I went to Shanghai for the first time in 2013, when I had a few days off as I was teaching elsewhere in China. I then went back the following summer with a company who organise internships at various places – I worked for an expat magazine.
This was such a great way to experience Shanghai as I was living with people from all over the world my own age in a hotel, which was so much fun, but I also got to work with Chinese people and after just a few weeks I got to know the city. This isn’t a ‘top things to do’ in Shanghai list as it is such a massive city, I’ve simply listen the things I did most often that cost the least.
The Bund at Night
I have never been a massive lover of cities until Shanghai, I much prefer the beach or green open spaces. However, there is something about the Shanghai skyline and I’ve yet to get bored of it. It looks most impressive at night, when it is all lit up and reflecting off the water. There are also so many bars and restaurants along here, if you are on a budget enjoy the view from cafe or one of the more inexpensive bars – some are around ¥50 (£5) to get in and the balcony looks right over the Bund.
Eat street food
I know what you’re thinking… food poisoning and China’s horrendous reputation with food hygiene. However eating street food is all part of the culture and when you find the right places it’s some of the best food you will get in Shanghai (real Chinese food that is.) My friends and I got to know noodle man, dumpling man and pancake lady on our way to work and coming home from it. One of my favourite things about Shanghai is that it is such an expensive city but even the most well off looking people will still stand with a designer bag in one hand, polystyrene pot full of noodles in the other. Dumplings: One style is a kind of doughy bun usually filled with meat. Or there is everyone’s favourite, Shanghai dumplings; (xiao long boa) little parcels filled with soup and again probably meat, but if you get talking to some locals they will tell you where you can get veggie ones. My absolute favourite: Jianbing (pancake) and this costs ¥3 (30p.) Making this involves heating batter over a large crepe pan, which is then covered with hoisin sauce. An egg is then cracked over the top and allowed it to scramble. Dried crispy tofo is put in the middle and sprinkled with coriander, then rolled up for you and popped in a bag.
Wander around the French Concession
Besides the malls and Nanjing Lu (street) the most expensive street in China, if not the world, this part of Shanghai is so Western but also really quaint and just pleasant to go for a walk around if you are looking for something to do. A lot of English families live here and I believe there is an English speaking school and pre school nearby. I ate here a couple of times when I needed a little bit of home and when I was looking for healthier food options. This area was once designated to the French so it was built to look like Europe rather than Asia, hence the popularity with expats.
Xintiandi and Tianzifang
Two really popular shopping/market districts about 15 minutes on the metro, but you feel as though you are miles away form the city centre as you wander round the maze of side streets.You can also do both in one day. Although the buildings in Xintiandi are reconstructed, they have stayed true to their original designs (travel snobs will tell you it’s all been redone for tourists but I don’t really see the problem.) Admittedly I had a Starbucks on the way home after I had the most amazing Vietnamese food but, whatever, that kind of diversity is what I love about Shanghai.
Tianzifang is a made up of narrow side streets completely packed with small shops, street vendors, cafes and restaurants. I ended up going three times as there is always something new to try, from fresh fruit smoothies, the biggest pizza slices you have ever seen, to eating noodles on a rooftop overlooking the streets or to sitting in a small café trying every kind of Chinese tea under the sun. Again, you feel completely removed from the city until you come out the other side and see the skyline.
The Fake Markets
Okay so not the most cultural thing you can do but I just can’t resist haggling something down from ¥300 to ¥70 (£30 to £7.) That might sound really stingy, but you get to know how little you can pay for things and it is also fun to surprise the seller and do it in Chinese. These are essentially emptied out shopping malls and every day sellers set up their stall and sell everything you could ever need. When my glasses frames broke, I even went here to the ‘fake’ opticians and the kind man put my lenses in brand new frames, even opening up his latest delivery because I was clearly having a stressful day. And no one at home questioned the authenticity of my Calvin Klein glasses which actually cost me £30. They are also really accessible so we usually stopped off here on the way back from doing something else or walked down Nanjing Road if it wasn’t too hot.
Onviously there is so much more to do in Shanghai and some of the things I did weren’t necessarily on a budget so I left them out. I could also talk about Shanghai all day so I really had to narrow this down. However do let me know if you would like any more Shanghai travel tips. It is such an exciting city, you can feel like you are complete lost in the mystery that is China while feeling like you are in any Western city close to home and that is what I love about it the most.