Although only a couple of hours away by plane from Hong Kong, Shanghai is a world apart in many ways and makes for a fascinating, if sometimes challenging, short break with the kids. Whilst the hustle and bustle may seem similar to the ‘Kong, the food, culture and layout of the city are all quite different, and the Mainland Chinese love of children (especially foreign children!) makes this an ideal base to explore our big neighbour to the north.
Where to Stay
All the usual international chains are represented in Shanghai, with plenty of choice for all budgets and tastes. Do bear in mind that Shanghai is a big place, and aim to stay close to the action or risk spending your weekend in one of the city’s infamous traffic jams! People’s Square, the Former French Concession, Lujiazui and Jing’An are all centrally located bases and offer the widest choice of accommodation.
The Swissôtel Grand in Jing’An has a great Kids’ Room programme, offering amenities such as a baby monitor, socket covers, alcohol-free minibar and Nintendo Wii, as well as a kids paddling pool in the fitness centre. Alternatively, if you would prefer a little more space or are staying longer than a few days, the Somerset XuHui Serviced Apartment is located in the Former French Concession, offering 1 or 2-bed apartments, all with kitchens and access to laundry facilities.
One of the big challenges of staying with kids in Shanghai is how best to get around this huge city. It is worth noting that, whilst cheap and plentiful, very few Shanghai taxis have rear seatbelts. This can be nerve-wracking at the best of times but positively terrifying for parents (Shanghainese taxi drivers not being renowned for their calm and considered driving skills!). An exception is the fleet of ‘Expo’ taxis, so called as they were brought into service for the 2010 World Expo. Easily identifiable, they are newer style VW Tourans with white bodies and a yellow roof and have front and rear belts, as well as being in generally better condition and having more luggage space for strollers, etc. A genuine Sassy Mama tried and tested tip – a Bugaboo Bee will fit unfolded in the boot of an Expo cab! Flag any cab on the street or ask your hotel to call and reserve one for you.
Another option is to arrange a private car for the duration of your stay. This also gives the added convenience of sorting the airport pick up and drop off, and is quite common in Shanghai. Rates vary from around RMB 500 per day upwards, although this is usually more for an English-speaking driver. Ask your hotel for their preferred firm and be sure to specify if you require seatbelts.
The Shanghai Metro is cheap, quick and surprisingly easy to navigate, albeit with limited stroller access. Line 10 is one of the newer branches with lift access to the platform, cutting through the French Concession and Xintiandi, and out the other side into the shopping area of Nanjing Road. Other lines are a bit patchy for accessibility so plan accordingly. Station announcements are in Putonghua and English.
What to Do
Experience Shanghai’s past-meets-future vibe first hand by taking a stroll along the historic 1930’s Bund and admiring the view across to Shanghai’s Jetsons-esque Lujiazui district. This area is popular with visitors from all over China, and you should expect a lot of attention if walking along with small children or babies!
The Bund tourist tunnel is a fun, if somewhat bizarre psychedelic lightshow that kids will love, whisking you beneath the Huangpu River to Pudong in around 10 minutes. You pop out amid skyscrapers near the famous Pearl Oriental TV Tower. Its 15 viewing levels offer a birds-eye view of Shanghai although queues can be long. From here you are a short walk from Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, with its fascinating tropical and cold water sea life. A particular highlight is feeding time, with seals, sharks and penguins all on display. Check the SOA website for up to date times.
Over on the Puxi side of the river, the Former French Concession is a lovely tree-lined area of wide boulevards dotted with cafes and restaurants and ideal for a stroll. On its edge is the lovely Fuxing Park, a large open space for the kids to run around and let off steam. The people watching here is priceless and on any given day you will encounter ballroom dancers, kite flyers and karaoke singers belting out Chinese Opera. From here, it’s a short stroll to Xintiandi, a restored area of traditional Shikumen (stone houses) and a great spot for a child-friendly bite to eat, with pizza, dim sum, Thai and salads all available.
A must-see is one of Shanghai’s famous acrobatic shows, whose rubber-band bendy moves will impress even a too-cool-for-school teenager. The best location is the purpose-built Shanghai Circus World, a short cab ride from downtown, and shows run daily.
What to Eat
No trip to Shanghai is complete without chowing down on the city’s speciality; Xialongbao (soup dumplings). These delicious bite-size parcels of yumminess are sold throughout the city on street stalls (look out for the towers of bamboo steamers), but for a more refined and family friendly experience, Din Tai Fung in Xintiandi offers a full menu of Shanghainese and other Chinese delicacies with the convenience of highchairs and kids crockery.
Also in Xintiandi, with further branches across the city, Element Fresh offer healthy salads, pastas and Asian sets with a kids menu, crayons and highchairs at their bright and modern restaurants. They will also deliver to your hotel room, which is a bonus for parents sick of room service when their little ones are tucked up in bed by 7pm!
Glo London is a British-themed bakery/café/restaurant in the heart of the French Concession with a good selection of traditional fare (think roast dinners, fish and chips and baked potatoes) but the real draw is the rooftop BBQ area on the 3rd floor, open throughout the summer months. Again, highchairs are available and the friendly staff strive to create a welcoming family atmosphere.
Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Hong Kong Airlines and China Eastern all fly direct to Shanghai in around 2 hours, with multiple flights each day. There are 2 airports serving Shanghai; Pudong is the main international airport with the largest choice of flight times, but Hongqiao is slightly closer to Downtown with shorter transfer times. Be sure to double check your airport when arranging pickups.