Shanghai is a metropolis where old Chinese traditions meet futurism and modern technology. It has some of the best restaurants on Earth and a host of incredible museums, galleries, and hidden cultural secrets to discover. If you’ve got 48 hours in Shanghai, you can see so much of the city and discover the full beauty of China’s economic capital for yourself. Just follow this Shanghai guide!
Shanghai is an amazing city. And although it’s a beast of one (think 24 million people), it has an excellent (and wonderfully cheap) public transport system. This includes a super fun high speed maglev train, currently the fastest train in the world which means you can get to tourist destinations cheaply and, most importantly for a layover, at high speed!
Spending a short time in China has never been easier due to the new visa waiver laws which means that, if you’re from one of 53 countries allowed by China and you’re travelling on to a third country (it must be different from where you came from but it can include Hong Kong or Taiwan), then you can stay for a set amount of time without a visa.
Rules do change depending on which Chinese city you’re laying over in, and not all cities are included, so check the layover rules for the particular city or province you’re flying to. Luckily, Shanghai is included. I was lucky enough to live in this dynamic city for a year so I can provide you with all the insider tips for a chilled-out layover.
From transport tips to the best sights, tours, and must-try foods, find everything you need below.
Best VPN App: You won’t be able to access social media easily while in China but you can use the Hexatech app, a mobile-friendly service that connects you to one server for free. Perfect for a layover. You can upgrade for multiple servers. Google Maps doesn’t work so you can either download their native Baidu maps or be prepared to use your VPN.
Transport and Luggage Storage
The storage in Shanghai airport is safe, convenient, and cheap. It opens at 6am and is perfect if you need to drop off your suitcase to explore the city. Unlike in Japan and Korea, you generally won’t find coin lockers in the subway stations, and even if you do they’re sporadic, pricier than you’d expect, and not the best quality so best ditch your luggage at the airport if you need to or leave it at your hotel.
So, as I said, Shanghai’s public transport is outstanding. There are ticket machines in every subway station and they have an English option. You pick where you’re going, put in your notes or coins, and just print it out. You can get a plastic subway card that the locals use but it requires a down payment so not that cost effective for a layover.
The subway cars are really busy for the most part. You’re going to get pushed and shoved, and lining up isn’t really a thing. Just get your elbows out and get on that train. This is also why ditching your luggage is the best idea.
Best Metro App: There are loads but ‘Explore Shanghai Metro Map’ works offline.
Taxis are cheap in Shanghai and you can just flag them down from the street. You’re not going to get taxi scams in the same you might in other parts of Asia as taxis are regulated and use a meter but they can get a bit funny if you’re not going too far as it’s not worth their while. They do have to take you by law so just indicate that you’re going to take a picture of their licence and they usually get moving.
Best Taxi App: Didi Dache
While I recommend the Shanghai subway for ease of transport and speed, Shanghai also offers a nifty tourist bus service which you can hop on and off when you see something you want to do, and it can work out much cheaper.
You can buy a 24-hour ticket (30 yuan/roughly $5) or a 48 hour ticket (50 yuan/Roughly $8) and it goes past everything mentioned below and much more. The subway is cheap but if you’re planning on going to a lot of places then this will probably work out cheaper and you don’t have to waste time buying new tickets at the subway or paying for a transport card. You save a lot of money on tourist entrance fees.Book your tickets in advance here.
Audio guides are included and this is definitely an option for people who want to see more of Shanghai since you’ll be above ground.
Best Street Map: Baidu Maps – Apple Maps does work but this is more accurate. Google Maps won’t work without a VPN.
What to do
What are the best things to do in Shanghai? Honestly, there’s a staggering amount so I’m just going to put the highest of the highlights and must-see destinations below for every kind of traveler, plus a few extras if you have more time.
Emerging from Lujiazui station you’ll be nestled within ‘that’ famous skyline, and all of those tall buildings (and amazing sky bars) will be your playground.
Go to Lujiazui and head to straight the top of Jin Mao Tower to get an awesome panoramic view of the city. There’s a Starbucks, a few restaurants, a spa, and a juice bar in there too.
If you want to head up another building, the famous Oriental Pearl Tower (right next to Jin Mao) has a revolving buffet restaurant at the top as well as several shops. You’ll also find a history museum and an amazing view if you choose to explore this building.
The tallest building is the Shanghai Tower and has an observation deck on the 118th floor.
There’s also a huge mall within walking distance which includes luxury items, regular stores, and plenty of restaurants and coffee shops.
So if you have limited time and want to see some tall buildings I’d recommend this area. You can enjoy a bit of everything modern Shanghai which conveniently isn’t that far from the airport (particularly if you take the maglev to speed things up).
Coming to this area with children and need a family-friendly activity?
Try the Shanghai Aquarium. It’s adjacent to the above two buildings and is one of the largest aquariums in the world. It’s located in a pyramid and is dividedintoo several zones such as the Africa zone, the America zone, and so on.
2) Yuu Garden
Need a bit of tranquility after your flight and want to see some old Shanghai to boot?
Yuu Garden is a great place to visit because, not only is it a beautiful garden with small bridges, streams, and rockeries to visit, but it’s also nestled between streets of ancient buildings filled with souvenirs, traditional clothes, and street food.
Generall,y anything you might want to pick up to take home for loved ones on your layover can be found here. Yuu Garden has a long and rich history, and is truly beautiful and picturesque, so it’s the perfect place for getting some memorable pictures on your layover in Shanghai.
3) The Bund
No trip to Shanghai would be complete without capturing the view of the Shanghai skyline from this beautiful locale. It’s the same view as you’ll get from high above in Lujiazui but instead from across the Huangpu river (in other words, where all the greatest photos of the skyline are taken from).
You also have the added benefit of seeing all the beautiful colonial buildings of the French concession. So much of The Bund looks like it would be right at home in Paris, Berlin, or London. The Bund was once the centre of international trade and communication in China, and has a rich history of connection with Europe, as is plain to see from its stunning architecture.
Take a stroll down these wonderful streets and explore a beautiful juxtaposition between modern China skyscrapers and old European architecture. Don’t forget to look up!
There are some wonderful restaurants, bars, and cafes here but everything does verge on the pricier side in this area.
4) West Nanjing Road, Jing’an Temple, and People’s Square
I’ve popped these together simply because they’re all super close to each other, connected by a single road that cuts through Shanghai from east to west, and you could actually walk between all these places if you wanted to stay above ground (otherwise they’re all on line 2 if you’re on the subway).
West Nanjing Road is the famous shopping street in Shanghai, and essentially their answer to Oxford Street in London. It’s made up mostly by recognisable Western stores (including Sephora, which I was delighted to find since we don’t have them in the UK). There are plenty of restaurants and cafes on this street to keep you fuelled. West Nanjing Road is connected to the pedestrianised East Nanjing Road which carries on the shopping fun all the way up the The Bund.
People’s Square is a busy area and arguably the heart of Shanghai. You’ll find the usual shops, cafes, and restaurants here but also the famous People’s Park which is nice for a walk around, and also where the marriage market is held every weekend where parents and grandparents try to marry off their unwed daughters and sons by showing off their photos and job descriptions (true story).
You’ll find the Shanghai Theatre and plenty of museums near here too. After you’ve explored, you can eat at the often overlooked Yunnan Road food street which is packed with traditional restaurants, street food, and Shanghai delicacies.
The area surrounding Jing’an Temple is a lovely place (I actually used to live there). The streets are set around a beautiful recreated temple with a long history; you can go inside and get some great pictures. There are plenty of bistros, cafes, and shops nearby if you’d like to hang out there for a while.
Have Some Extra Time?
China is full of beautiful water towns and picturesque snapshots of old China that still exist relatively untouched.
Visit a Water Town
While trips to nearby cities such as Suzhou are great fun, there is actually an option much closer. Zhujiajiao Ancient Town is on metro line seventeen. It’s the best preserved of Shanghai’s four water towns. Definitely only worth attempting if you have extra time.
Read More: Find out how to take a day trip to Suzhou
Go to Disneyland Shanghai
Shanghai opened this Disneyland shortly after I left, meaning it’s been open less than two years. I’m hoping to hop back soon for a visit. Disney needs no introduction. This is the newest Disneyland and has some areas and rides that can only be found here, including a Toy Story area. Perfect for families (or anyone, honestly).
Explore the Shanghai Propaganda Museum
Somewhere a bit quirky and different to visit, particularly if you like your dark history and art, is the propaganda poster museum, an unmissable secretive basement space filled with fascinating Chinese history. Propaganda posters adorn the walls and the gift shop has replica posters you can buy, as well as original communist memorabilia. The whole museum has an underground, forbidden vibe and is truly informative. Explanations are provided in Chinese and English and it’s a great discussion starter as you make your way around the museum.
What to Eat
Shanghai is full of excellent cuisine and street food. There’s a lot to try but definitely get some dumplings while you’re there.
Once a street stall and now a chain you couldn’t miss if you tried. The neon pink shops are everywhere. Their dumplings are a must-try in Shanghai and are amazingly cheap; they will keep you full for hours. Simply walk to the counter, order a four- or six-tray of dumplings (they also have wonton dishes) with pork, shrimp, or veggie filling, and pick up from the hatch when they come up. Delicious fried dumplings (be careful: they’ll be very hot inside). I ate so many of these during my first few months that I couldn’t look at them again for about half a year.
Jia Jia Tang Bao
A tasty and highly recommended place near People’s Square to try out the delicious Shanghai xiao long bao dumplings.
Jia Jia Tang Bao, 90 Huanghe Rd, Huangpu, Shanghai,
Laowang Hot Pot
Hot Pot is a must-try while in Shanghai. It’s best for two or more people as it’s a real group activity. Here you can pick your sauces and your meat and vegetables then cook them yourself in the boiling broth. It’s fun, memorable, and, most importantly, delicious. Laowang Hotpot is fantastic quality and a great place to start as staff are always happy to help out.
1052 Wuding Rd, Xīn kāng lù, Shanghai
Want to try handmade noodles that you can see being pulled and moulded right next to you? This is the place to go. They’re tasty, very cheap, and authentic. The interior is traditional and overall this is a great food experience that needs to be tried during your stay.
Looking for a Food Tour?
If you’re looking for a food tour in four of China’s amazing cities, look no further than Untour Food Tours. They’re amazing and take you deep into the local culture. I’m not a massive fan of tours but food tours have become a travel-must of mine, not just because I love food but because it often allows you to explore a rich culture in a short amount of time. See my review of my favourite Osaka food tour.
Need a Hotel?
Here’s a selection of reasonably priced rooms in Shanghai.
Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve given you some ideas for your layover in Shanghai! It’s an amazing city and perfect for a layover. .
If you liked this you might also like our Shanghai Expat Guide.
Jess is the creator and editor of Books and Bao. She's passionate about the world, its literature, food, culture, and people. She enjoys sharing her travel tips with others and capturing those perfect moments.