Beijing and Shanghai are both amazing places to study in, both in terms of quality of life and language-learning opportunities. Both cities have great universities and language schools, lots to do, plenty to see, great restaurants, and are great places to learn Chinese or more about Chinese culture in.
In the end, everybody is different though. Which city suits your lifestyle best? Or matches up best with your language goals? Read on for a rundown of the main differences between Beijing and Shanghai to help you make this important decision a little easier.
Cost of Living: Beijing and Shanghai have similar costs of living
These days, Beijing and Shanghai have relatively similar costs of living with regards to food. You can get a simple local meal starting around RMB 15 in both cities, and foreign restaurants' meals start around RMB 35-45.
Rent is similarly priced. Rooms in both cities will set you back RMB 2,500-3,500 in a shared flat, which prices for one- or two-bedroom apartments much higher (also dependent on the area).
While in the past Shanghai has been seen as the more expensive city to live, inflation has evened this out between the two cities as the Beijing housing market has seen increasing pressure with people moving to the city.
Study Opportunities: Beijing and Shanghai both have world-renowned universities
Both Shanghai and Beijing have incredible universities set up for foreigners to learn Chinese (especially Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing and Shanghai International Studies University in Shanghai, which ranked high in our list of the top 10 schools to learn Chinese), with their top-ranking universities carving out special classes and spaces for foreign students coming to China with that exact purpose.
They also both have language schools that focus on just that: teaching Chinese as a foreign language.
In the end, it's likely to not be the university or school (or even the choice between Beijing and Shanghai) that will make the difference with regards to how much Chinese you will learn, but it will be the energy and effort you put in inside and outside of the classroom.
Language Practice Opportunities: Beijing is better for Mandarin
Due to the nature of the Chinese linguistic landscape, Beijing is a better city to learn Mandarin in than Shanghai. This is because in Beijing, most people will speak Mandarin, whereas in Shanghai the locals are more likely to speak Shanghainese as their first language. This doesn't mean that they do not speak Mandarin in Shanghai, but merely that if you overhear a conversation in Shanghai, it's less likely to be in Mandarin than in Beijing.
As a result it might be slightly easier to pick up Mandarin in Beijing, where you'll hear more Mandarin on the street during the day and will have an easier time understanding the locals and your colleagues if you want to get practicing your Mandarin at work or while you are on the go.
On the other hand, however, more people in Shanghai are likely to speak English than in Beijing, meaning that it might make your time there slightly easier if you are a complete beginner at Chinese. It all depends on the experience you are after.
Climate and Environment: Shanghai has a more moderate climate and better environmental conditions
Shanghai's climate is warmer than Beijing's climate, with Shanghai's winter temperatures being slightly higher than Beijing's, and Shanghai being generally warmer throughout the year.
Beijing's weather is similar to New York and London, but drier, while Shanghai's weather is more comparable to somewhere more subtropical like Dallas or Los Angeles.
Beijing does, however, have public heating in most apartments meaning that winters are very bearable indoors, while Shanghai can feel colder because older apartment blocks do not have public heating and will be quite cold indoors.
Other differences in the environmental conditions are the pollution: while both cities have issues with air pollution, Beijing's air pollution is worse than that of Shanghai, and is a problem on more days a year.
This is an important factor to bear in mind if you have pre-existing respiratory issues or love running outdoors for long periods of time on a daily basis. However, it is also good to note that the air quality situation throughout the entire country is improving with Beijing seeing huge changes in the amount of blue-sky days.
Travel: Shanghai has better connections to the rest of Asia, but Beijing is better for domestic travel
Shanghai has better connections to the rest of Asia for travel than Beijing does, partly because of its location further south in China meaning a shorter flight time, but also because there are more flights to and from Shanghai.
Flights from Beijing to other cities around Asia can also be more expensive than those from Shanghai, especially during peak times such as Chinese New Year or other public holidays in China.
However, Beijing, as the capital, has great internal connections to China, meaning it's a wonderful starting point to explore other Chinese cities such as Xi'an, Luoyang, or Harbin on weekends.
Both cities have huge international airports giving you a large and comparable range of longhaul flights for returning home.
Life in the City and Things to Do: Both cities have plenty to do!
Both Shanghai and Beijing have lots of things to do and an active and big expat community, making it easy to pack your weekends full!
Both cities have lots of art museums with exhibitions, music gigs from international and domestic bands, networking events, bars with events on, guest chefs at restaurants, pub quizzes, hiking groups and other sports societies.
The difference you'll likely find is that big internationally-renowned artists tend to visit Shanghai over Beijing, and that Beijing's live music scene is more grassroots and underground.
If its history and sightseeing you're looking for, Beijing will get you more excited for sure, with a huge amount of sights to cover.
Foreign Student Community: Beijing's student community is closer than Shanghai's
Due to the layout of Beijing and Shanghai, Beijing has a much tighter foreign student community. Beijing's universities are mostly in the same area (Wudaokou), and this area is known for having great student bars, restaurants, and hangouts. It makes it much easier to make friends in the area outside of your classroom.
Beijing also has more foreign students (both with regards to those studying Chinese, but also those doing their Bachelors, Masters, or PhD's at one of Beijing's many institutions), meaning the expat community is bigger in student circles!
Food and Drink: Beijing has more traditional and Chinese restaurants
The food and drink scenes in both Beijing and Shanghai are excellent, but Beijing probably wins when it comes to traditional foods as well as Chinese restaurants representing other Chinese cuisines (such as Sichuan or Yunnan cuisine!).
Beijing has a huge amount of must-try foods, including the world-renowned Peking duck, dumplings, Mongolian hot pot, donkey burgers, amazing vegetarian options, and plenty of choices for families with kids. You'll never go hungry in Beijing.
Shanghai is in many ways a more "fancy" city, with lots of nice (and expensive) cocktail bars that serve large groups of foreigners on a nightly basis. In terms of clubs you'll also find more nightlife options in Shanghai, as well as more international DJs visiting.
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Explore Beijing and Shanghai with China Highlights
Want to get out to Beijing or Shanghai before deciding on whether a move to study and live there is a good idea? We can help you explore both cities, both from a tourist perspective and getting you insight into what life would be like in each city, to help you make this decision a little easier!
Let us know what you're after before you plan your trip, and we can help advise you, and help put the perfect itinerary together.
- Worried about culture shock when moving to China? Preparing for culture shock ahead of your trip or move to Beijing or Shanghai can help you better deal with culture shock in China.
- If you're looking to visit as a tourist, check out this comparison of Beijing and Shanghai with a focus on things that matter more as a tourist.
- Want to find out more about China in general? Why not start with reading up on Chinese history or important festivals such as Chinese New Year.