Shanghai is hands down one of the most buzzing cities in the world and it’s one of my personal favorites.

You probably hear this a lot, but Shanghai really does have everything.

It’s got amazing food, shopping, culture, architecture, history… the list goes on.

But despite all of these amazing features, it’s still different to western countries and can be confusing for first timers and experienced travelers alike.

So, to make your trip smoother, here are the top Shanghai travel tips that I’ve put together after numerous trips to this incredible city.

1. Eat your way around the world

chinese food in shanghai

Eat Chinese food or international cuisine in Shanghai – take your pick. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

The food in Shanghai is so damn good, and has always satisfied my hungry stomach. (I’m not ashamed to say that I travel for the food as much as the sights.)

I ate Mongolian food for the first time while I was in Shanghai. Previously, I hadn’t even known that Mongolian food was a thing.

I still think about the cheesy, meaty goodness at that restaurant!

But if you want to sink your teeth into something local, my favorite kinds of Shanghai dumplings are:

  • Xiao long bao (小笼包), delicate little things that have a soup broth inside
  • Sheng jian (生煎) which are fried pork dumplings with a crispy base.

They’re both so delicious that I wrote an entire article about how good the dumplings in China are (you can check it out later).

My advice while you’re in Shanghai is to get out of your comfort zone and try everything. Watch where the locals go and what they eat.

2. See if visa-free travel applies to you

chinese tourist visa l type

You’ll need an L tourist visa if you’re ineligible for Visa Free Transit. Image by i viewfinder on Shutterstock.

To be able to sink your teeth into a Shanghai dumpling, you’ll need to make sure you get here in the first place!

Like most travelers to Shanghai, you’ll probably have to get a visa before you visit.

And depending on where you live, the visa process can be difficult or time-consuming, so I recommend getting started early. Not the week before you leave!

However, if you’re on a short trip (on the way to another country), then it’s worth knowing that Shanghai has a 144-Hour Visa-Free Transit policy.

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Passport holders from a bunch of countries can enjoy 144 hours in Shanghai without having to get a visa.

So, if you’re on your way to somewhere else, you could spend up to 6 days in Shanghai without going through any extra paperwork trouble.

Some of the countries included under this rule are:

  • The US
  • The UK
  • Germany and many European countries
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Singapore.

Interestingly, some large countries like India and Malaysia do not enjoy this privilege, and you’ll need to apply for a tourist visa regardless of the length of your stay.

You can check your eligibility for Visa Free Transit by tapping here.

Note that this opens up in a new window (it’s an official Chinese government site).

3. Get a VPN

vpn is needed for shanghai

Access banned websites and apps in Shanghai with a VPN. Image by Privecstasy on Unsplash.

If you’re like most people, then you enjoy sharing images and updates about your trip as you explore. But you’ll have a lot more trouble doing that while you’re in Shanghai.

China’s firewall is real, and it will leave you unable to access sites like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Google.

Basically, the sites that you’re most likely to use to stay connected, share your holiday snaps, and find out the answers to questions (like ‘best dumpling restaurants in Shanghai’), will be completely off limits.

That’s why you’ll need a virtual private network (VPN) during your stay. And you’ll need to download it before arriving in China, otherwise you won’t be able to download it at all.

You can read a review of which VPN is best for Shanghai here or tap on the button below to get the one which The Helpful Panda recommends.

If you’re already in China and your VPN is playing up (that’s normal in China), there’s a troubleshooting guide here.

4. Don’t tip

picking up chinese yuan with chopsticks

People generally don’t tip in Shanghai. Image by AndreyCherkasov on Shutterstock.

If you’re from the United States, you’ll be used to tipping. But please don’t tip in China.

Not only do the locals not tip, service staff may feel awkward if you try and slip them a note.

There are a few little exceptions to the ‘no tipping’ rule, so I suggest you read this article that Mike wrote.

5. Beware the traffic

shanghai traffic on a good day

Shanghai traffic on a good day! Image by Robert Biesewig on Pixabay.

OK, this applies all over China, but I need to put it in this list of Shanghai travel tips.

Don’t expect everyone to obey traffic laws. Red lights, cross walks, they’re more suggestions than hard and fast laws in Shanghai.

So, don’t just step out when the walk sign flashes and expect to be safe.

This applies to walking on the sidewalk too. Back home, I always think of the sidewalk as car-free and much safer to walk on.

But in Shanghai, you’ll find e-scooters and e-bikes driving like maniacs on the sidewalk, and it isn’t unusual for cars to park on the sidewalk. Keep your eyes and ears open!

6. Use a navigation app

maps app icon on phone

Using a map app will definitely help you. Image by Brett Jordan on Pexels.

Now, I’ll be the first one to tell you that Shanghai is easy to navigate.

The tourist areas are generally well-signposted and, if you get lost, the locals can speak some English.

But why rely on the locals, or even your intuition, when you can use a navigation app?

The best China map app, in my opinion, is MAPS.ME but others swear by Google using a VPN.

It’s ultimately up to you, but if you plan on using MAPS.ME just remember to download your Shanghai map before you arrive in China so you can use it offline (and not use expensive roaming data) while you’re there. Awesome.

If you use one of the Chinese map apps, like Gaode, you’ll need to be able to read Mandarin!

7. Prepare for squat toilets

chinese squat toilet

Yep, this is me photographing a squat toilet. Image supplied by Gayle Aggiss.

Shanghai gets a lot of foreign visitors, so it has facilities to match.

But if you go need to use public toilets, like at a local mall, you’ll probably be confronted with the dreaded Chinese squat toilet (boy, was it fun writing that article).

These toilets can be a bigger challenge than you might expect, especially for women. Here’s a few tips to help you survive them:

  • Carry toilet paper with you, as the toilets usually don’t have them
  • Don’t put the toilet paper down the toilet, it goes in the bin
  • Try not to look at the bin as it’s usually quite foul and overflowing
  • Bring sanitizer with you as there’s usually no soap.

If you struggle to squat, then plan your daily trips around places you know have western toilets. Or, if you can, do your business in your hotel!

8. Explore the side streets

shanghai back alley with motorbikes going past

Get off the main streets for better, cheaper food. Image by Paralaxis on Shutterstock.

In any big Chinese city, and especially Shanghai, the food is often better (and always cheaper) if you venture off the main street.

I can’t tell you how many amazing meals I’ve had in China down side streets.

9. Pack your adapter

travel adapter is needed for shanghai

This is something you shouldn’t forget to pack in your bag. Image by Edward Eyer on Pexels.

Shanghai’s power points aren’t uniform, and you’ll find A, C, and I plug sockets apparently at random.

So, make sure that you pack an adapter to match. It’s one of the best things to buy for your trip.

Side note: Check out Mike’s incredible packing list for China, which covers a lot more than power adapters!

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Depending on where you’re from, you might also need a voltage converter just to make sure your electronics don’t get blown out.

10. Bring your passport on day trips

woman smiling and holding passport

It may sound obvious, but if you forget your passport then you can’t get into the tourist sites. Image by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.

Got a day trip planned for Suzhou or one of the lovely water towns?

If you’re taking the high-speed train, you’ll need to bring your passport to be able to board the train.

The locals use their national ID card to go through the electronic gates, while foreigners like you and me annoyingly have to go to the manual gate and present our passport.

Also, most tourist attractions in China require ID to get in, so even if you stay in central Shanghai, you will need your passport to get into places.

11. Use the Metro or Didi

shanghai metro sign

This is the symbol to look out for to take the subway. Image by TK Kurikawa on Shutterstock.

While we’re on the topic of trains, let’s talk about how good the Shanghai subway is.

It’s prompt, clean, and will take you all over the city (of course). And there’s a whopping 16 lines.

The Metro also connects up with Maglev train, which is the ‘magnetic levitation’ train that you can get to and from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

If you’d rather travel in a car while you’re in the city, then download Didi, which is China’s version of Uber.

You can literally get a ride within a few minutes from anywhere in the city.

I suggest you take a look at the other great travel apps to use in China.

12. Explore the shopping malls

Nanjing Road lit up at night

There are shopping centers in and around Nanjing Road. Image by ThewayIsee on Shutterstock.

If you’re cashed up and love shopping, then you’ll love Shanghai.

Check out this website where you can filter for shopping centers and malls based on the Metro stations you’re near.

I’m not a big shopper myself, so wandering down East Nanjing Road is enough for me.

13. Stay near attractions

The Bund with people dancing with fans in foreground

I recommend staying near The Bund as that’s where many of the main attractions are. Image by Adli Wahid on Unsplash.

Although Shanghai is China’s largest city, it’s remarkably walkable.

But this doesn’t mean that you’ll want to walk for miles every day while you’re there, especially if you’re only in Shanghai for a few days.

To avoid this, consider staying near the attractions you most want to see. This will cut down on your transport times and costs as well as shoe leather.

You can check out some great hotels in Shanghai by tapping on the button below.

Obviously if you’re on a packaged tour you don’t need to worry about this. But Shanghai is the easiest place in China to travel solo.

Oh, and fun fact: the population of Shanghai is about the same as the whole of Australia, where I’m from.

14. Use a translation app

chinese and english speech bubbles

A translation app is an indispensable tool for Shanghai. Image by Lars Poyansky on Shutterstock.

There’s more English in Shanghai than in any other city in China, but this doesn’t mean that everyone speaks English or that everyone will understand you.

Taxi drivers in particular often don’t speak English and this can make getting around difficult.

To overcome this issue, use a translation app on your phone. Pleco is a good one, but there are plenty of others.

I like using trusty Google Translate, but just remember you’ll need a VPN in Shanghai to use any of Google’s services.

If you’re a bit old school, or a bit old (sorry mum!), then at least make sure you have the hotel’s address on a business card or written down somewhere in Chinese characters.

That way, you can just hand it to a taxi driver and be on your merry way.

15. Get out of the city

wet tourists standing under umbrellas in zhouzhuang water town

Getting wet in Zhouzhuang Water Town! Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

One of the best Shanghai travel tips that I can give you is to get out of the city if you can.

This will give you a break from the noise and the lights and there are also some absolutely amazing places really close to Shanghai that are well worth seeing.

If you’re not part of a tour group, take advantage of the bullet trains and go!

Here’s where I recommend that you visit:

  • Hangzhou, for lake cruises and tea (1 hour from Shanghai Hongqiao by train)
  • Suzhou, for beautiful gardens (30 minutes by train)
  • Nanjing, where you can experience China’s ancient capital (75 minutes by train).

There are also some picture-perfect ancient water towns within easy reach of the city:

  • Zhujiajiao Water Town (40 minutes by Metro, then walk)
  • Tongli Water Town (75 minutes by car, or take train to Suzhou)
  • Zhouzhuang Water Town (90 minutes by car).

Just remember to bring your passport to board the bullet trains, as I mentioned in tip number 7.

16. Don’t drink the water

bottled drinks at chinese supermarket

Only drink bottled water in China. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

This may seem like an obvious one, but the consequences of forgetting are pretty dire, so I’m including it.

Do not drink the tap water while you’re in Shanghai. Drink bottled water at all times and use it to brush your teeth as well.

You don’t want to spend all of your short time in Shanghai being sick, so don’t risk it.

17. Avoid Shanghai in summer

chinese street vendor wearing protective clothing for summer

Everyone covers up in Shanghai in the summer. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Autumn and spring are the best times to visit the city as the weather is mostly very pleasant.

But even winter is fairly mild and comfortable for most (there’s no snow in Shanghai).

In contrast, summers can be intense. Between June and August, you can expect temperatures around 86-95°F (30-35°C) or even as high as 104°F (40°C).

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Combine these temperatures with all of the city’s glass and metal plus high humidity, and it can lead to a lot of hot, sticky days.

If you have choice over travel dates, I recommend booking your trip for the other seasons.

Check out the page on the best time to visit Shanghai and Beijing.

18. Reconsider that trip to Disneyland

shanghai disney resort castle

Think twice if you want to use your time in Shanghai by visiting Disney Resort. Image by Woshinidayess on Pixabay.

Look, I need to be honest and tell you I haven’t been to Shanghai Disney Resort. I’m not really an amusement parks kind of girl.

But hearing from friends who have been there, all I’ll say is have a big hard think if you want to spend an entire day at Shanghai Disney.

It’s expensive, there are long queues, and in my opinion, plenty of other better places to visit!

Only go there if you’re a massive fan.

19. See the best tourist sights

French Concession outdoor cafe in Shanghai

The French Concession is a lovely area to explore. Image by Robert Mullan on Shutterstock.

Only in Shanghai for a few days?

Then here are the best places where everyone typically goes:

  • The Bund, which is the huge, lovely waterfront and a true Shanghai landmark
  • Pudong skyline, which you can see from the Bund or you can go up one of the towers (see below)
  • Nanjing Road for large stores and malls
  • Yuyuan Garden for traditional Chinese gardens (see below)
  • Jing’an temple for a more peaceful experience in the city
  • Former French Concession, where there are cafes and leafy trees
  • Xintiandi and Huaihai Road for upmarket shopping and dining
  • Puxi District if you’re into nightlife.

Note: Try to avoid public holidays and weekends if you can.

Also, the Chinese are night owls, so if you get somewhere when it opens, you’ll beat the hordes (well, at least for the first hour).

20. Go up a tower

Shanghai World Financial Center covered in fog

There’s so much fog that you can only see the top of the Bottle Opener. Image by Jeremy Zhu on Pixabay.

I say ‘a’ tower as there are so many options!

But if you like observation decks like I do, then you could try a few:

  • Shanghai Tower is China’s tallest building, and one of the world’s tallest buildings
  • Shanghai World Financial Center, the second tallest building in the city which looks like a big bottle opener
  • Jin Mao Tower, which is nestled between the two above
  • Oriental Pearl TV Tower Observation Deck, one of the futuristic buildings on the banks of the Huangpu River.

They’re all in Pudong, so you could literally tower-hop your way through this district.

The Oriental Pearl Tower is the original tall structure in Pudong, but now looks a little dwarfed next to the other monstrosities.

Note: You’ll only get spectacular views on days where there’s no smog or clouds.

Otherwise, you’ll see absolutely nothing (well, except smog and clouds).

21. Beware of strangers at Yuyuan Garden

yu garden pagoda and pond

There’s a known scam that happens near the Yu Garden. Image by Laurette Chapuis on Pixabay.

Shanghai, like the rest of China, is very safe and especially for foreign tourists.

However, there’s a common scam near the busiest tourist attractions in China, that being the Yu Garden in Shanghai and the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Basically, someone (usually a woman) with excellent English will start talking to you, and once she’s built your trust, she’ll invite you to a teahouse.

The only thing is – the tea will cost an astronomical price per cup, and you’ll only find this out once you’ve downed half a dozen of them.

And, you’ll be locked inside the teahouse until you pay! So, never ever accompany a stranger to a teahouse in China.

22. Use mobile payments but carry cash

chinese woman scanning a phone for payment

Everyone in Shanghai uses their phone to pay. Image by Humphery on Shutterstock.

Shanghai is mostly a cashless city, with most hotels, shops, and attractions relying on mobile payments.

Lots of shops may even refuse to take large bills because they can’t give you change. This means you should prepare other ways to pay other than cash.

Download WeChat Pay or Alipay and set it up with your card before you go.

Seriously, no one uses cash anymore in China!

23. Get your coffee fix (hopefully)

holding a cup of Luckin coffee outside the coffee shop

Some coffee shops don’t accept cash or even have customer service. Image by Sarunyu L on Shutterstock.

While I’m on the topic of payment apps, you’ll find that some of the coffee shops in Shanghai (I’m looking at you, Luckin Coffee) only take app orders.

The apps are only in Mandarin, and you’ll need a Master’s degree on how to order. And that’s assuming you’ve already set up your foreign card on WeChat Pay or Alipay.

You might need to ‘shop around’ for a coffee shop that will take your cash order, otherwise head to a Starbucks.

At least you won’t go thirsty in the country’s biggest city. Shanghai has the most coffee shops in the world (you can see more crazy facts about China here.)

24. Take a boat ride on the Huangpu

tourists on Huangpu River cruise at the Bund

Find your feet in the city by doing a river cruise. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

I like being around water. I’m Australian.

So, if you’re anything like me and you need some respite from all the concreteness that is Shanghai, take a boat ride on the Huangpu River.

There are a few options leaving from The Bund area, and it’s nice to see the city from a different angle.

25. Go further

woman on platform while chinese bullet train is arriving

Take the high-speed to explore other parts of China. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

I’ll finish with this tip.

If you want to visit other Chinese cities, I recommend taking the high-speed train.

For relatively short distances, the train is always cheaper than flying, but even on longer distances it can be just as good.

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For example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in under five hours on the bullet train. You cut out all the stress and extra time needed at the airport for security and whatnot.

And, domestic flights in China can be relatively expensive.

Psst! Last travel tip

I mentioned at the start how all the major foreign sites and apps are blocked in China.

So, I’m reminding you before you go off and have a cup of tea!

If you want to use the internet in China using hotel Wi-Fi, then you’ll need to get a VPN on your devices.

Check out this review or tap on the button below for the recommended one.

Just remember to download it before you arrive, as VPN sales are blocked in China.

You’ll have a great time in Shanghai

This huge, exciting city is perfect for giving you a quick taste of all that China has to offer. It’s remarkably safe as well, making it a great option for first timers to China.

Unfortunately, even with the best Shanghai travel tips in the world, you may still find yourself shocked and uncertain when you first visit the city (e.g. the public toilets may get you).

So, keep these travel tips in mind, but be open to the new and unfamiliar. Because they’ll definitely make the best stories when you get back home.

And finally, don’t forget to try the delicious soup dumplings. I’m so envious already!

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments area below. And be sure to get your VPN before you leave. Bon voyage and safe travels.

Where to from here?

You’ll like these little nuggets of Shanghai knowledge:

Or, if you want more travel tips, then check out these pages:

Main image credit: Sean Sheng on Pixabay.

Tips and FAQ about Shanghai travel

What do I need to know before going to Shanghai?

The most important things are to see if you’re eligible for Visa Free Transit and to get a VPN before you jet off. You should also set up WeChat Pay or Alipay because the city is almost cashless.

What is the best way to explore Shanghai?

Use the Metro which has a whopping 16 lines and numerous interchanges.

How many days is enough for Shanghai?

You could rush through it within a few days, but if you want to explore the water towns and nearby cities (like Suzhou, Hangzhou, etc), then a week would be ideal.

Is Shanghai an expensive city to visit?

Yes, compared to other Chinese cities. But a trip to Shanghai won’t totally break the bank, provided you eat local Chinese food, stay at three-star hotels, and don’t splurge too much at the shopping malls!