Quick Disclaimer: My time in Shanghai was limited to quick trips, but I actually lived in Beijing for about 4 months.
The city of Beijing is massive! It’s spread out over an area of 6,000 sq miles and houses an estimated 21.7 million people. Even though that’s a lot of people, the population density is lower than you may think. Beijing is 1/3rd as dense as Shanghai, and 1/6th as dense as Hong Kong, so at times it can feel, dare I say, suburban!
You cannot escape the influence that the government and history of China has had on the city of Beijing. The head government offices are here. The top university for future government employees is here. Tiananmen Square still features tanks and marching soldiers. Chinese history is alive and well in Beijing and manifests itself in the dozens of historical attractions throughout the city.
Shanghai is the opposite of Beijing in so many ways! There are about 24 million people living in just 2,500 sq miles of space in Shanghai. This city is the total embodiment of the word “metropolitan” with skyscrapers, shopping malls, and rooftop bars scattered throughout. As a visitor to the city, I found Shanghai to be a lot more walk-able than Beijing.
Unlike Beijing’s constant nods to history, Shanghai is changing by the minute. The photo below shows the city skyline as if you were looking across the Huangpu River towards the famous Oriental Pearl Tower in 1990 and then in 2010:
Shanghai is home to large corporations, luxury shopping, and 173,000 expats. It feels international, new, and vibrant.
Click any of the pics below to watch a video clip of what each attraction looks like.
This area of Shanghai was occupied by the French for nearly 100 years. It’s a beautiful neighborhood full of European architecture.
A wide walking street situated on the Huangpu River. I wasn’t too impressed by it to be honest, but the views of the city skyline across the river were pretty awesome.
Shopping on Nanjing Road
One of the world’s busiest shopping streets full of luxury options.
City Vista Points
Rooftop bars, observatories, river cruises – any angle you want to see Shanghai from is available to you.
The most recent Disney location opened in June 2016 in the Pudong area of Shanghai! It’s the first Disney resort in mainland China, and I think it’s finally not sold out?! Don’t quote me on that.
This is one of the top tourist destinations in all of China! It’s huge, beautiful, historic, crowded, and if you don’t go your mom will question what you even did to China.
Pro Tip: Don’t be confused when you see signs to “The Palace Museum” – it’s interchangeable with the name “Forbidden City”.
This is the historical center of Beijing. It contains the National Museum, the Mausoleum to Mao Zedong, the Congress building, and the entrance to the Forbidden City (including that huge portrait of Mao).
I went to Jingshan Park because from the top you can see a bird’s eye view of the Forbidden City for only 2 RMB.
An 850 year old summer abode for ancient royalty. It’s got gorgeous buildings, killer views, and a massive lake.
Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)
Stone ruins from a palace that was destroyed during the Second Opium War.
A vibrantly-colored, historic Buddhist temple with a record-breaking Buddha statue.
Temple of Heaven
A big temple complex that was used for ritual sacrifices by Ming and Qing dynasty emperors. I had way more fun visiting the Temple of Heaven than the Forbidden City!
The Great Wall
Certainly not in the city center, but you need to make a trip out to see it if you’ve already made it to Beijing.
Wangfujing Night Market
A packed night market known for food options like scorpion, starfish, and stinky tofu.
A massive 11th century imperial garden.
A scenic lake surrounded by unique shops and restaurants.
An iconic building on the site of the 2008 Olympic games.
A market filled with knock-off designer goods.
Narrow, winding alleyways lined by traditional courtyard homes. Hutongs might be my favorite thing about Beijing.
The most iconic Beijing meal is definitely Peking duck.
The reason Peking roast duck is so delicious is because the meat is seriously tender and the skin is perfectly crispy. The reason this dish is so iconic is because the entire process has been consistent since imperial times. As you can see above in the picture, the duck is sliced thin and arranged on a decorative plate. Alongside duck, you always get scallion, cucumber, a sweet bean sauce, and thin pancakes to roll it all up in. Eating Beijing roast duck is an experience that cannot be missed in Beijing.
Shanghai’s most famous dish is xiao long bao, AKA soup dumplings.
I’m not going to sugar coat it – I’d rather eat soup dumplings than Peking roast duck. The duck is delicious, but soup dumplings are incredible. Xiaolongbao is usually filled with pork, and always stuffed with a cube of meat aspic, which is a type of jelly. When the dumplings are steamed, that meat jelly melts and becomes a savory soup. Eating these dumplings can be hazardous to your mouth because no matter what you do, you’re probably going to burn yourself. There’s a whole technique to it which you can see here. Trust me when I say this: It’s SO worth it.
After searching for hotels and restaurants in both Shanghai and Beijing, I was almost certain Shanghai was more expensive, but I wanted to find something more concrete than my memory. Here are the side-by-side numbers from expatarrivals.com:
- Unfurnished 2 Bedroom Apartment:
- 9,000 RMB in Shanghai / 7,000 RMB in Beijing
- 1L of Milk:
- 17 RMB in Shanghai / 12 RMB in Beijing
- A Dozen Eggs:
- 16 RMB in Shanghai / 13 RMB in Beijing
- 3-Course Meal for 2 at a Mid-Range Restaurant:
- 300 RMB in Shanghai / 150 RMB in Beijing
Yep, I was right. Overall, Beijing is more affordable.
This is easy, because both cities have excellent public transportation! There’s just one thing very different about the major airports.
When we arrived to Beijing Capital International Airport, we had planned to take a taxi to our hotel in the Chaoyang District. Based on legal cabs we’d taken before in China, we estimated it would cost no more than 100 RMB. The Beijing airport has a desk that you walk up to where they give you an estimate of how much your taxi will cost, and they quoted us a shocking 280 RMB. However, on the way back to the airport we flagged down a taxi outside our hotel and it only cost us 60 RMB.
The best option to get from Beijing Capital International Airport into the city is by taking the Airport Express metro line. It’s only 25 RMB and connects you to the two circular subway lines, which basically means you can get anywhere in Beijing.
The primary airport for international arrivals is the Shanghai Pudong Airport. We were quoted crazy taxi prices inside the airport, but as soon as we stepped outside and got into the queue to catch a legal cab ride, there was a chart estimating how much it would cost. The prices were actually reasonable! I believe it cost us around 100 RMB to get to the Shanghai Railway Station.
If you’re going super budget option in Shanghai, I would recommend taking the Maglev Train out of the Pudong Airport. The Maglev line connects to lines 2, 7 and 16 of the Shanghai metro system. It’s 50 RMB and only takes about 8 minutes.
And The Winner Is…
Beijing! Before visiting either city, I lived in Nanjing. Despite having 10 million people, Nanjing often felt like a conservative small town to me. My husband and I spent a weekend in Shanghai during that time and I thrived in the busy metropolitan atmosphere. But it was lacking the “authentic China” feel. Several months later we visited Beijing for the first time and I fell in love fast. Beijing had so many things to see and do that I was never bored. Plus it had the “authentic China” feel that I had come to love in Nanjing.
That being said, everyone is different! Skim back through all that stuff above, make your own pro-con list, and let me know which city you end up in!
Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon,
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