Showdown: Should I Visit Beijing or Shanghai?

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Beijing or Shanghai?

My recent introduction of the showdown between Egypt or Turkey was a popular one, so I thought I’d do another and have it a little bit closer to home this time around.

It seems like every nation has its fierce city rivalries. You’ve got New York versus Los Angeles in the US, Sydney versus Melbourne in Australia, and a bizarre Paris versus London rivalry that spans countries.

In China, the fiercest inter-city rivalry undoubtedly lies between cosmopolitan Shanghai and historic Beijing. The history of China’s most famous sites pitted up against the world-class dining and night-life scene of the former European occupied city.

So, which is best? Should you spend more time in Beijing or in Shanghai?

I’ve got the answer for you below.

Round 1 – History: Imperial Sites versus Colonial Heritage

You don’t visit a country with China’s history without a passing interest in soaking in some of its many ancient sites. I was humbled by the ancient walls of the Stone Fort in Tashkorgan, and standing atop the Great Wall of China on a wild Great Wall hike very nearly moved me to tears.

Beijing’s Historic Sites

Boasting sites including (but certainly not limited to) Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace – Beijing has no shortage of culturally significant sites for you to soak in.

Whether your interest lies in Imperial China or in its more recent political history, Beijing is the heart of China in many ways. While it’s true that a lot of these places are often over-crowded with tourists, it’s still possible to experience them with a little time for quiet contemplation. Taking in the view of the Forbidden City from atop the hill in Jingshan Park or wandering the Summer Palace at sunset can be a great way to see them without the jostling crowds.

nine dragon screen forbidden city beijing china
The Nine Dragon Screen took a bit of effort to find, but it was worth it.

Even the Great Wall of China, one of the most recognisable landmarks on earth, can be experienced on your own. Skip Badaling and Mutianyu, and instead make your way out to Jinshanling, Gubeikou, or Huanghuacheng for a glimpse of how it must have been to stand atop the wall when the threat of Mongol invasion loomed large.

great wall jinshanling
On top of the world!

Historic Sites in Shanghai

You have to search a little harder to find the same level of historic sites in modern Shanghai. While few of these can claim to have the cultural significance of the Summer Palace or the Great Wall, places such as Yuyuan Garden, Longhua Temple, or the nearby water towns offer a little glimpse into Chinese history.

If your interest in Chinese history is in its colonial history, than it is in Shanghai that you’ll find Europe’s most insidious influence. The motley architectural collection of The Bund and the leafy laneways of the French Concession give a glimpse into an entirely different aspect of China’s history.

Yuyuan Garden Shanghai
Yuyaun Gardens in Shanghai. Photo courtesy of SteFou.

Beijing by a country mile

Both Beijing and Shanghai boast sites of cultural and historic significance, but it’s a bit of an unfair comparison. Shanghai has emerged as a major city in only the last century or so, giving Beijing a massive head start that is only furthered by its status as the nation’s capital.

If Chinese history is what draws you to the country, than you can’t really go past the fascinating locations on offer in Beijing. It’s a runaway winner in this category.

Beijing: 1 Shanghai: 0

Round 2 – Food: Classic China versus Cosmopolitan China

Chinese food is famous around the world, but you haven’t really tried it until you’ve eaten it on Chinese soil. Whether you’re looking for an up-scale restaurant for a bit of fine dining or you’re a street food hound like I am, both cities offer an abundance of options when it comes to food.

Traditional Food in Beijing

Beijing (or Peking) duck is one of the more iconic examples of Chinese cuisine and no Beijing bucket list would be complete without sampling crispy duck fat, sweet plum sauce, and succulent duck meat.

Preparing to eat my first bite of scrumptious Beijing duck.
Preparing to eat my first bite of scrumptious Beijing duck.

Beijing cuisine is a treasure trove of tastes for all palettes. From the mild mix of fanqie chao dan (scrambled eggs & tomato) that is one of the first meals most China expats sample to the more exotic such as wu long to zhu (sea cucumber and quail eggs), there’s a lot to like about Beijing cuisine. Don’t forget to try jianbing (savory pancake wraps) and the quintessential, humble dumpling.

As the political hub of China, you’ll find food from all over the country here. Spicy Sichuan cuisine, seasoned lamb kebabs from Xinjiang, fiery Hunanese, fragrant Yunnan delicacies, and much more vie for your palette’s attention across the city.

While Beijing often lagged behind diverse Shanghai when it comes to foreign cuisine, the years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics have seen a renaissance of international cuisine in the city. You’ll find everything from Israeli to Japanese to German to American staples in the city’s hutongs and high rises.

Shanghai’s Foodie Paradise

Shanghai’s history as a former colonial settlement gives it a bit of an unfair advantage when it comes to international cuisine. Europe and the western world have had a foothold in Shanghai for far longer than elsewhere in China, and it shows in the diversity of offerings available.

Mexican, Russian, French, Spanish, and so much more can be had if you don’t mind paying Shanghai prices.

Traditional Shanghai cuisine draws a lot from its seaside location (although local cuisine tends more towards freshwater fish) and legendary dishes such as drunken shrimp (shrimp literally cooked in alcohol and served live) are popular here. Steamed dumplings (baotze) are a popular treat here, and Shanghai food does tend towards the sweet or the oily. Pork is king here, although chicken is an ever popular treat among the Chinese.

xiao long bao soup dumpling
Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are Shanghai’s claim to culinary fame. Image courtesy of Ruth Hartnup.

Beijing Edges It!

It’s a neck and neck battle again, but Beijing’s place at the heart of Chinese culture gives it a real edge. Food from all over China’s provinces can be found and enjoyed in both cities, but a combination of lower prices and Beijing’s local cuisine being famous in its own right gives it the win in my eyes.

Beijing: 2 Shanghai: 0

Round 3 – Shopping & Culture: Knock-offs and designer brands

While it certainly doesn’t blow my skirt up, there’s no doubting that shopping may well be on a person’s mind while they’re in China. With quality retailers (and their less quality knock-offs) doing brisk business in a China rapidly falling into line with the world’s consumer culture, there’s no shortage of shopping malls or even entire streets dedicated to consumerism.

Shanghai’s Fake Markets and Boutiques

Shanghai Old Street, Xin Dian Ti, Dongtai Road, and the former British district of Nanjing Road are meccas for those with money to spend or eyes in need of a little window shopping. Like much of Asia, there’s a delightful mix of the modern and the old school all swirled together into a dizzying mish-mash in which rickety carts manned by wispy haired vendors compete with glitzy boutiques for your attention.

shanghai nanjing road
Nanjing Road is a haven for shopaholics. Image courtesy of Maher Najm.

Shanghai’s Museums and Galleries

If culture of a less consumerist style is more your thing, then Shanghai’s got no shortage of museums either.

The Shanghai Museum bucks the trend of uninspired and confusing Chinese museums. It’s well lit and (more importantly) English labelled exhibits cover a vast period of Chinese history. The deceptively entertaining Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, the interactive Shanghai Museum of Science & Technology, and the hole in the wall charm of the Propaganda Museum give you plenty of options.

shanghai propaganda museum
The Shanghai Propaganda Museum is a personal favourite. Image courtesy of Buster & Bubby.

If art is your thing, you might also get a thrill out of visiting the M50 Creative District. Here, you’ll see the best and brightest of China’s art scene refining their craft in a kind of creative commune. Sculpture, painting, calligraphy, photography, video, and much more can be seen in this ever-changing celebration of the creative arts.

There’s also the Shanghai Gallery of Art and a selection of contemporary art galleries to be explored.

Haggling in Beijing

Beijing is a city similarly stocked with excellent shopping. What it lacks in modern sophistication, Beijing makes up for in a kind of earthy charm.

If you’re looking to test out your haggling skills, Beijing’s markets offer a real baptism of fire. Silk Street is one of China’s most famous shopping destinations, but there’s also places like the Panjiayuan Flea Market and more touristy spots like Wangfujing for your shopping needs.

Of course, there’s also the ever present malls, fashion outlets, and the like to cater to the more Western tastes.

Beijing Hutongs Wudaoying
Wudaoying is one of many fantastic hutongs just begging to be explored.

Culture and Art in Beijing

Culture? You’re in the right place! As if the horde of historical sites isn’t enough, there’s more than just ruins and temples to occupy you.

The Chinese capital is awash with museums, art galleries, and monuments. I’m not just talking dusty old museums, either. You’ll find your fill of Chinese history and culture in the National Museum, Palace Museum (aka the Forbidden City), the Beijing Capital Museum, and the National Gallery, but did you know Beijing is also home to museums with such eccentric themes as traditional Chinese medicine, bees, eunuchs, and even a museum of tap water!

Add these to places like the 798 Art District and the pop-up galleries that litter the hutongs, and you’ve got plenty to occupy your mind.

I was surprised by just how green Beijing is. I had expected a built up concrete jungle.
I was surprised by just how green Beijing is. I had expected a built up concrete jungle.

A Dead Heat

To me, a guy who is ambivalent to museums and despises shopping, I’m going to call it a dead heat. I can’t split Beijing or Shanghai in this one.

Beijing: 3 Shanghai: 1

Round 4 – Family Fun: Kids in Beijing versus Kids in Shanghai

If my little brother Izaak has taught me nothing else about travel, it’s that being a kid in Asia isn’t always so exciting. Without the context of history, the dusty tombs and crumbling monuments we all find so fascinating just aren’t that interesting. I can’t begin to count the number of times my youngest brother yawned while the rest of us gawked at some Korean temple or museum.

But both Shanghai and Beijing do offer a little more than just monuments, temples, and museums.

Shanghai: Disney and the Rest

While stories of the newly opened Shanghai Disney’s less than civilised crowds might put a few off, the world’s largest Disney park is still very much on my to do list.

Chinese theme park chain, Happy Valley also has a presence here and is joined by such kid-friendly options as the Shanghai Zoo (boasting more than 620 animals), the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, Shanghai Wild Insect Kingdom, and the Shanghai Sculpture Park to keep the younger set entertained.

Family-friendly spots such as Yuyuan Gardens, People’s Park, the Willie Wonka-esque Bund tunnel, and the scintillating ERA Acrobatics show are all good options to entertain young and old alike. There’s certainly plenty of things to do with kids in Shanghai.

shanghai disney
Image courtesy of xlquinhosilva

What to do with kids in Beijing

While Beijing doesn’t have a Disney park to wow the little’uns, there’s still a variety of kid-friendly activities to ensure they remember China as fondly as you do.

Local theme parks include the traditional theme park thrills of Shijingshan Amusement Park and the miniature replicas of Beijing World Park. Beijing Zoo, the Beijing Ocean Park, and the Pacific Underwater World are also options for animal obsessed kids.

Its cultural activities that Beijing offers kids in spades. Whether they’re wandering the hutongs, exploring Chaoyang Park, or clambering atop the centuries old stones of the Great Wall – Beijing’s history and culture are accessible for all ages.

The Beijing zoo
My little brother at the Beijing Zoo in 2010. He looks whelmed.

Shanghai by a Nose

Once again it’s proving hard to split the two. There’s certainly no shortage of kid friendly museums, amusement parks, and animal centered amusements to keep kids entertained. Shanghai Disney really gives it that little extra gravitas when it comes to being a kid-friendly location, so I’m going to give the southern city its first outright win.

Beijing: 3 Shanghai: 2

Round 5 – Night Life: Partying in Beijing and Shanghai

I love the night life (I love to boogie), so it’s no surprise that I would gladly sink a few beers (or endure some baijiu) in either of these cities. While my boozy evenings out in Shanghai far outnumber those in my new home of Beijing, I’ve seen enough positive signs to know that either city would do the trick.

Both Shanghai and Beijing are regular stops for touring artists, with the likes of Lady GaGa, Jason Mraz, and most of the world’s biggest DJs including the cities on their touring itineraries.

With the foreign population booming in China, there’s an ever expanding selection of foreigner friendly or even foreigner run bars to imbibe at.

Feeling a little braver? Head out to one of the countless Chinese night clubs and get up close and personal with the locals in the smoky confines of a dimly lit fire hazard.

An ice cold beer on a scorching hot day. Bliss.
An ice cold beer on a scorching hot day. Bliss.

Bar Streets in Beijing

Much like the rest of the world, both cities boast ‘bar streets’. In Beijing, the king of these is Sanlituan’s Bar Street, a neon jungle of dodgy alcohol, sloppy foreigners, and all-night KTV joints. There’s also an ever-expanding selection of international cuisine to be had.

For a more cultural bender, drinking beers on the shores of Houhai Lake at least allows you to feel like you’re actually in China.

My personal favourite option when it comes to a night out in Beijing? Visiting one of the many hipster bars in the city’s hutongs. Craft beer joints like Slow Boat and Great Leap, hole in the wall cocktail bars like Tiki Bar, and even a boozy Beijing brewery crawl are all on my ‘to drink’ list in my new home.

beijing houhai lake sunset
Enjoying a Houhai Lake ‘sunset’. It’s also a great spot for a beer!

Glitz and Glamour in Shanghai

In all things, Shanghai tends to do it with a little more style and sophistication. Even a weekend of drunken debauchery in Shanghai is likely to be a more upmarket affair than you’d find elsehwere in China.

Shanghai’s drinking scene is one heavy on trendy night clubs, stylish speakeasies and cocktail bars, dingy sports bars, and comfortable beer gardens. It’s a night life scene that speaks to the city’s international flavour, but you’ll be paying a premium for it. Shanghai is Hong Kong, London, and Sydney expensive!

shanghai cocktail
Image courtesy of Suzuki.

Can’t we all just have a beer and be friends?

All of this fussing and fighting is making me feel like we just need to have a drink together and hash things out.

You’re going to make me choose?

Fine! My love of craft beer and the deliciously hipster hutongs like Andingmen and Wudaoying give Beijing the edge for me.

Are you happy now?

Beijing: 4 Shanghai: 2

Round 6 – Day Trips

You don’t just visit a city and not leave its confines. That’s like going to Sydney without hitting the Blue Mountains or heading to San Francisco without a visit to the Napa Valley. In other words, it’s just not cricket.

Both Shanghai and Beijing offer more than enough to keep even the most hard to please tourist entertained, but travel outside of the city and you’re bound to find something spectacular.

Beijing: The Great Wall and the Ming Tombs

Case in point: Beijing is a short drive to pretty much the most famous sight in all of Asia – the Great Wall. Just 80km from Beijing, the vast wall draws tourists from all around the world to walk its length or even camp out on its stony expanse.

There’s also the Ming Tombs (50km from Beijing) as well, and they’re not to be overlooked either. Some of China’s most famous (and infamous) Emperors found their final resting place here, and you’d be remiss to leave China without having walked the Sacred Way.

Huanghuashan Great Wall
Huanghuashan is a bit harder to get to, but it’s definitely worth it for the serenity.

Shanghai Day Trips: Spoiled for Choice

Shanghai may not boast attractions of the same name value as Beijing, but there’s some fantastic day trips to be had.

Nearby water towns (think Venice, but Chinese) offer a glimpse into a more idyllic representation of Chinese life, while nearby cities such as Hangzhou and my former home, Nanjing are destinations in their own right.

Cycling around Hangzhou’s picturesque West Lake is a (literal) breath of fresh air after the city’s pollution, and Nanjing boasts sites such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and the original Ming Tomb. You can read all about things to do in Nanjing right here on my site.

Manly men biking around West Lake.
Manly men biking around West Lake.

Another Close One

Beijing may have the bigger name value, but Shanghai’s day trips offer name value all of their own.

At the end of the day, I just can’t split the two. They’re both fantastic hubs from which to visit other spots, so I’m going to call it a dead heat and declare Beijing the overall winner.

FINAL SCORE: Beijing: 5 Shanghai: 3

Read More

Want to read more about Shanghai and Beijing? Here are a few posts I’ve written on the subject:

Want some real Chinese inspiration? Don’t forget to check out the Ultimate China Bucket List!

Your Thoughts

What is your opinion on the Beijing or Shanghai battle? Does China’s capital hold all of the aces? Or is there something to be said for choosing Shanghai over the big city in the north?

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