Shanghai wasn’t on my list of immediate places to go to until we moved to Hong Kong. But once we moved, many of our friends kept telling me how amazing Shanghai was and that I would love it. So as I got further into my pregnancy, I thought why not throw in Shanghai while I still could? It’s just a short flight away!
My sister was planning to visit Hong Kong again in mid-April, so I figured I’d drag her with me.
We made the trip short since I had just entered my third trimester. Of the two Shanghai airports, Pudong airport is the furthest from the city but it was the cheapest for us to fly into. So if you find cheaper flights to Hongqiao Airport, I’d definitely recommend that instead. K also moved his Shanghai work trip to the same set of days that we would be there so that he could at least join us in the evenings, and we’d get a free hotel stay. I was excited.
After talking to one of K’s Shanghai colleagues, our high-level itinerary was the following:
- Day 1 – Lunch in French Concession, Yu Garden/Chenghuang Temple, then dinner around Wu Jiang Road
- Day 2 – Coffee on the east side of the Bund, lunch in Tian Zi Fang, then dinner on the west side of the Bund where you can see the amazing skyline
- Day 3 – Whatever else we hear we should do or missed from the two previous days
Now, before leaving for this trip, my first trip to China, I had three thoughts/to-dos:
- No one in China can access Whatsapp or Instagram, so this trip would be a break from those applications
- I needed to add my credit card to WeChat because while credit cards are, of course, accepted in China, everyone pays through some payment application – WeChat or Alipay
- I needed to download the Chinese version of Uber, Didi, to use in case cabs are not available
So just before we flew out, I did my final checks on Whatsapp and Instagram and added my credit card to WeChat. I tried to set up Didi but it only showed instructions in simplified Chinese even though I was told it’s available in English. This made me a bit nervous about how we’d at least get to the hotel from the airport, but K gave me whatever Yuan (Chinese currency) he had and we would get more when we landed just in case.
Lesson 1 – Either take out Yuan before going to Shanghai Pudong or bring enough of your currency for an initial exchange.
We could have easily done the former but didn’t have time, and NONE of the ATMs that we found at Pudong worked. Thankfully, we had enough cash to exchange and our 50-60 min cab ride was well priced – about 280 Yuan / 44 USD.
We made it to our hotel the Courtyard Marriott Shanghai Xujiahui by noon and quickly freshened up to start our trip.
The hotel is great, as are most Marriotts in Asia, but it’s located in the southwest corner of the city so that my husband could get to his office and customers easily. It was a bit further from the city center than I would have liked, but it worked out well because you could grab a cab at the hotel or walk 10 minutes to the nearest subway stop. That said, if my husband weren’t joining us, I would have booked a hotel somewhere near the Bund.
While getting ready, we noticed that:
Lesson 2 – Because we have non-Chinese phone numbers, we could access Instagram and Whatsapp in China.
We would have been ok regardless because we had WeChat, but it was good to know. Then to make sure that we could get around as easily as possible, I went to the concierge and asked them if they could help me with the Didi (Uber-like) app.
Lesson 3 – Didi opens up in English when you’re in China but may only be usable with a Chinese credit card via WeChat or Alipay.
I tried using my US credit card via WeChat, but Didi didn’t accept it. We found out later that we could add our credit card to Didi as an “international card”, but by then decided to navigate Shanghai either by subway or my husband’s company car/driver whenever he was available.
Our first stop in Shanghai was in the French Concession – Liquid Laundry.
It wasn’t Chinese food, but we were open to trying any place that was recommended by friends or one of K’s colleagues, and I had heard that western food is really good in Shanghai. The vibe of the restaurant is really nice, salads were great, and they cooked their chicken so well (I think it’s hard to find good chicken in general). But when it came time to pay, we learned that:
Lesson 4 – Non-Chinese credit cards are not accepted via WeChat in China.
There were some articles published in January, 2018 that said WeChat would now accept credit cards of expats living in China and residents of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, but they don’t specify whether those credit cards need to be from those areas as well. No one we spoke to in Shanghai seemed to be aware of this and my US credit card didn’t work via WeChat anyways, so this was my last attempt to use payment applications in Shanghai.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is finding good coffee. So as soon as we were done with lunch, we walked through the cute French Concession streets to a coffee shop named – Cafe del Volcan. It’s a tiny, pretty little cafe with amazing coffee. It put a smile on my face the whole time I was sipping it.
It was already getting close to 3pm by the time we finished our coffees and traffic looked like it was getting heavier so we decided to take the train to the Yu Garden area. We pulled out our Google maps, found the nearest stop and walked towards it.
Lesson 5 – Don’t rely on Google maps GPS to get you anywhere in China. My Apple Maps didn’t work either.
30 minutes after we walked to the subway stop that we thought was only 10 minutes away, our Google Maps GPS continued to display our ‘blue dot’ as being one or two blocks off. That’s when I remembered that Google maps generally doesn’t always work well outside of the States and doesn’t work at all in China – the latter was confirmed by one of K’s Shanghai colleagues. We then tried to flag down a few cabs, but no one wanted to take us because of how bad traffic was at that time (we later found out). So we ended up using Google maps like an old school map. It worked out, but was yet another application issue.
Thankfully the subway is super easy, and we made it to the Yu Garden/Chenghuang Temple area by 4pm. As soon as we got out of the subway, we took a quick look around when a sweet lady approached us asking if we needed help. We told her that we were en route to the Yu Garden which is when we found out:
Lesson 6 – The Yu Garden, Chenghuang Temple, and most museums/attractions in the city close at 4pm.
Of course, right? There is, however, a marketplace in the area surrounding the garden and temple that was still open so we continued in that direction anyways.
The area was packed with tourists like ourselves. I have no idea how old the buildings were aside from the Chenghuang Temple (aka City of God temple) which was originally created in the 1400s, but they were all aesthetically beautiful when you looked up as they were created using Chinese-style architecture. The bottoms of each building were, however, filled with western fast food chains like KFC and various tourist shops which was a bit off-putting for me.
We wandered around for a little over an hour anyways, and then made our way to Wu Jiang Road.
Wu Jiang Road is like any area you’d expect to see in a city (streets lined with stores) except that it also has the biggest Starbucks in the world. I’m a non-Starbucks coffee lover, but curiosity got the best of me.
It was basically the Starbucks version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I didn’t try the coffee, since I still have to watch my caffeine limit, but would have otherwise.
We then met K and his colleague that had been helping us at a restaurant called Jujube Tree, a Chinese vegetarian restaurant. It might sound silly to go to a vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai, but my sister is vegetarian and we were told that it was really good – they were right.
We’ve had loads of vegetarian Asian food, but this experience was different especially given the different types of vegetables and dishes that we hadn’t had before. And the tea was SO GOOD. It was a great way to end Day 1.
Thanks to the lessons learned on Day 1, Day 2 was much smoother. We, thankfully, had K’s car/driver for the day, but my lovely sister gave him the wrong address to our first stop so we ended up at the Baker and Spice coffee shop closer to the Jing’An Temple vs. the one on the east side of Bund.
The temple was on our list anyways, so after coffee, we walked through the Jing’An park (another beautifully manicured park) to the Jing’An Temple. The temple is a massive, beautiful Buddhist temple in the middle of one of the busier parts of the city. Even then, it was still quite serene inside the temple walls.
From there we went to go find lunch in Tian Zi Fang.
K’s colleague, whom we dined with on Day 1, texted us a lunch recommendation in that area in Mandarin script that we showed to the driver (he knew very little English). He took us to the building where the restaurant was located and pointed towards it, but it wasn’t until we started walking around that we realized that driver was actually pointing into a massive circular forum that he couldn’t drive into and had taken us to the closest building that he could. The restaurant was actually hidden somewhere inside the forum.
We showed every person we passed the name of the restaurant that we had in Mandarin script, and they were all as helpful as they could be. But by the time we finally found the place, it was closed! So we ended up eating at a simple, Vietnamese place called Saigon Mama just outside of the Tian Zi Fang entrances. Nothing exciting, but it did the job.
Tian Zi Fang is basically a tunnelled maze of various food stands and little shops all built into brick walls. Some of the shops were cute and sold beautiful jewelry or fun knick-knacks, while others were interesting – a Russian ice cream shop with a picture of Putin eating the ice cream, and a cat cafe that had cats everywhere. OK, the cat cafe was actually really cute and I would have sat down if we had more time.
This was my favorite area so far in Shanghai.
Smoking cookies are tiny biscuits and Trix-like cereal soaked in liquid dry ice that you had to air out before consuming. They’re certainly weren’t mind-blowing, but were fun to play with.
The cheese tea, however, was really good; at least we thought so. It is super distinct in flavor So I can see it being a turn-off for some, but I think it’s great to try when mixed with the right type of tea. I preferred the strawberry tea vs. matcha.
We continued dawdling until 6pm and then met K and another colleague of his on the rooftop of the Peninsula on the Bund where we saw the iconic Shanghai skyline. It was stunning.
I’ve been pampered with amazing skylines throughout my life – Chicago, New York, and now Hong Kong, but this was unlike any I had seen before.
We would have stayed up there staring at the view for ages, if it wasn’t for the dinner reservations that we had at Lost Heaven.
Lost Heaven is a Yunnan cuisine restaurant which meant that the food was Chinese but with a heavy Burmese influence. The service at the location we were at (near the Bund) was not good unfortunately, but the food made up for it. In a way, it reminded me of Indo-Chinese.
Last Day – Day 3
We needed to be at Pudong Airport by 4:45pm, so we decided to make only two stops beforehand: 1) the east side of the Bund since we had missed it on Day 2, and 2) stop by Qibao, Ancient Town.
We made it to the east side of the Bund by 11am and quickly hurried to the riverside. From a view perspective, the view of the west side of the Bund cannot compete with the stunning skyline of the east side. There’s no skyline when you look to the west side. It would make you think that the east side of the Bund is far more interesting than the west, when it is the complete opposite. The west side of the Bund is where the majority of the city is located along with its history, culture, and all of the amazing things that you look for in a city where as the east side is just corporate buildings, hotels, convention centers, etc. – it’s super sterile. I guess in some cases, the beauty of a skyline really only belongs to the skyline.
We met our driver at 1pm who then took us to Qibao. Traffic was terrible but we made it there just in time to run through a part of it.
Qibao is a water town built in the 900s and even though it’s ~18 km from the city, it’s still packed with tourists. The town is filled with corridors of food shops displaying all kinds of xiao long baos, baked quail eggs and skewers of animal parts that I couldn’t identify, but we were able to find one stand that sold these long fries that were both vegetarian-friendly and tasty.
We had enough time to make it to the river that runs through the town which was super picturesque, but then had to run back to the car to pick up K and head to the airport.
Before going to Shanghai, I was told that the city was super clean, and the buildings were modern. But what I didn’t realize is how varied and interesting the architecture is. It was amazing to see. Each park and garden is also so well manicured as are the streets and highways – they’re all lined with beautiful white/grey bark trees and/or various types of flowers. I didn’t realize how pretty Shanghai would be. The only issue is the pollution. It’s not heavy everyday thankfully, but can hide the city when it is – we experienced it on our last day.
Despite the difficulties we had in getting around and trying to figure out what worked vs. didn’t work, my sister and I had a great time and wished that we had another two days at least now that we were getting a hang of it.
Some of the funnier parts of the trip include:
- People assuming that I was from Shanghai
- People being surprised that I was walking around pregnant – especially at 7 months. We only saw one other pregnant person the whole time we were there.
- Asians (both tourists and locals) staring at us in the most obvious way possible
- People stopping us to take pictures with us
The last lesson I learned was:
Lesson 7 – Unlike any other place I’ve been, there’s very little recent information available online (beyond 2015) when it comes to researching ‘Things to do in Shanghai’.
I’m not sure why this is, but it makes it difficult to know where to go and what to do unless you receive English and Mandarin (including written) recommendations either from someone who has been or is a local.
So the next time we go, we will target a weekend when one of our friends go or one of K’s friends/colleagues is available. And yes, there will definitely be a next time.
Blog edited by: Betty Ho