Shanghai or Beijing: Which City Should You Visit?

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Shanghai or Beijing, which city should you visit? Apart from remembering some things you should avoid in China, the entire country is an amazing place to travel. And Shanghai and Beijing are two of the most popular cities to visit – leaving you with a tricky decision.

Shanghai is known as the business center of China, while Beijing is referred to as the cultural and political center. In Beijing, you’ll have the Forbidden City and easy access to the Great Wall of China. In Shanghai, you can experience a Chinese super-city in the flesh and enjoy skyscraper views. In short, while both cities are incredible, there are definite differences to help you choose

To delve deeper, we’ve compiled a comparative guide to whether you should choose Shanghai or Beijing. From attractions to accommodation, we’ll explore all the main holiday factors for you.

Shanghai or Beijing: Attractions

The Forbidden City.
Forbidden City via Unsplash.

Choosing based on the city’s attractions is relatively clear-cut when deciding between Shanghai or Beijing.

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In general, you can expect more of the old-world charm in Beijing and modern, thriving advancements in Shanghai.
In Beijing, you can wander the grounds of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. While for a bit of historical culture, you can visit the National Museum of China, The Palace Museum, or pay your respects at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Even if you want to spend a day outside of Beijing, the Great Wall of China is only an hour and a half north of the city. You can purchase a guided tour or, if you are brave, rent a car and drive yourself.

In Shanghai, there are a few scattered temples and the Yu Garden to explore for cultural immersion in traditional Chinese architecture. However, the older city attractions are slightly outshone by the modern.

To appreciate the cityscape, we’d recommend walking The Bund promenade and visiting the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and Shanghai Tower observation decks. While to really understand the city’s shift to a modern metropolis, head to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. Here, you learn about the city’s architectural development over six storeys of exhibits – including an entire miniature city display.

Winner: Beijing is our winner for this round, as it has more cultural and historical attractions.

Shanghai or Beijing: Weather

Sky and clouds.
Sky via Unsplash.

Being in the same country does not mean you shouldn’t consider the weather when choosing between Shanghai or Beijing.
The weather in Shanghai and Beijing is very similar, but there are a few differences worth considering. In general, Shanghai is a little hotter than Beijing all year round and also has more rain throughout the year. On the flip side, Beijing experiences more snow in Winter, so choose Beijing over Shanghai if you want to practice skiing.

We’ve compiled maximum temperature and rainfall comparison tables below using data from Weather2Travel.

Shanghai (degrees Celsius)71223312717
Beijing (degrees Celsius)21127312610
Maximum temperature per month
Shanghai (mm)438411513515252
Beijing (mm)2729152427
Average monthly rainfall

Winner: Beijing is our winner for this round. While Beijing experiences lots of rainfall in July, it is overall drier than Shanghai, which is more enjoyable for tourists.

Shanghai or Beijing: Nature

Nature around The Great Wall of China.
Nature around The Great Wall via Unsplash.

Nature is a tricky comparative point between Shanghai and Beijing.

Beijing is surrounded by mountain ranges and National Parks. To the city’s North, you have the Badaling, Jundu, and Fenghuanling Mountains. And there is also the Tianmo Desert, a 200-acre reserve Northwest of Beijing. The nature surrounding Beijing is diverse, with mountains to climb, forests to walk, and deserts to wander.

Beijing is missing one thing, though: the coast. Shanghai sits right on China’s Eastern coastline, with access to beaches and river wetlands along the Changjiang River Estuary. You can take a boat ride along the estuary or walk on the beach or through the wetlands to get closer to nature.

Huangshan Mountain is also a popular overnight trip from Shanghai. The mountain range is famous for its number of carved stone steps and bizarre rock formations. If you want a memorable experience of China’s mountains, consider adding Huangshan to your itinerary.

Winner: Beijing takes another win for this round, as it has closer areas of diverse nature to explore.

Shanghai or Beijing: Nightlife

A neon disco sign.
Disco sign via Unsplash.

Let’s start by saying you won’t be disappointed by Shanghai or Beijing’s nightlife. While they have slightly different atmospheres, both cities offer plenty of fun after dark.

To simplify their nightlife scenes, Shanghai has more of an international clubbing environment, while Beijing has the most pubs and is associated with rock music.

Shanghai’s most popular clubs are M1nt, Le Baron, and Elevator. M1nt is a particularly good venue if you don’t mind spending extra on expensive drinks. The club is on the 24th floor of a Nanjing Road East skyscraper and even has a shark tank next to the dancefloor. If bars are more your scene, Shanghai has an impressive rooftop bar trend – perfect for appreciating the cityscape views.

Beijing’s most popular clubs are Destination, Elements, Vics, and Mix Club. Destination is the only nightclub that really competes with the extravagance of Shanghai’s clubs. The club is an LGBTQ+ venue and is split over multiple floors with fun, neon décor, and soft lighting. While, if you like to try local alcohol, we’d recommend heading to Giant Leap Brewing for over thirty craft beers to sample or Long Jing for Chinese tea-based cocktails.

If you want to dance the night away to popular mainstream music from the West, we’d recommend choosing Shanghai. But, if you want to experience live music or traditional pub culture, head to Beijing.

Winner: It is close, but Shanghai is our winner for this round.

Shanghai or Beijing: Prices

A stack of US dollars.
USD via Unsplash.

Choosing between Shanghai or Beijing based on price is a tough call. The cities appear only to have marginal cost differences – making distinguishing the cheapest extremely difficult.

But let’s take a closer look. We’ve compiled a comparative table of common costs using data from Numbeo.

 A meal at an inexpensive restaurantA meal at a mid-range restaurantDomestic beerMilk (1 liter)One-way public transport ticketTaxi start (normal tariff)Gasoline (1 liter)
Shanghai (USD)5.5047.121.732.720.632.511.28
Beijing (USD)5.5039.271.572.240.792.361.28

Shanghai and Beijing have a balancing act going on, with some elements slightly cheaper or more expensive in both destinations.
In general, if you are the type to purchase expensive meals at luxury venues, you’ll find Shanghai more expensive for its hospitality. However, overall, the cities are equal in their prices.

Winner: This round is a draw, as Shanghai and Beijing are balanced in the costs of common holiday purchases.

Shanghai or Beijing: Food

A plate of sliced meat.
Chinese food via Unsplash.

One thing that varies massively across China is its food culture. Dishes vary drastically from region to region – a rule that is no different when considering the difference in food between Shanghai or Beijing.

Sweet-toothed travelers, listen up! Shanghai is famed for its sweet dishes. Common condiments include a reduced sugar and soy sauce combination and the all-famous sweet and sour sauce. Thanks to its coastal location, the city also has lots of seafood, so keep Shanghai in mind if you want to try specialty crab or eel.

On the other hand, Beijing has lots of Mongolian influence, which is logical given its proximity to the Mongolian border. So, expect to find lots of lamb, beef, and dairy products! Of course, Beijing is also known for its aristocratic and imperial court cuisine. Peking duck is a firm favorite and can easily be found while exploring the city.

Winner: This is an extremely tough choice, but we choose Shanghai as our winner for its sweet dishes.

Shanghai or Beijing: Accommodation

A luxury hotel room.
A luxury hotel room via Unsplash.

Shanghai and Beijing are both brilliant Chinese destinations for quality accommodation choices.

In Shanghai, you can find dormitory rooms for $9-20. While, if you want to splash out on luxury accommodation, there are plenty of five-star properties available for $150-300 per night. Shanghai has many luxury chains, including JW Marriot Marquis, Kempinski, and Fairmont Peace. The city is perfect for business travelers, although it caters to budget-conscious travelers as well.

Beijing has slightly fewer dormitory rooms on offer, and prices are more expensive than Shanghai’s, ranging between $14-30 per night. A few five-star properties are available for the luxury-seeking, which mostly range from $150-500 per night. You can book a stay at Grand Hyatt and NUO luxury chains.

Overall, Shanghai has more variety and, therefore, flexibility in accommodation choices. But, if you desperately want to visit Beijing, we’d recommend booking as far as possible in advance to guarantee budget accommodation.

Winner: The winner of this round is Shanghai, as it offers more varied accommodation choices.

Shanghai or Beijing: Conclusion

Our overall winner is Beijing.

Beijing narrowly wins the overall comparison despite Shanghai’s international nightlife, varied accommodation options, and sweet dishes.

Beijing has more cultural things to do, exciting day trips to the Great Wall of China and surrounding nature, and better sightseeing weather. To experience China, Beijing is an ideal city to visit.

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Eibhlis Gale – Coleman is a freelance writer from the UK who is driven by a fierce love of adventure, unique cultural experiences, native animals, and good coffee. She is a passionate traveller and has explored Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Australia.