One week in Shanghai on a student budget

Today’s post is brought to you by STA Travel Student Ambassador, Emma Neely. Emma is a student at Michigan State University who has a passion for traveling and making friends around the world. She currently has traveled to 17 countries and counting!

Shanghai is a city of 24 million people. It is China’s biggest city and is a huge global financial hub. This being so, it is an extremely international city with many expats. It can also be an extremely expensive city to live in and travel to if you aren’t smart about your money. Fortunately, there are many ways to save money in Shanghai! To help get you started, here is a proposed itinerary for a week’s worth of travel on a student budget.

Some initial travel tips:

  • First and foremost, food: The best way to save money is to eat street food or local Chinese food. If you are nervous about some of the more exotic looking food China has to offer, the safest bet is pork dumplings. They’re amazing. One of the areas of Shanghai is known as the French Concession area. Here you can find tons of french bakeries some of which have a Chinese twist (i.e. matcha bread).
  • Second, language barrier: You can usually find someone who speaks English, but from my experience living there outside of the tourist areas most people don’t. Especially taxi drivers. Because of this, I recommend having your hotel or hostel provide you with a business card or the written address of the hotel and the written location of where you are trying to get to. The Metro does not run throughout the night so chances are you will need to take a taxi at some point! I also recommend you download the app Pleco for offline Chinese Translations, and the Shanghai metro app – it’s in English! Also, is an excellent expat resource for Chinese addresses, closest metro stop, hours and pricing for locations, and food and drink deals.
  • The Great Chinese Firewall: If you rely on social media or google maps definitely download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) – I recommend Express VPN. Baidu maps does not require a VPN – but it’s completely in Chinese. You should also participate in WeChat – this app has everything. You can have a profile, message or call friends, use it as a wallet, and much more. Have your friends and parents download this for easy connectivity.

Day 1 – Saturday:

Recover from the flight. Most flights get in after 3pm, and some even as late as 10pm. The two airports are Pudong International Airport and Hongqiao International Airport. Both of which are on each end of the Green Metro Line #2. Buy your public transportation card – it’s about ¥4 every time you use the metro and ¥1 every time you use the bus. Craving your first authentic Chinese meal find your closest Yang’s Dumplings and try xiaolongbao – soup dumplings. You won’t be disappointed. Also, find yourself some snacks (and bottled water!) for tomorrow morning when you inevitably wake up too early and are hungry.

Image: China Sichuan Food

Day 2 – Sunday :


You probably woke up really early because of jet lag. Early enough that it’s still dark out. Have some of those snacks you conveniently bought yourself and try to sleep some more. Once it’s light out, head down to the Lujiazui, Shanghai’s financial district – also on the Green Metro Line. Walk among the iconic skyscrapers in the financial district and explore the area! Be sure to check out nearby Super Brand Mall for coffee, food including Chinese food and french pastries (if eating street food scares you), and great shopping. Alternatively, other free activities you could do is head over People’s Square and check out Hong Kong Shopping Center. People’s Square metro station is huge and has over 30 exits so be sure you’re taking the right one. At this shopping center you can wander around with young hip Shanghainese to shop, eat, and even watch some intense Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) competitions. Or starting at noon, you can check out the Shanghai Marriage Market in People’s Park (also free). It’s actually quite a common thing to attend as a middle-aged or elderly person. This takes places only on weekends from 12-5, so you could check this out Saturday if you have time as well.



Oriental Pearl Tower is expensive and always has a long wait so I suggest going to the top of a nearby hotel and having a cup of tea. I recommend the Flair Rooftop Restaurant & Bar of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Opens at 2pm on Sundays. The view from the 58th floor of this hotel gives a stunning view of the Oriental Pearl Tower. It’s casual dress, but the tea is a little pricey at around ¥80. When compared to the Oriental Pearl Tower at ¥220, it’s definitely a cheaper bet. If you’re stuck on the OPT, opt in for access to all Space Module, upper sphere, lower sphere, and Municipal History Museum… it’s worth it for the great views.


Head over to Jing’an Temple to check out a Buddhist Temple in one of the chicest districts of Shanghai. It’s a nationally protected site, and features a ton of ornate statues. There also is a tall shrine in the center court area where people burn sticks or paper and try to throw coins in it for good luck.The temple is located on line 2 and directly on top of the Metro stop. Afterwards, go to Fat Cow where you can find the best burger you can find in Shanghai, also Monday is buy one get one free burgers. Burgers are normally ¥80+, but with this special it makes it cheap to split the cost with a friend.


Day 3 – Monday:


After marveling over the beauty of the Jing’an Temple, you have to explore Shanghai’s other famous Buddhist temple: Jade Buddha Temple. It’s part temple part Buddhist monastery with a lot of beautifully ornate statues. At only ¥20 it’s a very affordable place to go check out.The highlight is a 1.9 meter tall Buddha crafted from one slice of pale green jade, one of five shipped back to China by the monk Hui Gen at the turn of the 20th century.


Tianshan Tea City (tea market) a multilevel complex devoted to tea. Most places will let you sample as much as you want and even put on a quasi-tea ceremony show for you for free. I probably bought 70$ worth of tea here it was THAT good. Most places selling tea will try to rip you off or lie about having a tea ceremony. I really wanted to see a tea ceremony and everything I looked up warned about a tea ceremony scam for foreigners. Watch out. Alternatively, if tea isn’t your thing you could head over to the Shanghai Propaganda Art Museum. Being located in the basement of a random apartment building with poor signage, it’s a bit hard to find – don’t give up! Here, you can find an amazing collection of 20th century Chinese propaganda art  ranging from events such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Cold War, and even Shanghai Calendar Girls.


Day 4 – Tuesday:


Definitely check out the Shanghai Wild Animal Park. If you’re like me and couldn’t afford to get to Chengdu to see pandas, you must check out this park. It’s extremely affordable at around 20$USD and they have student discounts too. It’s a bit far away to get to on the subway so you will want to dedicate a whole day to coming here. When you arrive, the wild animal park is only like a ten minute walk away so bring directions or money to take a short taxi ride there.



After a fun day with animals spend the night on the Bund. The Bund is symbolic of Colonial Shanghai, and features dozens of buildings of various architectural styles. Get here by taking line 2 to East Nanjing Road and walk a few blocks to get here. You can get some really amazing the historic colonial-era buildings along the Bund promenade and pictures across the Huangpu River of the financial district skyline. After taking some necessary selfies, head on over to Shanghai’s Latin bar Unico. This is one of the local hotspots on Tuesday where a free mojito hour takes place from 830-930pm every week. Be sure to get there early and claim a spot right next to the bar tenders as crowds will be big and lively.  Afterwards, you could head over to one of the many Scoreboard bars in Shanghai for some cheap drinks, or for the hard core partier I recommend Myst, M1NT (this has a shark tank!), Luce (dance on the tables!) Fusion night clubs.


Day 5- Wednesday:


Going to Disney is the tacky tourist thing you have to do. It costs ¥370 for full day admission to Disney (Approx 56$ USD). I went for the grand opening weekend and strategically planned out all of the rides I wanted to go on with my group the night before to try and avoid long lines. There are fast passes you can get for free if you get there early enough. Disney is out towards the Pudong airport and takes awhile to get to regardless of taking a taxi or the metro; plan to arrive 45 minutes before the park opens so you can sprint to the best ride first. My ride recommendation: Run to the Tron Light Cycle Power Run and get a fastpass before you get in line so you can ride it twice (it’s mind blowing), Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Peter Pan’s Flight, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Pirates of the Caribbean (a 7 minute long ride – really great!), and Soaring over the Horizon. Be sure to stay for the nighttime fireworks at 7pm where there is a medley of Disney songs half in Chinese half in English.



After an exhausting day at Disney, it’s time to get drinks at the Park Hyatt in the Shanghai Financial Tower. If you’re wondering which building it is, it’s the one that looks like the bottle opener! It’s ladies night, so ladies get free entry and free drinks all night. Men have to pay an entrance fee, but also get unlimited drinks. Here you can catch some stunning night time views of the city in one of the most iconic skyscrapers in China.

Day 6 – Thursday:


Time to shop ‘til you drop. At the Counterfeit Market (Xiangyang), you will be able to buy all the souvenirs for your friends and family at about a quarter of the cost you would in a normal store if you bargain right. Before you arrive brush up on your Mandarin bargaining skills. Although store keepers will probably speak English, they will appreciate the effort and might offer you a better deal. Here you can buy everything from fake designer purses, sunglasses, belts, drones, stuffed pandas, fans, etc. You can even get a custom tailored suit or dress. This market is essentially a huge warehouse and very easy to get lost in. Be wary of shopkeepers who will try to lure you into “the back” area. It is located right inside the metro station of Shanghai Science and Technology Museum also on Green Line #2.



Get back on the Green Line and head over to West Nanjing Road and then East Nanjing Road. West Nanjing Road has a pedestrian walking street featuring some cute store fronts and places to grab some happy hour drinks outside and some delicious local eats. One stop away on the Green Line is East Nanjing Road, which is essentially the Times Square or Michigan Avenue of Shanghai. It’s Shanghai’s busiest shopping street lined with top-end shopping malls, old-brand shops, and traditional restaurants. You’ll find thousands of people in this. Most of the shops are really expensive, but it’s always fun to look! Alternatively, you could head over Tianzenfan. Here you will find a maze of boutique shops and a market-like atmosphere. You can also find a ton of unique souvenirs. Nearby is expat haven Xintiandi where you can visit for happy hour and dinner. This area is very chic and can be a bit pricey, but it’s a really fun area to walk around. If it’s hot out, I recommend visit luxury ice cream bar Pree and splurging (around the 9$ USD mark) on some decadent ice cream or boozy popsicles. Worth it!



At night you should return to the Bund. No need to take selfies with the skyline before you head up to Bar Rouge. This epic outdoor nightclub has some of the best views of the Lujiazui skyline you can get. Also, ladies night is tonight so get ready to have some free drinks and get your nails painted for free.


Day 7 – Friday:


Today’s sadly your last day in Shanghai. I recommend starting off with Yu Yuan Garden. Take the Metro Purple Line 10 and get off at Yu Yuan Station. Here you can find classical Chinese architecture, beautiful sculptures and carvings, a ton of local snacks to try and shopping, as well as a Confucian garden. Make sure to bring your student ID to get a discount at the garden – at peak season regular entry is ¥40 (approx $6 USD). The Yu Garden was a private garden of the Pan family during the Ming Dynasty; as one of the largest and most prestigious in its era you could spend a whole day marvelling at it. It has decorative halls and pavilions, koi pools, traditional archways and bridges, pagodas, and rockeries.



I recommend ending with Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center for only ¥30 (student discount). This museum was built to show the achievement of the city planning and construction. It has many functions, such as exhibition, reference, research, communication, recreation and entertainment. The main body of the building covers Shanghai’s development from ancient times to the present and beyond. I think it’s the perfect ending to a trip in Shanghai because it highlights the future plans for the ever expanding city – it will make you want to come back!


Ready to go on a wallet-friendly trip to Shanghai now? Good! Because we’ve got everything from cheap flights to Shanghai, adventure tours across China if you’d like your trip sorted for you, and even a Shanghai travel guide to help you with your research!