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Beijing vs Shanghai: Which is Better to Visit? (City Comparisons)

Written by Mike HoUpdated Mar. 30, 2024

Beijing vs Shanghai, which city should I visit? This is a frequently debated question among many tourists. Beijing is the political and cultural center of China. And Beijing is also the capital of China, while Shanghai is the business center of China. Beijing is famous for its rich historical sites, such as Forbidden City, Great Wall while Shanghai is well known for its modern cityscapes and skyscraper night views.

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.

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Beijing vs Shanghai: Summary

If you are going to visit China for the first time, then both Beijing and Shanghai should be included in your tour. You will see more authentic and historical sites in Beijing. While in Shanghai, you will see more new China sights.

1. If you wish to see the authentic China as depicted in the media, Beijing has everything ready for you. This ancient capital of China 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.

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Which is Worth Visiting: Beijing vs Shanghai

  Beijing Shanghai
Key Words Capital, Authentic China, the Great Wall, Political Center Metropolis, Modern China, the Bund, Skyscrapers, International Brands and Foods
Recommended Tour Dates 3-5 Days 2-3 Days
Top Rated Tourist Spots Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Hutongs Yuyuan Garden, Oriental Pearl TV Tower, The Bund, Zhujiajiao Water Town
Top Things to do Climbing the Great Wall of China, Walking tour in Hutongs, Enjoying Peking Opera or Kungfu Show Taking a River Cruise on Huangpu River, Visiting the Yuyuan Garden, Enjoy Shanghai cityscape from the top of Oriental Pearl TV Tower
Side Trips(Day tour) Visit one section of Great Walls, such as Badaling, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling Great Wall Day trips to Zhujiajiao Watertown, Xitang Watertwon or Wuzhen Watertown
Top Food to Eat Beijing Roast Duck, Hot Pot with Instant-boiled Mutton Shengjianbao, Xiaolongbao, Hundun Dumplings
Shopping Place Wangfujing Street, Sanlitun Nanjing Road Pedestrain Street
Night Shows Chinese Kungfu Show, Peking Opera Shanghai Acrobatic Show
Old Street Hutong Longtang
144-hour visa free transit Including Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei province Including Shanghai, Jiangsu province and Zhejiang province

Beijing Is Recommended for These Travelers:

  • First-time travelers to China: We recommend you visit Beijing for your first trip to China because it is the capital of China and rich in historical sites.
  • Those interested in Chinese history and culture: Beijing has more than 3,000 years of history and was the capital during six dynasties.
  • Those who dream of walking the Great Wall: If you are going to visit the Great Wall of China, then you must visit Beijing.

Shanghai Is Recommended for These Travelers:

  • Those interested in modern China: Shanghai is one of the most modern China cities and continues to develop very quickly.
  • Those who enjoy beautiful cityscapes and night views: Shanghai has the tallest skyscrapers in China, from which you can see the best night views.
  • Those with children who want to visit Disneyland: Shanghai is the only mainland China city that has a Disneyland Park.
  • Those interested in China water towns: There are many famous water towns near Shanghai including Zhujiajiao, Wuzhen, Xitang water towns.
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Beijing vs Shanghai: Ease of Getting There

Both Beijing and Shanghai are international cities. There are two airports in each. Compared to Shanghai, Beijing has more direct flights to other international cities because it is the capital of China, and it attracts more tourists for international meetings and travel.

Beijing vs Shanghai Map

Beijing flights and airports: Most international cities have direct flights landing in Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX)

Shanghai flights and airports: There are two airports in Shanghai: Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA). Most international flights land in Pudong International Airport. As the top business hub of East China, Shanghai has regular flights to cities around the world.

144-hour visa-free transit in Beijing: Tourists can travel (transit) in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei Province for six days.

144-hour visa-free transit in Shanghai: Tourists from over 50 countries can visit Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang Province for six days.

Tourist Attractions of Beijing vs 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.

the great wall of ChinaThe Great Wall of China

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's Top Attractions

There are many world-famous tourist attractions in Beijing, including the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square, the Summer Palace, Lama Temple, the hutongs, and the Ming Tombs. As the most famous attractions in Beijing are historical, ideally learn some China history before a trip to Beijing. Here are Beijing's top attractions by theme:

  • Historical and cultural sites: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, Tian'anmen Square, the hutongs, Shichahai, Ancient Architecture Museum
  • Imperial Gardens & Mausoleums: the Summer Palace, Beihai Park, the Ming Tombs, the Qing Tombs
  • Temples: Lama Temple, the Temple of Confucius, the Temple of Heaven, Yonghe Temple
  • Modern scenic spots: the National Stadium, Beijing Aquarium, the National Aquatics Center
  • Natural parks: Jingshan Park, Fragrant Hill Park, Badaling National Forest Park

Shanghai's Top Attractions:

Shanghai is famous for its cityscapes and skyscrapers. Top attractions in Shanghai include the Bund, Yuyuan Garden, the Oriental Pearl Tower, Nanjing Road, the French Concession, Jade Buddha Temple, and nearby water towns.

  • Modern Shanghai skyscrapers: the Oriental Pearl Tower, Jinmao Tower, the World Financial Center, Shanghai Tower
  • Historical and cultural Sites: Jing'an Temple, Confucius Temple, Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai Old Street
  • Gardens and parks: Yuyuan Garden, Disneyland Park, Century Park, Changfeng Park
  • Water towns: Zhujiajiao Water Town, Xitang Water Town, Wuzhen Water Town
Shanghai SkylinesThe Bund Shanghai

Top Things to Do: Beijing vs Shanghai

Both Beijing and Shanghai are international cities. There are all kinds of day activities and night life in these two cities. Beijing is a good place to learn about Chinese history and culture, while Shanghai is a good city for understanding China's fast development. If you are a first timer for these two cities, then the following things to do would be good choices.

Forbidden CityVisit the Forbidden City in Beijing

Top Things to Do in Beijing

  • Visit the world-famous Forbidden City, China's best-preserved imperial palace.
  • Climb up the Great Wall of China. Famous sections of the Great Wall near Beijing city include Badaling, Simatai, and Mutianyu.
  • Take a biking tour or a rickshaw tour in Beijing's hutongs.
  • Taste Peking roast duck or instant-boiled mutton in Wangfujing Street.

>> Read more about Top Things to do in Beijing

Top Things to Do in Shanghai

  • Visit a classical Chinese landscaped garden: Yuyuan Garden.
  • See the most recognizable symbols of Shanghai from The Bund.
  • Have a bird's-eye view of the city from the top of Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower or Shanghai Tower.
  • Take a cruise tour on the Huangpu River and enjoy the night lights of Shanghai.
  • Go shopping or taste Shanghai local food on Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street.

Side Trips from Beijing vs Shanghai

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

Recommended Side Trips from Beijing:

>> Also to find out 16 Top Day Trips from Beijing

Best shanghai side trip options

Recommended Side Trips from Shanghai:

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Beijing vs Shanghai: Length of Stay

Compared to Shanghai, Beijing has much a bigger number of tourist sites and natural scenic spots. So, tourists are recommended to visit Beijing for more days than Shanghai.

  • Beijing: 3–7 days is recommended to cover the most famous attractions in Beijing, including the Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Tian'anmen Square, the hutongs, Temple of Heaven, Ming Tombs, and the National Stadium.
  • Shanghai: 3–4 days would be enough to cover the most famous attractions in Shanghai, including Yuyuan Garden, the Bund, the Oriental Pearl Tower, Jade Buddha Temple, and Zhujiajiao Water Town.

Food & Drink in Beijing vs 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.

Drinking in Beijing vs ShanghaiDrinking in Shanghai

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.

Night Life of Beijing vs Shanghai

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.

Club in Beijing vs ShanghaiBars in Beijing

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Shopping in Beijing vs Shanghai

Shopping 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.

Shopping in Shanghai: 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.

Dashilar St. in BeijingDashilar St. in Beijing

Beijing vs Shanghai: Public Transportation

Beijing and Shanghai are very convenient for public transportation, both to get around the city or for taking a train or bus to nearby places. Read more about Beijing transportation and Shanghai transportation.

  • Beijing public transportation: There are 22 subway lines in Beijing. Tourists can easily visit the top tourist attractions by subway. Buses and taxis are also good options for if you don't want to get into the crowded subway trains.
  • Shanghai public transportation: Shanghai metro lines are the busiest lines in the world. There are 19 metro lines running in Shanghai. It is very convenient to travel from Shanghai to other nearby cities, such as Hangzhou, Suzhou, and water towns by train. If you want to experience the fastest train in the world, then use the Maglev to/from Pudong Airport.

Weather, Climate and Air-Quality of Beijing vs Shanghai

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.

>> Also to read The best time to visit Beijing

Travel Costs: Beijing vs Shanghai

The cost of living in Shanghai is a little bit higher than in Beijing. Daily travel costs in Shanghai are about 100 USD/person while in Beijing they are about 70 USD. These costs include your accommodation, attraction tickets, transport, and three meals. Here are some specific tourist sight ticket examples:

Beijing Tourist Spot Ticket Prices:

  • Forbidden City Entrance Ticket: $8.21
  • Summer Palace Admission Ticket: $5.13
  • Temple of Heaven Admission Ticket: $7.06
  • Mutianyu: Great Wall Admission Ticket: $8.18

Shanghai Tourist Spot Ticket Prices:

  • Yuyuan Garden: $10
  • Jinmao Tower Observation Desk Admission Ticket: $18
  • Shanghai Zhujiajiao Watertown Admission Ticket: $11
  • Shanghai Tower Observation Deck Admission Ticket: $31

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History of Beijing vs Shanghai

Beijing beats Shanghai by possessing the more authentic China-feeling, the more traditional centuries-old roots, besides being the 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

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.

Beijing Forbidden City

Shanghai History

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.

The Bund in Shanghai

Discover Both to a Greater Extent 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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