7 Important Things to Know Before Going to Shanghai

Don’t set foot in the financial
centre of China before digesting these practical pointers.

Shanghai 101

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.

Getting around Shanghai

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!

The people’s currency

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.

Mandarin vs Shanghainese

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.

There’s an app for that… or not

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:

  • Transportation: Shanghai Metro is crucial to decipher the spaghetti plate of the city’s 16 metro lines.
  • Maps: Baidu Maps is the most popular option, but it’s completely in Mandarin. Alternatives include OsmAnd, which has useful offline functionality, and CityMaps2Go, which is also usable offline and provides photos, tips and lists features too.
  • Translation: Unlike other translation apps, Waygo focuses on Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean, which is why we like it. Plus, no internet required!
  • Messaging: Resistance is futile – WeChat is the No.1 messaging app in China. You may even need it to make dinner reservations or follow-up with your tour guide using it. But you’ll most appreciate its in-app translation feature.

The must-sees and what-you-should-sees

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.

And before you go…

  • Check if you need a tourist visa to enter China. Citizens of certain countries qualify for a special visa that allows them to visit visa-free for up to six days.
  • Chinese citizens travel en masse during its two Golden Weeks a year – during Chinese New Year and during the first week of October. Expect Shanghai to be very crowded if you visit during these weeks.
  • China’s electric plug points are like Australia’s and New Zealand’s, and operate at 220V/50Hz. So get your travel adaptors ready if you’re not from Down Under.
  • Arm yourself with enough safety info to ensure a pleasant visit.
  • Monitor the Air Quality Index regularly. Use an app like AirVisual, or bring some masks just in case.

3 responses to “7 Important Things to Know Before Going to Shanghai”

  1. Pauline Pauline says:

    thanks for the tipss!! it’s really helpful especially when there are so much blocking of system from other countries!

  2. Jonathan Jonathan says:

    Bookmarked! Please do one for Tokyo!

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