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Beijing vs Shanghai, which city should I visit? This is a frequently debated question among many tourists. Every nation has cities rivaling with one another, like Washington vs New York, Sydney vs Melbourne. In China, comparison between Beijing and Shanghai has never ceased.
Here in this article, we compare Beijing vs Shanghai in many ways, to help you make a decision about which you’d prefer to visit.
Key words of Beijing: Capital, authentic China, the
Great Wall, political power house, communist, Beijing is what China
portrays to the rest of the world;
Key words of Shanghai: metropolis, modern China, the
Bund, soaked in western colonial ambience, international brands and
foods, Shanghai is what the world portrays to the rest of China;
Resident Population (2018)
3,318 people/square mile Beijing is about 1/3rd as densely populated as Shanghai and 1/6th as densely populated as Hong Kong.
9,886 people/square mile
Number of Expats (statistics from SAMPi 2018)
107,000 accounting for 0.5% of the population
209,000 accounting for 0.9% of the population
Interesting Movies to Watch
The Last Emperor, Beijing Love Story, In the Heat of the Sun, The Founding of a Republic
The Wasted Times, The Last Tycoon, New York New York
Beijing is a city with more than 3,000 years of history. The first walled city in Beijing, Jicheng, was built back in 1045 BC. Beijing served as the capital of six ancient dynasties for more than 800 years.
Whether it’s the Great Wall winding along mountain ridges, the Forbidden City which was China’s imperial palace for 492 years from 1420, or Tiananmen Square which witnessed many significant events in Chinese history, at first sight all generate an overwhelming sense of history.
History fills the entire city. It is in the movements of senior citizens practicing Taichi at the Temple of Heaven. It is in the first golden ray of sunlight squeezing through the ancient narrow hutong alleyways.
It sits together with the bright cloisonné displayed in the antique market streets and also dances to the lyrics being chanted by performers of Peking Opera. You immediately get the feeling this is the classic China you have longed to see.
History in Shanghai is different. If you imagine Beijing as the “king of the north”, then Shanghai is more like the exotic “queen of the south”.
Shanghai doesn’t have the same authentic-China feel as Beijing, which was an imperial power base for centuries. For centuries before the central government of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) finally decided to appoint Shanghai as a county in its own right, it was just a fishing town.
Apart from a few gardens and temples which create some sense of history, like Yuyuan Garden and the Jade Buddha Temple, and the old Shanghai where you can indulge yourself in a walk through the narrow alleyways (Nongtang) of the old town area, Shanghai doesn’t have much by way of historical pomp – no grand Chinese palaces – with which to wow you.
Traces of the quaint old-time fishing-village life are preserved in water towns nearby, which have always provided popular day-trips from Shanghai.
What is unique to Shanghai is its colonial history. Starting in the 19th century after the first opium war, concessions were established in Shanghai.
The Shanghai International Settlement (joint concession to British and American) was established in 1863 and lasted 78 years until 1941. The French concession in Shanghai was established in 1849 and lasted nearly a century until 1943.
If your interest in Chinese history lies in the colonial era, Shanghai is the place where you’ll find Europe’s most deep-seated influence. The stylish architectural collection on The Bund and the leafy laneways of the French Concession give you a totally different outlook on Chinese history.
In 1990, the Chinese government started to develop the Pudong area of Shanghai, on the east bank of the Huangpu River facing The Bund. Since then, modern skyscrapers such as the Oriental Tower, the Jinmao Tower, the World Financial Center and the more recently erected Shanghai Tower started to rise, creating a picturesque skyline and a modern twin for the old city, fit for this charming queen of the south.
Beijing beats Shanghai by possessing the more authentic China-feeling, the more traditional centuries-old roots, besides being the capital and home to the national symbol of the Great Wall. Shanghai’s historical highlights mostly lie in her colonial past and her amazing speed of development since the 1990s.
|Beijing Must-sees||Brief Description/Location/Tips||Time Needed|
|The Great Wall of China||outside Beijing city, ½-1 day, 2 days if you wish to stay overnight at the Simatai Great Wall||½-1 day|
|Forbidden City||ancient palace for Chinese emperors, center of Beijing, crowds are inevitable, morning visit recommended||½ day|
|Tian'anmen Square||huge square in front of the Forbidden City||30 minutes if you don’t visit the nearby national museums|
|Temple of Heaven||site for ritual sacrifices during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1420-1912), as spectacular as the Forbidden City but less crowded and better maintained||½ day|
|Summer Palace||gorgeous ancient royal gardens||½ day|
|The old Summer Palace||stone ruins of the royal palace||½ day|
|Prince Gong’s Mansion||the best-preserved mansion in China||1-2 hours|
|Lama Temple||the biggest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing||1-2 hours|
|Jingshan Park||an ancient imperial garden providing a bird’s-eye view of the Forbidden City from the top||1 hour|
|The 13 Ming tombs||northwest of Beijing, a perfect location according to Chinese fengshui, where 13 Ming dynasty (1368-1644) emperors were buried||½ -1 day|
|Hutong||Old residents’ area hutong alleyway explorations||½-1 day depending on personal preference|
|Olympic venues||national stadium, Water Cube, north of the city, (recommended to visit in the evening, when the buildings are illuminated)||30 minutes|
|CBD area modern architectures||CCTV headquarters, CITIC Tower, Guomao, and SOHO Galaxy||30 minutes|
|Shanghai Must-sees||Brief Description/Location/Tips||Time Needed|
|The Bund||a world-famous boulevard lined with a historic collection of colonial architecture, situated on the west bank of the Huangpu River,get there early for better spots for photos of the night view of skyscrapers on the east bank||2 hours|
|Shanghai Skyline||The Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai Tower, Jinmao Tower, World Financial Center, skyscrapers creating the picturesque Shanghai skyline, situated on the east bank of the Huangpu River, with observatories (prepare to queue for at least 30 minutes if traveling without an agent who would arrange a ticket in advance)||1-2 hours|
|French Concession||colonial-era European-style buildings,||½ day|
|Yuyuan garden||classical southern Chinese garden architecture||½ day|
|Jade Buddha Temple||a famous Buddha Temple in Shanghai||2 hours|
|Huangpu River||a nice way to enjoy Shanghai view on a cruise||30-minutes to 3½-hours depending on different packages|
|Nongtang||Old residents’ areas wandering around||½ day|
|Water towns||Zhujiajiao water town (closest to the city but most touristy), further and better ones are those bordering nearby cities, like Tongli water town and Jinze water town||1-2 days depending on personal preference|
If there has to be a winner, it’s Beijing again, beating Shanghai by having far more historical travel sites. But each city has its unique charm, and the winner depends a lot on personal preference.
There are so many interesting sites spread around Beijing that visiting them all would easily take a week. The handful of sites in Shanghai is more concentrated together and you can cover most of them in 1-2 days.
Yes you can reach Xi’an from Beijing via a shorter high-speed train journey than from Shanghai, but Shanghai beats Beijing by having access to a variety of destinations each providing distinct beauties for you to explore.
Beijing has access to many sections of Great Wall, but unless you are a super fan of the Wall, once you have seen one section, you have seen them all.
Shanghai beats Beijing by miles, though Beijing has many must-try dishes, and a handful of time-honored traditional restaurants, which have been popular since the 18th century. Among the dishes are the crispy delicious Peking Roast Duck and plenty of exotic snacks in Wangfujing Street. These may not, however, be sufficient to satisfy the gourmets among you.
Shanghai has xiaolongbao or shengjianbao, hundun dumplings, pan-fried pork buns, braised pork, beggar’s chicken, steamed crab and various street foods. Colonial history has given Shanghai an unfair advantage on the quality-international-cuisine front. You can find excellent Spanish, Russian, Italian, French, Mexican, or Indian food; you name it, and it’s probably there.
What nail it down are the world class cocktails and variety of drinks in Shanghai bars. Of course, Beijing as the capital doesn’t lack international brands and access, but Shanghai wins on quality and variety, if you don’t mind paying Shanghai prices.
Surprisingly, the winner is Beijing. Yes, yes, Shanghai often has quality music festivals and is a stop-off point on world tours of the big stars all year round. And of course international musicians are hosted in all sorts of bars. But you can enjoy all this in your home country, with even better vibes.
Travelers to China may prefer to know about the local youth scene and party times. These are indeed quite interesting and better delivered in Beijing. Beijing is China’s underground rock engine, with quite a lot of arty and alternative vibes among its local youngsters.
On the shopping front, Beijing wins again. There may be disagreements, depending on the particular goods shopaholics are hunting for. Shanghai has Nanjing Road, one of the world’s busiest shopping streets, full of luxury options if that is your thing; but most tourists will be thinking, why come to China for international luxuries? Beijing offers more than that.
Needless to say Wangfujing Street is packed with international brands, but at night it is also full of exotic snacks. Apart from that Beijing has Qianmen Street and Dashilar Street, two classic ancient commercial streets that have been prosperous for centuries. Beijing also has several bizarre antique markets.
Winner for family fun and kids’ activities is Beijing! You may choose Shanghai if you are into Disney Park, but Beijing provides children with more unique activities they may not be able to get anywhere else outside China.
In Beijing you can hike on the Great Wall, visit cute pandas in Beijing Zoo, make Chinese kites or Peking Opera facial masks, or even learn some Mandarin Chinese with locals, on a hutong home-visit. Beijing wins by presenting children with a China that more resembles the China in their history books.
Beijing is on similar latitude to Washington DC, New York, and Madrid. It has a temperate and continental monsoon climate. Shanghai is on similar latitude to New Orleans, Dallas, and Los Angeles. It has a humid subtropical climate.
Both cities are suitable for travel all year round, with four distinct seasons. The best season to visit is autumn (Sep to Nov) for Beijing, and spring (Mar to May) or autumn for Shanghai, to avoid the summer heat and winter cold. Learn more about Beijing weather and Shanghai weather.
If you are visiting China during summer, the difference between the cities is really not that much. If, however, your proposed vacation happens to be in winter, Shanghai wins over Beijing by being slightly less polluted and having slightly better air quality. By the way, Beijing’s air quality is improving.
Scores in this round are equally excellent!
1. If this will be your first time to China and you wish to see the authentic China as depicted in the media, Beijing has everything ready for you. This ancient capital needs at least 3 days for the must-sees and easily a week if you are into history.
2. If you are more interested in the new China and wish to investigate the magical economic engine of this nation, 2 days in Shanghai and another 2 days in its nearby little-sister city Hangzhou will suit you slightly better.
3. The best option if time permits, is to give Beijing 4 days and Shanghai 3 days to experience the highlights of both. In the end, the bullet train between Beijing and Shanghai can take you from one to the other within 6 hours, and this is quite doable.
4. The perfect option is to book a private tour to maximize your precious time and perfectly arrange time in both cities.
Traveling in super cities can be easy and difficult at the same time. Contact us to receive a free quotation for a tailor-made tour to experience Beijing and Shanghai in-depth, according to your schedule and preferences, with no shops, no factories, no detours, no hassles and no worries!
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