Beijing or Shanghai: Which Is Better for First-Timers?

Beijing or Shanghai: Which Is Better for First-Timers?

Here’s what you can expect in these two exciting Chinese cities!

It’s undeniable that China is a must-visit destination. From its rich history, distinct culture, delectable cuisine, and list of attractions, it’s no wonder China’s tourism is expected to grow even more — especially now that it has fully reopened to international travellers. When planning to visit this beautiful country, many ponder over which city they should visit first: Beijing or Shanghai

If you’ve never been to China before, it can be hard to decide between these two equally bustling metropolitans. In fact, you might not be too sure about what the differences are between Beijing and Shanghai — in terms of things to do, eat, and see! Have no fear, we’ve come up with a comprehensive comparison, so you can decide on which city to visit first.

When it’s your first-time travelling to China (or any other country, really), we recommend getting travel insurance to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered. For the smoothest experience, enlist the help of HL Assurance, winner of the Best Customer Service category in the 2023 TripZilla Excellence Awards! Not only are the insurance inclusions top-notch, but it’s also a quick and easy experience for first-timers. Whether you’re exploring the ancient heritage sites in Beijing or enjoying the exciting urban delights of Shanghai, it’s important to make sure you’re protected from travel mishaps and medical emergencies. 

1. Must-see attractions


Forbidden City, Summer Palace

Forbidden City (left); Summer Palace (right) | Image credit: rabbit75_cav via Canva Pro

One of the world’s oldest cities, China’s capital has over 3,000 years of history contained in its palaces and monuments, most of which are in Beijing. There’s the majestic Forbidden City and charming Summer Palace, both places of residence for the Chinese royals of the past. If you want to learn about China’s rich culture and history, these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites definitely help Beijing edge out Shanghai in this battle of these Chinese cities.  

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square | Image credit: luxizeng via Canva Pro

As the political centre, expect attractions that cover the founding of modern China. There’s the famous Tiananmen Square, known for being the birthplace of the People’s Republic of China. While you’re there, do pay a visit to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, too. All these are important monuments that commemorate China’s development in the last century. 

Beijing Olympic Park

Beijing National Stadium | Image credit: lionelccs via Canva Pro

Another must-see attraction would be the Beijing Olympic Park: host to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, as well as the 2022 Winter Olympics. Within this gigantic park, you’ll marvel at the technologically advanced Beijing National Stadium and Beijing National Aquatics Centre — where you can even catch a game!

Beijing hutongs

Yandaixie hutong | Image credit: Beijing Tourism Board Official Website

Moreover, there are several famous hutong (narrow street alleys) that preserve the original design of the living spaces of the ancient Chinese commoners. You’ll find interesting shops selling snacks and trinkets tucked away in the corners of these alleys. There’s Yandaixie Street and Nanluoguxiang Hutong, just two out of the many hutong in Beijing!


Shanghai or Beijing

Shanghai World Financial Center, Jing Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower | Image credit: daniel hu via Canva Pro

Shanghai is known as the business capital of China, with its glittering cityscape and lively night scene. Along the famous Huangpu river, you’ll find some of Shanghai’s outstanding skyscrapers: Shanghai World Financial Center, Jing Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower; all within walking distance. Head up to one (or all) of their observation decks for stunning views of the city! 

Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Oriental Pearl TV Tower | Image credit: Creativa Images via Canva Pro

Further up the river, you’ll find another commanding structure with fantastic aerial views of the city: the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. It’s the world’s sixth-tallest TV radio tower, standing at 468 metres. Between Shanghai and Beijing, Shanghai definitely wins in terms of its skyline views. 

The Bund

The Bund | Image credit: tobiasjo via Canva Pro

In a list of Shanghai’s top attractions, we can’t forget to mention The Bund — one of the most recognisable locations in the city. This picturesque mile-long stretch boasts over 50 colonial-style buildings from the 1800s, which you can slowly appreciate via a walking tour along the waterfront. Whether you visit in the day or at night, the views there are unforgettable!

Shanghai Natural History Museum

Shanghai Natural History Museum | Image credit: xiquinhosilva

Shanghai is also home to several museums covering a variety of subject matter. The Urban Planning Exhibiton Center, Shanghai Natural History Museum, and Shanghai Maglev Museum are unique spots that are worth including in your itinerary. So, when deciding whether to visit Beijing or Shanghai, think about what type of museums you’d like to see more. 

Shanghai Disney Resort, Beijing or Shanghai

Shanghai Disney Resort | Image credit: shanghaidisneyresort Official Instagram Page

Moreover, Shanghai boasts the amazing Shanghai Disney Resort —  a dreamland for Disney fans and the young-at-heart! It is the first theme park of its kind in the whole of China, making it stand out in the Beijing vs Shanghai contest.

2. Day trips


Great Wall of China, beijing or shanghai which is better

Cable car up the Great Wall of China (left); Jinshanling section (right) | Image credit (L-R): galitskaya via Canva Pro; axz66 via Canva Pro

When it comes to day trips from Beijing, the Great Wall of China is the place to go! In fact, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the deciding factors for many when contemplating visiting Beijing or Shanghai first. If you’re planning on seeing this world wonder, do dedicate a full day just for this activity. There are several sections of the wall that are easy to get to from the capital city. 

The closest section of the wall to Beijing would be the Badaling section. Located in Kangzhuang District, it’s well-liked by novice hikers and tourists alike for its large and smooth walkways. Alternatively, the Mutianyu section of the wall in Huairou District is ideal for its nature views, cable car rides, and exciting luge slide! Both sites are more populated with tourists as they are within a one-hour car ride from Beijing.  

But for those who prefer a less populated view of the wall — the Jinshanling section is beloved by serious hikers and photographers for how quiet it is! It’s a lot further from Beijing (about 140km away), so expect a more serene experience. The views are definitely worth the approximately two-hour drive to get there.

Ming tombs, Beijing Shanghai

Ming Tombs | Image credit: Drazen_ via Canva Pro

Another great day trip location from Beijing would be the Ming Tombs, especially if wish to immerse yourself in China’s heritage sans climbing. The tombs commemorate all the 13 Ming dynasty emperors over a gargantuan space of 120 square kilometres. Given the age of the tombs, many of them are in disrepair; only three are currently open to the public: Chang Ling, Ding Ling, and Zhao Ling.

If you only have time to visit one, we recommend the Chang Ling Tomb, the largest of the three. Over 3,000 relics have been unearthed from this tomb, many of which were forged with expensive materials. Undeniably, these tombs are almost like museums that shine a light onto the incredible Ming Dynasty.


Watertown China

Zhujiajiao Watertown | Image credit: MonikaNinker via Canva Pro

Located in the eastern part of China, Shanghai is surrounded by several water towns (also known as canal towns). But if you’d ask us, our top recommendations would be  Zhujiajiao Water Town and Xitang Water Town, best known for their ancient architecture and serene winding canals. So, when you need a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai — you can easily take a car, train, or bus to one of these relaxing canal towns for a day. 

West Lake, Hangzhou, shanghai vs beijing

West Lake | Image credit: Onlyyouqj via Canva Pro

Shanghai is also 45 minutes away from Hangzhou by high-speed rail. Many flock to this city for its beautiful natural scenery; particularly the West Lake, which looks breathtaking in all seasons. If you’ve got more time, head further down to the village of Longjing for its tea terraces and bamboo groves.

Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou

Humble Administrator’s Garden | Image credit: Leonid Andronov via Canva Pro

For those of you who love your horticulture, Suzhou is home to some impressive classical gardens that aim to capture the beauty of panoramic landscapes. The Lion Grove Garden and Humble Administrator’s Garden are just two of the many UNESCO-stamped gardens in Suzhou. Luckily, this picturesque city lies only 100km from Shanghai, and you can get there via the high-speed rail in 23 minutes!

3. Food

Now, eating is a big part of travelling. While the cuisine in Beijing and Shanghai are highly similar, there are also some nuances that could make a difference when deciding between the two cities. 


Beijing cuisine is inspired by the simple yet savoury Northern Chinese cooking style, as well as the imperial court cuisine truly fit for royalty. It is also known for having the best Peking duck. Otherwise known as the Beijing roasted duck, this delectable dish is regarded as one of the national dishes of China. 

It is served almost anywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants to family-owned local restaurants. Other than the guaranteed sweet, yet savoury flavour, you’re promised an exciting show as you get to watch the dish being prepared right by your table! 

Beijing food

Zhajiang mian (left); Dumplings (right) | Image credit (L-R): whitewish and kylieellway via Canva Pro

Visitors to Beijing will feel right at home with a comforting bowl of zhajiang mian (soybean paste noodles). Colloquially known as “Beijing noodles,” you have to try this simple, affordable, and satisfying dish when you come! 

Hungry for Beijing’s street food? You’ll be able to find the city’s best traditional street food at Wangfujing Snack Street and Ping’an Street, where there are rows and rows of pushcarts selling dumplings, bing tanghulu, and youtiao. You’ll simply be spoiled for choice!


Xiaolongbao, Beijing or Shanghai

Xiaolongbao | Image credit: Leung Cho Pan via Canva Pro

In contrast, Shanghai cuisine is a little lighter — hinging on steaming, stewing, and sautéing to highlight the freshness of their ingredients. Shanghai is said to have the best xiaolongbao in the country. This dish is so commonplace in the city that you’ll be able to find it in almost any restaurant. 

Shanghai street food

Sheng jian bao (left); Street food meat skewers (right) | Image credit (L-R): Andrey_Sarymsakov_SARYMSAKOVSTUD via Canva Pro; zoom-zoom via Canva Pro

Another must-try dish in Shanghai is also a bao (which translates to “bun”): sheng jian bao. It’s like a crispier, pan-fried version of xiaolongbao, and is a favourite amongst locals. You’ll be able to find this snack being sold in pushcarts along the streets and food markets. 

Speaking of street food, do try some of Shanghai’s most popular snacks: sweet osmanthus steamed cake, vegetarian stuffed buns, and all sorts of meats on skewers — you’ll be munching on them all day! If you’re not sure where to go to get these, head down to Shanghai’s busy food streets: Huanghe Road and South Yunnan Road, where you’ll find some interesting and delicious snacks to try!

4. Shopping


Wangfujing Shopping Street, Beijing or Shanghai,

Wangfujing Shopping Street | Image credit: Pavliha via Canva Pro

Most might assume Beijing’s shopping scene to be a little lacklustre in comparison to the highly cosmopolitan Shanghai. However, that could not be further from the truth! First-time visitors to Beijing have to check out the exciting Wangfujing Shopping Street. This one-stop shopping district sells a myriad of products — from old, traditional shops to new, trendy boutiques. It’s no wonder it’s the top place to shop in Beijing. 

You’ll also be able to find the hottest clothing and accessory trends on Xidan Commercial Street. Along this strip, you’ll find large department stores, shopping malls, and plazas. Looking to stock up on your favourite skincare and makeup? Xidan Shopping Center and Hanguang Department Store carry a wide range of international beauty and fashion brands. 

The Xidan Pearl Market along the same street is also incredibly popular with local youths for its affordable and trendy finds; from hairpins to purses. There are also tons of cool restaurants and cute cafes where you can rest in between your shopping sprees!

Sanlitun, Beijing Shanghai

Sanlitun | Image credit: FernandoChee via Canva Pro

Fashionistas who are always looking out for the hottest trends have to include Sanlitun on their itinerary. Apart from the small boutiques in this dynamic area, you’ve got to spend some time at Taikoo Li and SOHO: two large megaplexes that are popular amongst the local youth. Sanlitun is also a hotspot for nightlife in Beijing — but more on that later. 

Liulichang Cultural Street

Liulichang Cultural Street | Image credit: Beijing Tourism Board Official Website

Looking for authentic souvenirs to take home? Head over to Liulichang Cultural Street, where you’ll find products from local artisans, like hand-painted fans and calligraphy paintings! Alternatively, you might be able to find some hidden gems at the Panjiayuan Antique Market. This vintage flea market sells vases, statues, and ceramic pieces which stand out for their distinct design. Wouldn’t you love to take home a unique trinket to remind you of your trip to Beijing?


Nanjing Road

Nanjing Road | Image credit: Nikada via Canva Pro

When it comes to shopping in Shanghai, the illustrious Nanjing Road is what first comes to mind. It’s one of the world’s longest shopping streets, stretching over six miles. So, expect an exciting shopping extravaganza! From glitzy, internationally-known brands to small local boutiques selling cute trinkets, there’s almost nothing that you can’t find in this huge shopping district. You’ll definitely spend hours walking through the shops at multi-storey shopping malls like Plaza 66, Westgate Mall, and the Jing An Kerry Centre.

Xintaindi Plaza

Xintaindi Plaza | Image credit: Shanghai Xintiandi Official Website

As a burgeoning fashion capital, Shanghai has several high-end shopping streets like Xintiandi and Huaihai Road, which are teeming with luxury brands and fancy restaurants. So, why not treat yourself to some atas (that’s Singlish for “sophisticated ”) retail therapy? 

But if you’re looking for the same thrill of shopping without breaking the bank, there’s AP Plaza’s Xinyang Fashion Market. This bargains galore offers watches, bags, jewellery, shirts, souvenirs — almost anything you can imagine — at an affordable price! As the shop owners mostly deal with cash, remember to prepare notes of various denominations (preferably, smaller bills). This is also the perfect place to practise your bargaining skills!

5. Nightlife

Partaking in a foreign land’s party culture is also a great way to enjoy your vacation. And the nightlife in Beijing and Shanghai are both incredibly exciting. Each city boasts its fair share of bars, pubs, and nightclubs. 


Beijing club, Beijing or Shanghai

Elements Club | Image credit: elementsclubbeijing Official Instagram Page

When it comes to partying, Sanlitun Bar Street is one of the oldest nightlife hubs in Beijing. However, a large section of the street is currently undergoing renovations, leaving only a few larger clubs to choose from. Partiers who love loud music and wild dance floors should head to Mix Club and Element: two popular clubs in this area, especially among the international and young crowd.

However, Beijing is better known for its more laid-back partying scene. From cool underground clubs to fun karaoke bars, Gulou Subdistrict is the city’s main nightlife location— particularly along the Nanlouguxiang Hutong.  A tip would be to start your search from the famous Beijing Drum and Bell Towers and explore the streets around the area.


Shanghai bar

Monkey Champagne | Image credit: Monkey Shanghai Official Facebook Page

Similar to Beijing, Shanghai’s party scene is a big draw for many tourists. Although, maybe just a little more in Shanghai’s case. At The Bund — Shanghai’s version of Sanlitun when it comes to nightlife — you’ll find neon lights, live music, and tons of people along the streets and alleys. Bar Rouge and the House of Blues and Jazz are two highly sought-after bars with great interior design and superb live music. They’re great places to unwind! 

Apart from this busy street, the city has some vibrant underground bars and clubs like ALL Club, DADA, and Elevator, that are super popular amongst locals and tourists alike! However, if you’re looking for a place that’s a little more understated, you can’t go wrong with Monkey Champagne: a classy bar to enjoy a drink and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere after a long day of exploring.

6. Transportation

While both have equally efficient transportation systems, there are some differences in how to get around these cities. So, here’s a breakdown of their respective public transportation, which you should certainly factor into your “Beijing or Shanghai” dilemma. 


Beijing or shanghai

Subway station | Image credit: bjdlzx via Canva Pro

Beijing is located right in the centre of China’s comprehensive railway network that is connected to many major cities: Shanghai, Guangzhou, Harbin, and even Kowloon in Hong Kong! There are also long-distance buses that will take you to neighbouring cities such as Tianjin. You’ll also be able to travel directly to the airport from downtown Beijing via the Capital Airport Express Train for a cool CN¥25 (~S$5). 

As for travelling within the city, Beijing boasts a highly connected subway and city bus system. You’ll just need to purchase either a Beijing Yikatong Card or a Beijing Hutong Card to get around. We recommend getting the Hutong Card if you plan to travel to other Chinese cities on your trip. You can use this on many modes of public transport outside of Beijing. You can either get an e-card if you have a China mainland phone number, or simply get a physical card from any of the subway stations. 


Beijing or Shanghai

Maglev train | Image credit: DanFLCreativo via Canva Pro

ICYMI: Shanghai has the first commercial maglev train in the world. Shanghai’s maglev train is used to travel between the Pudong International Airport and the Longyang Road Station in the centre of Shanghai. This high-speed train will take you to and from these two places within eight minutes. Plus, a single-tip ticket costs an affordable CN¥50 (~S$10) for an ordinary seat class. So, before you consider hailing a cab from the airport, why not take the train? If you’re flying in via Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, there are 10 airport shuttle buses between the airport and various train stations in the city. 

Shanghai is incredibly well-connected, with 13 train lines running all over the city. In addition, there are over a thousand bus lines that take you to all corners of Shanghai. Thus, you can easily get from place to place via the metro or city bus. Even if you’re thinking of doing some day trips out to — perhaps — Hangzhou or Suzhou, you can get there via the comfortable long-distance buses. 

You can use the Shanghai Public Transportation Card for taxis, buses, long-distance buses, metro lines, and even the maglev train. So, it’s worth getting from the moment you land! You’ll be able to purchase them from the metro stations, post offices, the Buddies Convenient Store, and most branches of Shanghai Pudong Development (SPD) Bank. 

The TZ Verdict on Beijing vs Shanghai

Beijing shanghai

Image credit: SeanPavonePhoto via Canva Pro

So, Beijing or Shanghai — which is better? Ultimately, both cities are distinct, yet equally exciting. Therefore, the short answer is: It depends on what you enjoy the most! Those who are drawn to the palaces, old towns, and historical sites would find that Beijing has more places of interest that appeal to them. For travellers who enjoy the excitement and electric energy of a bustling metropolis, Shanghai is the place to be! 

Deciding on which city to visit first based on your personal interests might be the best way to go about it. Otherwise, both cities guarantee amazing food, shopping, and nightlife. 

Also read: Tokyo or Osaka: Which City in Japan Should You Visit First?

And there you have it, our take on the age-old question: “Beijing or Shanghai?” Hopefully, our list helps you decide which Chinese city to travel to on your next holiday. Or if you’ve been to both cities already — which would you recommend to a first-time traveller?

About Author

Beautrice Oh
Beautrice Oh

Beautrice enjoys exploring new places and jumps at any chance to try something new. She loves learning about different cultures through their food, landmarks, and hidden local spots (if she can find them)! Always enthusiastic for an adventure, she plans itineraries that fully immerse herself in the destination’s culture, and will never forget to bring along her camera to capture the memories.