7 Things You Need to Know When Visiting Shanghai

The most populous city in the world could be your next dream vacation.

It’s big, it’s on mainland China, and it’s far away

Shanghai housed more than 24 million people in 2014, and the number has almost certainly grown since. It's safe to say that this city is huge. In addition, this amazing (and gigantic!) city is situated in the People's Republic of China, also referred to as Mainland China. What does that mean? Well, for Americans it means you need a Visa. You should also expect a pretty stringent entrance screening. Not only will customs officials check your documents extra closely, you will also be checked for radiation and automatic sensors will check if you have a fever.

The flight to Shanghai can be between 12 and 15 hours, depending on where you're leaving from in the US, so be prepared to entertain yourself on the plane. Depending on the company you fly with, you will likely be offered either Chinese or "western" meals. Airline food weirds a lot of people out as it is, so there's no shame in opting for that down-home goodness, but this is often your first opportunity to try out some local fare, if you're game.

What to look for in the city

Shanghai's skyline is something out of a science fiction movie. The bulbous TV tower dominates the skyline and gives the entire scene a futuristic feel, and the Huangpu River running through the city gives you the opportunity for riverside dining on the Bund for a spectacular view of the Pudong side of the city. The Puxi side of the city, while not what is traditionally pictured when one envisions Shanghai's skyline, is worth a visit too. It's the historic district of the city and is where people live and shop, and it contains much of the city's culture, since the Pudong side has been subjected to intense and overwhelming change and growth over recent years.

Shanghai is a unique blend of modern and traditional, with ancient-looking buildings butted right up against sleek, new skyscrapers. It's quite a sight!

Getting around

Shanghai's tourist areas tend to have plenty of people who speak English if you don't think you'll pick up much Mandarin before your trip. You should be able to find your way around in popular areas with little trouble, and your hotel staff and most young people you encounter will almost certainly have some English and be able to help you out if you need it.

Shanghai also offers a modern public transit system, and their subway trains feature maps in Chinese and English, and announcements are made in English as well.

What to eat while you’re there

Shanghai's food is unlike what Americans think of when they envision "Chinese food." While you should avoid street meat, you can otherwise treat yourself to all kinds of hearty and flavorful dishes. Shanghai's food is sometimes considered to be a little greasier than the Cantonese-style cuisine in Hong Kong, but the dishes served are delectable and it's hard to leave the city without falling in love with a menu item or two.

That being said, the Chinese serve their food a lot differently than Americans might expect. Remember the duck scene in A Christmas Story? It isn't uncommon for your food to have a face. Fish or fowl might be served "smiling at you," as they put it in the film. Don't be afraid, though. It's easy to eat around those parts, though locals will tell you the cheeks and the eyes are often the best parts!

Additionally, in case you're not sure what to eat and the dish descriptions aren't provided in English, most restaurants carry a picture menu for those of us who can't read Chinese, which will help you make some informed decisions about what's for dinner.

Finally, don't be afraid to check out the Chinese version of your favorite fast food joint. For instance, a trip to Pizza Hut will have you choosing between things like durian pizza, bacon-wrapped shrimp with pesto pizza, or the kung pao chicken stuffed-crust pizza.

In fact, even the snacks at the store can be an exciting endeavor. They get flavors of potato chips we don't often see in the US (some of my favorites were cucumber flavor and lobster and cheese flavor) and brown sugar candy with a dried, salted plum inside was my favorite after-dinner treat by the time I left.

The surrounding areas have lots of exciting options too

From Shanghai, you have access to the famous Bullet Trains that go 186mph (that's 300 km/h) and can visit a multitude of places with very little travel time. You can do your own research to find what sights appeal to you the most, but a favorite nearby destination is Hangzhou, home to the famous West Lake, surrounded by interesting shops and beautiful tea houses. There are many boats waiting by the shore offering picturesque rides around the lake as well.

Another interesting area that's easily accessible from Shanghai is the town of Xitang. They are perhaps most famous for scenes from Mission Impossible III being filmed there (and in fact there are many signs around the town reminding you of this fact), but this fishing village is worth a trip in its own right, even if you're not a fan of action movies and Tom Cruise. This town has delicious food, many shops with souvenirs and necessities alike, as well as a beautiful river snaking through the middle, seemingly never empty of small boats passing lazily through. It's a great place to go and get away from the chaos of the city for a bit, while still offering lots of shopping and photo opportunities.

Some things to keep in mind

China is hot and humid in the summer, and the heat can be oppressive for those not used to the stifling conditions. The smog and pollution are real, and the heavy, hazy air can sometime wear on travelers, especially if they suffer from any respiratory illnesses. That being said, though the outside might be dirty, in buildings you will see signs everywhere noting exactly how often interactive museum touch screens, escalator hand rails, and even bathroom faucets get sanitized. The Chinese try very hard not to spread disease, going so far as to wear face masks when sick, as you've undoubtedly seen.

Hong Kong and Shanghai use different currencies. If you plan on flitting between the two during your travels, you'll have to lose some money exchanging from USD to RMB or HKD, which is a given, but if you're traveling to both cities and don't plan your costs just right, keep in mind you might lose even more money transferring the HKD to RMB, or vice versa.

Shanghai is the most expensive city on the mainland, but it is still cheaper than Hong Kong, and to an American, both feel very cheap. You can really splurge on a good hotel and nice dinner without really pulling too much out of your bank account, as far as your US dollars go. Additionally, keep in mind that most shop owners will haggle with you. Outside of chain stores, you should generally never take the first price offered. (Or even the second or third—in fact, I get my best prices after walking out of the store completely!)

You will probably want a VPN if you're traveling to Shanghai. In Hong Kong the internet is more or less unrestricted, but the mainland severely limits what sites you may access, including Google (that means Gmail too) and Facebook. A VPN will help you get past the firewall and keep up with your friends and family while you're away.

It can't go without mentioning that toilets in China are different from American toilets. Be prepared to squat, or at the very least hold it until you're back at your hotel. There, you will likely have Western toilet (what we're used to) though some restaurants and attractions will too. However, other than your hotel, do not expect any establishment to provide toilet paper or soap. Most people carry travel tissue packs and hand sanitizer with them for this reason.

The takeaway

Shanghai (and anywhere on the mainland) has some specific quirks you might not encounter elsewhere, but though the Customs agents might not seem especially welcoming, a trip to China is truly an enriching experience. The flight may be a bit expensive, but your money stretches incredibly far here, and the culture and the food are worth much more than what you'll have to pay to experience them. If you're looking for a place where you get to see, taste, and experience things very unlike home, all while living comfortably and affordably, Shanghai is the place for you.

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It's no secret that the restaurant scene in New York City is one of the most impressive in the world.

Whatever you could want to eat, you can find it in New York—meaning that even if you have a slightly restrictive diet, like veganism, there's plenty of options for you. Local fast-casual chains like By Chloe and Superiority Burger are making New York one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world, but the deliciousness doesn't stop there.

Between Manhattan and Brooklyn, there's been a boom of vegan restaurants that'll satisfy any craving. Here are just a few of our favorites.

Blossom(Upper West Side + Greenwich Village)

vegan restaurant

With two locations serving both Uptown and Downtown, Blossom is a go-to for local and tourist vegans alike. They offer an elevated dining experience (and a wide-spanning takeout radius) that puts a cruelty-free spin on classic main dishes like chicken piccata, rigatoni, and grilled salmon. Complete your dinner with a fresh, fruity cocktail and tiramisu—but reservations are strongly recommended beforehand.

Jajaja (West Village + Lower East Side)

vegan Jajaja

Jajaja is the ultimate heaven for Mexican food addicts. Get your fix of south of the border staples like burritos, street tacos, and enchiladas that'll make you second guess whether or not it's actually vegan (pro tip: The nacho portion is large enough to be a meal for one person). They also have a small but mighty menu of tequila and mezcal cocktails to kick off a night of LES bar-hopping. It gets crowded here quickly, though, so try to schedule your dinner early.

Urban Vegan Kitchen(West Village)

Urban Vegan Kitchen

We get it—eating vegan can get kind of bland sometimes. But that's not an issue at Urban Vegan Kitchen, the type of restaurant that'll have you wanting to order one of everything on the menu (but we recommend the "chicken" and waffles). Co-owned by the founder of Blossom, they boast a menu that's just as edgy and exciting as their decor. Their space is large too, making it a crowd-pleasing option for a slightly larger group.

Champs Diner (Williamsburg)

Champs Diner vegan

Located near the border of hip neighborhoods Williamsburg and Bushwick, Champs is a favorite of many young Brooklynites. Their menu is full of vegan alternatives to classic diner fare like breakfast plates, cheeseburgers, and even milkshakes that taste mysteriously like the real deal, while the decor puts a quintessential Brooklyn edge on '50s digs. Who said going plant-based had to be healthy all the time, anyway?

Peacefood (Greenwich Village)

vegan Peacefood

Conveniently located just a stone's throw from Union Square—near both NYU and the New School—Peacefood is a hotspot for college students, but vegans of any age are guaranteed to enjoy their menu. They specialize in comfort food items like quiche, chicken parmesan, and chili with corn bread—all plant-based, of course. While their "chicken" tender basket is to die for, make sure to save room for dessert here, too; Peacefood's lengthy pastry menu is a dream come true.

Buddha Bodai (Chinatown)

Buddha Bodai vegan

Dim sum restaurants in Chinatown are a dime a dozen, but Buddha Bodai takes the cake for the best veggie-friendly experience in one of New York's most bustling neighborhoods. Bring your family or friends along with you to enjoy this massive menu of buns and dumplings stuffed with any type of mock meat you could want. This is also a great option for gluten-free vegans, too, as much of their menu accommodates a gluten-free diet.

Greedi Kitchen (Crown Heights)

Greedi Kitchen vegan

Crown Heights might not be the first neighborhood people think of when it comes to dining in Brooklyn, but Greedi Kitchen is making the case for delicious restaurants in the area. Inspired by its founder's many years of travel, Greedi Kitchen combines the comforting flavors of southern soul food with the added pizazz of global influences. Try one of their po'boys or the crab cake sliders. Trust us.

Screamer’s Pizzeria (Greenpoint + Crown Heights)

Screamer's Pizza vegan

We know what you're thinking: Pizza without real cheese? Call us crazy, but Screamer's does vegan pizza to perfection. If you're into classic pies like a simple margherita or pepperoni, or you want to branch out with unexpected topping combinations, Screamer's is delicious enough to impress carnivores, too (pro tip: the Greenpoint location is small and serves most pies by the slice, while the Crown Heights location is larger for sitting down).

Learning a second language is one of the coolest and most rewarding things you can do in your spare time.

However, if hopping on a one-way ticket to your country of choice isn't an option for you, it can be difficult to find an immersive experience to learn, especially past high school or college.

The next best thing is language-learning apps.

We wanted to look at the top two: DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone. Duolingo is the new kid on the block; one of the top downloaded, this free app is a favorite. Then, there's the legacy option: Rosetta Stone. For over 20 years, they've been developing their language-learning software, and their app is the most recent innovation.

They're both great options, but keep reading to figure out which one is the best for you.

Key Similarities

  • Both claim you'll expand your vocabulary
  • Both are available as an app for iOS and Android users
  • Both have a clean user interface with appealing graphics
  • Both have offline capabilities (if you pay)

Key Differences

  • DuoLingo has a popular free version along with its paid version, whereas Rosetta Stone only has a paid version
  • DuoLingo offers 35+ languages, and Rosetta Stone offers 24 languages
  • Rosetta Stone has an advanced TruAccent feature to detect and correct your accent
  • DuoLingo offers a breadth of similar vocab-recognizing features, and Rosetta Stone offers a wider variety of learning methods, like Stories

DuoLingo Overview

DuoLingo's app and its iconic owl have definitely found a place in pop culture. One of the most popular free language-learning apps, it offers 35 different languages, including Klingon, that can be learned through a series of vocabulary-matching games.

DuoLingo offers a free version and a version for $9.99 a month without ads and with offline access.

Rosetta Stone Overview

The Rosetta Stone app is a beast. There are 24 different languages to choose from, but more importantly, you get a huge variety of methods for learning. Not only are there simple games, but there are stories where you get to listen, the Seek and Speak feature, where you go on a treasure hunt to photograph images and get the translations, and the TruAccent feature, which will help you refine your accent. Whenever you speak into the app, you'll get a red/yellow/green rating on your pronunciation, so you can fine-tune it to really sound like you have a firm grasp of the language.

Rosetta Stone costs just $5.99 a month for a 24-month subscription, which gives you access to all of their 24 languages!

Final Notes

Overall, these are both excellent apps for increasing your proficiency in a new language! They both feel quite modern and have a fun experience.

When it comes to really committing words to memory and understanding them, Rosetta Stone is king.

DuoLingo definitely will help you learn new words, and the app can be addicting, but users report it as more of a game than a means to an end.

With Rosetta Stone's variety of features, you'll never get bored; there are more passive elements and more active elements to help you activate different parts of your brain, so you're learning in a more dynamic and efficient way.

The folks at Rosetta Stone are extending a special offer to our readers only: Up To 45% Off Rosetta Stone + Unlimited Languages & Free Tutoring Sessions!


So You Want to Try Workaway

Want to travel cheap, meet locals and kindred spirits, live off the land, and possibly change your life? It might be time to try Workaway.

Sitting in a house on a hill in Tuscany, Italy, watching the sun set and listening to the sound of music coming from the house in which I was staying almost rent-free, I wondered how I had gotten this lucky.

Actually, it was really all thanks to one website—Workaway.info.

Workaway Workaway

Workaway is a site that sets travelers up with hosts, who provide visitors with room and board in exchange for roughly five hours of work each weekday. The arrangement varies from host to host—some offer money, others require it—but typically, the Workaway experience is a rare bird: a largely anti-capitalist exchange.

I did four Workaways the summer I traveled in Europe, and then one at a monastery near my home in New York the summer after. Each experience, though they lasted around two weeks each, was among the most enriching times of my life—and I'd argue I learned almost as much through those experiences as I did in four years of college.

There's something extremely special about the Workaway experience, though it's certainly not for everyone.

Workaway Isn't for Everyone: What to Know Before You Go

I loved all the Workaways I went on, but the best advice I can give to anyone considering going is: Enter with an open mind. If you're someone who doesn't do well with the unexpected, if you're not willing to be flexible, if you're a picky eater or easily freaked out, then it's likely that you won't have a good experience at a Workaway.

There are exceptions to all of this. At the Workaway I stayed at in Italy, one of the travelers was suffering from stomach bloating, and the host helped cure her with a diet of miso. (I'm not saying you should go Workawaying if you're ill—this traveler's mother also came to oversee everything—but still, you never know what you'll find).

Workaway WoIsango.com

You should also probably be willing and able to actually work at your Workaway. These aren't vacations, and some hosts will be stricter and less forgiving than others regarding your work ethic. If you're someone who has no experience with difficult farm work, for example, it might not be a good idea to do a Workaway on a farm.

How to Choose a Host

The Workaway website boasts a truly overwhelming number of hosts. You can narrow your search down by location, but you can also search key terms that can help guide you in the right direction. You might search "music," for example—that's how I found the Italy location. You'll find hosts in busy cities and in the most remote mountains of India; you'll find opportunities to tutor and explore. You'll find shadiness, too, so trust your instincts.

Take time to actually read the host's entire bio before reaching out. Read all the comments, too, and if you're nervous or a first-timer, only reach out to hosts who have exclusively glowing reviews. I had the best experiences with hosts that had left extremely detailed bios—that showed me they were likely going to be dedicated hosts.

I also chose hosts whose bios gave me a good feeling, something like a spark of electricity or recognition. This instinctual method might not work for everyone, but it certainly led me in the right direction in all of my Workaway experiences. My Workaways gave me some of the best memories and deepest relationships of my life, and that was partly thanks to the fact that I chose places that were good fits for me.

For example, I chose to stay alone with a wizened academic in France. Something about his bio and descriptions resonated with me enough to trust him. (I also read some of his many thousand-page-long treatises on peace and compassion and decided that if someone could write this and be a psychopath, this wasn't a world I wanted to live in anyway). It was the right decision—and the two weeks I spent there were some of the most enlightening of my entire life.

When you reach out to a host, particularly if it's someone you really want to stay with, it's a good idea to frame your initial contact email as a cover letter of sorts—make sure you explain who you are and personalize your letter to fit each host.

Ixcanaan A Workaway painting experienceWorkaway

Travel Safely

Especially if you're traveling alone, it's always a good idea to choose a host whose page has tons of good reviews. Aside from that, a quick Google search and a scan of any social media pages related to your potential host can't hurt.

Ultimately, Workawaying requires a certain amount of trust and faith on both the host and the traveler's parts—you're either trusting someone to stay in your home or trusting a stranger to host and feed you.

But that trust, in my experience, also results in rapid and deep connections unlike anything I've experienced in the "real world." When you go and share a home with someone, you're also sharing yourself with them, and in that exchange there are the seeds of a powerful bond.

Participate Fully

Wherever you go, you'll want to open your mind and participate fully. Adjust yourself to your host's lifestyle, not the other way around, and take time to get to know your host and the others around you.

You might find that you become someone you never knew you were. As a lifelong introvert, I somehow managed to develop close relationships with many of the people I was staying with.

This might be because most people who are at Workaways are seeking something for one reason or another. In my experience, you find lots of people who are at junctures in their lives, seeking connection and meaning. With the right Workaway, you might just find it.

Workaway The Broke Backpacker - WorkawayThe Broke Backpacker