A Guide to Visiting or Living in Shanghai

Josh Wilson
Josh Wilson

Don’t be 60 years old and say… "I could have done that!" Do it now!

 / Jul 31, 2017

Moving to Shanghai gives one the opportunity to live in one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic cities. But like with living in any Chinese city, some things may prove challenging while living in Shanghai as well. For those expats who are thinking about living in Shanghai, or even just visiting Shanghai, here is a comprehensive Shanghai city guide to help you get acquainted with this global city. 

Overview of Shanghai city

Sitting on the middle region of China’s eastern coast, Shanghai is the country’s largest and wealthiest city. The megacity is also a prominent global financial center and a crucial transport hub, particularly in the Asian region. 

Situated in the vast Yangtze River Delta (which is in eastern China), the city sits squarely on the southern edge of the Yangtze River. In fact, the name "Shanghai" translates to "upon the sea."  

Shanghai, together with other Chinese cities such as Beijing, is considered a direct-controlled municipality. With a population of over 24 million people, Shanghai is one of the world’s most populous cities. It is as a key administrative, trading and shipping city, having experienced a booming growth in the 19th century due to its enormous economic potential and favorable location.


The city has been hailed as a "showpiece" of today’s booming Chinese economy. It is renowned world-wide for its unrivalled modernization and a multicultural flair that gives it a unique, charming glamour. 

The city is a blend of Western and Eastern cultures, thanks to its colonial legacy that combines various aspects of the two cultures. The city is also a globally famous travel destination, boasting classic gardens, historic museums and buildings, tranquil water towers and tall skyscrapers. 

Districts of Shanghai 

Administratively, Shanghai is equal to a province (similar to a State in the USA). The province is further divided into county-level districts, which are further sub-divided into sub-districts. Here is an outline of some of Shanghai’s most prominent county-level districts.

  • Huangpu District - the district is located on the city’s eastern part and it serves as the headquarters of Shanghai municipal government. It includes key attractions like The Bund, Old City God Temple and popular shopping districts like Huaihai Road and Nanjing Road. The district is one of the world most populous urban districts.

  • Changning District - situated in the western side of the city’s downtown, the vast district is largely residential though it has popular attractions like Shanghai Zoo. It also play host to some of China’s largest airlines such as Springs Airlines and Juneyao Airlines among other airlines.

  • Jing’an District - one of the city’s most populous districts, Jing’an is one of the country’s key commercial districts. It has numerous large office buildings, several shopping venues and elegant hotels. It is particularly known for having several high-rise residential buildings.

  • Putuo District - the city’s municipal district borders Changning District and Jing’an District to the south east and south west respectively. It has a host of attractions such as Jade Buddha Temple and Changfeng Park among others. The district accounts for 70% of Shanghai’s minority population.

  • Baoshan District - the city’s suburban district is one of the largest districts in terms of geographical size. The industrial district is home to some of Shanghai’s prominent landmarks such as Anti-Japanese War Memorial Park, which houses artifacts from the World War 2. 

  • Jiading District - situated in Shanghai’s northwestern region, the suburban district is one of the city’s largest districts in terms of population and geographical size. Some of its notable landmarks include The Bamboo Carving Museum and The Fahua Pagoda( a brick-wooden tower).

Getting In / Out of Shanghai

Transportation in and out of Shanghai is plentiful. At the present moment, you can get to the city either from the adjacent cities such as Nanjing, Suzhou and Hangzhou, as well as other distant cities like Xian, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Here are some of the major transportation options in Shanghai:

  • By Air - Shanghai is home to 2 Chinese international airports, namely Hongqiao and Pudong International airports. The two handle both domestic and international flights. Air is by far the most common way of getting to Shanghai, especially among international visitors. At the airport, there are numerous shuttle buses ready to pick travelers to various places across the vast city. 

  • By Train - Trains have become an inexpensive transportation option and a fast way for travelers to get to Shanghai, particularly those arriving from other cities. The city has an expansive railway network just like other Chinese cities. There are high speed railways passing through the city and connecting its 3 railway stations with other cities throughout the country. There are also different train services offering various travel classes. Generally, trains coming to the city offer sleeper compartments, thus enabling travelers to have some sleep while traveling. Visitors who want to get to Shanghai by train are normally advised to go for high-speed trains since they are extremely fast and comfortable as well. In Shanghai, most railway staff barely speak English and hence it is prudent for international passengers to seek help from a trusted local acquaintance while buying their tickets. To avoid the long station queues, tourists and other foreign visitors are encouraged to buy their tickets in advance and at the relevant stations, depending on where they choose to travel within and outside the city.

  • Cruise and Ship - Shanghai boasts a strategic location, something that makes transportation via waterways seamlessly possible. There are various cruise terminals that offer international cruises to various destinations such as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. Visitors can also get to Shanghai via waterways, though it can take a considerable duration of time. Getting or leaving the city via cruise and ship can be an excellent option especially for cruising enthusiasts. 

Shanghai Transportation (getting around Shanghai)

Transportation within the city is overly considered convenient and satisfactory. The fact that the city itself is an international metropolis with a huge population means that there is the inevitable problem of traffic congestion and overcrowding. Nevertheless, with the city’s modern transportation system and a superb road network, then getting around the city is absolutely no problem at all. Below is an outline of some of the means of transportation you can use to get around Shanghai.

  • By Subway - Shanghai is connected with 14 subway lines, with stops at almost all the commercial areas and the city’s main attractions. For visitors touring the city, the subway can be a nice transportation option for them, due to the fact that the subway offers a fast and comfortable service compared to other forms of transportation used in the city. Besides, getting around Shanghai by subway can be extremely cheap and very efficient. Most subway stations have both Chinese and English signs, and a couple of English speaking staff members.

  • By Bus - using buses can be another ideal way of getting around Shanghai and its far-flung districts, especially for foreign visitors who can speak and read Chinese. Fares are quite low and there are some buses with air conditioning and comfortable seats. Though local buses are cheaper, they are however crowded and noisy. Furthermore, most bus staff hardly speak English, and road signs are generally in Chinese. Some buses are poorly maintained and delay at bus stations are commonplace. 

  • By Taxi - with over 50,000 taxis in almost every corner of the city, taxis offer one of the most convenient and comfortable means of getting around the city. But unlike in other Chinese megacities, taxi rates are quite high in Shanghai. Again, taxis only travel to specific places, such as airports, attraction sites as well as historical sites like museums. As such, they aren’t suitable for people traveling to the city’s far-flung districts. But, all the same, they are a nice transportation option for people traveling shorter distances. In most cases, taxis here charge fares in relation to the distance traveled and thus you should first calculate your fare before picking a cab. Most importantly, always go for an official taxi and avoid any unlicensed taxi driver who may try to lure you with cheaper rates.

  • By Cycling - cycling offers an extremely convenient and cheap way of touring the city. Though there are thousands of bicycles in Shanghai, cyclists are encouraged to ride defensively thanks to the erratic traffic. Therefore, cycling isn’t the ideal form of transportation for inexperienced cyclists or foreign residents who aren’t familiar with the city’s traffic. 

  • By Ferry - Xupu Bridge, Yangpu Bridge, Nanpu Bridge and Lupu Bridge alongside other tunnels around Huangpu River offer direct links between the city’s urban areas and other districts. Ferries have become a convenient shuttle service especially for travelers traveling along the Huangpu River. Using the ferry can help you avoid the crowded tunnels and bridges, while appreciating the stunning river scenery. In addition, there are several ferryboats operating between the mainland snd other islands such as Changqing, Hengsha and Chongming. 

For more information about getting around China, read our full post about all the major types of transportation in China.

Safety: common scams to be aware of in Shanghai

Overly, Shanghai is an extremely safe megacity in regard to violent crime. However, there are some scams and tricks in operation, especially around areas frequented by unsuspecting tourists. Here are some common scams in Shanghai to be aware of.

  • Tea Ceremony Scam - this is one of the common Shanghai scams that lots of unsuspecting tourists easily fall victim to. Basically, it has to do with someone meeting you in the street or any other public places and then luring you into accompanying them to a traditional Chinese tea event. They can lure you with an engaging conversation. If you fall into their trap, you will end up paying a ridiculously high bill after taking some fake traditional Chinese tea at an apartment in downtown. To ensure you aren’t preyed on by cheats using this scam, never accompany someone to any tea ceremony unless you know them well. When you feel like sampling traditional Chinese tea, go to a reputable tea house where you can find different types of tea. There are so many teahouses throughout the city.

  • Fake Currency Scam - this scam mostly involves foreigners, especially Western foreigners being given fake currency after purchasing from the Chinese vendors. Some unscrupulous venders also slip some currency notes from other nation within the change. The best way to avoid being given fake money is by avoiding making small purchases using big currency notes. Again, acquaint yourself with various Chinese currency notes so that you can detect fake currency even before it gets in your hands.

  • Unofficial Taxi Scam - if you are walking down the streets of Shanghai and a driver with a nice car pulls next to you and then ask you whether you need taxi, walk away without responding to them. Never take a taxi until you are sure that it is indeed an official taxi. If you use an unofficial taxi, you may risk being swindled by unscrupulous drivers who demand abnormally high fares before dropping you randomly at places you know nothing about. Many foreigners have lost their cash and valuables through this scam. 

  • Fake Police Scam - This scam is mostly common in tourists populated areas, where people dressed as policemen identify foreigners and randomly demand their passports for identification. In case the foreigner doesn’t have their passport, the "police officers" then demand a certain amount of money as penalty fine. The surest way to avoid the fake police scam is to ask any policeman who demands your passport to produce their police ID first. All police officers are obligated by the state laws to produce their police IDs before making arrests so as to prove they are legit. 

Climate: Best Time to Visit Shanghai 

The city’s climate is overly mild and moist. It is characterized by 4 distinctive seasons namely - a hot rainy summer, a pleasant warm spring, an overcast cold winter and a comfortable cool autumn. The weather is usually very hot every July and August. January to early February is the coldest season. 

Springtime (from March-May), is generally regarded as the most appropriate time to visit the city. With pleasant autumn weather, then October to November can also be another excellent time to visit the city. Try to avoid July, August and June, thanks to the huge travel crowds present during these months. Besides, the frequent summer showers and the scorching hot weather can make life in Shanghai unbearable during these 3 months.

Top Things to Do in Shanghai for Tourists

Shanghai offers plenty of things to do for tourists. In addition to those activities and sites mentioned above in the "District" section, below are a couple of top things you can do whilst on your visit to this city. 

  • Ride on the Maglev - Nothing can make you feel close to being in a super-modern city like Shanghai, like riding in the Maglev (the fastest train on earth). Traveling at 270 mph, the super-clean, air-conditioned and magnetically-levitated trains is said to cover a distance of 19 miles in just 8 minutes. Traveling in this fast train is thus a thrilling experience one can’t get anywhere else. 

  • Go for a cruising tour along the Huangpu River - This is one of the most exciting things to do in Shanghai. Cruising along this mighty river exposes you to the city’s classic skyline views comprising of illuminating skyscrapers and ancient architecture. Strolling Huangpu River aboard a ferry cruise can be a good way of avoiding the city’s overcrowded streets. 

  • View exhibits at the Shanghai Museum - Situated on the vast People’s Square a short distance from Nanjing Road, this magnificent museum boasts a huge collection of unique cultural relics. It's a fascinating experience.  It also has more than 400 beautifully decorated bronzes among other rare artifacts found in this museum. It further houses the Shanghai Urban-planning Exhibition Hall, and it is a top place to visit for those that are seeking to learn more about the today’s modern Shanghai, as well as how the city is envisioned to look like by 2020.

  • Enjoy the city’s panoramic views from the magnificent World Financial Center - The World Financial Center is the world’s 5th tallest building and it offers visitors the greatest elevated views of the city. Though you can still view the city’s beautiful scenery from several floors of the building, make a point of going to the building’s 100th floor ( popularly known as The Sky Walk) where you can view this awesome Chinese metropolis from over 1,500 feet above the floor of the building.

  • Have some fun at the Disneyland Park - as the country’s 1st Disney theme park, the Shanghai Disneyland Park blends together China’s unique cultural elements with the amazing magic of Disney. The park offers countless adventures and excitement, and it is particularly a nice place to be with friends and family.  For more details, check out this full review of Shanghai Disneyland during it's Grand Opening Celebration.

Life in Shanghai for Expats 

Shanghai has always had an allure for expats, more than any other Chinese city. Foreigners in China who have mastered the expatriate culture find themselves falling in love with this city’s sheer vibrancy. Expats aren’t just attracted to the city by the numerous, lucrative job offers, but they also find a second home in this city. It is far easier for expats to sustain a Western lifestyle here, more than in any other city in China. 

Shanghai isn’t just wealthy, but it is by far China’s safest city. Even though navigating the city may appear like a tall order because of the hectic traffic, it is nevertheless extremely easy for expats to get around Shanghai. Unlike most cities across China and the world by extension, expat communities in this wonderful city are quite welcoming.

 It is actually very easy to make friends with your fellow expat colleagues in this city. Better still; the locals will treat you with lots of respect just like they treat other foreigners. 

Tips for Expats Living in Shanghai 

Though the city is largely perceived as the most westernized Chinese city as well as the most comfortable city for expat workers, there are inevitable challenges that come with living in Shanghai. The single-most challenge of living in this Chinese city is language barrier. This is simply because Mandarin Chinese is far the city’s lingua franca.

 But that notwithstanding, Shanghai remains the best Chinese city for expats. In fact, the kind of the experience expats encounter whilst living here vary from one expat to the other, largely depending on how adequately prepared they are for life in this great, modern city. Here are a number of tips to help you live in Shanghai as an expat.

  • Connect with fellow expats - While living and working in Shanghai can be fascinating, expat life in this city can be daunting particularly for newcomers. On one hand, most expats feel lonely and out of place while living in a megacity where they barely know anyone. As such, connecting with fellow expats particularly those from your country can help make life in Shanghai a lot easier. Besides, expats share their experiences with each other, something that is crucial for eliminating loneliness.

  • Indulge in exciting social events - attending or taking part in social events can help you learn a couple of useful things about the Chinese culture. Besides, it can present you with an opportunity to meet locals and make friends with them, and most importantly learn from a way of life that is experienced by millions of people throughout Shanghai.

  • Attend a Chinese class - whilst living in Shanghai, language barrier is by far the most challenging thing you will have to encounter. Considering that almost every person here speaks Chinese Mandarin, starting from subway stations, hotels, offices to various workplaces across the city, then it can be helpful to learn the city’s lingua franca. Even though it is almost impossible to learn this language as a whole, learning common Chinese Mandarin words can prove instrumental to avoiding language barrier whilst working and living in Shanghai. With plenty of places across this city that offer free Mandarin Chinese classes, then enrolling for a Chinese class can help you learn this dominant language and thus avoid being a victim of the language culture.

  • Know your way around Shanghai - If you want to experience Shanghai’s finest, then the best thing is to tour the city, discover new places and meet new people. But if you choose to stay in your new apartment all the time, then you will definitely find the city quite cumbersome and thus you will continue being a stranger for all the time you live here. As such, tour the city and know as many important places as possible. Also find out the various places where expats meet so you can figure out where to find fellow expats.

  • Have some fun - as much as your primary reason for coming to Shanghai was purely for work and to pursue a good living, this doesn’t mean you should not have some fun while living here. In fact, expats who have fun while working and living in Shanghai tend to be more productive at their respective workplaces, not to mention that they also tend to be more social than their lesser -outgoing counterparts. Therefore, don’t forget to have some fun just to make your life in this city interesting. The best way to have some fun is to attend a fun Chinese event together with locals. For instance, you can go for a cruising tour with the locals during your free time. 

Popular Events / Festivals in Shanghai

  • Dragon Boat Festival - this popular festival normally takes place in summer. It originated with Qu Yuan, a Chinese ancient poet. The festival’s most important feature is the traditional boat racing involving several teams, popularly referred to as Dragon Boat Racing. 

  • Qingming Festival - this is basically a tomb sweeping festival which is aimed at honoring and remembering the ancestors. During the festival, relatives place food, tea and other important offerings on the graves of their ancestors.

  • Mid-Autumn Festival - also known as the Lunar Festival, this popular festival is meant to celebrate the moon in its brightest and biggest phase. During this time, lanterns are hanged around houses as the locals release sky lanterns. 

  • Spring Festival - the festival is also marked countrywide apart from Shanghai. It is celebrated to mark the beginning of the spring and to mark the coming to an end of the winter season. Fireworks can be heard and seen throughout the city during this festival.

  • Concerts / Shows - Being the most Westernized city (and the largest) in China, there's actually quite a lot of concerts and shows taking place year round in Shanghai.  Be sure to follow along with some of the expat resources (like magazines / websites) that we mention below to stay-up-to-date on what is happening around the city and fun concerts and events.

Shanghai Expat Resources 

There are tons of Shanghai resources that are helpful to expats living and working in Shanghai. Below are a couple of Shanghai expat resources to enable you stay in tune with what is happening around the city, and be familiar with it as an expat.

Web Resources for Shanghai Life and Culture

Learning the city’s culture can help you avoid the culture shock that comes with living in Shanghai or any other Chinese city. 

  • www.enjoyshanghai.com – this is an interactive expat forum featuring restaurants and bar reviews, classifieds, personal and travel tips as well as the city’s popular events. The classified section of this website can be a useful resource for buying housing items upon your arrival. 

  • www.shanghaiexpat.com – this is the city’s most popular expat website. The site offers classifieds, travel tips as well as bar and restaurants review. This is the best resource that you can use to research on virtually anything you can think of regarding the city before you actually move there as an expat. You can post almost any questions you have regarding the city, and you will get helpful answers from people on this forum. 

  • www.shanghaiist.com – the site offers articles touching on Shanghai politics and culture. It is a very popular and interesting resource for expats looking for any relevant information about Shanghai. 

Shanghai Expat Magazines

There are numerous expat magazines that are offered by many bars, restaurants and hotels across the city. Below are a few expat magazines that you will find around Shanghai.

  • TimeOut Shanghai - published in China, this London-based monthly magazine is offered in the city’s restaurants and bars for free. It details everything regarding the city, ranging from things to do, places to go to popular bars and restaurants in the city.

  • CityWeekend - this is one of the most comprehensive expat magazines in Shanghai. It features articles and useful information for both expats , locals and newcomers in Shanghai.

  • SmartShanghai - the popular expat magazine provide expats in the city with latest news, editorials, reviews of bars and restaurants as well as comprehensive guides on living and working in Shanghai.

Shanghai Expat Forums 

There are various forums keen on bringing expats in this city together to discuss a wide range of topics. Here are a couple of them. 

  • InterNations Shanghai - the forum seeks to help expats in Shanghai connect and keep in touch with their expat colleagues from various places across the city. Members can post any pressing questions they have and get answers from helpful members on this forum.

  • Shanghai Expat Association - started in 2011, the forum seeks to offer a cultural and social network for Shanghai expats. The forum also offers classifieds, travel tips and useful information to expats in this city. 

  • Shanghai Expat - the forum seeks to bring together all expats living in Shanghai. It also features useful information touching on living in Shanghai as well as moving to Shanghai. 

Living in Shanghai Is Truly Unlike Anywhere Else

Moving to Shanghai and living there can be a truly fascinating experience for visitors and expats seeking to live in a modern city, yet experience a whole new culture. While there are some challenges you will definitely encounter whilst living and working in this city, especially if you are a first-time visitor, life in Shanghai can be plenty fun and exciting as long as you have adequately prepared yourself for the wonderful life that awaits you in this globally renowned metropolis. 

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Josh Wilson

Don’t be 60 years old and say… "I could have done that!" Do it now!