Headed to Shanghai? We've got all the info you need.
It’s hard to pick favorites when it comes to our top spots in China, but we love Shanghai for a whole list of reasons; if you’re traveling here for a quick weekend trip (or have a stop over in this city) this is your essential guide, crammed full of insider tips to help you plan your itinerary.
You might be interested in this China Destination Guide
if you want to see more than just Shanghai
Why Shanghai?Other than the fact that it's a world famous major city ... it may be our favorite jumping off point: head here first to get to all the places on your China bucket list. There's so much to see and do both in and around the city: you can stay busy here whether it's a long layover or a 5 day trip.
We recommend spending at least 1-2 days in Shanghai, or 3-5ish + days if you’re planning on spending a day or two outside of Shanghai in a nearby city.
Where Is It?
Shanghai has a very central location, tucked on the eastern coast of China, almost right smack on in the middle of that eastern coastline. Boasting a 24 million plus population with about as many things to do, most ILP volunteers end up in Shanghai at one point or another during their semester abroad.
There are ILP schools that live close enough to visit on a weekend, and for our volunteers living in southern China or northern China, you might stay for a couple of days before jetting off to another city in China on your vacation (Shanghai is sandwiched between favorites like Beijing and Guangzhou).
How Do I Get Here?
This city is very, very, very well connected; if you’re flying to countries around China or even to other cities in China from the United States, you will probably have a layover here. Most major Chinese cities have a short flight to Shanghai or you can take one of the many trains that will take to you to one of Shanghai’s many train stations. Basically, no matter where you are in China, you can get to Shanghai pretty easily.
We love booking flights and trains on Trip: You’ll most likely find a few different kinds of trains (fast, slow, sleeper) that can get you here quickly, or opt to take a flight; from most major cities in China, you’ll see several flights to Shanghai a day.
Head's up on airports
As a head's up, know that Shanghai has a couple of different airports. Pudong (PVG) mostly serves international arrivals, and Hongqiao (SHA) is usually for domestic flights — the two are about an hour apart on the metro.
Pudong is about a 45 - 60 minute ride away from the city center, which is probably where you'll be doing most of your site-seeing. Hongqiao airport is about 30-45 minutes away via metro from the city center.
Head's up on train stations
There are four main train stations in Shanghai, and they are a bit easy to mix up if you don't know the difference: Shanghai Railway Station, South Railway Station, West Railway Station and Hongqiao Railway Station. A bit confusing, right?
All four of these train stations are closer to the outskirts of the city, rather than farther out. The Travel China Guide has a detailed post about train stations in Shanghai if you'd like more info.
Where Should I Stay?
There isn’t a shortage of places to stay in this city and you’ll easily be able to find multiple options that fit your budget. In general, we love researching and booking on Hostelworld — you can get nice rooms for a few dollars or really nice rooms for quite a bit more; I like to look for hostels that are very close to a metro stop which makes it easy to get to other places in the city easily.
On Hostelworld, you’ll also notice that they have ratings to pay attention to: I tend to gravitate towards hostels that have a “superb” or “excellent” overall rating, then score very high when it comes to categories like location, safety, cleanliness, etc.
Since Shanghai is so huge, we have broken down the best districts to stay in, and have Hostel and AirBnB recommendations for that district; check out our favorite places to stay in Shanghai.
Where Should I Eat?
Remember that part about Shanghai being a pulsing Chinese city and a little slice of home? That is directly reflected in the food here; this metropolis is full of traditional eateries where you can order up pulled noodles (my absolutely favorite meal in all of China), piles of hot dumplings (Shanghai is actually famous for soup dumplings), steamed buns, stir fries and more.
But after a few months of traditional Chinese food, our ILP volunteers usually want a little bit of home. In Shanghai you can find cinnamon rolls at a magical place called Cinnaswirl; you’ll get classically baked cinnamon rolls that are even topped with frosting (an unheard of treat in China). You can also get Mexican food (!!!) at a few places, another craving that hits our volunteers hard during their semester.
We’ve even had ILP groups admit that they went back to Shanghai and planned where they were going to stay based around the restaurants they wanted to eat at. Needless to say, food should be a big part of your Shanghai experience!
What Is There To Do?
Seriously, so so so much. We suggest deciding on what type of trip you want when you start planning your Shanghai itinerary. If you want museums, and a slower paced trip, plan on more time here. If you want to see Disneyland and the city, be in Shanghai for at least two days. If you want to see the city, a few hidden gems, then take a day trip, you are going to want 3 days. We suggest breaking up your time into a couple of different sections, (like the ones below).
Things To See In The City
Spend 1-2 days on this, depending on how many you want to see.
Shanghai is crowded; full of people, restaurants, sites to see, museums to visit and temples to photograph. We’ve pulled out our go-to spots to keep you busy for a 1-2 day visit, but this really just skims the surface — There really is something for everyone in this city.
See The Bund
Nicknamed the Bund, this iconic city skyline is something everyone sees on their visit here. It’s pretty in the day time, but the whole thing lights up at night, creating a vibrantly colorful backdrop for pictures so we recommend coming back more than once.
Visit Some Temples
Buddhism is the prominent religion in all of China and we highly suggest blocking out some time to view a few temples to get a taste of that particular aspect of Chinese culture. There are multiples ones to visit, but some of the most popular in Shanghai include the Jade Buddha Temple, the Jing’an Temple and the Longhua temple. Read more about these three temples and get directions and info about costs here.
Shop At The Knock-Off Markets
Ride the metro and get off at the Science and Technology Stop; you’ll quickly run into an underground mall filled with everything you could possibly want to buy and bring home. We have a whole list of things you can buy for cheap at this market, but to give you an idea, you’ll find we’re talking name brand shoes, sun glasses, purses and backpacks as well as unique finds like tea sets and paintings ... and loads more.
Lunch In The French Concession
Pockets of Shanghai have a distinctly French feel; picture cafes serving coffee and pastry, next to tall shady trees and buildings that look like they were copy and pasted right from Paris. It’s a lovely break from the dense urban city center of Shanghai.
This blogger has a really detailed self-guided walking tour of this area (and nearby Tianzifang) which is worth downloading if you're in the neighborhood.
Visit The Tianzifang Alleys
One of my favorite places in Shanghai, this are is a dizzying network of maze-like alleyways lined with local artists advertising printed tee shirts, incredibly intricate paintings, quirky and artsy souvenirs, plus food vendors selling things like Boba tea in a rainbow of flavors, steamed buns shaped like cute animals, and yogurt served in little glass pots.
Hang Out At The Friends Cafe
Any Friends fans out there? Plan a day to grab lunch or dinner at the Friends Cafe. It’s made up to look just like Central Perk, complete with look-a-like couches, Joey’s stuffed penguin, and a menu inspired by your favorite characters.
We love this place so much we wrote a whole blog post about how to get there and what menu items were our favorite; it’s a bit hidden away, in one of the quieter neighborhoods of Shanghai, so you’ll want to refer to our directions to make sure you find the place.
See Some Gardens
China is known for intricate gardens, peppered with pagodas and koi fish ponds; the ones in Shanghai tend to be pretty crowded (the most famous is probably Yu Gardens which is crazy pretty but is usually filled with crowds). If you can, I'd suggest seeing gardens in the nearby city of Suzhou — more on that below— but if not, it's worth checking out a few in Shanghai.
Pst: Our Shanghai Metro guide has information on how to get to to all of these favorites.
Full Day Activities In Shanghai
Spend all day with these adventures
While you don’t have to spend a whole day at these places, we think it’s worth it. There is definitely enough to keep you busy from start to close, plus they are a bit outside of the city center (where most of the things above are located) so you’ll also need to factor in some travel time to get there. Better not rush these activities and plan a full day to see each of them:
Feed giraffes at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park
If you’ve checked out #ilpchina on Instagram, you might spot a few of our volunteers hanging out with some lemurs, feeding giraffes, and snuggling with baby lions … most likely, all of those pictures were taken at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park. Shanghai does have a zoo, but it’s really nothing compared to everything you can see and do at this animal park.
Pst: You can also have some cute animal adventures in a park near Guangzhou (in southern China). Get a full breakdown, ticket info, pictures, and other info about both parks here.
Visit Shanghai Disneyland
Shanghai might be stuffed with museums, history, sites to see and adventures, but maybe you’re just here to come to the happiest place on earth. Shanghai Disney certainly is extremely popular with all of China, and our ILP China volunteers.
As a head’s up, this is a different park than the one you might be familiar with in California or Florida; fast passes work differently, ticket prices are cheaper (but there’s a catch), and some foods are way better than others. We wrote a Shanghai Disneyland guide which outlines all of these insider tips like the fact that you can’t sneak in any of your own snacks and what app makes your trip a total breeze.
Day Trips Outside Of Shanghai (Or 2-Day Trips)
Most of these are close enough to do in a day, or you can spend a couple of days with these excursions.
Since Shanghai is an epicenter for transportation all over China, it makes sense to tie in a little side trip to your Shanghai vacation if you have the time. We have a few suggestions of cities you should see when you’re in the neighborhood; each one is only a couple of hours away via train (no more than four), and will only cost you a few dollars to get there.
This Ivy Covered Fishing Village
Houtouwan is a remote fishing village found off the coast of Shanghai; The small village has been completely overgrown with vibrant green ivy, creating a eerily beautiful backdrop that’s way off the beaten pack. It’s not a place most tourists visit but the view are unreal. Like we said, it’s a bit tricky to navigate unless you have insider tips on how to get there, costs, and stunning pictures on this blog post.
Suzhou, The Venice Of China
We. Love. Suzhou. How can you not love a city carved out by canals? Suzhou is that image of “old China” that you’re looking for — waterways cut through small, white-washed villages with black tile roofs. It’s just a short train ride away from Shanghai and you can see the sites of Suzhou in just a day, making it a perfect day trip … plus you can get train tickets here for around $5. Unreal.
There are other lake towns around Shanghai if you'd like to see others.
Hangzhou’s Lake Towns
Get out of the city of Shanghai and find some tranquility in nearby Hangzhou. The outskirts of this smaller city is flanked with a beautiful lake where you can rent bikes to ride around (ducking under weeping willows) or take a dragon boat ride to the little islands that dot the lake.
Check out this post to help plan your day trip to Hangzhou.
Wuxi’s Bronze Buddha
Wuxi was one of the best weekend trips I took when I was volunteering in China for a semester. It was just a short train ride from my home city (which was nearby Shanghai); we spent one day in Wuxi, admiring the massive bronze buddha and the cultural park around the statue, then our second day adventuring in the bamboo forests of Yixing (read more about that below). You can easily visit Wuxi in one day; but I’d plan two days if you’d like to see Wuxiand Yixing.
Hot Springs in Nanjing
We love Nanjing so much that we actually have an ILP group living and teaching English here! Since our ILP volunteers live here, they've been able to find local spots like this hot springs! If you're looking for a really fun and relaxing experience, we highly recommend taking the 1.5 hour bullet train out to these hot springs for the day.
Bamboo Forests In Yixing
China isn’t China without bamboo, and I got my fix in Yixing. Just a short bus ride away from Wuxi is this little city of Yixing which sports one of the most mesmerizing sites I’ve seen; an ocean of tall, waving bamboo. I suggest blocking out a good portion of your day to just wander between these giants then taking a gondola ride above the misty, swaying ocean. Get Yixing details here.
Hike The Yellow Mountains
Turns out China has some of the most spectacular mountains I’ve seen and if you’re visiting China, I can’t recommend enough you going out to see a couple of them. You can read more about the mountains on our China Destination Guide, but one fav spot that is close to Shanghai is in Huangshan. It’s a four hour train ride from the city, but well worth it.
Also called the Yellow Mountains, this hike is best done in 2-3 days, depending on if you’d like to stay on the mountain and wake up for the sunset or not. The sites here are spectacular (so Id recommend not rushing it and really soaking in all the view; these rambling hills create a picture reminiscent of those pretty Chinese ink paintings. Get pictures and info about the Yellow Mountains here.
Island Hopping in Quindaohu
There's a beautiful view of islets just a couple hours from Shanghai and might be worth tacking on if you have the time. Learn more here.
How Do I Get Around Shanghai?
You’re in luck; this city has an amazing metro system that will take you everywhere you want to go. We suggest checking out our Shanghai Metro guide to see a map of where our favorite activities are location (it makes it super easy to plan your itinerary when it’s all mapped out) and to get tips on purchasing the right kind of metro card for your visit (you can always pay per ride, or you can save money by getting one of their 1 or 3 day metro passes — so worth it).
Plus, the metro easily takes you to the main airport in Shanghai (called Pudong or PVG), and all of the major train and bus stations in the city, making it very easy to grab a connection train to other cities. All the stops are in Chinese characters and English, which makes getting around even easier if you don’t speak Mandarin (handy for me, who really only knew how to say about 5 things in Mandarin!).
What If I Want More Of China?
You’re in luck — ILP (that’s us, International Language Programs) sends a group of volunteers there to teach English, no experience necessary. We have schools all over China, some are pretty close to Shanghai. You’ll be teaching, traveling, and living with a group of volunteers ages 18-25, so you won’t be adventuring alone.
Take a glimpse into what volunteering in China looks like here, and come get a few of your questions answered by chatting with an ILP representative. They’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.