Shanghai for families: What to know before you go

Dec 21, 2019

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With great food, unique sights and even Disney, Shanghai is a great entry-level introduction to China, especially for families. The city is ultra-modern while keeping distinctively Chinese characteristics. I recently spent a week there and here are some of my favorite things to do with kids and some advice about planning your visit to Shanghai.

Related: 8 tips for your first trip to China

shanghai-china-skyline-skyscraper-buildings-tower-towers-2019
Shanghai. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

Enjoy the views from the Bund

One of my favorite things to do in Shanghai is free: Stroll along the Bund at night, marveling at the evening skyline. Many buildings have their own coordinated light shows, with most happening at the top and bottom of the hour. You can also take a Huangpu River cruise but you don’t really need to; the view from the Bund is sufficiently impressive. Avoid the Nanjing Road intersection, though; that’s where most tourists tend to congregate.

Learn about Chinese culture through food

An easy way to introduce culture to kids is through food and a hands-on lesson in Shanghainese cooking takes the learning to a new level. I booked a private in-home cooking lesson through AirBnb Experiences and was treated to a multicourse meal that I helped prepare. A number of the dishes we sampled were ones I didn’t see in any restaurants and we got recipes to take home. Although my dumplings weren’t pretty, they tasted amazing. I think kids as young as 5 (who have an interest) would do well with Chef Charlize, who felt like the Chinese Auntie I didn’t know I had.

Shanghai Cooking lesson food
(Image by Dia Adams/The Points Guy)

Visit the Chinese House of Mouse

You might not think Disney when you think of China, but Shanghai Disneyland is worth a visit. It has two rides — Tron Lightcycle Coaster and Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle of the Sunken Treasure — that you won’t find at any other Disney park. Pirates now tops my list as the best Disney ride worldwide. Shanghai Disneyland is about 45 minutes from the city and is easily accessible by the metro or in a taxi. There’s no need to stay nearby in order to enjoy a day at the park but if you want to immerse yourself, Disney has two hotels on-site: the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel and the Toy Story Hotel.

Image by Eric Goldner/The Points Guy
Toy Story Hotel. (Image by Eric Goldner/The Points Guy)

Visit a water town

If you look up things to do around Shanghai, you’ll quickly learn that a number of sites proclaim themselves the “Venice of China.” Shanghai has several water towns, where canals serve as streets, within a two-hour drive of the city. After research, I decided that Zhujiajiao offered both ease of visiting and authenticity. It’s about an hour outside Shanghai, but it’s easy to catch a Didi (Uber) both to and from the historic city. I paid about $70 for a round-trip in a Didi Premier (Uber Black). You can also get there via the metro but it will take at least two hours each way. Or you can take an escorted tour.

Tour guides or tour buses are unnecessary to enjoy Zhujiajiao. The town is easy to navigate and you’re not really there for a set itinerary. It’s all about wandering and soaking in the city. It’s totally touristy but definitely worth a visit. In fact, I would skip the Shanghai districts of Xintandi and Tinzifang in favor of strolling the narrow lanes of tourist shops in Zhujiajiao, where you have the added benefit of a lovely setting.

If you visit Zhujiajiao independently, I highly recommend going in the morning. There are many half-day afternoon tours out of Shanghai and the throngs seemed to arrive around 2 p.m.

Zhujiajiao. (Photo by Mark Horn/Getty Images.)
Zhujiajiao. (Photo by Mark Horn/Getty Images)

Enter a world of fantasy at TeamLab Borderless Shanghai

I write for a living but I’m struggling for words to describe TeamLab Borderless Shanghai. TeamLab describes itself as a “world of artworks without boundaries” and “a museum without a map.” Neither begins to do TeamLab justice. It’s an entirely immersive, interactive and transformative experience. There’s a room where you literally sprout butterflies that follow you around the exhibition! I said the word “Wow” at least 10 times during my visit. I’d say that it’s perfect for kids, but that’s not true: It’s perfect for anyone. Just go.

(Photo by Zhang Hengwei/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)
TeamLab Borderless Shanghai. (Photo by Zhang Hengwei/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

Shanghai is both more and less Western than you might expect

In some ways, Shanghai reminded me more of Tokyo or New York City than of other cities in China. Nanjing Road’s pedestrian section could be any number of cities with its stores from Apple to Uniqlo and its outdoor cafes featuring cover bands performing songs from a MIX radio playlist. In one block I saw both a Taco Bell and a White Castle and I encountered more chichi shopping malls than in any other city in the 46 countries I’ve visited. In other words, if you wanted to stay in a Western bubble, it would be easy to do in Shanghai. I even stopped by a McDonald’s for a black (coconut-flavored) soft serve and a jasmine iced tea.

However, English is not as widely spoken as in other cities in Asia. I had to pull out my Google Translate even at places as western as Shanghai Disneyland. (Tip: Download the Chinese language into the app before leaving home so you won’t need a VPN to use it.)

Shanghai can also be challenging because of its air pollution. If you have kids with respiratory issues, do further research before visiting. The real-time air quality index is a good place to start.

Where to stay in Shanghai

Your first decision to make about hotels in Shanghai is location. Shanghai is bisected by the Huangpu River, so you have the choices of Puxi (west of the river) and Pudong (east of the river). Most of the historic attractions and the Bund are in Puxi; most of the dramatic skyline you see in photos is in Pudong. I highly recommend staying on the Puxi side as it’s closer to most of what you will want to do.

I also highly recommend obeying the occupancy limits for your hotel room. China is not a place to flout rules. It may be possible to get an exception for more people than listed in a room, but I would absolutely verify it in writing before showing up at the hotel. China is also one of the few places where I stick to chain hotels because of registration requirements for non-Chinese tourists.

In general, standard rooms, which are most commonly the ones you can book with points, will not sleep four people. At the same time, both points redemption and cash rates in Shanghai are low enough that two rooms might make sense.

Be sure to communicate with the hotel that you need connecting rooms, unless you want to have mom sleep with one kid and dad with the other. For some families that’s not a bad option. My kids (a 13-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy) wouldn’t sleep together anyway, so a boys’ room and a girls’ room would be more comfortable for everyone. Also note that some programs will only let you book one reward room at a time. If that is the case, you will really want to contact the hotel in advance to connect the rooms.

Here are some options for a family of four.

Marriott Bonvoy

The Westin Bund Center is the rare property with single rooms that sleep four. They are not bookable on points, but with rates in the $200 to $250/night range, it could be a solid option. If you are willing to book two rooms, I would recommend either the JW Marriott Shanghai at Tomorrow Square, a Category 5, or the Royal Meridien. As a Category 4, the Royal Meriden may be the best points value in Shanghai. I recently spent a week there and it definitely didn’t feel like 25,000 Bonvoy points a night. Even with the need to book two rooms, I’d stay there again in a heartbeat.

Photo courtesy of JW Marriott
JW Marriott Shanghai at Tomorrow Square. (Photo courtesy of JW Marriott)

Hilton Honors

The Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund is “practically perfect in every way,” according to our TPG review. With a prime location, historic building and modern amenities I agree. Rooms on points start at 70,000/night.

Image by Adam Kotkin/The Points Guy
Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund. (Image by Adam Kotkin/The Points Guy.)

World of Hyatt

Hyatt has two properties on the Puxi side of the river: the Andaz Xintandi and the Hyatt on the Bund. Of the two, I would choose the Hyatt on the Bund for families because it has a club. Club access provides you with free breakfast and snacks, as well as superior service from dedicated club attendants.

I would consider using points for the Hyatt on the Bund in Shanghai, which I can’t say about some of the other chains. You could use 12,000 points/night for a standard room or 17,000 for a club room if you don’t have status with Hyatt. A club upgrade of cash rates for 3,000 points a night could also be a good value.

Note that in March 2020, World of Hyatt is moving to a dynamic award chart with off-peak, standard and peak dates.

IHG Rewards Club

The InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin receives high marks for both its garden location (a rarity in Shanghai) and its interpretation of a modern luxury hotel that stays true to the building’s historic roots. At 35,000 points per room, you might do better looking at cash rates. I found many nights in the $130 to $150 range. Rooms sleep three so this hotel could also work for small families.

Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy
InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin. (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

If you are worried that China may be too hard to visit with kids, Shanghai could be your sweet spot. With both modern conveniences and ancient roots, you won’t lack for things to do and things to learn.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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