Visiting the highlights of Asia would not be complete without a stop in China. This country may not be as easy to travel to as Thailand or Japan, but there are a few amazing sites that will make it worth the extra energy. Before booking your flight look into the visa requirements (tips at the bottom of this post).
David and I decided to spend two weeks in China. Splitting our time between Shanghai, the big city (think NYC) and Beijing the capitol. China is unlike anything else we have experienced and we will do our best to set you up for success.
1. Pedestrian Street & People Square
This street is a bustle no matter what time of day. Take a stroll though some of the best shopping in Shanghai, and stop along the way to enjoy local treats from the open air grocery stores. My personal favorite snack in Shanghai was the drinkable yogurt. They come in a fancy glass containers with a gold ribbon around the top, you just feel special drinking it (I consumed at least two a day). They also have several other Chinese treats available in small quantities, we recommend trying a bit of everything!
My favorite sweet treat is located in People Square. If you love mangos you must try this mango tiered dessert (mango slushy on the bottom, marshmallow cream in the middle, piled high on the top with fresh mangos). The name is in Chinese, but you will not miss it with the large line out front. Enjoy as a wholesome meal or find a friend to share it with, it is giant!
2. The Bund
Walk beyond pedestrian street to the east and you will end up at The Bund. This is a wonderful place to stroll and enjoy a coffee as you take in the skyline and the Huangpu River. I recommend going at dusk so you can see the city start to light up. The Bund rates high on most travelers ‘must see’ locations in Shanghai. It reminded me of Chicago’s lake front with fewer joggers and no bikes.
After you take in the lights from The Bund, walk back down Pedestrian Street to People Square. The night sky will now be filled with neon lights. Relax and enjoy getting jostled around while the police work hard to get the pedestrians to fit onto the sidewalks. Arriving at People Square you can now kick back and enjoy a variety of street performers.
3. Michelin Restaurants
Shanghai has 26 restaurants with a Michelin star(s). We found serval of the restaurants to be quite affordable in comparison to Michelin restaurants back home (with many being fewer then $25 USD/person), here’s the complete Shanghai Michelin list. David and I enjoyed dinner at the Imperial Treasure which offered classic Chinese cuisine (located along The Bund). We both enjoyed egg drop soup, sweet and sour chicken, and dim sum. It you plan to try a few spots check to see if they have a lunch option, this will give you a great taste of some of their best dishes at a lower price.
4. Shanghai Museum
This museum gives a good peak into Chinese ancient wisdom and philosophy which has shaped many Asian countries. Galleries I personally enjoyed: sculpture (highlighting Buddhist pieces), ceramics (demonstrating the development of China and focus on beauty), jade (still a symbol of wealth today), and coins (with a focus on trade). Jump to a few highlights with an audio guide and a map.
5. Yu Gardens
With ancient buildings filling a few blocks in the heart of Shanghai, you wont want to miss this architectural diversity. The place is geared towards tourists, but don’t let that scare you away. There are several local vendors trained in Chinese crafts from past generations that fill tiny booths. I watched one man create amazing drawings with just the side of his finger and a long pinky nail. Each vendor has a description in English explaining the importance of their skill to the Chinese culture, and are excited to share it with you.
Be sure not to miss the 200 year old tea house just around the corner. The building is surrounded by water with one walk way welcoming you in for tea. The tea is a bit expensive ($20 USD/person) but it comes with small (unique) snacks and a jar to store tea in to take with (provided you have room in your luggage). If tea is not your thing, grab a coffee at one of the two Starbucks across the bridge and get a selfie of the tea house behind you.
6. French Concession
An area in Shanghai once designated to the French is now a shopping and dining haven. The area is fairly large so I am going to recommend two places to walk around. Xintiandi is an upscale area with a mall and small boutiques. It is thought to be the sanitized version of what the space once was, I still enjoyed it and think it is worth a walk.
Have an affordable dinner at Din Tae Fung located on the second floor of the mall. They serve traditional soup dumplings that are fantastic. Be sure to try the pork xiao long bao and truffle pork xiao long bao here. We may have gone more than once… lucky for you they have locations all around the world including the United States (one just opened in San Francisco)!
Leave room for drinks and appetizers at Tian Zi Fung (the second pedestrian walking area in French Concession, pictured above). With narrow walking streets that branch in several directions you will likely be asking yourself, “did we already go down here?” Allow yourself to get lost in the passageways and tuck yourself into one of the pubs or small souvenir shops. We walked the whole thing twice, it is quite quaint.
If you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city hop on an early morning bullet train heading to Suzhou. The train ride takes around 30 minutes (depending on the train) and costs $6 USD each way. Once you arrive head down Pingjiand Road, a historic district lined with shops and restaurants. You will quickly fall in love with the stone bridges and gardens that are sprinkled throughout this ancient city.
You could easily enjoy our seven Shanghai highlights in three days. Have fun, relax, and be okay with the bumps that may come, it is all a part of being a traveler in a foreign land.
Pre-China Arrival Tips:
- Download a VPN App. this will allow you to access banned sites (twitter, Facebook, Instagram) while you are in the China. There are several free options we tried with little luck. We ended up using ExpressVPN and paid their monthly fee and cancelled it once we left.
How a VPN works: It displaces the location of your phone routing signals from outside of China. This will made our phone appear to be in Hong Kong, where these site were not banned (sneaky!).
- Purchase a SIM card or rent a pocket wi-fi. This is helpful in every country but I feel that it is mandatory in China where you may have a tough time getting directions from a local.
- Download Google Translate app. We try to use this app sparingly, as it can come across rude to communicate via text on your phone. However, if we are unable to effectively communicate with signs, acting, and some nodding, we then default to the app.
- Taxi drivers will often deny you rides. This can happen for a few reasons; 1) they don’t speak english 2) you entered a taxi on the wrong side of the street for the direction you’re heading 3) the ride is to short and they want to only pick up individuals who are traveling further. Work around: have your hotel call a taxi for you. This will ensure clear communication on where you are heading, and drivers have accepted the ride before arriving.
- For those with blonde hair – you are a bit of a novelty in China. You will notice people taking photos of you, face timing their friends, or asking to take a picture with you. It is a bit off putting at first, but they were very friendly. David and I would try our best to be polite back and greet them in Chinese.
- Unfortunately there is a common scheme that happens to Westerns while in China. Groups of women will show interest in you expressing that they want to practice their English. We would be friendly with anyone who stopped us (this will happen more then you would think- especially in Beijing). If they ask you to tea or coffee kindly deny, they can be persistent. These individuals work with shop owners to bring in patrons. They’ll buy food and drinks with you, and then sneak out, leaving you with the bill for the whole group. We have heard of people with bills over $500 USD. Bottom line, be friendly and deny requests to hangout with people you don’t know – common sense.
China Visa Tips:
There are a few different ways to go about getting a visa for China, do your research as things can always change. I like to check travel.state.gov before we travel to our next destination. This site is updated daily and gives great tips and advisories to those with an American passport.
Visas for China, compared to other touring visas, are quite expensive. David and I went for a 30 day visa with me traveling as a dependent. This means we could not travel in and out of the country without the other one (I would go as far to say in and out of a city). We had this processed by a company out of the Hong Kong airport located in the arrival terminal. There are a few companies located there, and they do not all offer the same visa (although they say they do). We stopped at each company to have all of our questions answered. They are flexible with processing time, so be clear on when you need it. David and I paid $230 USD/person and picked them up 5 days later.