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Purple Shanghai Sky | © David Leo Veksler/Flickr
Purple Shanghai Sky | © David Leo Veksler/Flickr

How to Spend 48 Hours in Shanghai

Picture of Rachel Deason
Updated: 6 February 2017

Shanghai recently announced a new travel policy that allows visitors to stay in the county visa-free for 72 hours. This regulation relaxation is encouraging many travelers to pop through China as part of a larger East Asia trip, but how can such travelers know where to begin in China’s largest city? Follow Culture Trip’s guide to Shanghai in 48 hours, and you may end up having the best two days of your trip right here.

Take the World’s Fastest Train into Town

There are two international airports in Shanghai, but chances are you’ll be flying into Pudong (PVG). The airport is world-class, but it’s basically in the middle of nowhere. Naive tourists often expect that a layover in Shanghai means the ability to stroll out of the airport into civilization, but unfortunately for now, this is not the case. Of course, you can take a taxi or bus into town, but nothing quite typifies Shanghai like the Maglev, which runs from PVG to the Longyang Rd. metro station at speeds up to 268 mph (431 kph). There’s nothing like the feeling of darting past goat farms and shanty suburbs on a giant levitation tube. It puts Shanghai’s rapid development into perspective and preps you nicely for what to expect from the rest of the city.

Stay at Captain’s Hostel to Experience the Bund for Cheap

Every Shanghai guide will tell you that the Bund is a must-see. While true, the European-style riverside with an iconic skyline view can be a somewhat unpleasant experience, swarming with curious crowds during peak tourist season and saturated with overpriced restaurants. Get the views without the crowds by checking in to Captain’s Hostel, a veritable Shanghai institution with a rooftop bar looking out across the river. If hostel life isn’t for you, stop by for a drink, snap some photos guaranteed to bring in the Instagram likes, and head away from the Bund and into the heart of the city.

37 Fuzhou Rd, Huangpu District, Shanghai, China

Take a (Street) Food Tour of the City

You can’t come to Shanghai without trying its world famous street food. See a more local side of the city by taking a food tour with UnTour Shanghai. Since 2010, UnTour has been scouting the best and safest street food stalls the city has to offer. You can choose from a number of tailored tours, from ones emphasizing Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings to others perfect for the tourist who believes breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The food tour will take you around historic Shanghai streets that, due to urban renewal efforts, may or may not be around in a few more years. See this side of the city while you can, and eat good food while you’re at it.

Go Kayaking in an Ancient Water Town

Just because you only have 48 hours in Shanghai doesn’t mean you need to stay in center city and do only the typical tourist attractions. One of the most unique things about Shanghai is its position in the midst of ancient water towns. A short bus ride away from the city, you will find stunning canal towns whose traditional architecture has been well preserved. You can easily make a day out of walking around one of the towns, Zhujiajiao for instance. Or you can see the towns from below, in a kayak. Shanghai-based travel agencies like Traveler’s Society and Wanna Travel frequently schedule water town kayaking day trips, but with a bit of advance planning, you can rent a kayak on your own and go on an unforgettable journey under thousand-year-old bridges.

Get a Massage to Prep for Your Flight Out

You’ve had a busy 48 hours. Wind down with a classic Chinese massage, available all over town. To stimulate blood flow and alleviate pain (and leave you with some gnarly bruises as souvenirs), get a cupping massage, a traditional Chinese medicinal procedure that was popularized during the 2016 Rio Olympics. Or go for a blind massage, foot massage, fish massage – you name it, Shanghai’s got it. Depending on where you go for a massage and which style you want, expect to pay anything between RMB100 to RMB300 ($15-$44).