An Insider’s Guide to Shanghai & Beijing
China is full of some of the most incredible natural and man-made wonders in the world, but it’s also a massive country with so much to do that planning a trip there can seem overwhelming.
That’s why we asked Canadian travel expert Jim Byers and some of our own deal experts to give us their tips on where to go and what to see in two of China’s most bustling cities: Shanghai and Beijing.
This city has been growing by leaps and proverbial bounds, even by Chinese standards. The Pudong area that was rice fields and farming land a couple decades ago is now layered with fanciful highrises and giant hotel towers with stunning views and wild lights. Luckily, you can still find some of the old Shanghai in areas such as the city’s famous Bund, a stretch of land along the river that has gorgeous buildings that look like something out of Berlin or London. That includes the famous Fairmont Peace Hotel, where they have a legendary jazz band that’s been cooking along for years.
The Shanghai Museum might be the best in China, with free admission and displays that range from 7,000-year-old jade pieces to fascinating Tibetan masks. Be sure to check out the city’s Memorial to the site of the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It’s located in what’s now the super-trendy Xintiandi area, replete with fancy Western shops and a Starbucks. The fact that such a capitalist enterprise is steps from the founding spot of the Communist Party is proof of how things have changed in this country. Also, don’t miss a stop in the city’s Old Town for lovely gardens and for the famous pork dumplings at Nanxiang Bun Shop. Bite into the dumpling, slurp the juices/soup inside and then chew the tasty pork with Chinese spices. Yum and a half.
The Forbidden City might be the quintessential Beijing experience, partly because it’s home to the Imperial Palace; home to 24 Chinese emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Just to the south lies Tiananmen Square, where brave Chinese protestors took on the government in 1989. Be sure to arrange a tour; these sites deserve a full explanation from a proven guide. And don’t rush! Sports fans will enjoy touring the gorgeous (but seriously underutilized) Birds Nest stadium, part of the Olympic complex from 2008 on the outskirts of town.
Be sure to arrange a tour of some of the city’s rapidly disappearing hutongs; small alleyways/streets with small homes and courtyards where folks have mingled and cooked and chatted and kids have played for centuries. It’s a great way to get a feel for Chinese urban life before the hutongs are all gobbled up by government-approved shopping malls and high-rises.
Beijing also is close to the Great Wall of China, which is near the top of my list of most amazing places I’ve visited. To stand on the wall and gaze out at the endless gates and turrets and parapets that march along the mountains for thousands of miles is a very humbling and awe-inspiring experience. You’ll find plenty of touristy bits at the various wall sites, including men dressed as ancient warriors wanting their photo taken and downhill slides that the kids (and many of us adults) will love. The Badaling access site might be the most striking, but it’s also the most visited. My guide took me to the Mutianyu site, which was still touristy but hugely impressive.
Our Deal Expert’s China
It’s best to always bring a map with you, so be sure to ask your hotel’s staff for one. If your map isn’t bilingual, ask the staff to write down your destination in “Chinese Pinyin.” Digital maps are also an option, but warning: Google Maps will not work, so it’s better download an offline map App in your iPhone, like City Maps 2Go. Most importantly, do not, under any circumstances, take the bus. Stick to the tube, a taxi or Uber to ensure your eventual arrival.
The language barrier is going to be one of the hardest parts of the trip because, to be completely honest, most people on the street can’t speak English. The best way to find the few people who do speak English is to seek out younger people in the commercial centers and tourist areas. Our deal experts suggest seeking people out close to hotels, like the Hyatt Regency, the Waldorf Astoria and the Hyatt, as well as around the financial district close to American companies like KPMG and Ernst & Young. You’ll also have better luck by they cities’ most iconic places, like the Wangfujing Cathedral and the Jinyu Hutong in Beijing and the People’s Square, Huaihai Road and Hengshan Road in Shanghai.
SHANGHAI HIDDEN GEMS
Definitely don’t miss Tianzifang. It’s full of boutiques, restaurants and traditional crafts. The Qibao old town is also worth the trip, though it is a little bit far from city center. It’s full of peaceful, quiet streets like Sinan Road, Wukang Road, Duolunduo Road and Hengshan Road. Looking for some traditional meals? Take your taste buds to the Whampoa Club on the Bund and be sure to try a shengjianbao. It’s a pork bun fried and garnished with fresh spring onion and toasted sesame.
BEIJING HIDDEN GEMS
Don’t miss exploring some of the areas around Beijing’s most iconic sites. For example, take a stroll around Jing Shan Park near the Forbidden City, the Mao Er Hutong near the Drum Tower and Guozinjian Street’s Imperial Academy near the Yonghegong Lamasery. Bonus points for extra exploring on bikes. Between public bikes, bike rental companies and hotels, there are plenty of ways to get out and explore on two wheels. Beijing is relatively flat and the bike lanes are easy to navigate and well-marked.
As far as eating goes, there are two restaurants our deal experts consistently recommend: Li Qun Roast Duck for one of the most memorable meals one of our Chicago experts has ever had. “The approach to the restaurant is through a maze of crumbling hútòng that have somehow survived total demolition; look for the duck signs pointing the way” (Lonely Planet).
One of our experts in Shanghai also recommends trying some Chinese-flavored Halal cuisine at Hong Bin Lou. Other dishes on our must-try list include Quanjude roast duck, Malatang (a humble version of a hotpot), Liang Pi (refreshing jelly noodles), and Zha Guan Chang (deep-fried sausage crisps made with potato powder and served with garlic sauce).