Insider’s city guide to Shanghai with kids. Tatum Hawkins is the Style Editor for City Weekend Parents & Kids magazine. As the mum of two girls Tess (4) and Rue (2), she is very familiar with moving around the city of Shanghai with kids. She tells suitcases&strollers all about the best (and worst!) bits of living in the city she has called home for the past two years, Shanghai, with kids and why you should be visiting too.
Why should parents plan a family holiday in Shanghai with kids?
Shanghai is not a big tourist destination which I think actually makes it a great place to go on holiday with your family. You will get a truly authentic experience of what life is like here versus being in a touristy area surrounded by a bunch of other tourists. (Despite being one of the largest cities in the world, I guess Shanghai is not necessarily the most popular!) If you see another foreigner walking around they are probably not a tourist; they live here.
I’m not sure why Shanghai is not high on people’s list of places to see. OK, maybe I am. The people appear less friendly than in other places, the government is intimidating, the pollution is bad...
But there are so many wonderful things about Shanghai that often get overlooked. It is the city of the future. The second tallest building in the world, the Shanghai Tower, sits in Shanghai’s financial district and it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The culture is strong. You can walk down the street in neighbourhoods like Jing’An or Xintiandi and feel like you’ve been transported back in time as you pass tiny shops and street vendors, then hop on the extremely user-friendly subway for a 15 minute or so ride into a downtown metropolis that is less than 30 years old. (Yes, one of the largest cities in the world with the world’s second tallest skyscraper is only 30 years young.) The clash of old and new is the most fascinating theme of Shanghai, something that should be experienced in person.
And the food! The restaurant selection rivals that of New York City. And a Chinese street food breakfast is one for the books.
If you’re an art lover, there are tons of museums. If you love shopping, you’ll find a luxury mall on every corner (which is actually kind of ridiculous!). And like every beautiful city, – Paris, Chicago, London – Shanghai has a river running through it where you can jump on a cruise and take in the city skyline with the new on your right and the old on your left, both equally beautiful and impressive. I can’t express enough the rapid change happening in Shanghai, this city is alive with progression!
Where is your favourite place to take kids in Shanghai?
I love taking my girls to the many parks dotting the city. Chinese parks are vast, beautifully manicured and full of life! No play structures, but you don’t need them.
We love flying kites (invented in China, by the way), having a picnic, feeding the koi fish (because there is always at least one pond), riding scooters, people watching, and just enjoying the easy, natural beauty of being outdoors.
And when I say people watching, I mean watching the elderly ladies group dancing, the wrinkled old men playing an intense game of mahjong, people singing like a caroling choir at Christmas, the serene woman doing tai chi in her flowing pajamas, the wedding photographers with their stunning brides and countless other fascinating activities.
I also enjoy taking my girls to the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, the insect museum (my 4 year old is obsessed), on a ferry ride across the river to walk/scooter along the scenic Bund, to lunch on noodles under the iconic Pearl Tower or even something as simple as a grocery run to the wet market where the fish are flapping and the smells are pungent but we always somehow walk out with some sort of free fruit. (Locals love spoiling little children – wouldn’t you if you grew up where a one-child policy was enforced?)
Disneyland Shanghai is coming. Tell us more about it.
Coming soon in Spring 2016: Shanghai Disney Resort! My husband works for Disney, so this project is very near and dear to our hearts. We were big Disney aficionados when we lived in California and we can’t wait until the park opens here in China.
It’s going to be so incredible with the biggest Disney castle in the world, new attractions like Treasure Cove (based on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and a thrilling rollercoaster based on the sci-fi movie Tron. Plus all the things you know and love about Mickey Mouse, princesses and the rest of Magic Kingdom.
What is the best free activity to do in Shanghai with kids?
As mentioned, the parks are great. Our favourites include Century Park, Fuxing Park, Lujiazui Central Green, Jing’An Sculture Park, Zhongshan Park.
Other free activities include: The Bund, China Art Museum, Yu Gardens (the gardens themselves require a ticket but the surrounding area is free to walk around with lots to see, food and shopping), Tianzifang [arts and crafts precinct] and Qibao ancient town.
Where is the best place to take kids in Shanghai when the weather is bad?
The weather in Shanghai is pretty unpredictable. It can be nice one day and raining the next, or polluted in the morning, then clear by late afternoon. The best bet while out and about is to dress in layers and always carry an umbrella.
When the weather outside is yucky, here are some family activity suggestions. The Natural History Museum (501 Bei Jing Xi Lu, JinganQu, Shanghai Shi, China, +86 21 6862 2000) just opened, which I hear is awesome. The Shanghai Science & Technology Museum is also a lot of fun and kind of wacky with a ride through the human digestive tract. Both are tailored for families and kids. And as I mentioned earlier, the aquarium and insect museum are favourites in our household.
What are some of the city secrets that tourists might not know about but shouldn’t miss on a family holiday in Shanghai with kids?
If the kids are a little older, I think exploring the city on a motorised scooter/motorcycle would be awesome. A lot of locals commute this way, so you’d feel like you were one of them. Plus, it’s such a great way to see the sights. There are companies who offer this type of experience, including bikes with sidecars for more comfort and convenience.
I’d also recommend checking out the Wild Animal Park where you can hold a baby tiger! It’s a little hit and miss but worth a try.
Also, for the whole family, you don’t want to miss visiting one of the many ancient water towns around Shanghai (think Venice and its beautiful waterways). The closest ancient water town to the city and accessible by metro is Qibao but there are many others a little further out (about an hour’s drive or so; great day trip activity) that are much more charming and idyllic. You could easily rent a driver to take you.
What’s the best way for children to have an authentic Shanghai experience?
Just bring them! Walk down any street in Shanghai, take it all in, smile, agree to get your picture taken when a local hands you her toddler, sample some street food, keep an open mind and I guarantee you will have an authentic experience.
Where are your top 3 places for family-friendly restaurants for kids in Shanghai?
· Baker & Spice – For your typical and delicious Western café food (sandwiches, wraps, salads, pastries) in a welcoming, open environment, this place is the best. It’s a chain, so you are bound to be close to one wherever you are in the city. Two other good Western quick stops: Wagas and Element Fresh.
· Bistro Burger (291 Fumin Lu, Xuhui, Shanghai, China, +86 21 6170 1315) – For good burgers and fries (always a kid favourite, right?) in a great people-watching location, check out Bistro Burger. The service is friendly and the environment is cozy. And they’ve got an awesome selection of milkshakes – score! Other favourite burger joints: Beef & Liberty and Rachel’s.
· Pistolera – For some reason, visiting China makes us Americans really crave Mexican food. (There’s not a lot of options here, maybe that’s why?) At any rate, Pistolera is the best Shanghai has at the moment with pretty decent nachos. There are always lots of expat families dining here; you will often hear kids laughing and yelling a bit. The ambiance is festive and the outdoor patio is really nice. The only drawback is that the restaurant is a little deeper into Pudong (away from the city centre) but still easily accessible by taxi.
What are your tips for kids' shops in Shanghai?
My favourite shop if you have little girls or you want to bring them something special from China is Chou-Chou Chic. I’m warning you, everything in this precious children’s boutique is going to scream “must-have!”
The designers, a French and Shanghai duo, have geniusely transformed the traditional Chinese qipao dress into an adorable, stylish fashion statement using more modern, yet bold, creative and feminine prints. In addition, they have done a wonderful job experimenting with non-silk fabrics like cotton, linen and even corduroy. There are several locations around Shanghai, however, the store I like to shop at is on Shaanxi Lu because it is a bit larger which means it also offers matching shoes, hair accessories, and even little home décor pieces like hand-made fabric picture frames. You will also find this store in Tianzifang, which is a really cool “Chinese-y” part of town with winding pedestrian-only streets.
What is the ideal time frame for a holiday to Shanghai with kids?
I think 10 to 14 days, or more, is good. Most people who visit Shanghai try to squeeze in a bunch of China adventures while here. So in 10 to 14 days they may take a train to Beijing and spend a day or two there to see the Great Wall, Xi’an for another day for the Terracotta Warriors and another two or three days in a nearby historical town like Nanjing or Hangzhou.
When is the best time of year to visit Shanghai with kids?
Spring or fall. Weather-wise, Shanghai is very comfortable and mild those times of year. Plus, for some reason the pollution is not as bad in those seasons.
Never come during the winter! And summer is fine but expect it to be quite warm due to high humidity.
What is the best way to move around Shanghai with kids?
One of the best things about Shanghai is that it’s very affordable to get around. Walking, subway, taxi, Uber…some days I end up using all four! There is no one way to plan your transportation here, you will probably use all four as well.
Just make sure to have the addresses of where you want to go in Chinese characters to show the taxi and Uber drivers, as they most likely won’t be able to speak English.
Tip: download the City Weekend app which is extremely helpful as it has a “taxi card” button for most restaurants, hotels, museums, etc.
The metro system is very user-friendly, even for foreigners, with automated ticket kiosks at every station with English options.
What are your top 3 family travel tips for families travelling to Shanghai with kids?
· Avoid bringing a stroller. The city, as wonderful as it is, is not very stroller friendly. Most of the sidewalks are made of cobblestone-like bricks making for a very bumpy ride and tiresome to push. The subway has almost no elevators, so you must either carry strollers down stairs or wield them on the escalators. If you have stroller-age children, I’d recommend planning to carry or wear them and taking lots of breaks or avoiding this trip until they are a little older.
It is doable [to visit Shanghai with a stroller] but will be a pain especially with all the folding up you’ll have to do when you ride a taxi or Uber.
· Toilet awareness. As futuristic as Shanghai may seem from the outside, there are still some things that haven’t caught up yet, like public bathrooms. When you’re out and about, try to locate bathrooms inside one of the many luxury malls or tall office buildings or just make sure everyone goes in your hotel before heading out. But it’s likely you will find yourself having to use a “squatty potty”. It’s best to always have toilet paper on hand wherever you go and hand sanitizer. It’s not a sensory experience I recommend, but you should expect to experience it.
Travel Tips: How To Use a Squat Toilet With Kids
· You will see many strange behaviours. Locals, especially the older generation, will surprise you with their spitting/hocking talents, loud voices, choice of dress, crowding, inability to wait in lines and many other things which may be offensive or surprising or just plain silly. My best advice is to roll with it and laugh it off.
You will get stared at, have your picture taken, be shoved. You will see babies in pants with a slit on the bottom baring cute dimply bum cheeks. You will see grime and smell unfamiliar things. My best advice when visiting China is to embrace the differences. Try not to take offense. Enjoy the experience! And take lots of pictures!
Images: Tatum Hawkins