Don’t set foot in the financial
centre of China before digesting these practical pointers.
Let’s get this out of the way: Shanghai is huge. More than 25 million people live in the city located at the mouth of the longest river in Asia, the Yangtze. Locals sometimes endearingly refer to Shanghai as ‘Hu’ or ‘Shen’, while economists and bankers know it as the financial centre of China.
You could arrive in Shanghai either in Hongquao International Airport or Pudong International airport, though it’s far more likely to be the latter. To help you get your bearings, remember that Shanghai is divided in two by the Huangpu river: west of the Huangpu is Puxi, while east of it is Pudong. Expect to spend more time in Puxi, because it’s where all the cool restaurants, historic sites and cultural must-sees are located. Pudong is the more modern area that’s home to the Shanghai International Financial Centre, the Jinmao Building and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
Once you’ve got your bags and cleared customs at Pudong airport, it’s easy – and blisteringly quick – to get to your hotel. First, buy a Shanghai Public Transportation Card that can be used on all buses, taxis and metro lines. The initial purchase costs CNY100 (CNY20 deposit, CNY80 to use).
Hate queueing up for airport taxis? You won’t have to in Shanghai. For CNY50 one way, you can board the world’s first commercial Maglev train (which travels at 430km/h) and you’ll be in town in less than eight minutes. From there, hop on any one of Shanghai’s 16 metro lines to get to your hotel. Its metro map can be bewildering to first-timers, so we recommend noting down the closest metro station to your accommodation and the places you want to go.
If you’re not in the mood to hop on a train, Shanghai’s fleets of taxis are affordable and readily available (except during rush hours or when it’s raining). Ensure it’s got a company logo on top, a meter, and a vacancy indicator to know it’s legit. Don’t tip, don’t flag one down at crossroads, and always get the receipt. Alternatively, you can download DiDi, an e-hailing app similar to Uber and Southeast Asia’s Grab; it’s available in English and accepts payment via Visa and Mastercard!
Unless you intend on opening a bank account in China, we wouldn’t bother jumping through all the hoops just to use AliPay or WeChat Pay. Sure, you’ve got credit cards, but those are pretty much only accepted in hotels or other fancy establishments. Cash is still necessary if you want to buy knick-knacks from an artisan or drink centuries-old tea in a hole-in-the-wall tea shop.
If you really want to hop on the cashless bandwagon, register for AliPay using your passport and use Vpayfast to transfer money to it. Have a friend living in Shanghai? You can also get them to transfer money to your e-wallet using their Chinese bank account.
Earlier we mentioned that you should not tip, lest you want to be seen as a rude foreigner. However, you can haggle or bargain whenever appropriate.
Finally, the cost of food in Shanghai is affordable, compared to other major cities in the world. Do your research beforehand and you’ll save plenty of Yuan in the process. To get you started, artisanal food can be found mostly in Jing An, while the area near Yuyuan Garden is where you go for traditional xiao long bao.
Fun fact: the local Shanghai dialect is like a simpler, quainter version of Mandarin. Not-so-fun fact: its usage is dwindling, despite many groups trying hard to revive it. So if you’d like to earn some brownie points with the person making you lunch, why not learn some useful phrases?
But the truth is, many locals do not speak or read any English – save for your hotel staff or employees at airports, international chains, or other upmarket places. We recommend asking someone (like your hotel front desk staff) to write down in Chinese the place or address you want to visit, as well as the food you want to eat.
The Great Wall of China can be seen from space, and the Great Firewall of China can be seen from every corner of Cyberspace. Almost all services provided by Google, Facebook and Apple are either completely banned or severely limited. All your hacker friends may recommend you this VPN or that, but they’re all pretty much blocked or in the process of being blocked. So you’re going to have to live a social media-free life while you’re in Shanghai. Shocking, we know.
If you absolutely can’t live without Instagram or Facebook, you can opt for a 4G China sim card from KKDay, which also covers Hong Kong and gives you access to blocked social media apps. Roaming using your home telco brand also works – but it can be expensive.
If you still need some apps for essential services, here’s what we recommend:
Everybody will tell you that you should take a stroll by the river at The Bund; that you have to walk Nanjing Road; that you have to gawk at the Shanghai International Financial Centre, the Jinmao Building and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower; and that you must marvel at the majesty of Yuyuan Garden. We’re not going to argue with them, because we agree.
But we also recommend that you check out People’s Square for a change of pace; on weekends, the infamous Marriage Market in People’s Park is where anxious parents congregate to ‘advertise’ their single children of marrying age!
For a bit of culture, head to the nearby Shanghai Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art; then, make your way to the Former French Concession areas, starting with Xintiandi and Tianzifang, for the coolest boutiques, cafés, shops and restaurants housed in historic buildings, both original or restored. Lastly, though it’s a bit out of the way, the water town known as Zhujiajiao is well worth the trip. Hop on a gondola and imagine you’re an emissary from a faraway land paying homage to the Qing dynasty.
Bonus: Shanghai also currently boasts the largest ‘fake’ Supreme store in Minhang, which is a store under Supreme Italia, not the original Supreme brand from New York City. It’s a bit of a legal oddity, but worth a visit if you’re a big fan of the brand, original or otherwise.