Shanghai Old City travel guide photographed by Helena Woods

After a previous day traveling from Bali to Malaysia, I was left with a 22 hour layover in Shanghai China before continuing on my next leg of the trip, and with 22 hours being plenty of time to see some sights, I decided to make use of my time and catch a glimpse of China!

Shangai is an easy and simple city to explore while on a layover, making it one of China’s “layover cities.”

Pudong International Airport is Shanghai’s main arrival and departure cities for China, so the majority of travelers tend to wait a day or so before continuing on their travelers, thus – it’s a perfect spot to explore in between flights!

shanghai china travel layover guide

Here’s a short & simple layover guide to Shanghai, China with my 22 hour layover itinerary:

First things first, S-L-E-E-P.

After two long flights traveling over South East Asia, I was quite tired, on the verge of bordering delusional.

When I arrived at Shanghai Pudong Aiport, it was already 1 o’clock in the morning, and after nervously shuffling along and sternly being checked at Customs (note: Visa-free for transit passengers up to 72 hours!), I just really wanted a place to nap.

With the locker room being closed, I originally planned on napping on a bench at the airport…but no seats were available. So I trudged my heavy backpacks to the hotel located inside the airport (Da Zhong :link here!), expected to pay $100 to get some decent shut-eye but was surprised to get a $50 fancy room and a comfy bed to catch up on a night’s rest. Definitely the most I’ve paid for sleep on my trip in Asia, but it was worth the bed. Sleep is the most important part of a traveler’s day, in my opinion.

Drop off your luggage

I woke up the next morning ready to go! I hopped out of bed, put my luggage in a cart, grabbed some cash from an ATM (to save money on all those fees, get a Charles Schwab checking account and use this card at ATMS!), and dropped off my bags in the locker room. You can find plenty of available locker rooms to drop off your luggage for a day of easy sightseeing.

In Terminal 1, you’ll find them between Gate 4 and 5, 10 and 11 in the Departure Hall; between Gate 6 and 7 of the greeting area in the Arrival Hall.

In Terminal 2, near Island A and M in the Departure Hall; near the International exit in the Arrival Hall.

I was so grateful to leave my stuff, as there was no way I’d explore Shanghai with those heavy bags on me! It does cost 50 yuan for the day, keep in mind. With my receipt in my pocket, I was off to go find the MagLev, also known as the Magnetic Levitation Train!

fast train in Shanghai for a travel guide for layover passengers


A (roughly $5) ticket purchased, and I hopped on the Mag-Lev, only to be transported to the city of Shanghai at 300kph!

We zoomed past the cars and highways, the houses and neighborhoods and arrived in the center of town in 8 minutes! From here, I transferred to the Shanghai subway system.

I find the best way to get to know a city is by walking and riding its public transportation system.

I also find myself meeting local friends, learning about the culture from the subway advertisements and commercials, and observing the style and fashion of the city by riding the subway or bus. In Shanghai, you’ll find security guards and x-ray machines outside of each subway station, but it’s a very quick and efficient process, and after easily purchasing your individual tickets, you’re good to go!

My first stop: People’s Square.

I took the subway line 2 to People’s Square and walked east along Nanjing Road, also known as Shanghai’s No. 1 pedestrian street for shopping and eating.

Strolling along Nanjing Road (and getting navigational help from my boyfriend back in New York because I couldn’t speak Mandarin to the local passerbyers), I wandered for 20 minutes, snapping pictures as I went and admiring the characters and colors of downtown Shanghai.

a quick flight layover guide to shanghai china

Discovering Shanghai’s Bund

A 20 minute walk along the 1.5 kilometer road later, and I discovered the Bund. Although I couldn’t explore the spectacle of the Bund at night, when the colors and night scenes really come alive, I enjoyed strolling along the water, gazing at the Oriental Pearl Building above, the tug boats along the river, and the pretty Shanghai World Financial Center and new Shanghai Tower in the distance. The horizon seemed massive and endless, and Shanghai seemed like another New York.

I befriended Jasmine while on my stroll along the river. At first, I asked her to take my picture and we laughed as we took pictures of each other.

We looked out at the Bund and she told me it was really nice to see an American being so open-minded about culture and travel. I laughed, as the number of times I’ve heard that is overwhelming. It’s so disappointing that Americans don’t travel as often internationally as Australians, Canadians, and Europeans do.

Americans, unfortunately, get a bad rep with other countries and we are not well-known to travel. We have a lot of students who study abroad, but that is usually as far as it goes. 

Exploring Shanghai’s Old City: Yu Yuan

Walking south along the Bund, Yu Garden is 1km from Nanjing Road. Once passed the entrance on Anmen Street, you can pay your entrance fee (30 yuan in the winter, 15 yuan with student ID) and enter magestic old Shanghai.

Shanghai Old City travel guide photographed by Helena Woods Shanghai Old City travel guide photographed by Helena Woods Shanghai Old City travel guide photographed by Helena Woods Shanghai Old City travel guide photographed by Helena Woods Shanghai Old City travel guide photographed by Helena Woods

The crowds outside of the ticketed garden are intense, but once you sneak past the wooden gates with ticket in hand, the experience of Yu Yuan is heavenly. Quiet and empty, the gardens are filled with old Chinese houses, porches and circular carved doorways. A small art gallery is located inside, alongside the ponds filled with massive Koi fish, plenty of trees, flowering buds, places to rest and look out at the garden. I fell in LOVE.

  After I spent a few hours at the garden, I walked back out to old Shanghai amongst the crowds and tourists and tasted some yummy, authentic Chinese food on Shanghai Old Street. It took me a solid 20 minutes to go down the line and pick out the food items I was sure didn’t have meat in it. But I was surprised to find many options! The majority of people in Shanghai do not speak English (understandably) and the majority of signs are printed in Mandarin, thus navigating and understanding what was safe to eat was a tricky situation. I did, however, occasionally meet a random friend that helped me out. 

After a full day of exploration, I decided to play it safe and head back to the aiport with plenty of time to spare. I gave myself 4 hours to boarding time, which is what I recommend to other layover travelers, and took subway line 10 at Yu Yuan subway station to Longyang Lu and took the magical, lightening fast Mag-Lev back to Pudong International Airport! (Because who knows when I’m going to get to ride a super fast levitational train in China again!) If you want to shorten your journey and for the magical experience of the world’s fastest train, make sure to hop on the Mag-Lev at Longyang Lu subway station! You’ll be back to check in at the airport in no time!I hope my blog helps some fellow adventurers out there with their layover stop in Shanghai! For a 10-15 hour day, I suggest 4-5 activities. If I had more time, I would have loved to explore the ancient water towns, as they tend to be far outside of the city center. I also would have loved to see Shanghai’s lively nightscene.

Suggested Itinerary – 10 hour day

Pudong Airport – People’s Square – Nanjing Road – the Bund – Yu Garden – Old Shanghai – Pudong Aiport

This was my first little glimpse of China, and I’m so glad i decided to make a long layover and explore one of China’s most beautiful cities. I now can’t WAIT to come back and explore more of China’s beautiful architecture, paintings, nature and meet more of its wonderful people.

Until next time China,

xx Helena

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How to Spend a 10 Hour Layover in Shanghai with Helena Woods

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March 22, 2017


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I'm Helena! As a creative storyteller, I document magical moments through my lens and my pen. A lover of childhood, fairytales and natural light, I'm inspired to share the light around me. I'm the ultimate Disney nerd, and I'm obsessed with cats and expressing my love for the simple joys of slow, daily life.

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Helena Woods is a destination newborn and family photographer based in France and New England and travels worldwide. She is known for her natural light, modern classic, and emotive photography style.