I Don’t Like This City… Wait, Maybe I Do…

I spent last weekend in Beijing, and am spending this weekend in Shanghai. Visiting these two cities back-to-back has made me realize something for the first time. But before I explain, let me zoom out for a moment.

We all have cities we love, and in some cases it can be tough to explain why we feel the way we do. While we can list the reasons we like a city, other people may view that place through a different lens, and not really see the things we see. After all, everyone is looking to get different things out of travel.

For example, I love Hong Kong, and it’s probably my favorite major city in the world. When people ask me why, I say it’s because of the city’s energizing vibe. I’ve had some friends go there and say “meh, I guess it was fine, but I didn’t love Hong Kong.” And that’s fine, because everyone views things differently.

Hong-Kong-3
Hong Kong

Similarly, I really like Dubai. I’m not saying it’s my favorite city in the world, but it’s a city which fascinates me, and which I like a lot more than most. I can’t really explain why I enjoy it. I’ve taken friends there to show them around — some have looked at me like I had two heads and said “I don’t get it,” while others saw it similarly to how I see it.

Dubai-1
Dubai

The above has remained pretty consistent, in the sense that I loved Dubai and Hong Kong the first time I visited them, and continue to love them. That’s nothing new.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I wanted to share my impressions of Beijing and Shanghai, and how they’ve transformed over time for me.

My impressions of Beijing and Shanghai almost a decade ago

I took my first ever trip to China with my dad almost a decade ago, when we visited Shanghai and Beijing. At the time I remember loving Beijing and not loving Shanghai. I thought Beijing was culturally fascinating, while I thought Shanghai felt sort of like a soulless big city.

Shanghai
Shanghai

I’ve returned to both cities many times under a variety of circumstances, thought mostly as part of mileage runs. In many cases I was just in town for a day or two, often in winter when I’d mostly stay in the hotel.

In Beijing I’ve done the day tour of Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and The Great Wall at least five times. Every time I go to Beijing with a first timer I’ll do the tour with them. While it’s interesting the first time you do it, by the fifth time you’re tempted to spike your coffee in the morning to make it more bearable. The experience is super touristy, and is more about actually having visited all of those places than having some in-depth cultural experience every time you visit.

Great-Wall
The Great Wall

My impressions of Beijing and Shanghai this week

Last weekend I was in Beijing, and this weekend I’m in Shanghai. This is only the second time I’ve visited the two cities almost back-to-back, which has given me an opportunity to compare them directly.

What’s interesting is how much my perception of the two cities differed during these visits.

I really didn’t enjoy Beijing for the three days I was there. That’s despite the fact that the weather was uncharacteristically nice and I was in good company. I don’t want to harp on the negatives, though I came away thinking “boy, I don’t know what I saw in this place in the past.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m still grateful to have the opportunity to visit, but that was still my overall impression.

Beijing-Summer-Palace
Summer Palace in Beijing

At that point I was sort of dreading returning to Shanghai. I said to myself “well, I liked Beijing more in the past, and if I disliked Beijing so much this time, I can’t imagine how I’ll feel about Shanghai.”

Here’s the crazy part — I’m loving Shanghai this time around, more than ever before. I think a large part of it is that I’m staying in Xintiandi, which is an area I love. I didn’t love Shanghai as much when I stayed at the Park Hyatt. While it’s a gorgeous hotel, it’s not in an area where I actually want to spend time.

Shanghai-1
Shanghai

I’m still trying to put into words exactly what I love about Shanghai this time around, but as I walked around the city today I found myself marveling the whole time at how dynamic of a city it is. It reminds me a lot of Hong Kong, with a bit more Chinese influence, which I like.

What I take away from this

This is the first time that my impressions of cities have changed so drastically. As I reflect on how I feel about Beijing and Shanghai, I realize just how many things contribute to my impressions of places. This includes things like who I’m with, what part of town I’m staying in, what the weather is like, how well rested I am, what my expectations of the city are (the lower the expectations, the greater the chance I’ll be impressed), what my general view on life is, the vibe of the hotel I’m staying at, etc.

I’m realizing just how much factors into my impression of cities, and it’s changing the mentality I have when I visit a place I don’t like (where I’ve always said “well, I didn’t like it, but at least I can check it off the list now”).

Who knows, maybe I’ll love Beijing again the next time I visit?

Have you ever had your opinion of a city change drastically across several visits?

Comments

  1. The stuff I love about Beijing isn’t the tourist stuff, which stays the same – the only thing that changes is your impression of it after doing the same thing over and over. It’s getting lost in a hutong, virtually untouched by centuries of the city’s evolution around it. Or enjoying a Chinese rock show at Yu Gong Yi Shan (http://www.yugongyishan.com/) one of the most famous and venerable music venues in the city. Or buying a different pair of glasses for every day of the week just because they’re so cheap at Jinsong Glasses City. The best thing about Beijing is it is never the same. Every time you go back, you can pick a different theme and see it through a different lens and you’ll never be bored.

  2. I’m in Boston right now. It’s one of my favorite cities. But last year I _hated_ my time here. I was on business trip and staying in a soulless business area. The weather was also crappy. I was dreading my return this year but as I am staying closer to the real city and venturing out to the neighborhoods, even though its still cold, I rediscovered why I fell in love with this place. Yes, the internal and external conditions can greatly affect your enjoyment.

  3. I LOVE Shanghai and have a sort of love/hate relationship with Beijing. If you decide to stay in Pudong on your next trip, check out the Four Seasons. The service is incredible and the pool on the 40th floor is awesome!

  4. Have been to both cities. This time with a trip to Tokyo/Kyoto which may not have been a good idea. I really love the culture/mannerism/tranquility of Japan and both these cities in sharp contrast.

  5. Nowadays the # of outsiders are nearly 50% of the entire population in Shanghai. The city could have been much better without these low quality non-native Shanghainese!

    Remember to visit Shanghai during Chinese new year, and you will love it.

  6. Hey Lucky. I think you’ve inspired me to give Shanghai another try. I went last year for a quick weekend visit and ended up leaving really disappointed, so much so that I’ve cancelled at least two trips I had planned there. My visit went poorly due to a number of things you pointed out that can affect a trip: I was overtired, the weather was really poor, I had high expectations since I was just in Hong Kong the month before, and I wasn’t feeling 100% physically. I think I’ll have to give it another shot this summer when I have a break in my travel schedule. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  7. Beijing is ‘Old China’ and Shanghai is ‘New China’.
    I used to live in China and loved strolling around at the French Concession, made me feel like home. BTW, The Four Seasons in Pudong is an amazing hotel, the best in Shanghai.

  8. “I don’t want to harp on the negatives…”

    Why not? I would enjoy reading about the negatives of this trip to Beijing. I have zero interest in the posts concerning credit cards, and loyalty programs; but, I have always enjoyed reading the OMAAT bloggers’ impressions of airlines, hotels and places. And I feel like those of us who hit-up OMAAT just for trip reviews are being punished for whatever reason as, lately, there have been scantily few trip reports.

  9. It’s not everyday I’ll see an American appreciate China (East Asia, in general) as much as you do, Lucky.
    I live in Holland and is from Hong Kong, I truly experience the best of both world but I must say, life in an Asian city is much more lively, fun and fulfilling. For example, shops in Asia open 24 hours but everything closes in Holland at 6pm, this is a also a perfect example reflecting the Asians’ attitude to their society and how it differs from Western values. Asia’s on fire, and it’s only going to get better 🙂

  10. I found hong kong to be rather dull. Pretty much every door i went in was another mall. It is an ok city and i guess for people who cant handle mainland china it might be considered exotic but i found it to be slightly above average as far as international cities go great for food and shopping. Certainly not a bad city just not something id go out of my way to visit again. I really did not like shanghai but part of that was the horrible weather and all the scams in the tourist areas. I stayed at the park hyatt and its location isnt very good unless you are there on business. This is probably a city id enjoy more by avoiding the tourist areas. For tourists though beijing has a ton to see and is a bizzare city. My favorite parts of china are outside the cities in the countryside. If all you do is visit places like shanghai and Beijing let alone hong kong then you are not really seeing a full picture of china and you are really missing out. Beijing has the most chinese influence, the other two cities are somewhat generic international cities with an asian flavor.

  11. You’ve been to London, Paris and New York zillions of times — the greatest cities in the world — and this is how it all ends up? Shanghai?

    There are somewhat eccentric, but still plausible or at least possible, choices out there. Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, DC, Chicago, New Orleans, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome come to mind, as do “frozen in time” places like Venice and, for that matter, New Orleans again.

    But Shanghai?

  12. Ben, I read your blog regularly and whilst I don’t always agree with opinion based posts, I appreciate reading about the experiences you have.

    I think this post is a great example of where picking a particular chain hotel in a city, for the purpose of accruing or using status/points can be a mistake, rather than staying in an area or an independent hotel which you really enjoy or shows off a city.

    Where convenient or when the difference I negligible, sure I’ll stay in an SPG or Hyatt property. However if a Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, non-SPG Design Hotel or an independent hotel offers me a better travel experience, I’ll take it without question.

    It’s such a shame to travel to so many wonderful places and be stuck in dreadful western chain hotels for the specific purpose of using or earning status or points when realistically you can get free breakfast and wifi by booking through Amex or Citi anyway, and 99% of nice boutique, cool or even big independent hotels don’t have Executive lounges anyway.

    Enjoy Shanghai!

  13. Shanghai is great, had the pleasure of living there. There is nothing in Pudong, nobody lives there, drinks there or eats there, just work, everyone is other the other side – Puxi. Sure Pudong is nice do look at but where do you look at it from? The Bund; in Puxi. I’d imagine that’s why you’re enjoying it more.

    Try Bar rouge and a few other places while you’re there, smartshanghai.com has good listings.

  14. I think one can learn a lot about a person from the kind of cities they like or don’t like and the reasons behind such reactions. No doubt one’s cultural background and educational experience are major factors in these visceral reactions. Ben has written many times of his somewhat negative reaction to Paris (and has not spent time elsewhere in France) and I have to think this has some relationship to being German as its combination of architectural beauty, food, history and contemporary culture makes Paris possibly the most beautiful and certainly the most romantic city in the world, though there is certainly much more of France – both rural and urban – to explore.

  15. This can happen with many cities, and it all depends in the circumstances on which you initially visit them, and also depends enormously on personal preferences. No person has the same view on cities, i have loved cities that my friends hated, and vice versa. Depends if you are a person prefers big new skyscrapers, or you prefer centuries/milennial old mystical places, do you like architecture at all or focus on the people who live there regardless of buildings? are you single or in a relationship? are you straight or are you gay? (This can affect a lot, being straight i tend to like better cities where i consider women to be more attractive, wether consciously or not). Etc etc.

    That being said, a few cities have changed my opinion over time. For example, i was absolutely in love with London the first time i visited, and didn’t like new york at all when i moved there ( I was thinking its overpriced, ugly, dirty with rats even in the best neighbourhood, etc). But over time i absolutely fell in love with New York, mostly its people and non stop energy, the easyness in which you can engage in conversation with any stranger, and the high chances that this stranger will be a very smart well educated individual with a very interesting life story. Over time i feel less attracted to London which is equally overpriced, but with less energy, things close early, and everything is far away to get to, especially after the tube closed.

    I still love both cities though but in different ways. Shanghai, i was there only for 5 days and have no plans to return. I could barely breathe because of pollution, i couldnt even see the top of the skyscrappers because of how polluted the air was and my head was hurting all the time, plus i got scammed by chinese people, etc.

    Guess everyone’s experience is different.

  16. Wow, Lucky, it took you HOW many trips to figure out what I figured out from just two (one to Beijing and one to Shanghai): Shanghai is by far the more interesting city! Shanghai has some great neighborhoods for just strolling around in. Aside from the hutongs and the old royalty-related tourist attractions, there isn’t much to Beijing. If I had to choose one of the two to spend a few days in, it would definitely by Shanghai.

  17. Love to reading your posts. Would be more happier if you can share more details which part of Shanghai you enjoyed more and more, which part of Beijing you dislike more and more.

  18. imcully agree with your assent of how individuals interpret and love cities through different perspectives. I lived in Shanghai for 6 months and was depressed when I left. It is one of the most amazing cities in the world. Xintandi is so cool too! Go to Kabb for brunch which is right near there; they have amazing bloody marys. Write me of you want more insider tips!!

  19. You fell into the Shanghai trap. Pudong sucks, Puxi rocks. I don’t understand why anyone would stay in the Park Hyatt Shanghai because the location is the soulless business district with no culture. It’s a nice hotel but you don’t stay in a nice hotel in NJ when you visit NYC.

  20. Congrats for finally venturing beyond the tourist traps so you can see the real city. If you read Rick Steve’s basic travel tips he points out how you need to get with the locals to truly experience a city. I suggest saving your opinion until doing that a bit.

  21. “Rather a bed in Puxi than a house in Pudong” -a saying among Shanghai residents many years ago.

  22. Love Hong Kong, what a great city – and with that airport what travel enthusiast wouldn’t. I sheepishly have to admit I haven’t visited China yet, but have heard great things about Shanghai from like minded travel friends. Both are on the list in a couple years.

  23. Shanghai always makes me feel at home while Beijing makes me feel as an outsider; geographically it is too big for me to handle.
    I was in Beijing twice last month and got pat down everywhere I went 🙁 , due to two major government conferences held in the capital.

    For some reason I dislike park Hyatt in Shanghai instead I prefer grand Hyatt across from the street. Shanghai Andaz is ok and I wish it offers a lounge club. The location is convenient but I prefer French concession areas. Spg luxury collection at heng Shan number 12 is great, so is Rui Jing guest house intercontinental

  24. Tom wrote:
    “Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, DC, Chicago, New Orleans, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome come to mind”
    lol… Los Angeles??? Seriously? polluted flat urban sprawl with no downtown worth mentioning? I live in San Francisco, travel overseas for pleasure several times a year, and Los Angeles is one place I try to avoid spending any time in. Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Rome on the other hand are amazing cities that I love. My two favorite large cities in the world are Hong Kong and Paris.

  25. I just arrived in Shanghai last night on a mileage run. Making it a two night stay at the Andaz (who really takes care of their diamonds since I was upgraded to a two floor loft.). It’s my second time here.

    I had an horrible experience last time, but I chalked that up to being my first time in China. This time though, I came with low expectations and not many plans. I’ve found out that was the perfect way of experiencing this city. Last time, I wandered around, darted into small bars and cafes and just did what the locals were doing. Way better way of seeing this city without following the tourist track.

    If you have any time before you go, check out Speak Low. Best cocktails that I’ve found here. I’ll be there tonight, so if you see an Asian guy with his American wife, you might see a ardent reader!

  26. The areas in which you stay can make a great difference! As an example the Park Hyatt in Shanghai is in the “wrong” part of the city. Similarly, if you stayed at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo (Shinjuku) the experience you get would be quite different than if you stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi (favor this one).

    There are cities where all the Hyatts are located miserably. (Mumbai comes to mind where with traffic it might take you a couple of hours to get to the South)

    so if its points/redemption you value you can certainly stay there but ask your knowledgeable blog readers which areas are more likely to suit you for your preferences whether it be nightlife, shopping or simply the “energy” of the city.

  27. I think it also depends on when you visit. I was expecting to enjoy Shanghai, but went during the May Day week holiday, and was overwhelmed by the crowds and poor behaviour of the domestic tourists. My lasting image of the Bund is not the view of the buildings, but of Chinese parents letting their children defecate and urinate there.

  28. Xintiandi is literally based on Hong Kong even the pronunciation of places in Xintiandi is based on Cantonese instead of mandarin and there are places such as Timesquare in Xintiandi which is based on the one in Hong Kong

  29. @硬盘滚出去 “The city could have been much better without these low quality non-native Shanghainese!”

    You are the exact reason why I hated Shanghai for the five months I lived there and moved to Singapore.

  30. I am glad that you love Shanghai, Lucky!

    I recently moved to Shanghai from San Francisco, and have loved it more than ever. I also live & work around Xintiandi area – it’s fascinating!

  31. @Lucky,

    I don’t stay in chain hotels for the reason you mentioned: many times they are not in the areas you want to spend time in. I’d rather enjoy my destination more than stay in a place like the Park Hyatt that is no where near anyting I want to do.

    Perhaps you should try staying at some nice independent hotels that are nearby things you want to do. Depending on the destination, they are usually way cheaper than a comparable chain hotel.

  32. I lived in Shanghai for 4 years and have also done the numerous Beijing treks (I think I’ve been there 5+ times) — do not like Beijing. I think it’s because the roads and the metro are not as convenient as in Shanghai (the gaojias make driving easier and the metro is super connected). I like it less and less the more I go whereas Shanghai, I feel, has this great fusion of cultures and ‘new China’ to it. I loved Shanghai — the French concession, the old city (when it’s a good time of day and not crowded with people), Yangpu (I worked in that district; helped me see how the Shanghainese live), Hongkou’s WWII history, the Bund, obviously Lujiazui, but I’ll echo what everyone has said: Puxi is better than Pudong. Always stay in Puxi!

    Anyway, Speak Low came in on a top 50 bars list for Asia. Constellation did, too, so if you’re looking for a nice place for a proper cocktail, check those places out. Love them. Glad you gave the city another chance!

  33. I get this response whenever I mention Singapore. I happen to love the walkability/rapid transit, multiculturalism, and the fact everyone speaks English, others hate the “walled garden”, and the drenching rainstorms in December / scorching temperatures every other month.

  34. Ben,

    If you are afraid of ghosts (spirits) as indicated in previous correspondence, I find it amazing you love Hong Kong and parts of Asia.

    My gosh, I lived there 20 years and they are all around. You probably haven’t witnessed the women on the side of the street burning effigies in a small can container. You probably haven’t seen the large bowls of fruit and food on the red alters for the ancestors at places of businesses or homes.

    Or have you at least seen the waving paw cat in a business or restaurant.

    Generally speaking, the chinese do believe in spirits, and are defintly afraid, so they do these things to calm their minds.

    I wish for you to enjoy yourself in these places, what are you doing to protect yourself?

    Kent

  35. I visited Shanghai and Beijing relatively close together last year (March and May, respectively). I hands down liked Shanghai more. Stayed at the Andaz in Shanghai and the Four Seasons in Beijing–and even though I was with friends in Beijing, I found Beijing a city to be one I was glad I visited but wouldn’t want to return to again without good reason. I definitely want to return to Shanghai.

  36. Lucky,
    I really think that if you like cities like Hong Kong and Dubai, purely artificial, with no soul or history and you don’t like Beijing, a city that really lives an has tonnes of history, it just shows how empty you are and you’re looking after immediate satisfaction rather than real content. You’re perfectly entitled to that, but it’s too bad in my opinion, but not too much of a surprise if i read your recent blogs, all being very superficial

  37. @andre

    There is nothing artificial about Hong Kong. Of course it is not ancient like Beijing; but, nonetheless, Hong Kong does possess a truly fascinating history. I first became interested in it way back in high school after having read James Clavell’s novels Tai-pan and Nobel House; both of which are absolutely perfect reads for a long-haul flight and are surprisingly good introductions to Hong Kong’s past.

  38. “Have you ever had your opinion of a city change drastically across several visits?”

    Yep. I used to *hate* Sydney. I grew up in Melbourne, and always thought Sydney was pretentious, and full of people who were full of themselves. I had to travel there somewhat regularly on business, but always tried to do it as a day trip.

    Now that I no longer live in Australia, Sydney has become quite possibly my favorite city in the world, and I’m looking forward to visiting again this September for 3 nights.

  39. Every time I revisit a city I’ve been to in the past, I tend to try to stay in a hotel in another neighborhood, just to get another perspective on the city. I feel like the city gets its epicentre from where my hotel is placed, and can differ enormously depending on where that is.

    For instance, in Paris, last time I stayed in 7th, close to La Tour Eiffel. This time, I chose Montmartre in the 18th. Next time, I will probably be in 11th.

  40. Wow Ben, you actually stepped out of the airport for once???! How about posting a real photo or two taken by yourself, instead of off the web?

  41. @Jimmy Gottfredson says:
    “Love Hong Kong, what a great city… I sheepishly have to admit I haven’t visited China yet”

    We are in the same boat! I adore Hawaii, and Alaska, and Guam – great cities, all 3 of them. But alas, I embarassingly have to admit I haven’t visited USA yet! USA is next on my list, just as China is next on yours.

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