Shanghai layover

Enjoying a long layover in Shanghai

When life hands you a hellish 26-hour trek, turn it into a day trip to a place you’ve never been. I recently had a 7-hour layover in Shanghai, and though I basically hadn’t slept all week, I had to take advantage and see the city.

To visit China, you normally need a visa. However, there is a 24-hour, 72-hour or a 144-hour exception for people traveling through cities like Shanghai, which allows you to do exactly what I did.

So is it worth it? And should you do it?

Getting in and out of Pudong Airport on a Shanhai layover

One of the biggest considerations is whether you have enough time. Shanghai’s international airport is about an hour out of the parts of the city you want to see by car or train.

But I had 7 hours to kill, I made my own decision on that one. In order to leave, you have to go through passport control and show that you have a ticket out of China within the 24, 72, or 144 hour period. They stamp you in with a temporary entry stamp. And when you come back, you go through the process again and they stamp you out.

When I went through passport control, the guy basically told me he didn’t think I would have time to go downtown. Well I showed him! I had time to spare. That being said, the passport control line was gnarly on the way back in. I waited 20 minutes and then about 15 more for security. So don’t cut it too close.

People's Square, shanghai layover
Life is short. Leave the airport. (People’s Square)


I had nothing but my backpack on me because I had checked my larger bag. But if you have luggage, you can leave it at luggage storage available at the airport. This, of course, will add time at the airport and it’s worth taking that into account before leaving. If your bag isn’t checked to your final destination and you have to go through baggage claim and another bag drop, you should add even more time.

But you should definitely leave your bags because there are security checks for everything in Shanghai. You can’t go into a Metro station without passing your bags through a scanner. Considering the volume of people they handle, it’s very expedient. But it’s still a hassle.

Taxi or train?

Because of traffic, the taxis can take just as long to get to city center as the trains do. And they’re considerably more expensive. A taxi ride will be about $25 each way and a train ticket is less than a dollar. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t want to worry about figuring out public transport in a foreign place, then the taxi could be the way to go. Just remember that it could take 40 minutes or it could take over an hour. You want to account for that time.

After being harassed by every person that saw me at the airport to get into a cab or buy a train ticket from them, I wanted to get the hell out of there.

I followed the signed to the Maglev (which I called the Mogwai for the duration of my stay) which is the fastest way to get downtown. It clocks in at speeds of over 200 mph, costs about $5 each way, and takes 7 minutes. And regardless of what the vultures at the airport would lead you to believe, you can pay for it with a card. When I got the Longyang Road station, I realized I was way too far to walk to anything I wanted to see. I needed to take the Metro. But those machines only take cash.

You can also take the Line 2 extension directly from the airport to city center, but that adds an extra 40 minutes. Since I was pressed for time, I took the Maglev (the Mogwai).

Getting cash

So I was in a busy transportation hub with no ATM in sight. I asked some people who basically told me “no.” Then I used Google Maps to try to track one down. Shanghai is huge so the nearest one was almost 15 minutes away, past some very busy intersections where neither drivers nor motorcyclists care about you having the right of way.

So if you don’t get cash at the airport, you might get run over before you get to see the city. I found a whole row of ATMs on Baiyang Road. They’re like phone booths that you go into and lock to get your money. The easiest thing to do is just get cash before arriving in the city.

The Metro

Shanghai layover

Though it’s an outrageously simple system to use and follow, you know those videos of people shoving others into trains in China? Yeah, there’s that. I lined up to wait for Line 2, which you’ll take to see everything you’d want to see on a 7 hour layover. Then at least a dozen of us crammed ourselves into a car that was obviously already too full. I was wearing a Prague winter jacket and sweating so much I thought I would faint in the 18 minutes it took me to get to People’s Square.

People had to shove me and my huge backpack in the door to get me to fit. And every time there was a stop, people were shoving to get in and out of the train. It was pretty unpleasant, and I hope never to do that around rush hour again.

What to do in Shanghai?

Your sights may vary, but since I only had a couple of hours, I wanted to see People’s Square and The Bund, which is the waterfront that gives you that awesome view of the skyline. If you’re at one, it takes about 30 minutes to walk to the other.

Along the way, you can stop and eat. Actually, the area around the station for the Maglev (the Mogwai) was really awesome for eating because there were a bunch of street food stands. In the midst of my 45 minute ordeal to find an ATM, I had myself a merry feast of steamed pork buns and milk tea.

Steamed buns, shanghai layover
Instant addiction. I ate twice…

Try my Shanhai Layover Route

If you want to follow my itinerary, take the 18 minute train to People’s Square. There are tons places to sit down and eat after being shoved around on the train, so you can rest. Then you can walk through People’s Park and People’s Square, enjoy the view, and enjoy the breeze. Note: to get from People’s Park to People’s Square, you have to cross underground.

From there, you can walk down Fuzhou Road directly to The Bund, which is about 30 minutes on foot and 10-15 on the train. There are a lot of shops and restaurants on the way. By the time you get there, you can play with the amount of time you have and walk up and down the waterfront. The skyline is actually stunning and, by far, if you only have time for one thing, that’s what you should do. After all my sleep deprivation, that hazy sight was positively dreamlike.

The closest Line 2 Metro stop from there is Nanjing East Road, which is one stop closer to the airport than People’s Square so you don’t have to backtrack.

If you have even more time, you can go to Jing’an Temple, which is two stops past People’s Square on Line 2. I decided to cut this, because I hope to return to Shanghai one day, and that’s not something I want to see in a rush. Though if I hadn’t been such a dumbass about the Metro to begin with, I might have been able to squeeze it in.

But I went back to the airport having satisfied my sightseeing goals and still had 2.5 hours to wait for my connecting flight.

Get the GPS-guided version of this and other articles about Shanghai on GPSmyCity here.


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