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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?