Before we arrived in Shanghai I knew little about the history of the city and if truth be told I thought there wasn’t going to be that much to know.
Don’t get me wrong I was excited to visit and experience the contrast that I’d heard the Chinese megacity had with the rest of the country but I thought it was going to be all about skyscrapers, high flyers and expense. Not quite where your atypical budget backpacker fits in, but I’m pleased to say I was wrong.
First of all, you can pretty much spend as little as possible and still get to see the best of the city as many things are free.
Secondly, the place is steeped in a rich and interesting history that has surprisingly been dominated by foreign occupancy and stretches much further back than the recent financial boom attracting city workers seeking opportunity from all over the world.
So without further ado I’m going to tell you why you should include Shanghai in your China itinerary as a budget backpacker and show you it won’t cost as much as you think to see the highlights.
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Yu Garden (metro stop Yuyuan Garden on line 10)
This classical garden was completed in 1577 during the Ming Dynasty and quite literally means pleasing and satisfying. It has survived various stages of disrepair and was badly damaged during the Opium War (1839-42) but was rebuilt in 1961.
Built by a government official for his ageing parents, the wall is shaped like a flying dragon and for around £4 it’s fascinating spot worth getting lost in for an hour or two. If you manage to beat the crowds by going early take a book to read in one of the shaded pagodas.
There’s plenty of teahouses within the buzz that surrounds the gardens to stop for a refreshment but prices are high so we didn’t bother.
Shanghai History Museum (metro stop Lujiazui on line 2)
Recreated street scenes literally walk you through the history of Shanghai and at £3.50 it won’t break the bank.
I mention above that foreigners have occupied Shanghai for a long time and the museum highlights this journey. Find out about the forced opening of China to trade in 1842 by the British gun ships in the Opium War.
The museum takes you through the darker times of gambling, prostitution, opium addiction and suppression of the poor who were controlled by foreign gangs, to the rehabilitation of the city through it’s extensive regeneration programme, it’s all here.
The Shanghai History Museum is in the basement of this building – The Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
For more information on Shanghai’s plans for future development visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall where there’s a model layout and 3D tour of the metropolis to be. At approximately £3 a pop its worth a visit if you have an interest in this area (metro stop Peoples Square).
French Concession (metro stop Dapuqiao on line 9)
When the gun boats overpowered China in 1842 ‘concessions’ were given to the British and shortly after Italian, American and Japanese.
Chinese people were banned at first and later allowed, but only as second class citizens, to these countries within a country. The concessions even had their own individual laws, police forces and often armies.
The only remaining concession still called such in the city is the French Concession, this was however reclaimed by China in 1943. Nowadays it’s a trendy hipster area similar to a rabbit warren with connecting rows of small alleys and courtyards lined with cafes, bars and shops. With it’s rickety old buildings and vibrant charm the Tianzifang area is the most desirable hang out spot and unless you do decide on a refreshment it’s free to wander around.
People’s Square & Shanghai Museum – (metro stop Peoples Square on line 1, 2 or 8)
Built on the old racecourse that was demolished as part of rehabilitation of the cities gambling addiction. The area is a peaceful open space with plenty of places to sit and people watch – and it’s free!
Whilst there take an hour to visit the Shanghai Museum and see some ancient Chinese art, it’s situated within the grounds of the park and is also free, be sure to get your get your ticket early though as only 8,000 are released per day. You’ll need to leave your passport or £40 as a deposit for an audio guide.
Fountain show in People’s Square.
East Nanjing Road & The Bund – (metro stop Nanjing Road (E) on line 10)
East Nanjing Road is a pedestrianised street now dominated by huge flagship high-street shops, neon lights and watch sellers.
Connecting the People’s Park and The Bund, it has a reputation for being one of the most crowded streets in China and doesn’t disappoint. Unless you get tempted by any of the shops (as we did by the wall of chocolate in the M&M shop) you can experience the hustle and bustle without spending a penny.
Like a kid in a sweet shop!
Busy day and night, The Bund runs alongside the Huangpu river and was once the city’s equivalent of Wall Street lined with powerful banks and trading houses. These days the majority of places have been redeveloped as designer shops and upmarket restaurants.
Watching the boats glide up and down the river against the backdrop of the huge skyscrapers in the Pudong district over the way is a must see – again no cost attached.
East Nanjing Road from The Bund at night.
Beware of the ‘tea shop’ scams that happen here where attractive girls or respectable looking couples will ask you to practice English with them only to take you to a tea house where you are presented with a humongous bill after what you thought was just a cup of tea and chat.
Chinese Massage (metro stop Luban Road)
After a long day exploring the city, treat yourself to a massage at one of the well priced massage parlours in the Luban Road area. We went to a place at No. 423 Dapu Road and it was very good.
Just a word of caution, they don’t pull any punches when kneading your muscles so expect to hear a few cracks and creaks and beware if you have any injuries. At only £10 for an hour long full body massage or £5 for an hour long foot massage though you’re in for a treat.
You get snazzy PJ’s and a rose on your massage table too!
Pudong (metro stop Pudong Avenue)
Up until the early 90’s this side of the river was largely an underdeveloped area of the city. Plans by the government to build a leading financial hub from nothing were guffawed at by the economic world.
Yet one skyscraper at a time, in less than a couple of decades, real estate in this area of Shanghai has grown to an all time high and it is now a mecca of opportunity for business people.
Wandering around the area you feel so small compared to the larger than life buildings and once you are in the concrete jungle it can be tricky to navigate your way, with skyscrapers eclipsing your view at every turn and limited GPS signal. For the cost of the metro fare it’s well worth a trip under the river for the experience – make sure you take your camera.
Left to right: Shanghai World Financial Centre, Jinmao Tower & Shanghai Tower.
Skyscraper Observation Decks (metro stop Lujiazui on line 2)
If you’ve saved more on your budget than you thought you would, you may want to treat yourself to the panoramic sights of the city from one of the taller skyscrapers in Pudong.
We visited the 88th floor of the 382m Jinmao Tower and would highly recommend it as you not only get to see the view looking out from the building, but also through the centre straight down into the ground floor lobby – now that really gets your knees trembling.
The view from inside Jianmao Tower
With an entrance fee of around £12 each it’s pretty steep but we were really glad we did it. At the higher end of entrance fee budgets (£18-20 per person) are the observation decks on the 100th floor of the 492m Shanghai World Financial Center and the 632m 119th floor of China’s tallest building Shanghai Tower. Obviously try to go up on as clear a day as possible!
Shanghai skyline from Jimmao Tower.
Yongkong Bar Street (metro stop Jiashan Road on line 9 or 12)
You can spend as little or as much as you like here, but you should experience the crazy vibe on bar street for at least one drink.
Everyone speaks English here, even Chinese locals (who call it foreigner street) and it feels like you have just stepped in to a different country. People told us it was expensive (which it is if compared to the beers you can get in local shops for 30p). However most, if not all of the many, many bars have happy hours throughout the day until 8pm and you can pick up a glass of decent wine for £2 or a mojito for £3.
It’s not a late opening place as the buildings above are all residential so the police start coming by at around 10.30pm to ensure bars are turning their music off.
If you do want to carry on the party there’s a cool club close by (take a moto taxi for £2) that we would recommend called ‘The Shelter’. It’s in a huge old underground bomb shelter, is £3 to get in and has cocktails for around £4. With various music from reggae to electronic pop playing on different nights, check the website for up to date info about which DJ’s are playing.
If you still have any budget left be sure to catch one of the city’s famous acrobatics shows.
We went to The Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe in the Shanghai Centre Theatre (metro stop Jing’an Temple on line 2 or 7) and it was spectacular. A little pricey at £18 each, the show started at 7.30pm prompt, lasted an hour and half and left us in awe – definitely worth scrimping on the budget somewhere else to experience it.
There is also another show at the Shanghai Circus World (metro stop Shanghai Circus World on line 1), ticket prices range from around £12-60 here and the show starts at 7.30pm.
You can get tickets on the day, but to be sure you get the cheapest seats head to the ticket offices at the venues to purchase them a couple of days in advance. And if you have been tempted by the wall of chocolate in the M&M store be sure to take them with you to snack on whilst watching the amazing acrobatic feats!
As a couple we went spent 6 days budget backpacking in Shanghai, packed all of the above in and spent under £50 per day. Our hostel beds in the mixed dorm we stayed in cost £8 each per night and eating in budget local restaurants we spent an average of £12 per day for the two of us on food.
Shanghai of course has a reputation for expensive eateries but by no means did we compromise on quality in the places we ate, the city has some of the best food we have tasted in the whole of China and you definitely don’t need to be in a posh restaurant with linen napkins to experience it. Getting around is cheap enough, the metro is very inexpensive at 30-40p per one way trip although most lines close at around 10.30pm, taxi’s aren’t crazily expensive though at £3-4, you just don’t want to be catching too many.
Hopefully I’ve given you enough information to convince you to put Shanghai on your ‘must visit’ list in China even if you are a budget backpacker. Because as the Chinese proverb says…it’s better to see for oneself than to hear many times! So go visit Shanghai, you’ll love it. If you have any questions or want any further info please don’t hesitate to get in touch and I’ll do my best to help.
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Yorkshire born & bred, Sarah is a professional blogger who loves to travel. Pushing her boundaries with new adventures is her jam, so you likely won’t find her in one place for too long. Also a serious Marmite addict.