using flexible travel dates to narrow times that might be cheapest. There are a myriad of advanced options, and in our experience, ITA is the best way to find the lowest prices on airfare for set dates of travel.

We also like ITA because it’s great with more complex itineraries that include stopovers, open-jaw flights, etc. You will need these if you’re planning to take advantage of the 144-hour rule, as a third stop (after your departure city and Shanghai) is necessary. Hong Kong is the easiest option for this, but Tokyo and other major cities in Asia also work. As Disney fans, those are cities we regularly visit (and in fact, we cover how to visit all three in our “How to Visit 3 Disney Destinations on 1 Airfare” post on DisneyTouristBlog.com).

If you’re in the preliminary stages of researching your trip to China, start by setting some fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts here and receive email updates when they deem prices to be low. From Los Angeles, we’ve found roundtrip airfare for as low as $500, with “good” prices being in the $600-800 roundtrip range. If you’re flying from another part of the country, expect to pay more (airfare from smaller airports could be double those prices).

There are two airports in Shanghai: Pudong International Airport (PVG) and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA). You’ll likely arrive into PVG if you’re traveling internationally. Once you land in Shanghai, you’ll likely need transportation into the city-center. While the airport is on the outskirts of town, there are several convenient options for transit, including taxi, bus, and rail.

Rail is the easiest and most economical option, and there are two ways to get to downtown Shanghai via rail. First, there’s Shanghai Metro Line 2, which connects downtown to the airport. This will get you from PVG to People’s Square in about 68 minutes.

If you’re in more of a hurry or just want to experience the world’s fastest train (arguably deserving of its own spot on this list), there’s the Shanghai Maglev Train. This is exactly what the name sounds like–a magnetic levitation train. It’s basically like the hover board from Back to the Future, but for an entire train full of people.

Running to a maximum operational speed of 430km/h, the Shanghai Maglev Train is faster than even Japan’s Shinkansens. (Although Japan has tested its SCMaglev at speeds of 603km/h, and is in the process of getting those operational.) The Maglev takes 7 minutes to arrive at Longyang Road Station, where you’ll still need to board the Metro Line 2 to get downtown. It’s more expensive than the Metro, but still pretty cheap by mass transit standards.

As mentioned, taxis are also available, but be weary of these and other private drivers located inside the airport. You’ll likely be met by a bunch of “airport reps” inside PVG trying to book you a charter car–ignore them and go outside to find a taxi. If you book one of the cars inside, you’re going to pay at least $50. (These guys can be very pushy and ignoring them is the best strategy, as once you engage at all, they won’t leave you alone.)

Within Shanghai, public transportation via the Metro is great. The trains are very clean, safe, and reliable. While Asia has space-age stuff like hovertrains and bullet trains, in the U.S. we are stuck with outdated, inefficient, and crumbling mass transit infrastructure–and most of it smells like urine.

In terms of getting around Shanghai, there are several useful apps are Explore Shanghai, SmartShanghai, and Baidu Maps.

Things to Do

It’s difficult to making sweeping generalizations based upon our limited time in the city, but Shanghai did not strike me as a place with a surplus of bucket-list must-see sights. In this regard, I found it to be very much like Hong Kong or Tokyo, each of which have compelling things to do, but are also more about being there than doing things.

Shanghai is renowned for places like the Bund with its historical buildings lining the Huangpu River and the futuristic skyline it overlooks. Strolling past these places, across skyway pedestrian bridges and through lovely parks, was a highlight of our visit to Shanghai.

As with those Asian world cities, the allure of Shanghai is in exploring, eating, and letting everyday life unfold before your eyes. Some strange, some breathtakingly beautiful, Shanghai is about these living vignettes, and we had the most fun simply wandering around, getting lost, and letting the city come to us. Nevertheless, here are some things you might want to add to your itinerary if you’re less of a free-spirit who actually wants to accomplish things… 😉

Psychedelic Sightseeing Tunnel – It’s probably going to sound dumb, but this trippy tunnel was one of my favorite things in downtown Shanghai. Formerly known as the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, this is an alternative to the Metro for crossing the Huang Pu River, and what an alternative it is. The only scenery is pulsating, futuristic (or perhaps more accurately, the 1990s take on futuristic) lights, but it’s a hoot. Reviewers from others are mixed at best, but I think it’s good fun. Hedge your bets by using it as actual transit in your itinerary rather than “splurging” for the round-trip ticket. I’ve embedded a video above, both because I forgot to take photos of this (I’ll make the excuse that I was too mesmerized) and also because you should probably determine where you stand on this surprisingly divisive tunnel before potentially wasting your time.

Explore the Bund – This is most visibly where East Meets West in Shanghai, as the Bund features a row of historic, pre-World War II buildings built by international powers. These are now occupied by foreign consulates, luxury hotels, and other high-rent businesses. At night, the Bund is the best place for viewing Shanghai’s ultra-modern skyline on the other side of the river, with bright and colorful neon lights illuminating tightly packed skyscrapers. Experiencing the Bund is as simple as wandering down the promenade, stopping for food and shopping as the mood strikes you.

Shanghai Disneyland – This co-venture between Disney and a state-owned company is one of the world’s most extravagant theme parks. At first glance, it follows the familiar “Main Street and Castle” formula of other Disneyland-style parks, but that’s where the similarities end. Almost nothing here is cloned from the U.S. parks, as the Chinese government wanted a lavish and original park. We’re biased as huge Disney fans, but if you’re even mildly interested in theme parks, you should visit–be sure to arrive before the park opens, and consult our Shanghai Disneyland Planning Guide for additional strategy.

People’s Square – This is Shanghai’s de facto museum district, along with the popular People’s Park. The highlight of People’s Square is Shanghai Museum, a sprawling museum that focuses on the history, rich culture, and arts of the city. From what we gleaned while doing our research, this is the unequivocal museum highlight of Shanghai, and most other options are sorta meh for English-speaking visitors.

Yuyuan Gardens – Found in Shanghai’s Old Town, Yuyuan Gardens is a traditional Chinese must-see. Personally, I thought the Yuyuan Gardens was vastly overrated, and despite visiting early in the morning to avoid crowds, it was still pretty far from serene. Nevertheless, it was the best exemplar of Chinese architecture we experienced. The rock formations are stunning and there are some peaceful ponds, so don’t be scared away. Near the entrance you’ll also find Huxinting Teahouse, which is one of the most famous teahouses in China.

Jing’an Temple – A stark contrast to its ultra-modern surroundings, Jing’an is fine by temple standards, but most interesting in that it underscores the the clash of traditional versus modern as progress marches forward in Shanghai.

Nanjing Road & Other Shopping – I’m not normally one for luxury goods, but I needed to buy a new pair of shoes (long story) during our time in Shanghai, so we hit up a few malls. I have never seen so many stores that look like they could double as art galleries. (You know the kind I’m talking about–ones with maybe two dozen items on the shelves, each displayed as if it’s an exhibition piece.) Mall after mall of designers I’ve never heard of, making Rodeo Drive look like amateur hour.

Duolun Lu Cultural Street – Another place to walk and admire the architecture as well as scenes of daily life. There’s a quaintness to this era, and its early 20th century restorations, which now house a variety of antique shops, art galleries, cafes, and private residences. Duolun Lu offers a sharp contrast to the frenetic pace elsewhere in Shanghai.

Internet

Most visitors to Shanghai will either want to either rent a SIM card or a MiFi unit.Alternatively, some carriers offer free international data (T-Mobile) or sell day passes for modest fees.  We used 3GSolutions for MiFi rental and were satisfied with our experience. They also do SIM cards, which are cheaper, but we opted for MiFi since it’s easily shareable.

Our MiFi was delivered to our hotel downtown and handed to us at check-in. When we were done with the rental, we gave it to the front desk at Shanghai Disneyland Hotel in a package provided to us. I guess someone from 3GSolutions goes around and picks them up? All I know is that we weren’t charged for the device, so they must’ve received it somehow.

At PVG, you’ll find free WiFi so you can check whatever you need to check before leaving the airport. Unlike Hong Kong where free public WiFi is available across the city, it’s not quite as widespread in Shanghai (and we could rarely get it to work–most times it required receiving a text message to activate; we finally gave up).

The most important thing to know in terms of the internet is that “The Great Firewall of China” blocks out a number of popular social media sites and portions of the internet that are important for connected Americans. As such, we highly recommend getting a VPN. We opted for and would recommend ExpressVPN (that link will get you 30 free days, but it’s after you pay for 30 days, so those free days may be of little use to you).

We found ExpressVPN to be very reliable and fast. We had absolutely zero issues with it, and would recommend it. (We didn’t try alternatives, so YMMV on those.) You might also consider Opera’s free VPN, which people have reported using with success in China. We opted against this since it would be ineffective for non-browser based internet uses.

Money

China’s currency is the Yuan (you can find a current conversion rate via Google). You might consider ordering some Yuan before your trip from your local bank, as it’s nice to have as a safety net. It’s not necessary to order a significant amount, as the vast majority of businesses in Shanghai accept credit card. We only withdrew a little bit of cash and used credit cards 99% of the time.

As with all international travel, we strongly recommend having a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. In fact, having multiple credit cards is ideal, in case one is inexplicably denied or flagged. Notifying your bank of travel plans can help avoid these scenarios, but it’s not foolproof.

When paying with your credit card in Shanghai, always choose to pay with Yuan. For some transactions, you’re given the option between the local currency and USD, and you should always choose the local currency to avoid a potential fee and for a more favorable conversion rate.

What to Pack

When traveling to China, the most important thing you’ll need to pack that’s different from other places you might visit is a power adapter. Plugs there are three-prong “Type I” as opposed to “Type A” that we use in the United States. If you intend upon doing international travel to other destinations in the future, we recommend something robust, like this Universal Travel Adapter.

That adapter is nice because it features 2 USB plugins in additions to a standard plug. Rather than buying/packing multiple adapters, we pack that along with a Travel Power Strip. If you’re staying at a Western chained-brand hotel in Shanghai, there’s a very good chance they will have US plugs in addition to Type I, but it’s better to play it safe.

If you’re visiting Shanghai in the late spring, summer, or early fall, you’ll want to plan for hot weather, as noted in the ‘When to Visit’ section above. Anything you can think of to keep you comfortable in the oppressive heat should be packed; we recommend things like Frogg Togg Chilly Pads and USB-Powered Fan will come in handy to keep you cool, as will moisture wicking clothing.

In general, we would caution against overpacking and recommend only taking a single carry-on bag, especially if you’ll be moving around via the trains, or visiting multiple cities or countries during your trip. Mass transit in Asia can be crowded, and dragging around multiple suitcases is a serious hassle.

Shanghai is a world city, and you can purchase just about anything there that you’d be able to purchase at a convenience store anywhere else. In other words, don’t pack for every possible contingency. If you are going to be staying in multiple hotels in Asia, we highly recommend packing cubes or compression bags for organization.

This has already grown unexpectedly long, so I think we’re going to end it here (I think this is how we’ve wrapped up just about all of our City Guides!). To sum things up, we think Shanghai is a city that requires some planning in terms of the logistics of the trip, but once you actually arrive in China and get to your hotel, you don’t need as much structure as you might in other cities. Wander around, eat at random hole-in-the-walls, and see the different districts of the city. Shanghai is a cool and fascinating place, and hopefully we’ve provided at least some assistance in this rambling 3,500+ word post to help you better plan your trip!

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Shanghai or anywhere else in mainland China? If so, what did you think of experience? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Things that you’d recommend doing in Shanghai? Would you visit again, or was Shanghai a one and done for you? If you’re planning a trip to China, do you have any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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3 replies
  1. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    Thanks for this. There are a lot of useful tips that I never would have thought about in this guide. I would be interested in more old world type sites, temples and such.

    Reply
  2. floweranger
    floweranger says:

    I just got back from Shanghai, wow, who knew that it’s so hard to use social media out there. Thank God, I had my old NordVPN account, and it worked fine. Btw, I’ve tried few free VPNs, but sadly in China, they suck.

    Reply
  3. Donald
    Donald says:

    Thank you for this! Heading to Shanghai for 3 nights in November (after Hong Kong and before Osaka/Kyoto), so I plan on traveling visa-free and was curious about some of the other nuances of visiting China. Sounds like a lot of it is fairly seamless in Shanghai!

    Do you think it would be ridiculous to travel around Shanghai without a SIM card or MiFi unit? Will definitely download a VPN, but curious if I can manage between PVG, my Airbnb, etc. Don’t need to be connected to social media all the time, but would you say navigation is manageable without being connected?

    Reply

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