Visting Shanghai – Survival Tips

We have some friends coming to visit soon (yay!), so I started thinking about the basic things one should know before visiting Shanghai. Things I wish I had known instead of finding out little by little. Here is my mini survival guide to help you navigate Shanghai.

There’s not a whole lot of English in Shanghai. Try to learn how to say, “I don’t speak Chinese” in Mandarin. I learned it from a podcast…after 200 tries. It’s very useful because locals will speak to you in Chinese and continue talking even if you give them a confused look and say, “I can’t speak Chinese” in English.

ZERO cab drivers speak English – you need to know where you’re going with the address in Chinese when you get in.

Cabs are super cheap.  A 35-minute ride from the airport to downtown will cost around 70 RMB ($12 CAD)

To hail a taxi you have to put your arm out and wave your hand up and down or they won’t stop. It’s kind of like an elementary school kid trying hard to get the teacher’s attention.

Make sure the taxi driver flips on the meter. They usually always do, but one time the driver didn’t and I pointed and said “meter” and he said “mayo” which means no, so I got out.
This looks like a photo from the 80s, but all the cabs really do look like this…
Pedestrians are at the bottom of the food chain. Always be aware of your surroundings because cars, buses, motorbikes, and bikes come out of nowhere and they don’t obey traffic lights.

You probably don’t want to walk around with headphones on.

Watch out for the motorbikes. They drive the opposite way of traffic, as if they don’t count as a motorized vehicle…they even drive on sidewalks.

Tip: if you’re unsure or hesitant about crossing an intersection, walk close to a local. I do this a lot and I always wonder if they realize I’m using them as my bodyguard.

You can’t drink the water. So don’t drink the water.

Street food is awesome (greasy yes, but delicious). If you want to try it but you’re a bit weary, just say “mayo row” – that’s not the right spelling but that’s how to say “no meat.”

Tipping anywhere is not common or expected.  Not at food stands, restaurants or even taxis.

Know how much street food should cost before getting in line. In some cases, street vendors will weigh your food and you can see the price on the scale, but more often they will tell you the price in Chinese with no scale, so you’re SOL if you don’t know how much to hand over. If you’re buying a few dumplings or pork buns, or street noodles, it shouldn’t cost you more than 5-8 RMB (86 cents – $1.37 CAD).

You’ll see black eggs everywhere, on street corners, vendor carts, and in every convenience store. I couldn’t even look at them until I learned that it’s just a hard-boiled egg cooked in tea and soy sauce. Nothing to be scared of.

Here is a great link to Shanghai’s best street foods.

This is a soup filled dumpling – a must try

Shanghai has a lot of ‘markets’ but they don’t look like the kind of markets you’re used to. They’re mainly indoors and in giant warehouses, spawning over several floors. We went to an eye wear market where you can buy glasses and sunglasses at great prices. After the fourth floor, we were exhausted, but we did find some great gems.

There’s also a fabric market, electronics market, bedding market, fashion and gifts market, antique market, cricket market, and even a marriage market! Elders set-up shop in People’s Square Park every Sunday in an attempt to play matchmaker.

There’s no point shopping at stores like Zara and H&M because there’s a 30% tax so everything is more expensive than back home.

There are a lot of great boutiques in the French Concession, where you can find some unique pieces, however they’re overpriced.

Bartering is definitely expected at markets and street vendors selling goods, (but you don’t barter in stores). Keep in mind that vendors often charge foreigners double the price, so hold your ground and barter low.
shanghai-fake market
It doesn’t exist in situations like the metro or if you’re waiting in line for something. People will swoop in and cozy up right in front of you like it’s perfectly normal.

People smoke everywhere…inside restaurants and even inside office buildings. This is a negative for me, but I suppose this is a dream come true if you’re a smoker.
A lot of websites are blocked, so you can’t get on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and others. The Internet in general is crazy slow. I can access those sites because I have a VPN but you won’t be able to get on normally.

You can wear whatever you want in Shanghai – some people are stylish, but not entirely, especially now that it’s getting colder. Locals often walk around in head to toe PJ sets. True story.

If you’ve always had a burning desire to dress in a matching outfit with your boyfriend/girlfriend – this is your chance, as it’s quite common to see couples wearing matching jackets, hats, t-shirts, and shoes.

You should really dress for the weather and layer up.
I highly recommend getting some kind of package to be able to use your phone…if you have an iPhone it will make things a lot easier. A few key apps to get:
XE (currency converter)
Google maps (it’s my savior)
Shanghai metro (for subway directions)
Shanghai Taxi (click on the ‘streets’ tab and enter the main street and cross street to create a taxi card to show to the driver). Addresses in Shanghai are all listed by cross streets
City Weekend is a great too

Ladies be prepared for a lot of squat toilets in public places. It’s good to have travel size tissue in your purse.
Guys, it’s widely accepted to pee anywhere in public so have fun with that.

There you have it. My take on how to survive a visit to Shanghai. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line @julieduva or on


Filed under Places To Go, Travel

6 responses to “Visting Shanghai – Survival Tips

  1. Very interesting, well written & should be very helpful to anyone visiting Shanghai.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up | recreative works blog

  3. Camille

    Did you really take that picture of the man in a head to toe PJ set beside the fashionista?!?! Too Funny!!

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  5. Jenny

    Hi, I recently came across your blog as we are getting ready for our first trip to Shanghai in a few weeks. Your post for first time visitors was really helpful. If you can’t drink the water, what about coffee? Do hotels and coffee shops use purified water? Yes, as a coffee addict that is my main concern about our upcoming trip.

    Also, we are staying in the French Concession, any “must try” or favorite spots?

    Thank You!

  6. Your pictures are amazing! What kind of camera do you use?

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