China over the past few years has opened itself up like never before to allow tourists to see their amazing country. Visa on Arrival is now available at many major cities for citizens of most nations, so there has never been a better time to visit the home of the Panda! However, for first-time visitors, the choice of destination within China is usually boiled down to two: Beijing or Shanghai.
Beijing is always on the news – and not always for positive reasons! Despite the smog, you can have a great time here, and Beijingers are very friendly people in general. The capital has a nice mix of culture and entertainment that keeps visitors interested for a while, and for history buffs (like me) it is always nice to be in the city where the political establishment has been settled for an age. Despite the politics, though, one thing that does not change is the unbelievable amounts of people using the capital’s transport – one thing you need to know is to avoid the Metro during rush hour! Beijing Capital International Airport is, in some regards, the world’s busiest airport, and is located about 40 minutes away from downtown by taxi.
Shanghai has a much different feel to Beijing, although it is hard to put my finger on exactly what this is. At first glance, it seems a much more modern city than the capital, fully embracing technology and foreign imports to interest the locals and to lure the tourists. People-wise, Shanghai also feels slightly more congested than Beijing (except for its transportation systems) and there seems to be less green spaces in which to relax – although the Pudong River provides a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle. Shanghai Pudong International Airport is located around 50 minutes away from downtown via train and taxi.
Beijing has several world famous monuments for backpackers to check out, including the Forbidden City, Nanluoguxiang Hutong, the Summer Palace, remnants of the Great Wall, and my personal favourite, The Temple of Heaven. Wherever you go in Beijing, though, you have to put up with insane numbers of tourists, both foreign and local Chinese.
Shanghai (further reading: The top 10 attractions in Shanghai) in contrast does not have the same number of famous attractions as Beijing, yet it does have a history all of its own to be found at The Bund, and striking modern architecture in the Pudong district, whereas shoppers can enjoy themselves on the maniacal Nanjing Road. The Yuyuan Garden is also a fantastic place to check out some classic Chinese-designed foliage, while walking over small cobbled bridges and peeking inside traditional Imperial pavilions.
Beijing cuisine is perhaps not too well known around the world, except for the stupendous Peking Duck, which is sold everywhere! As for street food, classic Beijing treats include Nai Lao, which is the local yogurt, Tanghulu, which are dried fruits on skewers (very popular!), and Jianbing, a kind of crepe. If you head down to the backstreets of Wangfujing district, you can also taste the weird and wonderful (i.e. tarantulas on sticks!).
Shanghai cuisine is much more kind to the imagination of westerners, and shengjianbao is one of the tastiest (and cheapest) eats you can find on the Shanghainese streets! Another of my favourite delicacies from Shanghai is Cifantuan, which is basically a salted duck egg and youtiao (fried dough stick) wrapped intensely in a ball of sticky rice. The dessert Dou Hua is also very popular in Shanghai.
Of course, it all comes down to personal preference as to which of Beijing or Shanghai you want to visit first. On my first visit in 2013, I found it slightly easier to get to downtown Beijing from the airport (and this was at night!). My journey to downtown Shanghai from the airport (2012) was more arduous and required a change of transport half way through (though it can be done in one single journey by taxi) – but that’s what being a noob is all about: learning on the go!
In terms of finances, I did find Shanghai to be more expensive in terms of accommodation, and I don’t know why this is. Maybe southern China is slightly more expensive because of its closeness to Hong Kong (which is VERY expensive). And regarding safety, as long as you keep your wits about you, then you should be fine pretty much anywhere in China, as petty theft towards to tourists is very rare.