Are you planning a trip to Beijing and Shanghai?
These two mega cities are by far the most popular places to visit in China. And for good reason – there are some incredible things to see and do there.
But when is the best time to visit?
It really depends on your travel preferences, the kind of climate you like to travel in, and how long you’re staying.
But if I were forced to choose, I’d say the best time to visit Beijing and Shanghai is in late September.
Read on to find out the reasons why, as well as the times you should avoid.
The weather is good
In case you don’t know, China is a huge country and temperatures can be extreme.
Beijing, for example, is scorching hot in summer (June to August) and freezing cold in winter (December to February).
While Shanghai isn’t as extreme, it’s located in a sup-tropical area. Many tourists don’t know that, and are surprised at just how sticky it can get in the city.
That’s why I don’t recommend traveling in either city in the middle of summer or winter, if it can be helped.
Even though Beijing and Shanghai are almost 1,000 miles (1,500 km) apart from each other, late September weather is nice in both cities.
The hot summer has ended in Beijing, and most (but not all) of Shanghai’s mugginess and heavy rains should be behind you.
You’ll get pleasant days in both cities, and this makes late September your travel sweet spot.
However, you’ll want to leave China by the end of the month. I’ll talk about this further down.
To find out more about the climate extremes, check out this blog on the weather in China.
It’s an ideal time to explore The Great Wall
No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the Great Wall of China.
It really has to be seen to be believed (and no, it can’t be seen from out of space).
The wall traverses thousands of miles through many different provinces. Some parts of the wall are in good shape and can be walked on, while other parts are in total disrepair.
In the winter months, it can be unsafe to walk along the wall at all, and in the peak of summer it’s just too hot (not to mention buzzing with tourists).
I’ll be honest – late October and early November are the best times to visit the wall if you want to see the famous autumn leaves.
But the thing is, Beijing really starts to cool down by then, and you won’t get many warm days.
That’s why September is still, what I believe, the best time to visit Beijing and Shanghai in a single trip.
There are no major holidays
Holiday time is quite different in China.
The Chinese work really hard and don’t have much time off during the year. A six-day week is the norm for many people.
In addition, China is home to hundreds of millions of migrant workers. This means people travel great distances to find work (usually in the more prosperous east coast).
So, when vacation time comes around, workers go back to their hometowns. A flood of people take trains, buses and flights at the same time, putting enormous pressure on the transport network.
You’ll also get people who want to visit tourist attractions, as it might be their only opportunity in the whole year. So all the major sites are packed full of people.
This is particularly the case during Chinese New Year in January/February (depending on the lunar calendar) and National Day during the first week of October.
The only holiday you’ve got to look out for in September is Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s just one day though, so you can definitely work around it.
In 2020, the festival happened to fall at the start of October.
Things aren’t overpriced
Because September is outside of the major holiday periods, accommodation and domestic flights are priced normally.
So, you won’t find businesses price-gouging.
But like I said before, just keep your eye on the Mid-Autumn Festival date.
While October is also a great time to visit Shanghai and Beijing (but especially Shanghai as there’s less rain than in September), unfortunately it’s also the time when the average price of hotels peaks.
Choosing between September and October for your trip to China might be a trade-off between weather and cost.
School has just started
Chinese school terms are roughly the same time as in the US. Semester 1 begins at the start of September.
Why is this relevant when considering the best time to visit Beijing and Shanghai?
Well, the kids have just had a long summer break, and their parents would have already taken them to various places and tourist attractions.
So, once school starts, the next holiday they really start looking forward to, is National Day in the first week of October.
This is another reason why September is the ideal month for foreign tourists to visit China.
There are fun festivals
Every September, Shanghai hosts the Tourism Festival.
The festival promotes the kinds of things tourists can do within China, so it’s popular with the locals.
In 2020, huge tourist draw-cards Disneyland Park and Shanghai Zoo offered half-price entrance tickets.
So, if you have kids or you’re traveling on a budget in Shanghai, keep your eyes peeled for special offers.
A word of warning though – if you don’t like crowds, avoid Chinese festivals. You can see photos of the crowds at the Shanghai Tourism Festival here.
If you’re into art, September is the time to check out the Beijing 798 Art Festival.
While you can stroll around the 798 Art Zone at any time of the year, the festival has special exhibitions and activities and showcases the curators’ best and most thought-provoking artwork.
If you do happen to be in Beijing or Shanghai during Mid-Autumn Festival, there will be plenty of things to see and do at this time as well.
The festival is best known for its mooncakes. These are cake-like biscuits filled with things like red bean paste and fruit. I love them!
Mooncakes are a symbol of reunion and happiness, and are round like a full moon. They make for a pretty cool Chinese souvenir to bring back home, too.
Just make sure your country doesn’t have customs restrictions on this kind of food.
Fewer foreign tourists
Now, this may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on which way you look at it.
But the point I’ll make is this – late September is generally a busy time in other parts of the world.
For example, in the northern hemisphere, the summer is over. This means the kids have gone back to school and the parents are busy at work.
So, if you don’t want to see foreign tourists everywhere you turn, September is a good time to come to Beijing and Shanghai.
You can’t totally escape foreign tourists though.
Less air pollution
If you’re an asthma sufferer, or you’re worried about the pollution in China, September is a pretty sweet time to come.
Shanghai is a seaside city, so the pollution there isn’t bad at any time of the year, relatively speaking.
But in the middle of winter, Beijing’s air quality isn’t good at all. There is a lot of heavy industry in the north of the country.
Many tourists aren’t too fussed about this, given their time in Beijing is limited to a week or so.
For me though, not having to think about pollution is one less thing to worry about, and I think that’s important.
Which city should you travel to first, Beijing or Shanghai?
Some airlines fly into Beijing, while others will go to Shanghai. Some will fly to both.
You’ll see the same thing with organized tours – most start in Beijing but there are some that start in Shanghai and then go north.
It really depends on who you’re flying with and what tour you’re on.
If you have a choice, I’d start in Beijing where the weather will be nice and warm, and then head south to Shanghai. Hopefully most of the city’s rain has stopped by then!
Having said that, I remember one time I was in China, and my friend Louisa came over from Australia to meet me.
She hadn’t been to Asia before and was a little worried about the culture shock. So I recommended we do Shanghai first, as it’s a lot more cosmopolitan than Beijing.
Lou got used to the crowds and the Chinese culture in Shanghai before we headed to Beijing, where there is more of a culture shock.
It worked out really well, and she has told me a number of times since then that Shanghai is the perfect entry point for first-time visitors to China.
I’m a little more adventurous though – I’d be happy to fly into any Chinese city!
Late September doesn’t suit you?
I get that visiting Beijing and Shanghai in late September may not suit your personal circumstances.
So, if you can’t visit China around that time, another good time to go is October, but after National Day as I mentioned earlier.
You’ll get to see the autumn leaves at The Great Wall of China, and the rains will have dried up in Shanghai.
Temperatures will have dropped a fair bit though, so remember to pack warmer clothes.
Another good time to visit Beijing and Shanghai is in May.
It’s just before summer, so you won’t have scorching hot days. The weather will be pleasant enough to do all the touristy things you want to do, with temperatures averaging 21°C (70°F).
If you do travel in May though, avoid the Labor Day Holiday (first week of the month) as the crowds will be unbearable.
A final travel tip
In case you haven’t heard, the internet in China is censored.
So if you’re planning on using your hotel’s Wi-Fi to use foreign websites and apps like Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, Instagram and even news sites like The New York Times and BBC, you’ll need to get a VPN before you leave.
VPN stands for virtual private network. Having one on your phone or laptop means that you can use the internet freely in China.
Please check out my review of the best VPNs that work in China.
Just remember to download it before you arrive in China or it won’t work.
I love China all year round, but if I had to choose the best time to visit Beijing and Shanghai for a quick trip it would be late September.
The weather is nice, you can get around easily, hotels aren’t overpriced, there are no major holidays and the attractions are less crowded than other months.
My second choice would be May when it’s getting close to summer and the sun is starting to shine. And my third choice would be October (after the National Holiday) because I’m not really fussed about autumn leaves.
If you don’t have much of a choice as to when you can visit China, just pack for the weather and plan around crowds.
You’ll have a great time in Beijing and Shanghai no matter when you go.
I hope my blog helped you work out the best time to visit these two great cities in China. If you don’t have any Mandarin skills (like most travelers), make sure you also read my blog on how to travel in China without speaking Chinese. Enjoy!