One of our favorite things about China’s largest city is how easy it is to spend 72 hours in Shanghai on a budget! When preparing for our 3-day layover, several friends tried to convince us that seeing Shanghai on a budget was not the ideal way to see the city. Once we sorted past the Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotel recommendations, however, we were very impressed by how easy (and fun) it is to explore Shanghai on a budget.
With a deep dive into Shanghai budget options prior to leaving and some luck in befriending locals who gave us great recommendations, we were able to do everything that we wanted in 72 hours in Shanghai on a budget that was considerably less that what we even imagined. Follow along our tried and tested Shanghai itinerary below.
FIRST THINGS FIRST…
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, there are a few things you should know before visiting Shanghai:
- Visa: The cheapest way to visit Shanghai is on a layover. Here is why: if you are a passport-holder from one of 53 identified countries (United States, Canada, most of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand all fall under this), you qualify to take advantage of Shanghai’s 144 hours visa-free transit rules. As long as you have a flight to another country (not back to the country from which your flight originated), you can stay in Shanghai for 6 days without a visa. If you don’t qualify under this rule, you will need to obtain a Chinese visa ahead of time for well over $100 USD.
- Money: Most places do not accept credit cards, so make sure that you have cash. There is an ATM at the airport. Also note that most ATMs do not accept foreign cards. Rather than wander around aimlessly when we needed money, we found it best to locate an international bank (like HSBC) online before heading to the ATM, which will easily accept your international card.
- Google: Speaking of locating things online, Google is blocked throughout China. We like to use Yahoo as an alternative when in China for our maps, search engine and news reading. It’ll make you feel all nostalgic and very 2007 (and it will also make you very grateful for Google’s existence).
- Metro: For budget travelers, the Metro is definitely the best way to get around. Stations are everywhere, and the entire system is in English so you’ll be able to navigate quite easily. Most stations will not accept credit cards, so have a few Yuan handy for your ticket.
- Taxi: If you do decide to take a taxi, make sure to have the name and address of where you are going written in Chinese. It’s not very common for drivers to speak English. Taxis are metered.
- WiFi/SIM card: Public WiFi is available in some of the city’s major areas (like the Bund). SIM cards are available for foreigners at the airport, but it’s not cheap (somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 USD for a small package with data).
72 Hours in Shanghai on a Budget: Our Shanghai Itinerary
WHERE TO STAY IN SHANGHAI ON A BUDGET
The city is massive, but the subway system – the largest in the world – makes Shanghai remarkably easy to navigate from anywhere you seem to find yourself. That being said, we could not have been happier with our choice of an Airbnb in the Former French Concession (FFC).
The Former French Concession, a former French settlement that dates back to the mid-1800s, is a trendy, hip neighborhood with an endless supply of great restaurants, nightlife, coffee shops and boutiques. The neighborhood is filled with low-rise buildings (unlike much of Shanghai) and has an excellent mix of cheap street food, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and trendy bars (with drink specials), making it a perfect choice for budget travelers. Live music, European-style cafes, a seemingly endless variety of Chinese food, and locals of all ages keep the area lively. Subway stops every few blocks connect to the other neighborhoods that you will certainly want to visit, like The Bund and the People’s Square.
Getting to the Former French Concession from the airport: the area is easily reached by Line 2 of the Metro, which costs approx. $4 USD per person.
While it’s a bit faster, we suggest skipping the Maglev due to it being pricier (about $8 USD per person). Even if you do take the Maglev, you’ll need to switch over to the Metro (another few dollars) eventually, as it won’t take you all of the way into the FFC.
The steady supply of trendy Airbnb’s in the old housing blocks throughout the Former French Concession make it an ideal choice for finding that low-cost rental to keep your budget in check! A few of our favorite inexpensive rentals are listed below. And if this is your first time using Airbnb (which we whole-heartedly recommend) you can use our discount code to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay by clicking here.
Our Favorite Private Airbnb’s in the French Concession ($70 or less)
For less than $70 USD per night, you can rent a clean and modern private apartment that sleeps 2+ in the Former French Concession. Here are some of our favorite picks (and remember to use this link when booking to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay):
Beautiful Designer 1F Apt. in PERFECT Location – $64/night – Entire apartment – 1 bed/1 bath
Chinese-style Cottage on An Hing Road – $47/night – Entire apartment – 1 bed/1 bath
Loft of 1.8 meters, another way to visit the magic, to get lost – $69/night – Entire apartment – 1 bed/1 bath
Shared Airbnb’s in the French Concession ($35 or less)
For an even better budget deal, you can also rent out a bedroom in someone’s apartment in the FFC for around $30 USD (and yes, our code for $40 off your first Airbnb stay still applies):
315 Downtown FC IAPM Airy Tranquil – $27/night – Private bath
Double room in Lane house, in ex-French Concession – $35/night – Shared bath
Leisure House – $32/night – Private bath
Hostels Near the French Concession ($16)
The Phoenix – $16/night – Single dorm bed – Close walk to FFC
WHERE TO EAT IN SHANGHAI ON A BUDGET
This should really be defined more by the question, what to eat? And to that a simple answer: dumplings. Dumplings, dumplings, dumplings! The sheer abundance and quality of dumplings spots available will amaze even the most hardcore dumpling connoisseur with a palette that knows the difference between the Jiaozi and Xiao Long Bao variety. And the fact that you can buy 10 of them for about $1 USD will make your wallet as happy as your taste buds. We’ve also included a few other restaurants in this list that are not dumpling spots for the sake of your cholesterol. But in case you couldn’t tell, we can’t stop thinking about those delicious, doughy perfections.
Shandong Dumpling – $1-3/person
14 Yanquing Street
A tiny hole-in-the wall that’s spotlessly clean and located right across from the Wet Market. You likely won’t be able to find this spot on Google (actually, you definitely won’t…you can’t use Google in China without a VPN). But type in the address to Yahoo maps and follow the arrow to 14 Yanquing Street. Our local friends raved about this place and we were not disappointed. They specialize in Jiaozi dumplings, which are the type of dumplings that you find in a spicy soup and are filled with pork, shrimp or vegetables. These are the kind of dumplings that you likely know from your local home-town spot. This was also one of the cheapest places that we had dumplings in the whole city (you can get pretty full for about $1.50 per person). Tip: run next door and grab some cheap beers to enjoy with your meal!
Jia Jia Tang Bao – $5-10/person
90 Huanghe Rd
If you’ve ever looked up “dumplings” and “Shanghai,” no doubt you’ve come across this restaurant. This restaurant is famous for its Xiao Long Bao dumplings – a Shanghai speciality filled with a delicious spicy soup (that is also extremely hot and messy…you’ve been warned). Jia Jia Tang Bao is an institution in Shanghai and is usually included on any “best of” list for dumplings in the city. Make sure to get there early as lines start to form as soon as this place opens. Prices vary depending on what you order (crab dumplings are more expensive than the meat variety), but you can expect to pay around $5 per person before drinks, more if you are really hungry and/or really like seafood.
Yang’s Fry-Dumpling – $2-4/person
97 Huanghe Road
Specializing in a type of dumpling you’ve likely never heard of (you’re welcome), Yang’s Dumpling prepares some of the best Shengjian Bao dumplings in the city. A fried relative of the Xiao Long Bao variety of dumpling (with just as much gelatin inside to ruin any shirt), one bit of these slightly-crispy, heaven-in-a-ball-creations may have you phasing out all other dumplings from your life. While this is a chain, any location you visit will offer consistently delicious dumplings (shrimp, vegetable, or pork) with a small menu of other items. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a line here!
Follow your nose – Price will vary
Not a restaurant – but just as good of a recommendation as anything listed above – is to just follow your nose to the wafting smell of delicious food from almost any street cart or hole in the wall, and you are sure to find an amazing meal for less than you would pay in most third-world countries. Chinese-style pancakes, different types of meat, and delicious fried food can be found everywhere, and it’s amazing! Hot pot restaurants line nearly every street, and you’ll be able to spot the most popular places by the amount of people that are in line for lunch, or are still eating late into night. Still, probably our favorite meal in Shanghai (surprise, it was dumplings) came from a shop located on the corner of Xiangyang Road & Nanchang Road, whose name we were never able to figure out. But if you’re anywhere near the intersection, you’ll easily be able to spot it by the steam pouring out of its store front window. Just watch out for the upstairs dining area if you’re over 5-feet tall.
Polo (Bao Luo) – $10-15/person
271 Fumin Rd
Another great recommendation from our friends in Shanghai, this restaurant (we were told it’s over 100 years old) is a staple of any visit to the city and is popular with both locals, expats and tourists alike. Specializing in traditional Shanghai-style food, you’re sure to find lots of interesting goodies on this menu. Given its popularity, there can sometimes be a line, but it usually moves quickly. This is without a doubt the most expensive restaurant on this list, but it’s still quite affordable (about $15 per person for a lot of food, including drinks).
WHAT TO SEE IN SHANGHAI
With its massive size, deep history and remarkably quick modernization, it’s no wonder our favorite thing to do in Shanghai (second to eating) was simply walking around while taking in the city. It provides endless entertainment whether you’re walking past a shop displaying the fresh duck just split open in its window (not Kelly’s cup of tea), or admiring the glistening brand-new highrise competing to land a spot on an international best new architecture list. The city has more stories to tell than lifetimes to live and you’ll get a glimpse of it walking past each nook and cranny. Walking is the perfect way to get in between some of our favorite sights listed below. When your legs get tired, just hop on the Metro. It’s bound to head somewhere close to one of these locales:
French Concession – Free
Since you’re staying here, start your Shanghai exploration with this neighborhood’s slower pace of life, tree-lined streets and abundance of great coffee, food and shopping. Start your morning off with a caffeine fix from Fumi (215 Fumin Lu) or Marienbad Cafe (55 Wangku Rd) and then meander through the streets of this trendy neighborhood. Make sure to stop by TianZiFang, which is a collection of little streets exploding with art studios, interesting boutiques and delicious eateries. Bring your camera and hop into any of the shops that catch your eye. Usually the real treasures of those shops are behind the entrance doors. Before you leave the French Concession, take a stroll through Fuxing Park.
People’s Square – Free
This large park in the center of Shanghai is a great place to spend an afternoon people-watching. The beautiful open space serves as the central location of Shanghai’s Municipal Government and is surrounded by some of the city’s best museums, such as the Shanghai Museum (201 Renmin Ave, free entry, closed on Mondays) – housing one of the best collections of ancient Chinese artifacts, and the MoCA (231 Nanjing W Rd, $8 per person, closed on Mondays) – one of the best collections of modern art in the city.
…And Don’t Miss The People’s Square Marriage Market – Free
For one of the best happenings in the city, make sure to head to the People’s Square on weekends between 12 pm and 5 pm to check out the People’s Square Marriage Market. Each weekend, parents of single children come here to post their child’s resume on an umbrella in hopes of finding them a spouse. It is an incredible spectacle that seems to be leftover from a bygone era of Shanghai. Yet still to this day, the parents show up each Saturday and Sunday. Once you’re finished walking through the park, make sure to meander along the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street on your way to the Bund to check out all of the remarkably touristy (but equally as fun) shops.
The Bund – Free
The 1,500-meter long walkway along the Huangpu River shows off Shanghai like no other area of the city. New skyscrapers mix in amongst the historical colonial buildings and the place is always teeming with life. While undoubtedly one of the more expensive areas in the city to grab food, drinks, or shop, budget-travelers can still stop by The Captain to experience an affordable rooftop bar with great views of the Bund (it’s in a bit of a drab hostel, but you can get a pizza and beer for about $15). Otherwise, if you can swing it, it’s well worth a little splurge to head to Vue (199 Huangpu Rd) at the top of the Hyatt for a cocktail with one of the best views in Shanghai.
Lujiazui (The Financial District) – Free
Across the river from the Bund, Lujiazui is the glitzy financial district of Shanghai most famous for the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The immaculately-manicured landscapes, perfectly laid-out city planning and futuristic skyscrapers of this district quite literally boggle the mind as you keep bouncing your head up trying to see the tops of some of the tallest buildings in the world. While walking around here is fascinating on its own (and free), there are endless areas to splurge in this district if you’d like. These two really stood out from our time in the Shanghai:
Shanghai Tower Observation Deck – $30/person
If you’re going to splurge on one thing in the city, this may well be it. Take the elevator to the observation deck of one of the many skyscrapers in this district. We personally went up to the observation deck of the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center, but we would recommend heading to the Shanghai Tower – the world’s second tallest building. At 632 meters high, it has the world’s tallest observation deck and will be sure to impress you with never-ending views and lights of Shanghai. The cost to get up is just under $30 per person. For the most bang for your buck, go up at sunset so that you can watch the sunlight fade away, then stay until the lights turn on to illuminate the area.
Bund Sightseeing Tunnel Train Ride – $8 one-way/person
The psychedelic train ride that is the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel transports you underwater from the Bund to Lujiazui, and is certainly something to remember. Admittedly, this is not for everyone, and we’re still not quite sure how to describe this, other than to say we’re pretty sure the person who designed it was on some heavy drugs (and probably got inspired from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Neon lights, trance music and strange poetry-reading accompany your ride under the Huangpu River, delivering one of the most unique experiences we had in Shanghai. If your Instagram account is feeling a little tired, this is the perfect spot to rev it back up (but act quick – it’s only a few minutes long!) If this is too weird for you, you can skip it and take the Metro across the river instead.
Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center – $4/person
868 Huashan Rd (Basement Level, Block B)
An incredible illustration into the prevailing propagandist thought throughout the Cultural revolution (including leading up to it and after), the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center was a true highlight of our trip to Shanghai. The private collection houses one of the best collections of Chinese propaganda posters from the 20th century, many of which only live in this museum. The collection is remarkably impressive, considering most of these posters were actively destroyed after each political regime change. The museum is a little hard to find in the basement of an apartment complex off the main road and there is a small entrance fee of $4 to get in. It’s certainly not fancy, but we spent quite a long time here inspecting each incredible piece of propagandist artwork.