For tourists and backpackers embarking on their round the world adventures, the world’s most populous country is increasingly becoming a must-do destination on traveler’s bucket lists. For decades China has tended to be skipped over by backpackers who have gravitated towards the tourist meccas of South East Asia, primarily Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, however with recent relaxations in visa laws and a carefully cultivated drive to make the country more accessible and welcoming to foreigners, China is quickly becoming the place to be for all kinds of globetrotters.
What You Need to Know
A sprawling landmass of 1.4 billion people which spans several time zones and boasts tropical beaches, glittering cities, snowy mountain peaks and vast desert landscapes, China has an unbelievable wealth of experiences on offer for those looking to see the world. There’s a dizzying array of cultures, languages, histories and cuisines to be found, and it’s important to have an ideal base from which to see the rest of the country. That brings us to Shanghai, a city of almost 30 million people and the commercial and cultural capital of China which is by far and away the most diverse, developed and exciting spot in the country from which to start your travels. The city is also ideally located in the middle of China’s prosperous east coast, being a highly-developed travel hub, which allows easy access to Beijing and the Great Wall in the north, with megacities Hong Kong and Shenzhen being a quick train ride to the south, and a fantastic range of ancient towns, villages and imperial cities being an even shorter bullet train away. Shanghai is also the best place to experience the most of China in one spot. Despite it being undoubtedly the most ‘Western’ city in China, this economic boom town has made it a magnet for migrants from across the country and beyond, meaning you can find a slice of every single one of China’s smorgasbord of regional cultures within the confines of the city. The more Western, international feel also means Shanghai is an ideal starting point for newcomers who might wish to ease themselves into somewhere as culturally unfamiliar as China, and the fantastic nightlife (complete with plenty of legendary backpacker’s bars) is doubtlessly incomparable to anywhere else.
So, once you’ve settled yourself in to Shanghai and you’re ready to start exploring, you’ll need a few handy tips to make sure you live the local experience, which means exploring the breadth and depth of Chinese culture and of course, making sure you don’t get ripped off. Here’s your essential backpacker’s guide to eating, drinking and exploring in Shanghai.
It’s no secret that Shanghai, much like the other big international cities in Asia like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, have staggeringly varied costs of living depending on where you choose to eat, drink and party. Every backpacker will have that first moment of shock when they do out to eat expecting a dirt-cheap feast and being landed with a bill two or three times higher than what they would pay at home. This isn’t a personal attempt to scam you by some unscrupulous waiter, but rather just a reflection of the extortionate prices of ‘ex-pat’ friendly venues, often located near big tourist sites and with a menu consisting of largely imported, and therefore more expensive, Western food. You can easily eat amazing food for peanuts in Shanghai, but it takes a little bit of guts, knowledge and plenty of curiosity.
Street food is always going to be the first port of call for many a backpacker, but in Shanghai and China in general this is best avoided if you’d prefer not to walk away with a serious case of stomach parasites. Stick to local holes in the wall which generally have a good hygiene rating and always make sure the place you’re planning on eating is packed with locals, always the best indicator of how good an eatery is.
There’s plenty of quintessential local dishes which represent the wide range of culinary influences on this diverse city, and it’s important to know where to go to get the best ones. For the ultimate on-the-go breakfast which will fuel you up for a big day of exploring, you can’t go wrong with the king of Chinese breakfast’s, the humble jianbing. This simple wrap is made up of an egg, chilli, scallions, rise crackers and often a fried dough-stick, and is as delicious as it is cheap, usually costing around 20 cents a go. To find the best of these, you don’t need to look very far; on a weekday morning virtually every building with a kitchen opens up to sell jianbing, as enterprising locals realized you can make a easy buck with these incredibly popular wraps. Look down any street in the city on a morning and you’ll likely see half a dozen places slinging these bad boys – just head to the place with the biggest queue (FYI my favorite spot can by found on the corner of Pudong Avenue and Yuanshen Road).
Once lunchtime comes around choosing the right dish and spot can be almost impossible, as asking a local will inevitably lead to a heat debate among a dozen residents over where serves the best scallion noodles (this author confidently awards that prestigious title to Henan Lamian, a perfectly cozy hole in the wall located in the heart of the French Concession). When you’re on the go in Shanghai, it’s important to carry with you an essential foodie bucket list, which you can refer to at all times to make sure you get the best local dishes at the best local prices. Here’s a few to get you started; the best ma jiang mian (peanut butter noodles) can be found at Wei Xiang Zhai for RMB10 a pop, the tastiest dan dan mian (Chongqing spicy pork noodles) can be found at Fujian Road 209 for RMB18 a bowl, the best xiao long bao (delicious soupy dumplings) can be found at Din Tai Fung (branches all over the city) and for the student classic fried dumplings, head to the legendary Yang’s Dumpling which has dozens of locations in Shanghai, all serving up gut-busting bowls of delicious dumplings for less than a dollar.
After all that eating you’re gonna need to places to wet your whistle, and Shanghai can be an expensive place to drink if you don’t know where to look. Luckily for you, there’s a host of legendary, sweaty, totally wild watering holes which a beloved by travelers and locals alike. Your first port of call on any night out should always be the stalwart of the scene, the cavernous C’s Bar. This sprawling venue has been getting people wasted on pocket change for over twenty years, serving up seizure-inducing cocktails for a couple bucks, and occasionally playing host to some of Asia’s best DJ’s. An equally unmissable nightlife hotspot is the somewhat divey Windows Scoreboard, a grimy rooftop bar in Jing ‘An which is packed every night of the week with foreigners and locals throwing back 6RMB beer pitchers and gathering around to watch the latest international sports games on the gargantuan TV set. Before settling in here to watch the ever-popular races your best bet is to make sure you’re up to date on the latest odds so you know who to root for. This bar is a prime spot for ex-pats and tourists wanting to catch the latest races from back home, and screenings of major events such as the Grand National can get especially rowdy. If you head there for this year’s GN you can guarantee things will be especially lively, with Oddschecker now predicting that 100/1 shot I Just Know is the current favourite to win. Your best bet is to settle in early with a mind-bogglingly cheap pitcher of beer and watch the lively scenes unfold.
If you’re in the mood to make some friends for life then you can’t miss a night of throwing back 2-dollar buckets of gin and tonic (yes, literal buckets) at Perry’s, another longtime gatekeeper of Shanghai nightlife which actively encourage locals and backpackers to mingle among their beer-hall-style communal drinking areas.
While there’s plenty more to Shanghai then just the amazing food and unforgettable nightlife, this handy little guide is an important starting point for any globetrotter wishing to get familiar with the wonders of the city as quickly as possible. Hope to see you there!