It’s a question which keeps many up at night, tossing and turning, ‘should I visit Beijing or Shanghai?’. We’ve put together a guide giving a rough breakdown of what each cities do best to help you decide.
Here’s where we’ve got to say a visit to Shanghai comes out on top. It’s cosmopolitan, creative, and incredibly diverse. The city’s nightlife is world class – way above any other Chinese city. For more info on that one, check out our Shanghai nightlife guide. The city is packed with interesting areas, whether it’s the art district of 50 Moganshan Road; the cosmopolitan bars of The French Concession; or the towering and busy streets of Nanjing Road. There’s also something special about looking across The Bund in Shanghai. Nothing says modern like its skyline with the distinctive orb of the TV Tower and the 632m tall Shanghai tower.
However, this in no way means Beijing lacks a modern edge. It ranks high (probably second) when it comes to nightlife. With an expat community of around 100,000 it’s definitely not stuck in a bubble. You can find plenty of places to go out and lots of kooky neighbourhoods, including some great bars in 1949 (The Hidden City) and the narrow alleyways to be explored in Gulou.
If you’re most keen on history, there’s no question that you should be going to Beijing. It’s there you’ll find the top attractions of Tiananmen Square, The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. If you take a 2 hour drive out of the city you’ll find something known as The Great Wall of China – you might have heard of it. Beijing has been China’s capital since the communists took power in 1949. While it is has dramatically changed since the country made reforms in the 1980s, it still carries a sense of Old China. Much more so than Shanghai.
As the world’s cities go, there’s still plenty of history in Shanghai. While Beijing’s historical attractions are mainly those of ancient China, Shanghai’s are from a colonial era when the city was an international trading hub. Taking a walk along The Bund, you’ll see an array of historical buildings built by various European nations around the turn of the 20th century. The French Concession is another must visit area in the city, offering both beautiful historical architecture as well as modern pleasures such as cafes, bars, and shops.
Chinese food is incredible – the density of fantastic, family run, restaurants you’ll find across cities is one of the best things about travelling there. Luckily both cities are still full of these restaurants serving delicious food, so they’re on a fairly even footing there.
After that it comes slightly more down to preference. Many feel they can’t leave China without trying Peking Roast Duck in Beijing (it is very tasty). Shanghai still has its own iconic foods, specifically xiaolongbao dumplings (also very tasty).
If you’re not only interested in Chinese food, Shanghai trumps Beijing. A lot of Chinese cities are developing high-class restaurants serving different cuisines, but Shanghai is way ahead. It’s home to 43 Michelin star restaurants plus a whole host of up-and-coming places waiting to be discovered.
You might have picked up by now that Shanghai’s culture is more modern and cosmopolitan while Beijing is more traditionally Chinese.
Shanghai is home to the China Art Museum as well as lots of other galleries – whether they’re large or just starting up. China’s famous acrobatics shows are something many want to see on a visit. Both cities have these but we think Shanghai Circus World’s probably comes out on top. As the more liberal and cosmopolitan of the two cities, you’re also more likely to naturally come across creative people and spaces as you walk around. Whether that be arty cafes or musicians visiting the city.
Although Shanghai is more of a modern cultural hub, Beijing being less international also means the cultural experience is more Chinese. Some people like kooky art galleries but others want to absorb themselves in a country. You can visit various markets and shops with an authentic feel. Plus, while Shanghai may have the best acrobatics, a visit to the Beijing Opera House is a unique (and very Chinese) experience.