How to Spend 144 Visa-Free Hours in Shanghai
As my flight took off from Hong Kong to Shanghai, a smug smile rested on my face. How smart of me to take advantage of a free stop in Shanghai, I thought. A normal tourist visa costs about $50 CAD (and triple that for US citizens) but by taking advantage of this new policy, I was going to have five days in Shanghai without cost.
Then the panic set in. I was about to land in one of the world’s busiest cities and I had no plan whatsoever. If my VPN didn’t work, I would have no way to research the area. What if I was stuck in my hotel room for six days? What if I made that booking in my dream and actually had nowhere to stay?
Needless to say, those were pretty stupid concerns. I’m so glad that I took advantage of the new policy and despite a seemingly endless stream of complications on the way there , the hassle was totally worth it. Shanghai is a city that absolutely buzzes with energy, but somehow that energy and density never spills into chaos. It’s like a line dancing bar where everyone knows the steps; everyone is getting into it and having a good time, but no one is stepping on each others toes.
I’m still patting myself on the back for that analogy, in case you were wondering. ANYWAYS.
If you find yourself in my same situation and don’t have a plan for how to spend your time in Shanghai beyond arriving in one piece, I offer this humble itinerary. I feel like all of these stops allowed me to see so many different sides of Shanghai, all while battling killer jet lag and dumpling hangovers.
Day 1: Yuyuan Garden & Pudong
The odds are that you probably spent your first day like me, falling in and out of some weird sleep pattern and trying to grasp any reality beyond your jet lag. Today is a new day, so let’s pretend it’s your first, okay? Make your way over to the metro and let’s begin.
We figured that the best way to get acclimatized into a big city was by starting somewhere peaceful. With that in mind, the Yuyuan Gardens were an obvious choice for our first stop. The Gardens are known for being notoriously busy with tourists, but equally as beautiful. To beat the crowds, I recommend being there right at opening at 8:30. As soon as you enter the walls of the pagodas, you’ll be assaulted with endless food options, from Shanghai’s famous xialongbao (soup-filled dumplings) to a good ol’ Dairy Queen. We vouched to eat at a cheap local hut outside the walls, which is a good way to accidentally order a bowl of eels. However, the displays of snacks were tempting to say the least and you could easily spend an hour moving from stall to stall, slurping dumplings and eating meats off of sticks. Don’t be ashamed, it’s an honourable quest.
Making your way to the gardens themselves, you’ll cross a winding bridge over a huge koi pond and you might begin to think that this is it, the prettiest part of the garden. Do NOT use this as an excuse to cop out of the RMB 40 entrance fee. When I say it’s money well-spent, you know it’s true. Try to enter the garden itself as early as possible to get some classic shots that aren’t full of selfie sticks. Once you’re inside, you’ll find classic architecture, ponds full of fish and turtles, round doorways and winding bridges. You’ll want at least a half day to explore all the different corners and details.
The area that you exit into is close to the Bund if you’re up the trek, but is also just a great place to people watch and gawk at Pudong’s incredible offering of skyscrapers. Find one of the city’s many parks and take it easy for the rest of the day; seeing the every day life of the city’s residents is one of the best ways to get a feel for Shanghai’s culture. I’m trying to find a way to explain this day in a way that makes it sound like I stayed awake past 3 PM, but this is all I’ve got.
Day 2: Fake Markets, People’s Park & West Nanjing Road
After yet another glorious 14-hour snooze, I was revved up for our second day. Our first day made me realize all of the stuff I had forgot at home, so it seemed like the perfect time to hit the fake markets. Our favourite was inside the metro station at the Shanghai Science and Technology stop, and the market went on for days. Everything from fake Louboutins to those ugly sneakers Kanye West designs were present, and up for bargaining. You’ll find things you had never known existed but suddenly feel a desperate desire to own, so bring lots of cash and be ready to bargain hard. Never pay more than 30% of the original asking price, but you can usually score your merch for a quarter of it.
If you have the strength to carry all your goods, move on to People’s Park for the best people watching in the city. Here you’ll see elderly couples dancing (d’aww), heated card games, and chatty kids wanting to practice their english on you. I had read reports that these kids could be scammers so I was always on the cautious side, but I never had any problems beyond realizing that an eight year old was smarter than me after being lectured on “the dying future of the telecommunications industry.” Yes, that is a direct quote. The most interesting part of this trip was seeing the “marriage market,” where families will hang posters filled with statistics about their children on umbrellas in hopes of setting them up. It is basically old-school Tinder, with your parents doing the swiping. Scary, but maybe the best idea ever?
To extend the city’s highlights, we decided to break Nanjing Road into two journeys. To top of the day, we tackled the West side and the interesting surrounding side streets. We actually spent the most time off of the pedestrian street, checking out the evening’s fairy lights and dipping in and out of hotpot restaurants and beer spots. If you find yourself ending near the West Nanjing Metro, hit Wujiang pedestrian road for dinner. There are tons of options available, but my favourites were Noodle Bar (as it sounds), and the unpronounceable Korean BBQ spot upstairs.
Day 3: Disney
Three words. DIS-NEY-LAND.
Seriously, I was way too excited for this day as a grown woman. As you can imagine, the crowds build up quickly, so try to arrive as close to opening as possible. This will more than likely be the most expensive day on your trip, but Shanghai is also one of the cheapest Disney parks worldwide. It’s a choice you can feel good about.
Day 4: East Nanjing Road & The Bund
At this point in your trip, you’re probably getting pretty restless about seeing two of the city’s most alluring sights- East Nanjing Road and the Bund. Making myself wait for this day seemed nearly impossible, as you’ll see little peaks of each throughout your gallivants in the city. Don’t worry, waiting to do it the right way is worth it. Start at the very beginning of East Nanjing Road or the end of West and go at the right pace to spend a day here; you might want to see the Bund by day, but seeing it lit up at night is a whole other experience. The funny thing about East Nanjing Road is that although it’s primarily a shopping district, no one seems to be doing too much shopping. It’s where people come to watch people watching other people. Trippy, I know. If you visit at a busy time of the year, you may even be subject to a human barricade like we were.
Hopefully at this point in your day the sun is starting to fall and the Bund will start to light up. Climb to the viewer’s platform at the end of the street for up close views, hop on one of the city’s cheaper river cruises or if you have a little more swank in your bank, climb up to one of the nearby hotel’s rooftop bars for a view to kill. This could be a quick way to end the day, but it’s more than likely that you’ll be slightly hypnotized by one of the world’s most stunning skylines.
Day 5: Xintiandi & The Maglev
Well that went by fast. Depending on flights, you might have one more day to squeeze in but for us, this was the last cigar. The last box on my checklist was Xintiandi. It combined my love of joining the masses for tacky tourist photos and window shopping at places that I could never afford. This is probably the most hipster district of Shanghai, where classic architecture, modern stylings and big names come to meet. You’ll see restaurants where you actually recognize the names of the head chefs, wedding dresses that cost more than your mortgage, and tourists paying $15 to drink juice out of cups shaped like lightbulbs. The most intriguing part of Xintiandi however, are the endless black brick side streets that make you feel like you’re back to school shopping for another semester at Hogwarts. Don’t feel bad if you spend a full day in this area; intriguing does not even begin to cover Xintiandi.
By now you’ve seen a pretty good variety of the city. I found that the best way to end the trip was returning to your favourite part of the city for your last meal and some farewell Tsingtao’s. Say goodbye to Shanghai with a ride on the Maglev, the world’s fastest train. As my boyfriend so eloquently summed up, “you really give’r on this thing.” It also makes for a cool humble-brag story for those dinner parties we all hate attending.
That my friends, is it. Visiting Shanghai was definitely worth carving out the first week of my trip and it is probably one of the coolest cities I’ve visited in my travels. Navigating the new 144 hour policy in Shanghai was extremely tricky and cost us a missed flight, so make sure you are 100% positive that your flights line up with Immigration’s rules here. Once you get here, you’ll be glad you did!
What are your guys’ favourite spots in Shanghai? Did I miss anything awesome and have an excuse to plan a second visit?