Two pictures of man in Nanjing, Shanghai

My top travel tips for Shanghai

Shanghai has a buzz and a vibrancy that befits the world’s biggest city. As many people as in all of Australia live in this city, once known as the Paris of the East. The Shanghainese parade their love of style and glamour through the streets, while restaurants everywhere are full of life… music also is pretty much a constant..

I spent a week in Shanghai this April, and loved every minute of it.

My five main discoveries

  • The Shanghainese love taking photographs of themselves to share on social media. They take it very seriously, spending an age to find the right look and the right location. Walk down the luxury shopping street of Nanjing Road and everyone looks like a stylist or a model.
Girl taking picture of another girl in Nanjing Road.

Posing for the camera in Nanjing Road – a favourite place for luxury fashion shopping.

  • The people are very friendly and helpful to foreigners. Shanghai is a far cry from the grim face of communism of post-Second World War Eastern Europe.
  • The city is super safe, but still be careful. As parents tell their children: “Don’t go off with strangers” – whether for a tea or a drink.
  • The Shanghainese love food – not as spicy as in Beijing, and more about sweet and sour. Their love of flavour comes with a warning – that, unless you go upmarket, monosodium glutamate is added liberally. MSG makes me ill, so I’ll be doing a special blog post on how to avoid MSG in Shanghai.

These dumplings may look really tasty, but their taste is boosted by MSG.

  • I saw more Art Deco buildings and décor in Shanghai than any other city in the world…. a reflection of the city’s cosmopolitan roots in the 1920s and 30s – a time when my family stories recount how my godfather worked in the city as a feather broker.

The Rockbund Art Museum – housed in an Art Deco building, once home to the Royal Asiatic Society.

Useful digital downloads

  • Maps.me – an app to know where you are in the city.  Not so good for searching for locations or addresses. Apple Maps also works.
  • Baidu – the most used search engine in China. You can search in English. Now and again I found Baidu useful but I still missed Google. Most often it took me towards Time Out Shanghai or the web magazine SmartShanghai.
  • VPN or not – Google only works if you have a VPN (virtual private network). Wi-Fi is in every store, cafe, restaurant in Shanghai, so I was OK about going WiFi-less in the street. I also relished a week of no Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp (although WhatsApp does work sporadically).
  • WeChat – the WhatsApp of China with stickers that are for more fun and user friendly. A must for when you meet new friends, or if someone wants to send you a location map.
  • Tencent Translator – a ‘speaking’ translation app. I marvelled at how well it worked, even for long conversations, although one time I was asked to “come back later when you have time to play”! Many locals, especially in shops, have the app on their phones.
  • Waygo – you hold your phone camera over the Chinese text for a translation. I never used this app, but it is good to have in case of an emergency. (If restaurants don’t have a menu in English, they will usually show pictures of the food).
  • Yahoo – I took out a Yahoo email address as it works 100% in China.

The Shanghai metro

  • To travel into Shanghai from Pudong international airport take the metro line 2 to People’s Square, with a change at Guanlang Road. It takes about 1 hour 10 minutes and costs a mere RMB 7 (80p or US$1.04).
  • The 431kph Maglev airport train, the world’s fastest commercial train, from the airport to Longyang Road station is quicker than the metro, but even with the discount on showing your boarding pass it costs RMB 30.
  • The Shanghai metro is super easy to navigate. Everything is in Chinese and English. The machines give change for coins or notes under RMB 100 – and there is always the metro’s service centre if you need to split a RMB 100 note.
  • For a smooth journey, all you need to know is: 1. Your station destination. 2. The number of the metro line. 3. The last stop on the metro line in the direction that you are going. 4. The exit number at your destination (preferred). It works just like the Paris metro.
Metro sign at West Nanjing Road metro station, Shanghai, below ad for Burberry

An entrance to West Nanjing Road metro station, Shanghai.

Offline map reading

  • I highly recommend buying Insight Guides Flexi Map of Shanghai a plastic-coated, fold-up map easily held in the hand. The A-Z street guide to central Shanghai and the metro map on the back are especially useful.
  • For the cautious types, ask a Chinese speaker to locate where you want to go on Baidu Maps in Chinese, and then take a picture of the screen. From my experience, people are far more likely to know where somewhere is if they see it on a map. An address written in Chinese is second best.
  • Be prepared for when people don’t know how to get to your destination, even though they might try to help you.

 

Bikes & Motorbikes

  • Bicycles and motorbikes throng the city, especially in the downtown commercial districts. Be very careful crossing the road as, unlike the cars, they don’t stop at the pedestrian crossings, and they appear to come from all directions.  
  • For the brave, bike-sharing apps MoBoke and Ofu both have English-language version apps…. not that I was prepared to give it a go!

 

A city for walking & foot massages

  • I walked 110km over seven days during my stay in Shanghai. Thank goodness for my Maison Margiela Replica trainers! For the last three evenings, I went for a foot massage near Dashijie station on metro line 13. The one-hour or so session cost RMB 88 (£10 or US$13). If you go for a massage at one of the luxury hotels, be prepared to pay ten times this amount. As always, I take my own oil.
  • No one wore luxury down at my massage parlour. Instead, the TV bellowed out the noise of shooting and shouting, the stairs creaked, the young guy sitting next to me was watching American baseball on his phone, and a couple of ladies were curled up on the empty armchairs having a nap.
  • As everywhere else in China, locals rarely tip. Such a relief! I can’t abide the dilemma of not knowing what to leave as a tip.
  • By law, individual private rooms in massage parlours, completely secluded from the public area, are not allowed. I read this in the very interesting, albeit very Americanised, book 101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People by Yi S Ellis and Bryan D Ellis.

 

Key phrases in Chinese

A few words in Mandarin, and a smile, get you quite far. I never learnt any words in the local Shanghainese dialect. Remember, people don’t shake hands in China, let alone hug or kiss. My most used Mandarin phrases were:

  • Hello – ni hao (knee ha)
  • Thank you – xiexie (sheeshee)
  • Bye bye – baibai (bye bye)
  • Bathroom/toilet/loo – WC

 

Shanghai stopover to Japan

Japan is on the other side of the East China Sea from Shanghai. There are direct flights from Shanghai to Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Sendai . Osaka is a mere 2h 15min flight away, with 19 flights daily. I have a theory that this might also work out cheaper than flying direct to Japan from London.

An almost cashless societ

China is almost a cashless society. However, I took lots of cash as you probably have to be a local to pay by WeChat or AliPay, which is what is used by everyone, including street vendors. I used my Mastercard a couple of times, but once it did not work. There are plenty of ATMs, but I never had to use one.

Man selling fruit from bicycle in Suzhou, China

Even this man in Suzhou had a WeChat QR code perched on the side of his fruit basket for payment.

Eating out

  • Practise using chopsticks before you travel to China.
  • A typical breakfast is a pancake or bakkaobing, cooked Breton-style on a round hotplate. My bakkaobing (pronounced ‘b’ow cow bing) had an egg folded into the mixture and then a range of vegetables put on top, rolled up and sliced in half. For the more global crowd, breakfast is coffee and a pastry.  
  • Lunchtime is 11-1pm and in the evening restaurants seemed to wind down after 10pm. 
  • Diners are served in order of seniority… there is no ‘ladies first’ principle. A popular 1950s’ slogan in China was: ‘Half the sky is held up by women’.
  • Like in other parts of Asia, the locals do not drink water (especially cold water) with a meal… it is not meant to be good for the digestion. When filling up water bottles or when water is served, it is served warm – body temperature.
  • Given that it was springtime, I was told that jasmine tea was the norm with a meal. Beer is also popular, as is wine, among the luxury fashion-wearing coffee drinkers.

 

Stirring rice dish, Fu He Hui, Shanghai

Last tip – the face mask

Yes, the big European cities, such as London and Paris, are polluted, but nothing like Shanghai.

I panicked the first day, wondering how my lungs would cope with seven days of toxins. Luckily, our bodies are remarkably adaptive and I am sure the stress from worry had a more damaging effect on my health than the pollution itself.

On day 2, I bought a mask – one that you can wash – from my favourite shop in Shanghai, MINISO, a Japanese retail chain founded by Miyake Junya, who went to the same fashion college as Kenzo and Yohji Yamamoto.

MINISO is cuter than Muji, and you can find most things, from earphones to socks.

Did I wear my mask? Now and again. But I liked the feeling of having it in my bag, just in case of need. The appeal for me was more as a fashion rather than a health accessory.

Inside store, Miniso, Shanghai
Miniso, Shanghai

Looking across the Huangpu river from Shillupu Marina, Shanghai
The view across the Huangpu river from Shillupu Marina. Often there was a haze in the sky.

Blog posts to come 

  • My favourite art destinations in Shanghai – in the new West Bund neighbourhood, on The Bund and in the M50 art district.
  • Fu He Hui – a vegetarian haven inspired by Buddhism and created by chef Yu Leng.,
  • Fu 1039 – also part of Yu Leng’s stable in Shanghai. This one is a two-minute walk from Fu He Hui, in a 1930s Arts & Crafts-style house down a side road..
  • Canton Disco – catching up with the food overseen by Jowitt Yu, who I met in London while he did a pop-up at Lyle’s restaurant.
  • Day trip to Suzhou to see the historic gardens and catch the sunset at the lake
  • How to avoid MSG in Shanghai.

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