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How to Enjoy One Day in Shanghai on a Budget

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If you are passing through China and find yourself with just 24 hours in Shanghai, how do you make the most of your time? Shanghai is a great stopover city, and this short guide will help you enjoy one day in Shanghai, on a budget.

Shanghai

Shanghai has been a commercial hub for many, many years. The deep, natural harbour made it an attractive prospect for those who ran the world with their naval might. Money and goods flowed in and out of the city, attracting the biggest business barons and entrepreneurial marketeers, along with the less savoury pirates and ne’er do wells that go along with all that wealth. Traders flocked in from all over the world, creating layers of different cultures, and self-contained little “concessions” for different nationalities of ex-pats. Sadly, the influx of new residents often treated the native Chinese as second class citizens. China reclaimed the city as it own in the 1940s and transformed it into the modern city we see today.

These days, most visitors arrive from the sky rather than the sea, and luckily Shanghai has kept pace with a huge International airport (PVG). Whether you are arriving in Shanghai by plane, or on a high-speed train, if you only have one day in Shanghai, you are going to hit the ground running.

Read our train travel review Shanghai to Beijing by train

Breakfast on the Move

Hunt out the most popular breakfast snack in Shanghai! Jianbing is a savoury crepe/omelette mash-up. Thin batter is swirled into a round pancake and then topped with eggs and spring onions/scallions before rolling into a hand-friendly wrap. You’ll probably see them listed as scallion pancakes (if you come across a stall with any English on the sign). Some stalls also add other textural bits and bobs, like little rice crackers, crunchy veggies and sauces.

Yu Gardens (YuYuan)

Yu Gardens (the Garden of Happiness or Garden of Peace and Comfort) are a little escape from the hectic city over the walls. In fact, it has always been designed to calm the nerves. It was built in the mid-1500s by a young man called Pan Yunduan to cheer up his parents. He was so keen to please that construction took him almost 20 years and basically bankrupt the family…not so calming after all.

As you wander along the paths, look up at the infamous dragon walls. The white walls that divide the garden into sections are all topped with a unique wiggle, ending in amazing dragon heads.

Yu Gardens has been renovated, restored and repainted numerous times. Neglect, war and politics have all taken their toll but like a Pheonix, it keeps coming back, looking nicer than ever.

TOP TIP: Entrance isn’t free for Yu Gardens, it costs 30 CNY in winter, 40 CNY in summer, but as most of your other activities are free, it is worth dipping into your wallet for this one. 

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An Early Lunch – Eat Your Way Around Yuyuan Garden Bazaar

Just South of Yu Gardens, there is a collection of shops and other commercial enterprises. As you people watch, you’ll notice some serious retail therapy going on in the shops full of handicrafts, plastic tat and fun fashion.

Dotted throughout the “traditional buildings” are plenty of street food options. From giant xiao long bao dumplings to Japanese teppanyaki, so if you are already peckish you will find plenty to nibble on without spending a fortune.

Chinese new year means huge, brightly coloured decorations blocking your photos.

TOP TIP: Avoid the Huxinting teahouse. It is great to take a few photos with its picturesque facade over the reflecting pools, but it is an expensive dining option.

Gucheng Park

Walking between Yu Gardens and The Bund, you can take a path through this small patch of green. At first glance, there isn’t too much to see but if you do a quick look about, you’ll find a sunken stone area full of people chilling out, a little bamboo hideaway with a tea house, and a preserved old-style stone kitchen. 

The Bund

Built along the West Bank of the Huangpu River, this protected historical area is a striking contrast to the more modern skyline across the water. A walk along this busy riverside is a step into history. 

As you stroll past the 52 building that make up The Bund, here are a couple of stops that are worth making.

Pop to the Bank – No. 12

No, this isn’t to cash those old traveller’s cheques. The HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank) building is a fine example of neoclassical architecture.

Heading through the spinning wooden doors, try to avoid neck strain as you gaze up to the ceiling. Above is an astonishing mural. Around the dome, you’ll see eight mosaics of cities that house HSBC branches and frescos of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Most astonishing of all is that it still exists. During the cultural revolution, it was due to be ripped down, but a clever architect who was fond of the work, convinced the Red Guard that covering it up would be less work. It preserved it beautifully.

Stephen and Stitt, the two British bronze lions that flank the doors were moved to a museum nearby, so the two you’ll see are replicas. They represent strength and stability.

Bear in mind that HSBC moved out in 1956, and it is now home to Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.

The Long Bar, Waldorf Astoria – No. 2

This is a stretch on a budget, but nobody is stopping you poking your head into this Shanghai institution or ordering a soft drink to share with your travel buddy. If you’re lucky, they may also throw in some free nibbles?!

This neoclassical building was finished in 1910 as the home base for the Shanghai Club, the most exclusive gentleman’s club for British expats and business moguls.

The Long Bar is not the original but it has been painstakingly reproduced from the beautiful wooden panelling to the iconic 34-metre mahogany bar that was once the longest in the world…it’s not hard to guess how it got its name.

Customs House

Customs House is the only building that still operates in the same capacity in which it was built. Ships bringing goods into the city were taxed and recorded here. There has been a customs building on this spot for over 170 years but this iteration was built in 1927. Atop the building is a clock tower. Both the tower and clock face were odelled on Big Ben and the clock was actually shipped over from the UK. Sadly it is now silent, no longer chiming but it does retain the title of the largest clock in Asia.

The Pudong Skyline

Shanghai has one of the most recognisable skylines in the world. It is impressive in both the daylight when the sun sparkles on the towers of glass and at night when the buildings put on LED light shows. These are the tallest buildings in Shanghai and they are clustered together for your viewing pleasure.

TOP TIP: If you only have one day in Shanghai, it is worth coming back after dinner to see the skyline again but do bear in mind that the lights turn off at 22:30 or so. 

Included in the skyline is the Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai Tower, Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and Jinmao Tower. Probably the most famous building is over to the left,  the space-age Oriental Pearl Tower. It is distinctly Jetsons-esque and glows a charming purple after dark. Towering above it all is the cleverly named Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world. The little wedge-shaped tower below it is the Shanghai World Financial Center is the 11th highest in the world. It really puts these things into perspective!

Huangpu River Cruise

Forget the tourist dinner cruises, if you are in Shanghai on a budget, you can still take to the water by catching a Shanghai ferry. These have been ploughing the Huangpu River since 1911. At just 2 CNY a hop, or 12 CNY for a full circuit, you can take in the sights without breaking the bank. Combine it with a Shanghai guidebook and you can run your very own riverboat tour! 

A Late Lunch – Nanjing Road

This pedestrianised stretch of street is Shanghai’s most famous shopping hub. Strolling down this busy thoroughfare, you’ll pass over 600 shops. You’ll recognise a fair few of your favourites shops but there are lots of unknown places to browse. If you’re on a budget, try not to loosen your purse strings too much.

There are some food stalls dotted along East Nanjing Road offering all kinds of fried goodies, but, if like us you fancy some free wifi, hop into one of the famous fast food “restaurants”. We found some fun blue ice creams under some golden arches which gave us a sugar bump and allowed us to keep sightseeing with bad jetlag.

People’s Square & Shanghai Museum

People’s Square is a large park at the heart of Shanghai both physically and culturally. From dawn till dusk, locals gather here for group exercise, dance tai chi, or just a really good gossip.

If your one day in Shanghai, falls on a weekend, find the People’s Square Marriage Market. This meeting of mothers is all about matching up their children, in hopes of a great marriage. Bear in mind that this is the last-ditch attempt to hook their children up so it is not polite to giggle.

Shanghai Museum

Within People’s Square, The Shanghai Museum is stuffed full of cultural artefacts from China’s past. With over 120,000 exhibits from huge furniture pieces to delicate jade carvings and ink calligraphy, there is lots to see…and it is all free. If you are planning to travel through China, then this could probably be skipped, but if this is your only stop (as a stopover en route to another country) then it is definitely worth going in.

TOP TIP: Only 8000 tickets are issued per day so if you are sure you want to visit, mix up this itinerary and turn up early.

ANOTHER TOP TIP: The audioguide costs 40 CNY but you’ll also need 400 CNY or your passport to leave as a deposit at the desk.

Read about our other travels in China

Dinner = Dumpling Time!

In a huge city, full of food options, it can be hard to decide on dinner plans. The two options below are opposite each other on the famous eating street, Huanghe Road. They both provide some of the best dumplings in Shanghai. Why dumplings? Well, these little parcels are fun to eat, surprisingly filling and great value.

TOP TIP: These places are pretty terrible for vegetarians. There are one or two options but you will be severely limited.

Jia Jia Tang Bao – 127 Huanghe Rd

Jia Jia Tang Bao serves up the most famous dumpling in Shanghai, Xiao Long Bao. These steamed dumplings are stuffed with a small shot of soup/broth along with the other fillings. These boiling bursts of salty goodness are wonderfully savoury and incredibly moreish. The menu at the front of the restaurant may freak you out (there is not a word of English in sight) but there is a beaten up paper menu somewhere inside, you just need to convince someone to find it for you. Along with the traditional pork dumplings, you’ll find delicate crab dumplings and a creamy mix of egg yolk and pork.

Yang’s Dumplings – 97 Huanghe Rd

The Sheng Jian Bao at this small, simple eatery are also soup dumplings, but in this instance, they are pan-fried. This gives the diner the iconic burst of broth with the first bite, but then a more substantial base, leading to a more filling dinner. Beware, the boiling broth can burn your mouth if you are too eager or squirt your dinner companion as your bite pressure unleashes the beast!

There are lots of branches of Yang’s Dumplings across Shanghai but this is a fun street to eat down and if you get the dumplings to take away, you can enjoy them in the nearby park. 

Drinks

If you’re in need of an alcoholic beverage on a budget, it really helps to be female. On some weeknights, you’ll find the coolest bars in town doling out free drinks for ladies night. For a great round-up of what’s on offer, check out this post on That’s Shanghai.

Getting into Shanghai From the Airport on a Budget

Metro Line 2 (Lime Green)

Shanghai’s metro stretches out to Pudong Airport, making transferring to the city cheaply and easy…almost. For some reason, four-car trains from the airport terminate at Guanglan Road station and all passengers must transfer to an eight-car metro train to continue their journey into town. The whole journey takes about an hour. Fares on the Metro are blissfully low (especially if you are visiting from London or NYC). From Pudong Airport to People’s Square is 10 CNY. 

Maglev

Saving time, but not money, you can try out the extremely speedy magnetic levitation train that runs between the airport and Guanglan Road metro station. From here, you join the metro for that final stretch into Central Shanghai. The change may seem like a kerfuffle but overall, you’ll save roughly 30 minutes on the journey. 

OK, so this isn’t the cheapest (50 CNY for a one-way ticket and 80 for a 7-day return) but it has oodles of novelty value, its not every day you can say you are on a train going almost 300 miles an hour! The maglev takes just 8 minutes to whizz between the airport and Guanglan Road.

As a fun experience, take it one way, if you are on a really tight stopover, get the return. There is also a great value 24 hour pass which allows you a return on the maglev and unlimited metro travel. Mind you, for this itinerary, you’ll be walking so it may not be worth it. 

Where to Stay in Shanghai on a Budget

Captain Hostel

Harking back to Shanghai’s naval heydey, this Captain Hostel has a strong nautical theme. It is in a wonderful location, steps from The Bund. Captain Hostel’s ace up the sleeve is the rooftop bar which has a great view of Shanghai’s iconic Pudong skyscrapers.

The crowd may be slightly more flashpacker than backpacker these days but there are still some great value dorm beds to be had here. Following that boat theme, some bunkbeds have portholes!

TOP TIP: Bring your own towel and soap as they are not provided. 

Laoshan Hostel / The Phoenix

The Phoenix isn’t luxury but it is well located and excellent value. Staff are helpful and it’s all very traveller friendly. The double rooms at The Phoenix are all quite big considering the price, with lovely big windows which are both a blessing and a curse. Although the traffic isn’t too noisy, other noises from the street can work their way through what are possibly single-glazed panes. There are also several dorm rooms, with curtained bunk bed “capsules” including a little shelf and plug for nighttime charging, and lockers.

A Little Information for Travelling to Shanghai on a Budget

Money

Chinese Remminbi (or Yuan or CNY or ¥ or RMB) can be exchanged before you arrive in the country. If you only have one day in Shanghai, we recommend arriving with a stash of cash already in converted. It will save you plenty of time. Finding a travel agent or bank that does exchanges can suck valuable time and finding debit/credit cards that are accepted in China is extremely hit and miss. 

Visas

Most visitors to China need a visa. please check your government’s website for the latest advice,.  However, the best news for those travelling through on a Shanghai stopover is that China now offers a visa-free transfer. If you fly into Shanghai from a variety of countries, and out to another location in a third party country (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) you can stay in Shanghai for up to a week. You must not leave the area but it is perfect for a one day in Shanghai!

The Great Firewall

China blocks many websites and most noticeable are some of those that we have become utterly addicted to. Google is a no-no, as is Facebook. You may need to get used to using Bing for a search engine, and Apple Maps for navigation. Alternatively, go old school like us and take a Shanghai Guidebook

Final Thoughts on Enjoying One Day in Shanghai on a Budget

Despite Shanghai’s shiny city reputation and world city credentials, it is easy enough to enjoy a day in Shanghai on a budget as long as you do a little planning. Spending a day on foot, you won’t be missing out on anything and the city’s excellent connections make it the perfect city for a stopover. From its blend of historical treasures to its shiny new facades, there is something for everyone. We intend to return and see lots more….one day!

Rosie xx


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