China

City Wars: Beijing vs. Shanghai

I know China very well thanks to having lived there for the better part of a year. Beijing and Shanghai are without a doubt the two most-visited cities in China — and they couldn’t be more different.

Many of the other expats I met in China were adamant about being either “Beijing People” or “Shanghai People. This article will help you decide whether Three Days in Beijing or Shanghai is more your style. Or, you can read my China Travel Guide for general China travel information.

Need help planning your trip to China? Hire me as your travel coach!

Where to Stay in Beijing and Shanghai

Although they’re both huge global cities, both Beijing and Shanghai offer plenty of nice places to stay at affordable rates. My favorite Beijing hotel is Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel, located near scenic Houhai Lake amid Beijing’s hutongs, while my favorite place to stay in Shanghai is Astor House Hotel, situated at the north end of the Bund just across from the iconic Lujiazui skyline.

Beijing vs Shanghai Cityscape

20 years ago, the eastern bank of the Huangpu River that runs through Shanghai was farmland, with a few stray residential and commercial buildings just beginning to rise. Today, this area comprises Shanghai’s Pudong new district, whose Lujiazui sub-district is home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, as well as the city’s iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower.

By comparison, Beijing’s new Guomao business district is tame, although the strange geometrics of the CCTV building provide an aesthetic to which none of the 4,000-plus highrises that pepper Shanghai compare. That being said, Beijing’s cityscape is ostensibly more diverse, an eclectic mix of ancient China, the utilitarian architecture of the Mao era and everything in-between. Beijing also juxtaposes its gritty look with lush rose bushes you find almost everywhere.

 
 
 

To be fair, Shanghai has its share of extremely old buildings, but most of what you see outside of Pudong (which is almost entirely new) dates back to the 1920s or 1930s at the oldest, which doesn’t differentiate it much from other world cities like New York or Dubai.

Population-wise, Beijing is more solidly Chinese, although more and more expats have begun to move to the city in spite of the international propaganda machine that continuously ties it to authoritarian gloom and doom.

Shanghai on the other hand is extremely cosmopolitan. While not home to as many foreigners as other Asia cities like Hong Kong or Tokyo — although I’d argue it’s getting there — it isn’t uncommon to walk down East Nanjing Road and see faces from all over the world.

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Things to Do in Beijing vs Shanghai

The architectural composition of each cities relates directly to the types of activities you can do there. The centerpiece of Shanghai for tourists is the Bund, a charming row of buildings that dates back to the 1920s, when the city experienced its first Golden Age.

After spending a day in futuristic Pudong, head back over to Puxi (the Chinese name for the west bank of the Huangpu) and visit the Yuyuan Gardens and posh Xintiandi, a high-street shopping complex set in an ancient building.

 
 
 

Beijing is all about contrast. Literally caddy corner to the millennia-year old Forbidden City is Tian’anmen Square, a monument to communism and the dictator that sought to destroy as much of the memory of ancient China as possible.

Beijing has also preserved many of its traditional “Hutong” water houses, with the most popular example being the Houhai shopping and commercial area, similar in a way to Xintiandi although far more beautiful — “Houhai” refers to the massive lake in the center of the complex. Beijing is also home to the Summer Palace, which dates back almost 1,000 years to the Jin dynasty.

Infrastructure and Getting Around in Beijing vs Shanghai

Both Beijing and Shanghai have extensive metro lines and both are in the midst of expansions unprecedented in each city’s history.

In the eight months I lived in Shanghai alone, the city opened six metro lines, bringing the total number of operating lines to 13 out of the 20 in the city’s 2020 master plan. Beijing will eventually have almost as many, although progress there seems to be slower.

Shanghai’s metro is objectively newer and nicer than Beijing’s. While Beijing opened its first metro line under Mao in the early 1970s, Line 1 of the Shanghai metro dates back to only 1995. This being said, you could argue that the Beijing metro has more character than the Shanghai one.

 
 
 

Both cities have extensive bus lines, although they cater more to locals than to tourists, so it might be difficult for you to navigate them if you don’t read or understand Mandarin.

Beijing is more spread out that Shanghai, by a long shot: Land-area wise, the cities occupy 6,487 square miles and 2,448 square miles, respectively. As a result, taking an (admittedly) cheap taxi in Shanghai is much quicker than it would be in Beijing, which is also hampered by more oppressive traffic thanks to higher car ownership.

Both cities are served by international airports with flights all over China, Asia and the globe and with the two busiest railway stations in the country, so options for getting out — or way out — are ample no matter which city you visit.

Excursions in Beijing vs Shanghai

With the Great Wall around an hour away by taxi (or if you visit the heavily-touristed Badaling section, by train) it would be hard for any one attraction located in close proximity to compete. That being said, Shanghai may win in the quantity department.

See, aside from the Great Wall and the port city of Tianjin, there isn’t a whole lot to do in the areas outside of Beijing (unless you count Mongolia, which is sort of close) as these areas are heavily rural.

Shanghai, by the other hand, is the anchor city of a coastal megalopolis home to more than 100 million people, as well as the cities of Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou, to name a few.

 
 
 

Shanghai is also about four hours by bus from the Anji bamboo forest, where the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed. The ride out of the city is a little depressing — the urbanization essentially never breaks — but is immediately worth it the moment you pass through the bamboo forest’s pearly gates.

Beijing vs Shanghai Weather and Landscape

Beijing is set in the rolling hills of northeast China, a landscape that’s particularly pleasing from the vantage point of the Great Wall. Shanghai, on the other hand, sits on the eastern Chinese coastal plain, which would be beautiful if all the water that exists around it wasn’t so black and polluted.

I won’t attempt to explain to you the extent to which each city’s geography relates to its weather — I don’t even fully understand myself — but I can sum it up for you easily: Beijing is colder and hotter than Shanghai and has more distinct seasons.

Beijing’s winters are defined by temperatures far below freezing and frequent snowfall and separate from its scorching summers by lengthy, pleasant springs and falls. Shanghai doesn’t get as hot in summer or as cold in winter, but the transitions between the cold, rainy season and the hot, drier season are more jarring.

Additionally, while Shanghai is objectively less extreme from a temperature perspective, most buildings there don’t have central air or heating, which makes escaping whichever extreme plagues you more difficult than it would be in Beijing.

…And The Winner Is

For my money, Beijing is the best city for tourists in China. Although Shanghai is a modern, exciting metropolis and is evolving at an almost unprecedented rate, Beijing offers a better balance of the ancient and the contemporary and is more aesthetically diverse from both manmade and natural perspectives.

Both cities, however, offer amble opportunities for exciting excursions and to be fair, Shanghai’s transportation infrastructure is without a doubt superior and the city lacks Beijing’s oppressive traffic congestion.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: China

About The Author

is the author of 714 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

 

informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!

 
 
 

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Liro Mangubat June 8, 2012 at 4:49 am

Another great article Robert! Thanks again!
I feel that Shanghai is more me but we’ll see maybe after visiting both cities I might change my mind. hehe

Cheers!

Robert Schrader June 8, 2012 at 8:15 am

When do you plan to go, dear?

Manny August 23, 2012 at 2:13 am

I think you overlooked the tremendous architectural diversity in Shanghai’s historic French Concession. it has got to be the single most beautiful urban district anywhere in China (and it stretches for miles!)…and one more thing, the Forbidden City in Beijing isn’t anywhere close to 5,000 years old– it was built around the year 1400 (still pretty damn old). Anyway, great website!

Robert Schrader August 23, 2012 at 4:02 am

Hi Manny:

I suppose my opinion of the French Concession was skewed by the fact that I lived there. You might even say I was oblivious to it, walking among its tree-lined boulevards everyday. Also RE: The Forbidden City, I feel embarrassed! Anyway thanks for reading, and I hope you continue.

Tanasha Tan November 17, 2012 at 1:46 am

I am from Beijing, I like your opinion! I am glad you like China;)

Robert Schrader November 17, 2012 at 8:08 am

I do like China! Although I can’t imagine spending cold winter in Beijing ^ _ ^

Jamesprite March 2, 2013 at 5:06 am

I am from shanghai, I couldn’t agree more your opinion about shanghai. As in all things,Beijing is better than Shanghai, particularly the weather.

darina1538 September 26, 2013 at 9:22 am

What about studying? I want to Study in China but i can’t decide where. Is it cheaper to live in Shanghai or Beijing?

Randy November 20, 2013 at 2:10 am

Excellent article. You helped make up our minds. Any tips on finding a great hotel? Do they have Priceline in Beijing?

Robert Schrader November 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Randy: Ctrip.com is a popular booking site in China, and can provide you with the best deals.

Tommy November 22, 2013 at 2:16 am

I am a Chinese american.And now i am living in Brooklyn NY…….Last year i went back to china .I prefer Shanghai more than Beijing…….Beijing’s air pollution is a problem……..Honestly say Shanghai much like NYC and HK.I love the people from all over the world living in Shanghai….No matter from which side I would prefer Shanghai.

Robert Schrader November 22, 2013 at 10:27 am

Thank you for providing your perspective, Tommy!

Muahahaha January 8, 2014 at 5:40 am

Really, it’s about choice. Shanghai is decades ahead of Beijing in terms of infrastructures, which gives it views to die for at the bund, lujiazui. But, I do agree very much that for tourists, Beijing is the number 1 place to consider if and only if you are saying that you’re interested in chinese culture and the vast historical landscape architectures the vicinity has to offer.

The essence is about enjoying the culture through people. Beijing from the Northern and Shanghai from the Southern regions offer completely different food, people and cultures.

Robert Schrader January 8, 2014 at 6:27 am

Good point! It really is about choice, at the end of the day.

Jayven May 28, 2014 at 6:57 am

I’m from South Africa, and this was my first visit to china. After a week in Beijing and a week in shanghai, my wife and I both agreed that we definitely loved beijing more. Shanghai is a lovely city, but we found Beijing to be so rich in culture and there is just so much more to do in and around the city. I found shanghai to be too similar to many other cities. The malls are no different from what you would find in Malaysia, Dubai or many other western cities. Shanghai is very diverse and
Definitely newer and more fancy. Beijing is a very special place though. It just seems so much more authentically chinese. With that said, If I had to live and work in China, I may opt for Shanghai instead due to the diversity of the city and the milder climate.

Robert Schrader May 29, 2014 at 8:04 am

I’m glad you agree with me that Beijing is more interesting! I personally thought Shanghai was a boring place to live, but I didn’t spend long enough in Beijing to compare the two cities on that level.

Thanks for reading!

Anoonymous June 5, 2014 at 8:18 am

This was extremely helpful, thanks fro your advice 🙂 x

Robert Schrader June 6, 2014 at 7:20 am

Thank you for reading!

Tom November 19, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Hey, I’m an american student looking to study in China for a semester or two. One thing really important to me is between Beijing and Shanghai, in which city the arts are most a part of life and culture? I’ve heard different things from different people. I am an art student and am really interested in Chinese contemporary art, does anybody have any information about the art community between the two? Thanks!

Strawbs303 May 31, 2015 at 3:52 am

Beijing is better for tourists and as a base for a Great Wall trek. Shanghai is by far a better place to live/study: better position with China means better travel possibilities; the weather is arguably perfect in Spring and Autumn, and milder in Winter, so that’s a winner. Furthermore the air quality is oppressively bad in Beijing, while in Shanghai there is a freshening effect from the tail of the monsoon winds. Also, Shanghai is a cheaper place, especially rent prices! No brainer IMHO.

Robert Schrader June 1, 2015 at 6:33 am

Eh, I prefer Beijing. Different (calligraphy) strokes. 😉

Strawbs303 June 1, 2015 at 11:13 am

I really loved Xian when I visited, although admittedly did feel a little too isolated (odd in China). Beijing and Shanghai, whichever you prefer, certainly offer a much better alternative to a city in the UK (which is where I’m escaping from). Apparently Shenzhen is very favourable for foreigners too, however I found it far too wet and definitely not ‘Chinese’ enough.

Robert Schrader June 1, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Yes, Shenzhen is strange lol

Arnou August 2, 2016 at 3:54 am

Which city is more easy to get a job?

Robert Schrader August 3, 2016 at 8:18 am

In which industry?

mochi.tea December 14, 2016 at 11:56 am

Check out this video for some different comparisons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAYF2Zb21xU&t=1s

Akira Maria December 15, 2016 at 5:24 pm

write captions below the photos please

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