Shanghai vs Beijing: The winner is clear

From sightseeing to boozing, we settle the score once and for all

We’ve got the skyline, more terrific bars and fun by the bucket load. But still, our northern counterparts have a misinformed belief that they’re just better. Say whaaaat? It's surely no contest, but here's the ultimate blow-by-blow account on which of our fair cities comes out on top.


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We’ve got… The Bund. You’ve got… The Great Wall

Okay, sure, The Great Wall is an architectural marvel and a Wonder of the World. And yes, you can’t even claim to see the historic Bund from space, but let’s be real: there aren’t many people in space. And certainly not for sightseeing trips. The Wall is also miles from the city centre. If it’s a sight you’re after, then The Bund, smack in the middle of Shanghai, offers up views of one of the planet’s truly iconic skylines, as well as many a quality cocktail. Yeah, if we’re not getting stuck into the top eats along the stretch, we’ll admit lots of us will only pay the Bund a visit when we have guests in town, but we always love it when we do. And it’s home to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel... need we say more?


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We’ve got… Pollution. You’ve got… Worse pollution

Our northern counterparts might be smug about their warm houses through winter, but at least we can leave ours. While Beijingers spend days at a time, cooped inside, air filters at full whack, watching thick smog blankets roll on in as the AQI soars well over 300, life in Shanghai (for the most part) continues as normal. Sure, Shanghai still has polluted days, and there are times when the weather runs amok and the AQI goes above 200, but it’s a rarity. Anyway, we’re not saying Shanghai is perfect, but the point is we’ve still got it better than Beijing.

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We’ve got… World-class cocktails. You’ve got… Nerdy craft beer

In Shanghai, bartenders will make you drinks that’ll change what you think a cocktail should be. Urbane, sophisticated and serving some fancy-ass drinks, our watering holes are next level, including China’s only entry on the World’s 50 Best Bars (Speak Low). Meanwhile bearded men in flannel bro-ing down about hops, malts and Sichuan peppercorns is your average night out in the capital. Beijing has the craft brewing scene on lock, we won’t argue with that. But listen, there are only so many IPAs with Chinese characteristics one can drink.


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We’ve got… All of the big stars. You’ve got… Chinese underground rock

Yes, yes, Beijing is China’s indie-rock epicentre, but what’s come out of it lately? It’s been a while since we heard anything truly exciting from the capital. Even your most prominent indie label has two Shanghai bands among its first wave of slated album releases for 2017, with both Dream Can and Dirty Fingers on the Maybe Mars books. The Shelter might have closed down, but we’ve still got a more vibrant electronic music scene and that’s before we even begin to talk about how Shanghai is the city of choice for any big international acts. The Rolling Stones (twice)? Taylor Swift (four shows)? Queen? All Shanghai only.


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We’ve got… Cosy lanes. You’ve got… Jammed hutongs

We’ve heard it all before: a throwback to the capital’s imperial past, Beijing’s (remaining) hutongs have almost 800 years of history and are home to some of the city’s most famous tourist sites (and traps – looking at you, Nanluoguxiang). But why go dodging traffic through the narrow hutongs when you could wander the green, leafy avenues of the Former French Concession. Ah! La vie est belle in the old Paris of the East. The heritage of a different kind of imperial history, the FFC is an Insta-worthy combo of European and Chinese architecture, with all manner of treasures to stumble upon – longtang with charming lane houses, relaxed park life and chic boutiques. Plus, we’ve never had to walk far to find an exceptional cocktail or solid cup of pour-over coffee.

Which do you love more?

We asked a few people who have been around the SH/BJ block a few times to share their thoughts on the two cities.

Alex Worker, Co-Founder of Hatchery
7.5 years in Beijing, recently moved to Shanghai
‘Shanghai feels like the China on show to the world – cosmopolitan, dense, dynamic and progressive. A growing “world” city. Beijing is the China on show to the rest of China – powerful, sprawling, ancient and modern, and where the large buildings and avenues make the individual feel very small until they step into the hutongs. The rivalry between the cities makes good practical sense – ultimately driving competition and innovation to help solve some of the key issues facing their residents and wider populous.’


Danni Zheng, Producer
8 years in Beijing, 3 years in Shanghai

‘I live in both Beijing and Shanghai – it’s kind of like going between divorced parents. You have issues with both, but you spend a lot of time defending each city to the other. When you get sick of either one, you run away to your glitzy Auntie Hong Kong for a bit.’


Morgan Short, Managing editor of SmartShanghai

7 years in Shanghai, 3 years in Beijing

‘As an important social commentator of merit and acclaim who has been privileged enough to sup the marrow and suck the blood of both the Shanghai and Beijing metropolises over the years, I’m here to report the following: They both fucking blow. It’s true. They both blow. Terrible. Absolutely terrible. SAD. Actually, not really. They’re both just so-so. What everyone always says is indeed true. Beijing has: better terrible bands; worse terrible weather; worse terrible western food; better terrible Chinese food. Compared to Shanghai. Shanghai has… you know. Whatever. It’s all exhausting. I hear Barcelona is pretty good.’


Elyse Ribbons, Entrepreneur and Media Maven

13 years in Beijing, 2 years in Shanghai

‘I’m in love with different parts of each city... Beijing to me isn’t just the architectural amazements that make up its olympic dynasty, nor is it the imperial history that makes up its core; it is the collective joy at the flourishing culture despite the horrible environment (sand storms, pollution, temperature extremes in summer and winter, and of course the traffic!). Shanghai is proud of its detached mental state, the city upon the sea that is the height of Chinese cosmopolitanism, with a strong business acumen and a delightful appreciation of fashion and the finer things in life.’


Carl Setzer, Owner and founder of Great Leap Brewing

8 years in Beijing, frequent visitor to Shanghai

‘Beijing has always felt like home to me. Even before starting Great Leap Brewing, we were planning on staying here for the long haul. It’s a place where you find both fugitives and refugees mixed in with bankers and political wonks. I’ve never been told to go back home, I’ve never felt “other”. Shanghai is a city that makes pointing out otherness an Olympic sport. I like to visit Shanghai, but Beijing tricks you into thinking it can be your home. Everyone likes an endearing confidence man.'

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