As of 2014, more than 24 million people called Shanghai home. It’s a port city located on the mighty Yangtze River, a financial centre and a transport hub with a super-fast airport train that can reach speeds in excess of 430 kilometres an hour.
Shanghai opened up to the West following the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. By 1932, 70,000 foreigners were living in the city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” and the “Paris of the East” thanks to the exotic glamour of its nightlife and the many Art Deco buildings along its main commercial artery, the Bund. These days, it remains the commercial and financial centre of mainland China – luxury goods and conspicuous consumption continue to thrive – but it’s also a hotbed of young designers, cool vintage shops, bustling markets and more hole-in-the-wall dumpling joints than you can poke a chopstick at. Before you disembark in this historic metropolis, read our guide to Shanghai.
Qantas flies directly to Shanghai from Sydney and Melbourne; the flight takes about 11 hours.
Australian passport holders will need to apply for a visa for trips longer than 72 hours. Apply via mail or in person at a Chinese visa application centre. Go to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Australia for details and up-to-date information. The visa can take up to 10 weekdays to process via mail or four working days if you’re picking it up in person. A regular single-entry visa currently costs $109.50 ($131.50 for a mail application).
Flying in to Shanghai Pudong International Airport
Shanghai Pudong International Airport is 30 kilometres east of the downtown area. There are taxi ranks outside both terminals; the journey to town could take up to 50 minutes by car, depending on traffic. The Maglev Train is a much quicker (and cheaper) option: it travels at speeds of up to 430 kilometres an hour and takes just eight minutes to arrive at Longyang Road Station from where it’s possible to transfer to the Shanghai Metro. Between 7am and 9:40pm, trains depart every 15 to 20 minutes.
- Tourists must register with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) within 24 hours of touching down in China. If you’re staying at a large hotel, they’ll organise this for you, otherwise report to a local police station.
- Carry your passport on your person at all times – visitors are often required to present identification in order to buy bus tickets and gain access to tourist sites.
- There are laws restricting freedom of speech in China and tourists could face issues for speaking out against the government. Demonstrations without the prior approval of the Chinese government are illegal. According to Smart Traveller, visitors should avoid photographing, videoing or participating in protests or risk penalties.
- Gambling is illegal on mainland China and to violate this law could result in arrest and jail or deportation.
The language barrier
Many Chinese people in Shanghai speak some English, especially in tourist areas, and most tourist sites and train stations are signposted in Chinese and English. Still, it pays to learn a few basic phrases in Mandarin such as hello (nihao), thank you (xie xie, pronounced sheh-sheh), please (qǐng, pronounced ching) and goodbye (zai jian pronounced ZYE jeeyen) A language app will be useful to help you communicate (see Handy apps and websites, below).
Make sure your basic vaccinations are up to date. Travel Doctor recommends being vaccinated against hepatitis A, which can be transmitted via contaminated food or water. There are several other recommendations for consideration, including hepatitis B and typhoid. Visit Travel Doctor for more information.
- Taxis are metred and licensed so beware of any drivers without a metre and check that the metre is running. Make sure you have the name and address of your accommodation written out in Chinese characters to show the driver.
- Shanghai’s public transport system is extensive and comprises taxis, metros, buses, ferries and fast trains, all of which can be accessed with the rechargeable Shanghai Public Transportation Card or jiaotong ka. The card can be purchased at kiosks at metro stations and convenience stores for a refundable deposit of ¥20 (about $4) plus however much credit you want to top it up with.
- Foreign driver's licenses and International Driving Permits (IDPs) are not valid in mainland China. Smart Traveller advises that road quality and aggressive driving make driving (and being a passenger in a vehicle) in China dangerous: you’re more than three-and-a-half times more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident in China than in Australia.
- Very few people in Shanghai own their own cars so taxis are everywhere and can be hailed off the street. Official taxis are metered and Uber-like services such as Didi, Shouqi and Shenzhou are also used.
- At the time of writing the Australian dollar was buying 5.2 Chinese yuan renminbi (CNY) – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates. In China, the government sets the official rate. Avoid anyone offering to undercut the exchange rate – it’s illegal and they could lump you with fake notes.
- Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in China. Your Australian bank and Chinese ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away. In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
- Tipping is not part of the culture in China but there are some circumstances in which it’s becoming more common. In restaurants, it’s not necessary but you can leave a little cash if you have had excellent food and service. There’s no need to tip taxi drivers or hotel staff, although in high-end hotels it’s possible to give the bellhop a few yuan. The one exception is tour guides, who often depend on tips for their income.
- While big hotels and department stores accept credit cards, smaller shops and restaurants don’t, so make sure you have cash on you at all times.
- Haggling is de rigueur in Shanghai (and quite enjoyable) so feel free to have a little back-and-forth at the market. It’s important to remain respectful; if you feel you’re being ripped off, don’t become angry – simply walk away. And don’t be concerned about the language barrier – most haggling with foreigners is done with the aid of a calculator.
- Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking upright out of your rice bowl – it’s considered extremely inauspicious and connotes death. Use the chopstick stand provided or place them across the top of your bowl.
- If you are being hosted for dinner, make sure you try a little bit of everything offered – but always leave a little food on your plate or your host will think you’re still hungry!
- Lining up in an orderly fashion isn’t really a thing here – if there’s a crowd of people, you’re probably going to find yourself at the back of it unless you learn to be a little pushy.
- You will notice people in Shanghai give you things with both hands – you should also accept them with both hands. It’s considered polite and respectful, whether you’re accepting a business card or change.
- Finally, Chinese people are generally more conservative than Australians, so if you’re travelling with a loved one, keep the public displays of affection private.
Violent crime is extremely low in China but there are plenty of scams to trick the guileless foreigner, such as the so-called “tea scam”. It involves young Chinese “students” approaching tourists and striking up a conversation. In order to practice their English further and show you a Chinese cultural custom, they suggest taking you to a traditional tea ceremony. After tea, though, they disappear and you’ll find yourself stuck with a very large bill. Don’t close yourself off to interactions with locals, but be wary.
Many Westerners just can’t bring themselves to use a traditional Chinese squat toilet – probably because we don’t have the thigh muscles for it. Shopping malls, fast food chains and tourist areas will have public toilets but the style can’t be guaranteed. It’s wise to always carry a packet of tissues with you, though – many facilities don’t have toilet paper.
Shanghai has a humid, subtropical climate with cold, wet winters with occasional snowfall and hot and humid summers during which the city is occasionally battered by typhoons and drenched by sudden downpours.
Smog is a big issue in China and the the problem of air pollution in Shanghai has been escalating. Last year, the city unveiled plans to combat poor air quality, including curbing private cars and transforming urban areas into green spaces and parks.
Smart Traveller advises that children, the elderly and those with cardiac or respiratory conditions may be affected by the air quality. In 2015, the Chinese government began issuing red alerts for smog. When a red alert has been announced, it’s recommended you stay indoors. The Ministry of Environmental Protection provides data on air quality for cities throughout China.
When to go
The autumnal period between September and November is a great time to visit. In autumn, the weather is mild and the city lacks the tourists and the humidity and rain of summer, the high tourist time. Spring is also a beautiful time to visit, with warm daytime temperatures and spring blossoms in full bloom. However, the season coincides with a number of national holidays and festivals that can push hotel prices up and increase crowds.
Shanghai is a cosmopolitan city and luxury fashion labels from the West are popular. Street fashion is as interesting as any city in the world, but with a more conservative bent. It’s fine to wear the same outfits you’d wear at home with one notable difference: even if it’s Australian-summer hot, avoid wearing revealing clothing in China. Clothing that’s too tight, low-cut or short is considered inappropriate. Make sure you bring everything you need – if you’re tall or wear clothes larger than about a size 12, it can be very difficult to find clothing to fit. Also pack comfy walking shoes – you’re going to need them.
Tap water in Shanghai is not drinkable. Many hotels will provide filtered water and bottled water is available everywhere. Any water provided at a restaurant will have been boiled and cooled but make sure to request no ice.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to China take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.
Where to stay
People’s Square is an excellent base for visitors. It’s located right in the centre of the city and is close to museums, metro lines and the Bund.
Named for its Buddhist temple, nearby Jing’an is a lively, modern area full of parks, shopping districts, residential buildings and hotels.
Just beyond Jing’an, the area known as the French Concession was a foreign concession between 1849 and 1943 and still maintains its distinct European character. The grand streets are shaded by plane trees imported by the French and it’s home to a charming collection of small boutiques, restaurants and cafes.
South-west of People’s Square, Xintiandi is an affluent district of upscale shopping and dining. Many 19th-century traditional houses now serve as bookstores, bars and restaurants.
Good to know
In Chinese culture, the number four is inauspicious – it’s associated with death and considered quite unlucky. Buildings may completely lack a fourth floor, and people may avoid travelling on certain dates, times or with seat or flight numbers that contain the number four. If you’re not superstitious, you might just bag a bargain.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important, or buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card. If you opt for the latter, ask the shop staff to set it up for you because the directions will be in Chinese. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier. China Mobile is the main carrier and is compatible with Australian handsets.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
China has the same electricity frequency as Australia and a similar voltage so all gadgets and chargers should work without a problem. You will need a universal adapter because there are various sockets in use.
Wi-fi is readily available in Shanghai but many international news and social media sites are blocked. Visitors won’t be able to post snaps to Facebook until their return home unless they download a VPN (virtual private network) to get through the “Great Firewall of China”. Ensure your chosen app works for China – many free ones don’t.
Handy apps and websites
Australian Embassy Shanghai for emergencies.
Learn Chinese Pro is crammed with useful phrases for visitors to Shanghai.
Shanghai Pudong International Airport provides flight information.
XE for currency conversion.
The Maglev Train for the train timetable from the airport.
Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.
Shanghai Metro for metro schedules and information.
Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.
Flush Toilet Finder for toilet locations and reviews.