What are some things to know before visiting Shanghai?

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Sophie Friedman

Shanghai is China’s most cosmopolitan city, where enormous luxury malls rise up adjacent to tiny back-alley snack stalls, and where it’s not unusual to see chickens running around half a block from a downtown subway stop. To prepare for your trip to this city of 23 million, here are some things to know before visiting Shanghai.

It’s smaller than it looks
The city technically covers more than 2,500 square miles, but downtown Shanghai is quite compact and can easily be traversed on foot. Likewise, because Shanghai’s metro—the world’s third longest—is so well-connected, visitors can take the subway all the way from the city center out to southern water towns like Zhujiajiao.

English is not widely spoken
You wouldn’t expect your average man-on-the-street in New York to speak Chinese, and you shouldn’t assume it about English in Shanghai. If you’re lost or need help, your best bet is to find a middle or high school student, whom you can pick out of the crowd by their school uniforms—light or navy blue tracksuits. Properly learning a few basic phrases before you go to China will really help you get around.

It’s not that inexpensive
Although China, as a developing country, gives off the impression of being generally inexpensive, Shanghai is enormously pricey by Chinese standards. The average monthly salary (for a local in an entry-level position) in a field like marketing, PR, or sales, hovers around ¥6,000 (approx. US$965). A can of Coke at any convenience store is around 50 cents; that same can at an upscale bar will run you $7. Standard cocktails at mid-range bars average $11, a third more than what you would pay in New York. Run out of Cetaphil face wash while you’re in town and you’ll pay at least $10 for the smallest bottle.

But many things are cheaper than in the U.S.
Souvenirs—scarves, chopsticks, jewelry, mini Buddha—are certainly cheaper than they are in the West. China is notorious for its fakes, and everything from imitation Hunter rain boots to Marc Jacobs make-up bags can be purchased for a pittance. It’s not uncommon to see guests at towering JW Marriott making their way across the road to visit Taobao City, more commonly referred to simply as “the fake market.”

Always carry tissue
Don’t worry about carrying these over from home; mini packets of tissue can be purchased inexpensively in every convenience store. You’ll need to get them on day one, though, as many public restrooms, even in luxury shopping malls, either have no toilet paper at all or run out quickly. If you’re traveling with children, snap up some wet wipes, too.

It’s polluted
Although the government did quite a good job cleaning up the city for the 2010 World Expo, pollution levels have of late risen back up to alarming heights. The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai posts on its website hourly air quality index ratings, but you need only look out the window to see the haze. Don’t let pollution stop you from visiting Shanghai, but do take precautions. If you suffer from allergies or asthma, bring an inhaler and don’t feel shy about wearing a face mask; plenty of locals do, and they can be purchased quite easily at any convenience store.

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