So you’ve landed in Shanghai – I know it seems intimidating. People everywhere, signs in a different language, and it kind of smells weird.
I get it.
And when you’ve got to find your way around, navigating a Shanghai street can seem like an insurmountable challenge.
But here’s the thing: it's actually a fun, rewarding and surprisingly easy experience!
The city is gifted with reliable, super cheap public transport, and it’s laid out in a pretty simple way. So, here are my tips and fun facts for navigating China’s best city (there I said it).
Metro (or Subway or Train)
Where I'm from it's called the metro. Shanghai’s metro is the largest in the country, and I can say first hand, it’s actually pretty wonderful.
Clean, reliable, and well-planned, the metro – "dì tíe (地铁)" – is exceptionally easy to navigate, and the whole system is entirely bilingual, with announcements and maps in Mandarin, English and most recently Shanghainese (on some lines)!
Fun facts and even funner things to do on the metro:
- The system is super easy to navigate because it was pretty much all built at once – construction started in 1993, and as recently as 2007 there were only 5 lines, compared to 14 today.
- Last New Year’s Eve, the system handled 9 million passenger trips – that’s 12x what Washington DC’s venerable Metro system handles on an average day.
- If you’re bored, hop on a random line and take it to the end – what you see out there has little in common with the city you started in, even though they’re all part of Shanghai (the world’s largest city) proper.
- Do a “dìtíe (地铁) crawl” on the circular Line 4 loop, getting off and drinking a convenience store beer at every stop. Note: Line 4 has 26 stops, so if you actually do this you are a badass.
What I’ve also noticed about all these systems is that, because they’re in China, no expense is spared on building the stations and designing a convenient system.
China is in a weird economic position in which the country is wealthy enough to build elaborate and extensive metro systems. However, the people are still poor enough (on average) to not have cars.
Thus, an inordinately high number of people depend on these systems for getting around, resulting in some pretty fantastic and crowded subway systems.
Anyway, Shanghai’s system is designed so that all the stations are similar and easy to navigate, but some stations stand out more than others. Some of my favorite stations include the following:
- Zhongshan Park - Zhōng shān gōng yuán (中山公园) – built into an enormous mall, there is a huge food court just 10 meters from the station exit for your snacking needs. This place is so convenient, when my mom visited last December she stayed a hotel attached to the mall and didn’t ever have to go outside, which is great when you don’t bring a jacket (c’mon Mom, seriously, it’s December, what did you expect?).
Shanghai Railway Station - Shàng hǎi huǒ chē Zhàn (上海火车站) – this is one of the oldest stations on the system (attached to the city’s biggest intercity train station), and frankly it kind of sucks, but it has so much character! The walk between lines 3 and 4 1) is long and goes through this mini bootleg mall full of bizarre stuff and people yelling in regional dialects and 2) it smells like smoke and is too hot in winter and cold in summer, but it’s just so beautifully Shanghai that I love it.
Shaanxi Nan Lu - Shǎn xī nán lù (陕西南路) – to transfer between lines here, you have to go outside, cross a busy street and hustle up a long block toward the always packed Huaihai Lu. You can only transfer if you have a general transport card, called “jiāotōng kǎ” (交通卡) . However, your window is only 20 (supposedly 30 but I’m not convinced) minutes, so you have to book it and put your very life in danger to save that 3rmb! It’s fun to watch people risking life and limb and spilled coffee for the free transfer, I must admit.
Taxis are actually the primary China urban transport method for some people; they’re (relatively) cheap and plentiful, and the drivers tend to be exceptionally knowledgeable about the city.
Every city operates their taxis differently, but here in Shanghai, there’s a hierarchy of taxi companies that you should keep in mind to optimize your taxi experience (they all have the same pricing structure though)!
White cabs - jīn jiāng chū zū chē (锦江出租车) are the best cabs, clean and generally very professional, grab one of these if you can.
Light blue cabs - dà zhòng chū zū chē (大众出租车) , the oldest cab company in the city. Usually have the most knowledgeable drivers, so if you need to get to/from somewhere obscure or far-flung, there are your guys (and gals)! I had a blue cab driver once who told me he’d been driving a cab since 1982 and that back then, the street I live on (Xinhua Lu) was still sometimes referred to by it’s pre-Communist English name, Amherst Avenue.
Gold cabs - jiàng shēng chū zū chē (强生出租车) are also pretty decent, a good alternative to the white/blue ones. In my experience, Qiangsheng drivers have more leeway in customizing their cars, so you’re likely to get those crazy beaded seat covers or random Western music (I heard Hank Wilson and Eminem in the same ride once) blaring from an iPod. Fun fact: 强生 is the Chinese adaptation of “Johnson,” which I suppose is just the most generic Western-sounding name they could think of? Imagine if a taxi company in the US was called “Old Wang’s Taxi Co.” (note: this is a great idea).
Red cabs (various companies) are truly the vehicles of last resort. Private drivers or smaller companies are required to use red or burgundy cabs and they often have uninformed, rude drivers and, shall we say, less than ideal interior situations. They’re also much more likely to try to take a circuitous route or otherwise rip you off, so avoid these cabs if possible. I once got picked up by one of these guys when he was obviously very drunk. He slowed down so as to not make a green light (!) so I just got out of the cab and walked away as he yelled “NOOO!!” in English like a B-movie villain.
Unlike the metro, buses run late into the night, making them a good after-partying option, but fair warning – buses tend to be the least pleasant way to traverse the city and generally aren’t popular with foreigners.
The drivers aren’t so good with starting/stopping smoothly so you’d better hold on for dear life, and if you’re small you might get shoved around a little bit.
BUT also unlike the metro, there is a flat rate for taking the bus: 2rmb. So you can make your way across the entirety of the world’s largest city for just 33 cents US. Can’t beat that price.
In some of the outer suburbs, in fact, some of the buses feature air conditioning while others don’t – and the non-A/C ones only cost 1rmb!
So if you can tolerate the heat/cold and are saving up for a convenience store baozi or something, you’ve got options.
Few Chinese bus systems feature English maps or navigation aids, even in Shanghai, but that’s OK! They’re actually really easy to navigate if you can read or even memorize a few Chinese characters:
Every bus stop has a sign that looks like the photo above. Your current location is highlighted in red.
If you know the characters of the intersection you’re going to, just scan left from your current location until you find them! (Bonus points for being able to read Chinese written vertically old-school style.)
I've learned to decipher these signs, and you can find a way as well. That's part of the fun!
However you choose to make your way through Shanghai, you'll be delighted at the low price and constant entertainment of the crowded public transportation system.
Be brave and try it out next time you're there! Your city experience won't be complete without it.
Have you had some fun or crazy experiences navigating Shanghai or any of China’s wacky and wild cities? Share them in the comments below!