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Beijing vs Shanghai – Which City Should I Visit?

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.

What's Covered

Quick Facts: Beijing vs Shanghai


Beijing
Shanghai
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)
21.5 million
24.2 million
Area
6,490 mile²
2,448 mile²
Population Density
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
GDP(2018)
$446.6 billion
$480 billion
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

History: Beijing has more Chinese history than Shanghai

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 History

Forbidden City in BeijingForbidden City in Beijing

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.

Shanghai History

The BundThe Bund in Shanghai

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.

Shanghai SkylinesShanghai Skylines

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.

Attractions: Beijing has more tourist sites than Shanghai

Both Cities are Equally Charming. 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.

Beijing Must-see Travel Sites: Brief Description, Location, Time Needed and Tips

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 Travel Sites: Brief Description, Location, Time Needed and Tips

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

Old Residential Areas: Beijing Hutongs vs Shanghai Longtang

Beijing Hutong Beijing Hutong

In common:

  • Both are narrow alleyways, with lanes between or connecting the old traditional houses/apartments.
  • Both are old residential areas representing the old style of living in each city and are popular among tourists;
  • Both have some famous lanes packed with cafes and fancy stores worthy of exploration.

Differences:

Shanghai LongtangShanghai Longtang
  • Houses connected by hutongs are flat buildings with traditional courtyards whereas houses connected by longtang may be apartments built in blocks.
  • Longtang in Shanghai have a few more types than hutongs in Beijing, loosely defined by the different style of houses they connect. For example, there are "new-style longtang" connecting the more modern style houses, "Cantonese-style longtang"; "garden longtang" and "apartment longtang".

Side Trips: Shanghai has a greater diversity of side trip options than Beijing

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.

Besi beijing side trip options Best shanghai  side trip options

Food & Drink: Shanghai beats Beijing by miles

Shanghai NightlifeDrinking in Shanghai

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.

Youth Culture & Night Life: Beijing has more authentic and vibrant youth culture vibe than Shanghai

Club in Beijing

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.

Shopping: Beijing offers a greater variety of traditional goods than Shanghai

Dashilar St. in BeijingDashilar St. in Beijing

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.

Activities for children: Beijing gives children a more traditional view of China than Shanghai

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.

Weather, Climate and Air-Quality: Shanghai is slightly better than Beijing

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.

Visa Policies & Transport: Beijing and Shanghai are equally excellent!

  • Visa policies: Both Beijing and Shanghai have a 144-hour visa-free policy, making trips to them very convenient.
  • Airport: Both cities have two airports. Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) are most common for foreigners entering China. They are both world-class and easy to navigate by yourself.
  • Taxi costs: Flag price of taxis in Beijing and Shanghai are 13 yuan and 14 yuan respectively. They both need about an hour to take you from the airport to the city center, with slightly different prices: around 150 yuan in Beijing and 180 in Shanghai.
  • Airport trains: Beijing has an Airport Express train leading downtown taking 1 hour 50m and costing 25 yuan while Shanghai’s Maglev train connects PVG to the city center in 8 minutes, costing 50 yuan.
  • Subway: Possessing the world’s first- (Shanghai) and second-largest (Beijing) subway systems by length, both cities have excellent subway systems. Starting prices for the Shanghai subway and Beijing subway are both 3 yuan. The Shanghai subway is more crowded as the city’s population density is 3 times that of Beijing.

Conclusion: Beijing for first-timers,  Shanghai for new China, one week for both is perfect!

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 time and perfectly arrange time in both cities.

Discover Both to a Greater Extent with Us

Travel China with UsTravel China with Us

Traveling in super cities can be easy and difficult at the same time. Contact us 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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