Which is Better, Beijing or Shanghai?

If you’re considering a trip to China, an important question you’ll have is which city to visit. The two standout choices are Beijing and Shanghai. 

Whether you choose to enjoy the cosmopolitan paradise of Shanghai or the cultural wonders of Beijing, both destinations make for incredible places to visit in China. In this article, we will compare both cities to help you make the best decision. 

We discuss how to get to them, which is more expensive, things to do in each and indicate which might be more suitable for your trip. So read on to find out which is better, Beijing or Shanghai?


Beijing is the capital city of China that blends the modern and ancient. Alongside towering buildings, you will find exquisitely preserved heritage and tradition. The city has a wide range of things to do, with ancient palaces and cultural performances, it’s a great choice for travellers seeking a historical visit. 

On the other hand, Shanghai is known for its modernity, skyscrapers and futuristic skyline. It offers a glimpse into contemporary China and showcases the country’s rapid development. With excellent nightlife and metropolitan delights, it’s a great location for a city break and very popular with young travellers. 

Getting to Beijing

Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is one of the busiest and largest airports in the world, serving both domestic and international flights. It’s well-connected to major cities around the world, making air travel the most common and efficient way to reach Beijing from abroad. 

Before planning your trip to Beijing, it’s essential to understand China’s visa requirements. Most travellers, including tourists, need a visa to enter China. The type of visa you require depends on the purpose and duration of your visit, so it is worth researching before you travel.

Getting to Shanghai

Shanghai has two major airports: Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA). These airports offer extensive domestic and international flight options, making air travel the most popular and convenient choice for reaching Shanghai. Likewise, Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station is a major hub for high-speed trains, offering comfortable and efficient travel to nearby cities and provinces.

Which is More Expensive – Beijing or Shanghai?

Beijing is the more budget-friendly choice of the two where you will find many accommodations with a fair price. Entry fees to major attractions, such as the Forbidden City, can be somewhat expensive, but you will find plenty of affordable bars and restaurants that will keep your trip cheap. 

Shanghai, with its metropolitan lustre, is the more expensive destination. Hotels and apartments across the vibrant city are likely to stretch your budget. Likewise, with it being a hub of upscale dining and fashion, you are bound to spend more on a Shanghai trip.

Where to Stay in Beijing

Travellers will have no issues finding places to stay in Beijing. The city has accommodations that will cater to every kind of trip and we’ve highlighted some of the best options below. 

Budget: If you want to stay in Beijing on a budget, Jinjiang Inn Beijing Zhushikou is an excellent choice. The facilities are perfect for a short stay and its central location makes sightseeing very easy. 

Mid-range: If you aren’t as concerned about price, Beijing Commercial Business Hotel is a perfect option for a trip to Beijing. The hotel features stylish decor and has great links to public transport which will make traversing the capital a breeze. 

Luxury: If you want to elevate your Beijing trip, then a few nights in JEN Beijing by Shangri-La is just what you need. Situated in the China World Complex, you will have access to some of the best shopping and restaurants right in the heart of the city. 

Where to Stay in Shanghai

Finding places to stay in Shanghai may seem daunting at first since the city is so vast. To make planning your trip easier, we’ve gathered some recommendations of places to stay that will suit a range of budgets. 

Budget: For a unique stay that won’t break the bank, book into Iyf Hongqiao Shanghai. The aparthotel is slightly further out of the city centre but provides stylish rooms and great public transport links. With a daily continental breakfast, you’ll be all set for a full day of exploring Shanghai. 

Mid-range: If you want to stay closer to the centre, then Atour S Hotel is a great choice. Situated in the Financial Centre, the hotel enjoys stunning views of the Shanghai skyline and has English-speaking staff who will be happy to help you with your travel plans. 

Luxury: For a lavish city break, stay in Shanghai Marriott Marquis City Centre. This downtown hotel has a day spa as well as an indoor pool, which are perfect for unwinding after a busy day of sightseeing. All rooms feature spacious bathrooms as well as river or city views, making this an exceptional place to stay in Shanghai. 

The Best Things to Do in Beijing

When you visit Beijing, you will discover a range of activities that will leave you with a new appreciation for the Chinese capital. From World Heritage Sites to culinary delicacies, there is so much to experience in Beijing. We highlight some of our recommendations for the best things to do in Beijing below. 

Walk the Great Wall of China

A visit to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without exploring the Great Wall. This marvellous site is a sweeping architectural masterpiece that begs to be explored and is a perfect place for a historic day trip. Mutianyu and Badaling are popular sections that are easily reached from the city on guided tours, offering breathtaking views and a chance to walk on this world wonder. 

To find out more about this incredible attraction, check out our Great Wall of China guide

Discover the Forbidden City

Another amazing historic site in Beijing is the Forbidden City. This vast palace complex was home to Chinese emperors for centuries and is filled with ancient splendour. For the best experience, explore its intricate courtyards and gardens on a day tour with a knowledgeable guide.

Your guide will be able to provide more context for the lavish palace and help you avoid the tourist crowds. For a true historical showcase, combine your trip with a visit to Tiananmen Square which is just a short walk away. 

Try the Best of Chinese Cuisine

One of the best ways to experience Beijing is on a sensory food tour that tickles the taste buds. You may have heard of classic Beijing dishes like roasted duck, but on this tour, you will discover the delights of Beijing’s true culinary scene and embark on a journey of flavour. You will explore the iconic Hutongs and tuck into unique meals like donkey burgers and Mongolian hotpot. 

Go to the Beijing Opera

A real cultural highlight that showcases the city’s colourful heritage is a night at The Beijing Opera. Beijing Opera traces its origins back to the late 18th century during the Qing Dynasty and is known for its elaborate costumes, stylized makeup and distinctive vocal techniques. The singing is often accompanied by traditional Chinese musical instruments which makes the performance very different.

Experiencing Beijing Opera is a wonderful way to tap into the local culture and provides unique insights into Chinese heritage. You can book a night at the Beijing Opera, which includes hotel pick-up and ticket admission for a seamless experience of this cultural showcase. 

Shopping in Sanlitun

Once you’ve had your fill of cultural tours and historical highlights, one of the best things to do in Beijing is explore the intricate city districts. Sanlitun is a popular shopping and entertainment district known for its modern and cosmopolitan atmosphere. The area offers a wide range of shopping options, from high-end international brands to local boutiques and charming marketplaces.

The Village at Sanlitun is a high-end shopping mall that features a collection of different shops. It’s a great place to browse for premium clothing, accessories, and cosmetics. Alternatively, Yashow Market is a well-known shopping destination in Sanlitun that specialises in clothing, shoes, accessories and more. Bargaining is common and part of the experience, so be prepared to negotiate prices for your purchases.

The Best Things to Do in Shanghai 

Shanghai is a modern wonderland of dazzling city lights and stylish streets that invite travellers with a variety of things to do. From exciting acrobatics shows to premier nightlife, there is so much in Shanghai that will make your trip one of a kind. 

Below, we list some of our top picks for things to do in Shanghai. 

Take in the Views From the Oriental Pearl

No matter how long you plan to stay in Shanghai, the first thing you should do on your trip is visit the Oriental Pearl Tower. This is an iconic TV tower with a unique architectural design that dominates the skyline. 

Standing at approximately 468 metres high, the Oriental Pearl Tower was once the tallest structure in Shanghai and one of the tallest in Asia. While it has since been surpassed by newer skyscrapers, it remains an integral part of Shanghai’s tourist offering.

A thrilling feature of the tower is the glass-floored observation deck. At a height of 259 metres, walking on the transparent floor imitates the sensation of floating high above the city. In the lower sphere of the tower, you can find the ‘Space Module’, which contains interactive exhibits and displays regarding space exploration and technology.

Reflect in the Jade Buddha Temple

While Shanghai is much more modernised than other cities in China, you can still find some astounding cultural sites that highlight its ancient roots. The Jade Buddha Temple is one of the city’s most iconic and revered temples. It is known for its stunning architecture, peaceful ambience and the exquisite jade Buddha statues housed within. 

The Jade Buddha Temple offers a glimpse into Shanghai’s spiritual heritage and provides a serene escape from the bustling urban surroundings. When visiting the temple, it’s important to dress modestly and remove your shoes before entering the halls. Also, be mindful of your behaviour out of respect for the spiritual significance of this place. 

Watch an Acrobatics Show 

One of the best things to do in Shanghai is attending a word-class acrobatics show filled with amazing displays of contortion, balancing acts, aerial feats, juggling and gravity-defying stunts. Shanghai boasts several renowned venues dedicated to hosting acrobatics shows, equipped with advanced lighting, sound systems and stage designs that enhance the overall experience.

It’s a great way to spend an evening in Shanghai, particularly for travellers who want to try something different. To add to the spectacle, you can book VIP seats complete with a dim sum dinner for an exceptional evening. 

Experience the Spirited Nightlife

Shanghai’s nightlife is vibrant, diverse and adored for its dynamic energy. As one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities, Shanghai offers a wide range of entertainment options that cater to various tastes and preferences. The city’s nightlife hubs include areas like the Bund, Xintiandi and Jing’an.

Shanghai boasts a thriving nightclub and bar scene that caters to both locals and visitors. The city is home to an array of venues offering various music genres, from electronic dance music to live jazz and local gigs. After a lively evening, you can even enjoy a late meal at one of the many eateries that stay open well into the night.

Explore the French Concession 

One of the best places to visit in Shanghai is the French Concession, a historic and charming neighbourhood that is a unique blend of European and Chinese influences. Once governed by the French during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it has since transformed into a cultural hotspot known for its tree-lined streets, historic architecture, boutiques and refined ambience. 

It’s a great place to enjoy an evening food tour with its array of restaurants and cafes. If you’re in need of a serene escape from the city, wander through Fuxing Park where you can enjoy a Tai Chi class. 

Overall, the French Concession is a must-visit area for travellers who want to experience a different side of Shanghai.

Best for Culture

Beijing stands as a bastion of Chinese culture. From traditional tea ceremonies to wandering the Hutongs, there are so many ways to get involved in the ancient heritage of the Chinese capital. For the best insight into local traditions, spend a day at the Temple of Heaven and discover how past Emperors would enact rituals to ensure a good harvest.  

Shanghai is much more modernised but cultural experiences await in the water towns found on the outskirts of the city. These towns are characterised by their meandering canals, traditional architecture and preserved cultural heritage. On a tour of the towns, visitors get a glimpse into the old way of life in China and can enjoy a tranquil escape from the urban hustle and bustle.

Best for History

For travellers seeking historical highlights and ancient wonders, Beijing is the better choice. The city is filled to the brim with incredible attractions that showcase the diverse history of China. 

An amazing site for history buffs is the UNESCO listed Summer Palace. This imperial garden was once a summer retreat for the royal family and stands as an impeccable example of Chinese landscape design. Visitors can take boat trips on Kunming Lake or marvel at the impressive temples from the top of Longevity Hill. 

Best for Couples

Shanghai is the better option for couples seeking a romantic city break. With so many restaurants and activities, there is a whole world of experiences that are perfect for creating lasting memories with your significant other. 

A great place to go as a couple is The Bund, which transforms into a gleaming spectacle at night. The historic waterfront promenade is lined with colonial-era buildings illuminated by colourful lights, creating a picturesque backdrop for an intimate evening stroll.


In summary, if you’re interested in exploring China’s rich history, imperial architecture and cultural heritage, Beijing offers a deep dive into the country’s past. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by modernity, international flair and the fast-paced urban lifestyle, Shanghai presents a dynamic and cosmopolitan experience.

If you’ve found this guide helpful, be sure to check out our other posts about China, such as visiting Hong Kong in November and the Top 10 Attractions in Xian

FAQs About Visiting Beijing or Shanghai

Can I visit both?

Absolutely! Both cities have great transport connections so you can easily do Shanghai and Beijing in one trip. A high-speed bullet train can get you from one to the other in just 5 hours. You should dedicate 4-5 days to Beijing to hit all the historic sites and then spend 2-3 days in Shanghai to explore the top attractions.  

Is Beijing colder than Shanghai?

Beijing is generally colder than Shanghai, particularly during the winter months. Beijing is more temperate compared to Shanghai’s humid subtropical climate, with summer temperatures reaching highs of 30°C and 32°C respectively.

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About the Author

Tom Adams

Copywriter at SEO Travel. Contributor to Backpacker Boy, Travel Aisle with a background in Archaeology and Sports Writing.