If you want to visit one of the biggest cities in the world, you definitely need to consider Shanghai. With a population of over 25 million people, Shanghai is the biggest city in China and one of the 5 biggest cities in the world. For comparison, Shanghai is slightly bigger than Sao Paulo, Brazil, which is the biggest city in the entire western hemisphere. While visiting a city 1.5 times bigger than New York may sound intimidating, Shanghai is absolutely worth the visit, and actually very tourist friendly. After living and working there for a whole summer, we definitely recommend checking it out. This guide will help you plan your trip while giving our top tips – as well as those from our Chinese friends – for visiting Shanghai.
Top Things to Do in Shanghai
Being so giant, Shanghai has just about anything you could want. This list is certainly not exhaustive – it’s more so just our top recommendations for things to do as an American tourist in the biggest city in China! From Chinese history and culture to American icons, this list should help you to start planning your Shanghai itinerary.
1. Walk down Nanjing Road
Nanjing Road is one of the coolest places to explore in all of Shanghai. This long strip is filled with stores, restaurants, and malls of every price range and is an awesome way to spend an evening. This place is so popular that during busy hours you need to swim through crowds of people just to get to wherever you’re going.
Since it is easily accessible by the metro, Nanjing Road is one of the world’s busiest shopping streets ranking right up there with Times Square. One of the best things to do here is enter the very fancy malls and look at stores like Gucci, Versace, and Louis Vuitton, but unless you’re rich, these items are probably not within your price range. While it is known best for its luxury designer brand stores, Nanjing Road is a must-see part of Shanghai for travelers of every budget.
2. Visit Yu Garden and Chenghuang Temple
Built over four centuries ago, Yu Garden is a must-see attraction in Shanghai. This beautiful outdoor garden was built by the Ming Dynasty and was the center of sophisticated culture at the time. Spanning about five acres, you can expect to spend a bit over an hour here and come out with great pictures and a deepened appreciation for Chinese architecture.
Both of these complexes show the beauty of old Chinese architecture and are conveniently located right in the city.
Chenghuang Temple is a different pace and style from Yu Garden but is equally worthy of a visit. This giant Taoist temple was built in the middle of the 1600s and is one of the most iconic places to visit in all of Shanghai. The temple grounds are actually made of nine buildings covering over 21,000 square feet. Both of these complexes show the beauty of old Chinese architecture and are located right in the city. No Shanghai visit is complete without stopping at both of these places!
Whenever you think of a major city, there are iconic attractions that come to mind. In Paris, it’s the Eiffel Tower. In Rio de Janeiro, it’s Christ the Redeemer. In Shanghai, that attraction is the Oriental Pearl Tower, which was the tallest structure in China until 2007. This TV tower that appears to have a giant pearl lodged in its core is one of the biggest and most iconic buildings in Shanghai and is a bucket list item that you need to see.
The tower is so tall that our ears popped when taking the jet elevator to the top.
Conveniently, the Shanghai Tower is nearby! The Shanghai Tower is the second tallest building in the entire world standing at 2,073 feet, trailing only behind the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Taking an elevator to the top of the Shanghai Tower is a really cool experience, as there is only one building in the entire world that can take you any higher. From the top of the Shanghai Tower, there is a great view of the Oriental Pearl tower, too, which is an added perk of paying the ticket fee!
4. Spend a Day at Disneyland Shanghai
In case you didn’t know, Disney is really popular. Disney is so popular around the world that there are six Disneylands in five countries on three different continents. Everyone knows about the Disneyland in Los Angeles and Disney World in Orlando, but not as many people realize that you can also go see Mickey Mouse and his pals in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai! Visiting Disneyland in Shanghai is very easy to do, and is a great use of a day if you’re looking for something to do.
For-warning: The lines are even longer than Disney World in Orlando.
We spent a day at Disneyland and honestly didn’t go on one ride. The lines are insanely long – longer than in Orlando – and the one ride we waited in line for shut down as we got to the front. However, don’t let our iffy experience mar your expectations! The park is awesome to walk around in, and we had some really fantastic food, too. You can reach Disneyland directly on the Metro and you can buy tickets online or at the park.
5. Experience a Proper Night Club
We aren’t normally crazy partiers. While we love having a good time, we’re more into chill bar scenes than we are into clubs. With that being said, visiting a rooftop night club is a must-do thing in Shanghai if you like to go out. There are so many great options, and the parties are truly incredible. While there is a cover at some bars, the experience is totally worth it.
We went to Bar Rouge, which is considered one of the best spots to go out in the whole city. As Shanghai is so international, these night clubs are filled with people from all over the world.
We actually have two friends that met in a club in China and wound up getting married a couple of years later!
On that note, local establishments love when foreigners visit, as attracting foreigners in China tends to earn a place some esteem. As China is extremely ethnically homogenous (not diverse), any non-Chinese tourists are pretty exotic and give a club or bar a lot of street cred. For this reason, foreigners often drink for free in the finest clubs in all of Shanghai.
How to Get to Shanghai
Being one of the biggest cities in the world, you can expect that Shanghai is a very accessible destination. In fact, Shanghai is the only city in China to have multiple international airports! Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) is the bigger of the two international airports and handles about 60% of the cities air traffic. Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA), the other of the two, handles the other 40% of Shanghai’s flights. If you’re visiting Shanghai from abroad, your only option will be to fly into either of these airports. The flight from the United States to China is a very long one regardless of your origin and destination cities, so I’d recommend that you check out my detailed guide to finding cheap flights so that you can save yourself a bit of cash.
We flew in and out of Pudong International Airport, but both airports are very nice and are connected well to the city. Both airports are served directly by metro stations. Pudong International Airport’s metro station is served by line 2, while Hongqiao International Airport’s station is served by both lines 2 and 10. To get from either airport into the city, the most convenient way is absolutely by metro.
If you’re heading to Shanghai from somewhere else in China, look into taking a bullet train. We took a high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing and it was a really cool experience. The train moves at over 200mph, and we covered the 819 mile distance in about 4.5 hours.
How to Get Around Shanghai
METRO | DIDI
Even though Shanghai is one of the biggest cities in the world and sprawls further than the eye can see, it is one of the most navigable cities I’ve ever been to. Getting around Shanghai could not be any easier, thanks to the incredible public transportation. I’ve mentioned in several posts how much I value a good metro system, and Shanghai easily has the best metro system I’ve ever used. While the metro systems in Panama City, Sao Paulo, and London are all great, nothing even comes close to the quality of public transportation in Shanghai. The subway is immaculately clean, it’s air-conditioned, and its 18 lines that share 473 stations will take you anywhere in the city you need to go. All of that, plus it’s cheap and all of the signs and announcements are in both Mandarin and English.
Shanghai has the best metro I have ever used.
If you are going somewhere that isn’t conveniently reached by the metro or you aren’t a fan of public transportation, you should download the DiDi app. DiDi is essentially China’s Uber, and it works pretty much the same. In fact, Uber owns a big portion of DiDi! You can call a ride from anywhere in the city, and your driver will drop you off at your designated destination. DiDi is just as safe and convenient as Uber and is definitely the best way to get around the city other than the metro.
If you can avoid it, NEVER take a taxi in Shanghai. The drivers will undoubtedly rip you off when they see that you are foreign. Instead, download the Didi App.
While there are taxis all over the city and they are safe, we never recommend using taxis unless its absolutely necessary, and since DiDi covers the whole city of Shanghai, taxis just aren’t necessary. They usually cost more than a DiDi, and many drivers will make up their own price rather than using the meter. If you do need to use a taxi, make sure that the driver turns on the meter and sets it to zero before starting your trip.
Is Visiting Shanghai as an American Safe?
Despite the tense political relationship between the Chinese and American governments, visiting Shanghai as an American tourist is about as safe as visiting the United States as a Chinese tourist. In fact, we felt like Shanghai was one of the safest major cities we’ve ever been to, largely thanks to the strong policing and culture of responsibility. The metro trains are all watched by security cameras, too, which makes pickpocketing pretty rare on the metro, at least compared to other metro systems around the world. We walked around late at night without any problems whatsoever, and never once had any kind of threat or instance of insecurity.
Shanghai was one of the safest major cities we’ve ever been to, largely thanks to the strong policing and culture of responsibility.
While this shouldn’t need to be said, it is a sad trap that many Americans and other western tourists fall into when visiting Shanghai: don’t seek out any kind of prostitution or “special” massage treatments. Many unwise tourists fall into one of these two traps and are very quickly stuck in a room with a pimp and forced to withdraw thousands of dollars before leaving. I’m not even kidding. While it shouldn’t need to be said, stay away from all forms of prostitution as it is illegal, dangerous, and costly.
On a similar note, be sure not to commit any crimes while visiting Shanghai. Some laws differ than those of the United States, and most laws are strictly enforced. Just like the United States, you probably don’t want to wind up in a Chinese jail until things get sorted out. We literally had friends who got into trouble at a night club and if our Mandarin speaking professor hadn’t been there to step in, they would have been arrested. Don’t be dumb and please follow the law.
Our Final Tips for Visiting Shanghai as an American
That’s all we have for you about visiting Shanghai as an American! Hopefully this Shanghai Travel Guide helps you to plan the best possible trip to the biggest city in China. If you have any questions, be sure to drop a comment in the comment section!
If you’re planning a trip to Shanghai, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have. Otherwise, have a wonderful day and stay present!