Gazing at the skyline, it’s easy to see that Shanghai is on the global stage. One of the fastest growing economies, the metropolis is glittery and sophisticated. Down on the streets, Shanghai is exciting and well… a little intimidating.
I booked a solo trip there for my birthday with images of ancient rock gardens, Art Deco architecture, and silk Qui Pao dresses in my mind. My plan was to hit the streets without a guide for several days. From there, I would take an escorted tour to nearby Suzhou.
A seasoned traveler, I expected some language barrier and disorientation. What I didn’t expect was that Shanghai would challenge my comfort initially.
I found the city to be a maze of high-rises, motorbikes, and pedestrians. I witnessed plenty of colorful scenes, but felt sensory overload. Bamboo scaffolding and cranes made navigating by foot tricky. I wasn’t prepared for assertive street hawkers.
Despite my shaky start, Shanghai is an excellent destination for solo travelers. I experienced many sights as a free agent, but also connected with locals and the community.
The first night, I walked to famous Nanjing Road, the world’s busiest street with an incredible 1 million visitors daily. Amid trendy clothing and electronics, I chanced on a saxophonist serenading a crowd. He stood at a window box of a grand colonial hotel. One of hundreds, I felt Shanghai’s undeniable dynamic energy.
Another occasion, I struck up a conversation with Annie, a Beijing businesswoman at my hotel. Over dinner, we discussed the role of women in our countries. The conversation led to other less serious topics and ended with laughter about universal male habits.
I also took a side trip to Suzhou, coined “Venice of the East” by Marco Polo. I took a gondola ride on romantic canals lined with weeping willows. My female gondolier sang heartfelt songs as we drifted past couple after couple posing for wedding portraits on the banks of the water.
I wandered down an open market there also, greeted enthusiastically by shopkeepers selling stinky tofu and hairy crabs. School children practiced their English by yelling out “Hello!” or “How are you?” And one set of parents beamed proudly when I asked to take a picture of their beautiful son.
Plan Your Trip
The following tips are useful for a stress-free travel Shanghai:
1. Book a hotel near the Bund for convenience. I paid about $45 US per night at the Bund Hotel, popular accommodation for travelers and families. I was comfortable on my own at night and had no trouble communicating.
2. Walking to sights was easier than I thought. Street signs are written in Chinese and English, and guidebooks offer walking grids of popular areas. I walked to the Old Quarter and Yu Yuan Garden, Nanjing Road, and the French Concession, all within 2 km of my hotel. Be prepared for some street construction.
3. Be wary of pickpockets and people following you. The French Concession, with wide tree lined boulevards and fewer tourists felt more serene than other districts.
4. Be prepared for street hawkers, and I don’t mean two or three. These cunning salespeople spot you a mile away and swoop in. In best cases, they are entertaining. In worst cases, they trail you into stores and through intersections.
5. If you want to buy from street hawkers, see the goods upfront. Never venture down an alley to the “showroom.”
6. Generally, taxis are fair. You don’t have to worry about getting cheated or negotiating the cost. However, I found them difficult to hail on the street. Walk to the nearest big hotel and catch one from the queue.
7. Shanghai subway stops are conveniently located. Rides are inexpensive and efficient. Get a Shanghai guidebook with a list of stops and nearby attractions.
8. Haggling is not done everywhere in the city. In tourist places, you can expect it. However, many stores on Huaihai Zhong Lu in the French Concession are government run, so prices are fixed. One clue that prices are fixed is when shopkeepers don’t trail you around the store. Even so, I always tried to negotiate the price anyway.
9. Take a day trip to Suzhou. Located 76 km away, Suzhou has UNESCO World Heritage gardens and Tiger Hill Pagoda. Because it’s China’s wedding dress manufacturing center, Suzhou is popular for destination weddings.
10. Know that tours are extremely overpriced in China. Although convenient, you can visit Suzhou and Hangzhou solo for considerably less. Chinese trains are affordable, fast, and comfortable. Once you reach your destination, negotiate with drivers outside stations. This way you customize the day and avoid tourist trap porcelain warehouses.