International Budget Guide 2013: Shanghai, China

Asia has long been the budget traveler’s playground, and the good news is that despite its rapid modernization, Shanghai continues to offer tremendous value for the money.

As most cities around the world put the brakes on new developments because of economic woes, Shanghai is bucking the trend by building and growing at a dizzying pace. Blink and another skyscraper has shot up, or a new museum has opened, or another mega-mall has taken shape.

Those traveling to the Chinese city this year can take advantage of two huge state-run art galleries, which have just opened their doors (free to the public) on the former World Expo grounds. In fact, the whole site is currently being transformed into a mixed-use district with shops, hotels and elevated gardens designed to draw crowds. Other updated draw cards include the Shanghai First Food Store, which is an entire mall dedicated to – you guessed it – food. The store has just reopened after a major renovation and sells snacks, candy and all the unusual dried meat one could possibly want. Visitors to the city can also bear witness to the rise of the burgeoning Shanghai Tower, which will be the second tallest building in the world when it’s complete.

For budget travelers who want to visit Shanghai, now is the time. While China at large offers excellent value, their booming economy means that costs will be rising fast. A thriving middle class with more disposable income on their hands is slowly pushing costs up. What’s more, the government has been reviewing admission prices for major tourist sites and is getting ready to raise entrance fees – in some cases, ticket prices will more than double.


Visit the China Art Palace and the Power Station of Art. The site of the 2010 Shanghai Expo has been undergoing a makeover, with some of the pavilions transforming into museums. One of two huge state-run art galleries that opened at the end of last year is the China Art Palace, which was built in the striking, lacquered shell of the China Pavilion building. The massive gallery houses works by famous Chinese artists as well as a number of international exhibitions. Entry is free.

Another Expo building – which was originally a thermal power plant constructed more than 100 years ago – has been transformed into the Power Station of Art. The gallery is the first state-run contemporary art museum in China and so far, exhibitions have included the Shanghai Biennale and a collection of surrealist works. An Andy Warhol showcase is also planned for this year. Museum entry is free, except for special exhibitions.

Get a foot massage. Visiting a massage parlor is as much of a routine in the Chinese lifestyle as visiting a restaurant. Groups of friends and even colleagues will head to a parlor for a joint session of foot rubs accompanied by free snacks and entertainment, including music and DVDs. Despite their popularity, travelers are often hesitant to try out the ultra-cheap locales for fear they’ll be disreputable or less than sanitary. Thankfully, a new breed of bright, clean venues – including the Taipan Foot Massage & Spa – have sprung up all over the city, offering the same indulgent massages in a serene and safe atmosphere. It’s heaven for sore feet after a long day of sightseeing. Services start at around $10 and go up to $30 for a 90-minute foot, leg, and shoulder massage including free food and drink. 370 Dagu Road, Jingan District.

Indulge in street food. A trip to Shanghai wouldn’t be complete without a taste test of some of the many culinary delights on offer throughout the city’s streets. Treats to try include man tou (steamed buns filled with meat or vegetables), cong you bing (pancake with shallots), ci fan (a ball of rice stuffed with fried bread, vegetables, or meat), and egg tarts (a popular local desert with a custardy flavor). Street food ranges in price from 1-6 yuan (16 cents – $1) per serving. Try out Wujiang Road, South Yunnan Road, or Huanghe Road near People’s Square for some of the best spots.

Take a cruise on the Bund. Shanghai’s skyline is developing at a phenomenal pace with new skyscrapers shooting up every year, particularly in the Pudong district. These architecturally unusual buildings are best viewed when they are lit up at night, leading most travelers to head for a rooftop bar to scope out the view. However, the cost of drinks at a typical sky deck can quickly add up, so a much more budget friendly way to take in the skyline is to go on a cruise. Boats run along the Huang Pu River and The Bund – the waterway that runs through the city – giving passengers an excellent vantage point to take in all the new developments. The cruises are a great value at around $6, with tickets available from the booths at the southern end of the Bund promenade.


Captain Hostel. If you want bang for your buck in an excellent location, it’s hard to look past this hostel located straight across the street from the Bund. The well-situated building is within easy walking distance of the shops on Nanjing Road and offers good access to the metro. The hostel itself is ship themed, with portholes galore in the cabin-like dorms. But more importantly, it’s clean, air conditioned and offers guests free Wi-Fi. There’s also a rooftop bar with dramatic city views. From 60 yuan ($10) for a dorm bed. 37 Fuzhou Lu.

Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel (Utels). Located about 4 miles from the city center, this hostel is somewhat away from the action, however the nearby metro station means there’s still easy access to all the sights. Guests can choose from a range of room types including doubles, singles and dorms. The hostel also boasts a bar with a pool table, games, and budget-friendly drinks. Rates include free breakfast and Wi-Fi. From 50 yuan ($8) for a dorm bed. 300 Wuning Rd, Putuo District.

Jin Jiang Inn (Shanghai East Huaihai Road). Jin Jiang is the largest hotel group in China with around 400 hotels across the major cities. The chain of hotels caters mostly to businessmen, but they’re great for travelers looking for a no-frills private room that’s clean and functional. This particular hotel is centrally located in Shanghai and has great access to the metro. From 300 yuan ($50) for a double. 293 Yunnan Nan Lu.


Hai Di Lao. This hot pot restaurant is part of a chain that goes to great lengths to entertain diners. A meal here usually entails quite a wait, but diners are treated to neck massages, manicures, snacks, and board games until their table is ready. Once seated, choose from a large selection of meats and vegetables to cook in your own pot of flavorful broth. Save some room for the gongfu mian, hand-pulled noodles that the chefs twirl dramatically right at your table. The restaurant is open 24 hours and has menus in Chinese and English. Food is priced per meat or vegetable selection, but a filling meal including alcohol will cost around $10-15. The restaurant has several locations, including 3/F, 1068 Beijing Lu near Jiangning Lu.

Di Shui Dong. Located in the French concession district, this restaurant dishes up Hunan style cuisine, a type of food best described as hot and spicy. The restaurant serves a huge variety of dishes including fried meats, seasoned vegetables and hot peppers, but it’s the flavorful ribs that locals and expats keep coming back for. Just be warned that some of the spicier dishes are eye-wateringly hot. The staff doesn’t speak much English but the menu is bilingual. Portions are large and around $10 a main. 2/F, 56 Maoming Nan Lu.

Tokyo Food Court. If you’re exploring the area near Xintiandi but don’t want to eat at one of the pricier restaurants in the entertainment district, this underground food court is a good budget option for dining. Located under the HSBC Bank and Cartier store, you’ll find a plethora of menu choices including sushi, pizza and pasta dishes. There’s also plenty of local cuisine, including noodle bowls and dumplings. For a Shanghai specialty, try the xiao long bao – dumplings with soup and meat in them. Bite a hole in one end of the pastry and slurp out the liquid before eating the rest of the dumpling. A main here will cost around 35 yuan ($5).

Getting Around

Shanghai is very walkable with many pedestrian streets and atmospheric neighborhoods, however the city’s size means that you will need some transport when covering larger distances.

The metro system, which is comprised of 13 lines, is fast and surprisingly easy to navigate. The trains are air-conditioned and clean, and station announcements are made in English as well as Chinese. Fares depend on distance, but most tourist centers can be accessed for around 3-5 yuan (50-80 cents). You can purchase tickets from the vending machines in the stations, which display information in English.

Taxis are an affordable alternative, even for budget travelers. For example, a trip between Xintiandi (a popular shopping and entertainment district) and the Bund might cost around 20 yuan (a little over $3).

Shanghai has two airports. A taxi from downtown to Pudong Airport will set you back about 150 yuan (approx $25) while a trip to Hongqiao Airport will cost roughly 70 yuan ($11). Another option if you’re traveling to Pudong Airport is to take the Maglev, or high-speed train. Racing along at 268 mph, it’s one of the fastest trains in the world. Tickets start at 40 yuan for the whirlwind seven-minute ride.

When To Go

Shanghai can feel oppressively hot in the summer. Temperatures in the high 90s (F), soaring humidity levels and city pollution combine to leave you feeling like you’re being smothered under a blanket. Summer is also the peak tourist season, so hotel rates will be higher. However, Shanghai is pleasant to visit any other time of year. The coldest months tend to be January and February when overnight temps can hover just above freezing and daytime temperatures reach 45 F.


Shanghai is generally quite safe compared to other large cities, but given the massive crowds everywhere, it’s important to keep an eye on your belongings. You should also be careful when crossing the street, as cars won’t always yield to pedestrians – even at crossings with walk signs.

The biggest threat to travelers involves being caught up in a scam. Watch out for so-called “students” inviting you to see their art shows before scamming you into purchasing expensive paintings. Also, don’t accept invitations to “tea ceremonies” – these involve elaborate drinking rituals at the end of which you’ll be stuck with a huge bill. As a general principle, it’s a good idea not to accept any kinds of solicitations on the streets as more often than not they involve some sort of scam.

[Photo credit: Mike Behnken]