Shanghai: An Overview

Shanghai, China

It's been a while, but it's time for another travel post.  But since it's the day after Tuesday, we're calling this #Wanderlust Wednesday.  Today, we head to China and take a look at its most cosmopolitan city, and the most populous city proper in the world, Shanghai!

Shanghai is the beacon of China's rising economic influence and emerging global power.  Located right on the coast, facing the East China Sea, Shanghai is actually about the same latitude as Los Angeles, though weather patterns give it a climate that swings a lot more drastically than Southern California.  Summers are typically hot and humid, while winters typically see snow, and the city experiences four distinct seasons (not that you might be able to tell from the skies, which are often smoggy haze).  Its status as a major international shipping, business, and trade port has lent it the amenities of an international city, with plenty of parks, museums, monuments, and attractions to rival the the biggest cities around the world. 


Lets get one thing out of the way early.  There's a good chance you're going to have to get a tourist visa before visiting Shanghai (or anywhere in China).  Westcoaster is geared toward American readers (naturally, since we're based in Southern California), and I haven't had to write a section about this subject matter in any of my previous city overviews because they were all in countries that do not require any sort of visa for regular tourists on short term visits.  If you're an international reader, then visa requirements vary, of course.  Check with your local consulate for details related to your travels.

For Americans, visitors are required to possess a travel visa upon entering any part of Mainland China.  You can find more information on this process here and also here.  A visa will set you back a bit of change ($140 at time of this writing) and potentially the time to take a trip for processing, but it is valid for ten years, which helps if you plan on making future visits. 

In addition, Americans visiting China must have a passport that expires a minimum of six months after the end of their stay.  They also must register with a local police station upon arrival (visitors staying at hotels don't have to deal with this hassle, as hotels typically do this registration for their guests).  Failure to meet any of these requirements could result in detainment in the country, and that would not be good.  The requirements in this paragraph also apply to an exemption visitors may elect to take that I will explain after the photo below.

Raise your hand if you're reading this article because you're motivated to visit Shanghai Disneyland.

For American travelers who may not want to deal with the hassle of obtaining a visa and do not plan on staying in Shanghai for more than a handful of days, there is actually a method to enter China without a tourist visa.  Known as the "Transit Without Visa" (TWOV) exception, this allows visitors from any of 51 select countries (including the United States) to temporarily stay within certain cities in China if coming from one "region" (basically a country, but more elaboration on this in a moment) into China at certain airports or seaports and then departing to a different "region" and only staying within said Chinese city for 72 hours max.  And the clock doesn't even start ticking until midnight after one arrives.  That means that someone landing in a covered city in China at 9:00pm local time will actually have up to 75 hours to "transit" (stay in the city).  Someone arriving at 9:00am local time will actually have 87 hours.  Generally speaking, this is the way the clock starts for most of the cities covered under China's TWOV program.  However, some cities (such as Beijing) have reportedly recently begun the clock upon arrival, yielding no bonus time. 

For Shanghai, the "transit period" (amount of time allowed within the city) is even longer--144 hours as of January 30, 2016.  This means someone can fly into Shanghai from one "region," stay in Shanghai for up to 144 hours (6 days), and then fly out of Shanghai to a different "region" than the first.  I should note, however, that guests using the TWOV exemption are not allowed to leave the city jurisdiction (whereas those with a regular tourist visa can travel within China at will).  This means that Shanghai guests using TWOV cannot leave Shanghai and go to an outskirts town or further inland or hop on a train to a different city in China.

You'll notice that I put "region" in quotes when explaining how the TWOV works.  For all intents and purposes, you can consider "region" to be the same as "country."  Meaning to qualify for TWOV travel, you have to be flying into applicable Chinese city from one country outside of China and then flying out of same Chinese city to a different country than the first.  However, places like Hong Kong, Macau, and other Special Administrative Regions (SAR)--semi-autonomous areas technically a part of China politically and government-wise--are considered separate regions.  That means you could fly from Hong Kong into Shanghai, stay for six days, then fly out to Tokyo, and use the TWOV exemption--even though Hong Kong is a part of China.

The Bund, on the west side of the Huangpu River, is old Shanghai and filled with classical European influences stemming from 19th century imperialism.

Keep in mind that this little quirk is solely concerned with the legs immediately surrounding your stay at valid Chinese city.  Even if the city before and/or after your stop in China is part of a layover to another location, Chinese Immigrations review will only look at the flight from and flight to in order to determine TWOV validity.  That means that if your ultimate origin city is country A, but you have to fly into country B before arriving in China, then afterward, you fly out back to country B, TWOV will not work. 

Examples of itineraries that would be acceptable under TWOV:
- Los Angeles -> Tokyo (layover) -> Shanghai -> Hong Kong -> Tokyo -> L.A.
- San Francisco -> Shanghai -> Tokyo -> San Francisco
- San Francisco -> Shanghai -> Tokyo (layover) -> San Francisco

Examples of itineraries that would NOT be acceptable under TWOV:
- San Francisco -> Shanghai -> San Francisco
- Los Angeles -> Tokyo (layover) -> Shanghai -> Tokyo -> Los Angeles
- Los Angeles -> Tokyo -> Shanghai -> Tokyo (layover) -> Los Angeles
- Los Angeles -> Shanghai -> Beijing -> Los Angeles
- Los Angeles -> Tokyo -> Shanghai -> Beijing -> Los Angeles

In the examples above, the bolded city is the Chinese city accepting the TWOV entry (the "transit" point), while the italicized cities are what the immigration official will be looking at to grant the TWOV.

If all of that works out, great!  When you check in at the airport you are using to fly into China (i.e. the city before you get to China in the examples above), tell the agent that you intend on applying for the "Travel Without Visa" exemption.  They may also know it as the "72-hour rule" or "144-hour rule."  They will have you fill out some paperwork and declare this to Chinese authorities for the incoming flight into China.

The ticket counter agent may also not know about this, period.  Employees at airports in some smaller or less internationally-connected cities may not be aware of the existence of TWOV and refuse to issue boarding passes.  If this is the case, escalate the issue, and make sure you have backup information such as what I'll describe below--and perhaps printouts of some of the linked web page resources in this blog post. 

You will be required to bring proof of your travel itinerary covering the two legs that surround your stay in China.  This would usually be an official flight itinerary confirmation document.  If you don't have one, at least print out your confirming reservation emails to show that you are entering China from one "region" and plan on leaving to a different "region" within the TWOV time limit.  Although I did not find this necessary during my trip to Shanghai last November, it is probably helpful to bring confirmation of your lodging(s) while in China. 

One other document that may be of help is a printout from Timatic (the official program used by travel agents and airline counter clerks to confirm visa and country entry requirements) proving that you can use the TWOV exemption.  United Airlines actually has a Timatic plug-in site you can use for this, which is pretty fantastic (this might be the only positive thing you ever read from me regarding United).  When filling it out:
- "Destination Country" is where you're going after your stay in China.
- "Departure Airport" is where you are before flying into China.
- "Ticket" should be set to "return/onward ticket held."
- "Transit Point 1" should be set to "China."

This is an example of my inputs for checking my itinerary on my trip last year.  I was flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai.  Afterward, I would fly from Shanghai back to Los Angeles, but the Shanghai -> Los Angeles flight had a layover in Tokyo, which is why the destination country was considered "Japan" instead of "USA."

Everything else should be straightforward, and the page that loads after you submit your information will have a section for Visa requirements in China.  You should see an orange exclamation mark symbol with a bunch of text that basically verifies the TWOV parameters.

The resulting web site is annoying in that it doesn't show the entire printout on the screen (but printing it out physically should be fine).  But here's the relevant part confirming TWOV exemption.  Red lines are my own annotation to highlight the important parts.

Once you land in China, get your bags and proceed through customs.  Those who are using the TWOV exemption can go to a special line specifically for this processing.  This will be a different line than for everyone else.  Regular tourist visa holders should follow the crowds.  TWOV applicants, follow the signs to the TWOV line.  Once there, show the officer your passport, boarding pass for the flight into China, and your flight confirmation for your flight leaving China.  If everything checks out, you will receive a temporary visa affixed to your passport along with a slip that you need to return to immigration agents when you come back to the airport to leave the country.

All of this sounds complicated, and it can be for first-timers.  But armed with this knowledge and research before my trip, I and my two travel companions experienced no problems getting into and out of China during our vacation.  It took about 25 minutes for us in Hong Kong when we were checking in to fill out all the paperwork and get everything set.  It took us about half an hour to get through the TWOV line upon entering Shanghai, even though there were only two people ahead of us, because there was only one immigration official working TWOV visitors.  Once we arrived at our hotel, the front desk took care of the process of registering with the local police.  If we had stayed at a friend's house or whatever Chinese equivalent of AirBnB might exist, then we would have had to physically gone to the nearest police station to register our TWOV status within 24 hours of arrival.


PHEW!!  That was a mouthful, wasn't it?  Like my exposition on getting around in Tokyo, I probably should have broken that into a separate blog post, but oh well.  The rest of this should be more straightforward.

Shanghai has two primary airports serving international travel.  The older Hongqiao International Airport (SHA) is located about 12 miles west of the city center and primarily takes flights from within China and limited international flights.  This airport is the closer to the city center of Shanghai's two airports and served as the main airport for many years.  Recent upgrades have expanded capacity, but it's pretty unlikely that most westerners will be arriving into Hongquiao.

A comparison of Shanghai's two major international airports and main train station (in red) in relation to each other, plus several inside- and outside-of-city popular destinations for comparison.  The red outlined area is my subjective "tourist area of interest" part of Shanghai--i.e. the outline of areas most tourists would visit.

Conversely, Pudong International Airport (PVG) is the gleaming new hotness** (well, comparatively; it opened in 1999) and is located pretty much right on the coast about 29 miles east of city center.  Most international flights will land here.  Those flying into PVG will find it quicker to get to Shanghai Disneyland from here as opposed to Hongqiao, since the Disney resort lies between PVG and the city center.

** Or, if you're Jim, "the most painfully boring airport."

Pudong International is sleek and beautiful and modern, and this highly edited cell phone photo will have to suffice, because for some reason, I never took a photo of the airport with my DSLR.

I like to think of Pudong as the Shanghai equivalent of Narita International Airport in Tokyo, while Hongqiao is more like Haneda.  In both cases, the first airports are newer and have become the main international hub accommodating a huge capacity of travelers, but they are both located far away from the city itself, so extra transportation time should be allotted.  Meanwhile, the second airports are located closer to the city but feature less flights incoming from places our readers are likely to be coming from.

A map of various attractions within the city.  Full disclosure: this is taken from my own chosen points of interest when I was planning my vacation last year.  Some of these are popular tourist spots for anyone, and others are things that piqued my own interest.

Fortunately, both airports feature convenient public transportation that take visitors right into the heart of the city.  Shanghai features a robust light rail network with a series of numbered lines that each also corresponds to a color.  Stations are clean, well lit, and full of clear and easy-to-understand signage and direction-finding written in both Chinese and English.  I found it relatively intuitive to navigate the system and saw a lot of similarities to how Hong Kong's subway system works. 

Although the frequency of stops in Shanghai is not as dense as say Tokyo or Hong Kong or Paris, they're still respectable--5 to 10 minutes apart on average.  What's deceiving is exactly how sprawling the rail network extends.  Shanghai is a BIG city.  Everything is scaled larger.  So even though the map below doesn't necessarily seem that extensive, keep in mind that some stops are five or more minutes apart.

A map of the Shanghai Metro system, accurate as of early 2017.

Back to the subject of getting from the airport into town, both Hongqiao and Pudong airports utilize Line 2 (the lime colored one) to enter the city, although Hongqiao can also take Line 10 (lavender) plus a connection to an intersecting line. 

Hongquiao, on the left in the map above, will take about 45 minutes to get to People's Square (which may be considered the heart and main communal gathering space of Shanghai) or Nanjing East Road, and around 50 minutes to reach Lujiazui, the towering skyscraper-filled financial center of Shanghai on the east bank of the river.

Pudong, on the right of the map, can take up to an hour and a half or so to reach the above three stops if one takes Line 2 all the way over.  Those opting for a speedier (but somewhat pricier) option can take the Maglev from PVG direct to the Longyang Road station, then transfer onto Line 2 into the heart of the city.  This can save 30-45 minutes on the trip.

Unfortunately, there is no direct light rail from Pudong to Shanghai Disneyland.  A route exists, but it is circuitous and time-consuming, and those who are making haste to China's Magic Kingdom would be better served taking a taxi.  But more on that in a future Shanghai Disneyland guide post.

The Shanghai Metro system is clean and modern and bears many design similarities to Hong Kong's excellent system.

Finally, there are a variety of ways to pay for a Shanghai Metro ticket.  One can purchase single-use fare at automated ticket machines at each station.  These will give riders a plastic charge card that is inserted into the turnstile upon entry and exit.  The turnstile will keep the card when you leave a station (sorry, no souvenirs).  1-day and 3-day unlimited use passes are also available.  There are also upgrade options to include use of the Maglev, though the probably infrequency of Maglev use probably means it's better to just buy that ticket separately as a single.  In general, light rail fares are noticeably cheaper in Shanghai than in other metropolitan cities such as Hong Kong or Tokyo.  This speaks to China's still burgeoning citizen wealth.  Most people in China still do not earn that much money, even with the country's recent gains, so prices for public transportation have to be set at a lower affordability. 

More information on ticketing for the Shanghai Metro can be found here.


And now, we can get on to the fun stuff--all the attractions and points of interest that make Shanghai worth a visit for any global traveler.  As I mentioned earlier, Shanghai has plenty to see and do, and some astounding sights.  It's also a city of fine cuisine, and excellent nightlife scene, and great bars.  It's not Westcoaster's specialty to recommend places to eat or drink, but they're not too hard to find elsewhere online (or just contact me directly; I have a list).

The Bund is one of the most frequented parts of the city and arguably one of the most famous and spectacular walks in the world.


The bulk of Shanghai's architectural fame lies in the new and modern and high tech buildings that have sprung up throughout the city over the past couple of decades.  The most famous area of concentration is Lujiazui, home to some truly iconic skyscrapers.  But there's a fair amount of great structures for architecture buffs along multiple parts of the river and through the city, such as:
- Oriental Pearl TV Tower
- Bank of Shanghai Headquarters Building
- Jin Mao Tower
- Shanghai World Financial Center
- Shanghai Tower
- Bank of Shanghai Tower
- Shanghai IFC
- Mercedes Benz Arena
- Shanghai Oriental Sports Center

The Oriental Pearl Television Tower is iconic and unique and anchors the Lujiazui part of Pudong, on the east bank of the Huangpu River that runs through the city.


Shanghai also has a thriving museum scene, with institutions dedicated to science and history and art and even architecture.  These include but are not limited to:
- Shanghai Museum
- Shanghai Science and Technology Museum
- Shanghai Natural History Museum
- Shanghai History Museum
- Long Museum
- Power Station of Art
- Rockbund Art Museum
- Shanghai Art Palace
- Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
- Shanghai Ocean Aquarium

The Cloud 9 Bar, located inside the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which itself is inside the Jin Mao Tower, offers some spectacular views of the city.  Free entry for hotel guests, cover charge applicable toward food and drinks required for visitors.


Shopping in Shanghai might not have quite the same traditional romantic appeal as shopping in Paris or Tokyo, but lets face it... there's a good chance that Shanghai is a lot closer to where the items of purchase were made than Paris or Tokyo are (get it... cuz Made In China?).  The city has several popular and well known malls and shopping plazas, such as:
- Nanjing East Road
- Nanjing West Road
- Shanghai Times Square
- Super Brand Mall
- Yuyuan Bazaar

Nanjing East Road is a vibrant and eclectic pedestrian shopping promenade.


Given the strongly secular nature of Communist China, even today, it's not too surprising that religious places are not as prominent here.  Still, there are some temples and even a church or two that have survived to remain places of interest, including:
- Jing'an Temple
- Jade Buddha Temple
- Longhua Temple
- St. Ignatius (Xujiahui) Cathedral


There's definitely no shortage of parks in Shanghai, though.  With a population of over 24 million, the citizens can certainly use a lot of outdoor space.  Some of the more famous gardens and parks include:
- Yuyuan Garden
- Fuxing Park
- People's Square
- Century Park
- Gucheng Park
- Lu Xun Park

Yuyuan Garden, or Yu Garden, is a living preservation of Suzhou style garden design.

Gucheng Park is located practically around the corner from Yuyuan Garden and offers fantastic views of the new Shanghai skyline.


Amusement and theme parks haven't been ignored either during China's rapid industrialization and economic rise.  Though one may find rather callous disregard for copyright in some places, there have actually been some pretty spiffy thrill ride and amusement havens that have sprung up over the years, both in and outside the city, such as:
- Shanghai Disneyland Resort
- Happy Valley Shanghai
- Jinjiang Action Park
- Dino Beach Water Park
- Suzhou Amusement Land

Shanghai Disneyland is Disney's 12th and newest theme park, and its 6th Magic Kingdom.


Finally, there are certain neighborhoods or districts well worth exploring.  Take a stroll, get lost, or check out the extravagance and/or charm of these places:
- The Bund
- Laoximen
- Tian Zi Fang
- The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel

People's Square is a major gathering spot in Shanghai... the government heart of the city.


China uses the Chinese Yuan (CNY) which is more commonly referred to by its Chinese name, Ren Min Bi (RMB).  Carrying cash upon arrival is always recommended, especially to pay for amenities such as taxis.  But generally speaking, China is pretty credit card friendly.  There are caveats, though.  Some places will accept credit card, but only if it's UnionPay, the primary credit and debit card and banking conglomerate in China.  But more often than not, I found little resistance paying by my own Mastercard or Visa card.  It was certainly much better than in Tokyo or Hong Kong, where credit card acceptance was mainly isolated to the theme parks, and cash was required everywhere else.

Some stores also allow bartering to occur.  These will typically occur in smaller boutiques or vendor stalls, rather than big department stores.  The rule of thumb generally allows for bartering if the item does not have a price tag on it.  Items with price tag are probably not negotiable, or at least much less flexibly so.  But it's a fun experience for those who may be interested, and it doesn't hurt to ask if the price of a potential souvenir can be lowered.

Nanjing East Road before it becomes a pedestrian-only street.

As far as dining goes, tipping is not a standard practice in Shanghai either.  Sound like a broken record?  Well, again, most of the world does not engage in tipping. 

I should mention that taxi drivers won't refuse a tip if you offer it, though.  However, such tips are generally pretty small and more akin to rounding the fare up to a neat number.


Much has been made about certain shocking hygiene and lack of etiquette practices among Chinese mainlanders.  When Shanghai Disneyland opened last year, there were sensationalist reports of people defecating or urinating in public, spitting onto the ground, trampling over flowers and planting areas, pushing and shoving, and leaving trash in their wake.  Reading the internet, one might think that the country was filled with these sorts of uncouth people.

Fortunately, the truth is much less severe.  Yes, I know you're shocked that something on the internet turned out to be not as bad as promoted, but by and large, people in Shanghai behave the same as people elsewhere.  Part of this owes itself to Shanghai's position as one of China's most cosmopolitan and developed cities, with a higher degree of culture and education among its populace compared to citizens from the countryside or even in other, smaller cities.  Yes, there are isolated instances of some of the behavior mentioned above, but they are rare and usually exhibited by children. 

One trait that is NOT overhyped, however, is body space.  There is definitely a very good chance that a westerner in Shanghai (and many places in China) will run into a situation where his or her personal space will be invaded by a local.  It's just the way people are.  Many Chinese lack the western concept of a personal bubble, so they will stand chest to back in lines and crowds and be in physical contact.

Language is probably a slightly higher amount of an issue in Shanghai compared to, say, Tokyo (at least in my opinion).  Road and public transportation signage is typically in both English and Chinese.  However, English is not reliably spoken.  In a more developed city like Shanghai, it's not uncommon to find locals who do speak English, but their proficiency won't be very confident.  And while Chinese eagerness to help can't ever match that of the Japanese, who will typically go through great lengths to provide assistance to a visibly lost or confused traveler, most people seem to be generally friendly enough. 

The Yuyuan neighborhood offers a large collection of shops, restaurants, and sights.  It's a hybrid of tourist trap and authentic bazaar--clearly designed to lure strolling travelers but also permitting of haggling and authentic knockoff Chinese wares.

All in all, Shanghai is a fascinating and wonderful city to explore for anyone who loves cities and the usual assortment of attractions they bring.  During my Asia trip last year, I only had one full day to explore the city itself, with the other two full days going to Shanghai Disneyland.  But I left China wishing I had a few more days to see more of the Shanghai.  In terms of suitability for westerners, Shanghai is probably the smoothest transition one can have into mainland China, given its history of western influences already.

And that's today's super huge edition of #WanderlustWednesday.  It's a lot of information for one post, and even more than I dug up for my actual trip.  But given Shanghai's position as the home of Disney's newest theme park and its growing status internationally, I figure there might be some interest in visiting this place in the near future.  If you're one such person, I hope you've found this overview to be informative!

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.