Shanghai Gay Travel
wolfyy’s Shanghai gay travel guide to the best hotels, gay bars, restaurants, things to do, & gay life in China.
The Gay Travel Experience: Shanghai, China
Shanghai has much more gay life than most westerners typically expect. While some of the city’s gay nightlife may not be as easy to find as in Hong Kong, it definitely exists. In this Shanghai gay guide, I’ll fill you in on all the important details.
Most westerners, especially Americans, are either clueless about what China is really like or are fully aware of how advanced the country is. Shanghai is shockingly organized, spotless, and modern. The city emanates a luxurious international ambiance.
After visiting, it’s easy to understand why Chinese cities are closer to what westerners would call the “first world.” They leave many American and European cities in the dust!
While China certainly doesn’t rank highly with respect to LGBT rights, the nation is not as conservative as you may think.
The period between 2000 and 2010 saw a boom in the formation of LGBT rights groups. Since 2000, an attitude of tolerance toward gay people in China has become the norm.
Below I will start with what Shanghai’s gay scene is like, followed by tips for where to stay, restaurants, and gay nightlife. Traveling to Shanghai doesn’t come without some challenges, so be sure to also read the travel tips at the end of this guide.
The Shanghai Gay Scene
Shanghai’s gay scene may not be the most vibrant in the world, but there are fun local gay bars to meet locals and other travelers, plus the occasional massive gay party.
If you’re wondering why online information about gay things to do in Shanghai is so sparse, there are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, Chinese nationals use different social networks and search engines than the rest of the world. As you may have heard, Chinese nationals don’t even use Facebook or Google.
Combined with the language barrier, this information disconnect makes it difficult for travelers to find information about Shanghai gay events, attractions, and other travel advice.
Also, LGBT people in China tend to keep a low profile regarding their sexuality. Given that Chinese law doesn’t protect the LGBT community, gay events in Shanghai don’t create too much of an online presence. I’ll cover this more in the gay nightlife section of this guide.
Gay Shanghai: Hotels & Where to Stay
With more than 20 million people living in Shanghai’s central area alone, choosing a place to stay in such a large city can feel daunting. Before deciding where to stay, consider the below advice.
Hotels Versus Apartment Rentals in Shanghai
Shanghai may be massive, but not every neighborhood is densely populated. Many areas feel a bit suburban and can be eerily quiet after dark.
These suburban areas usually do not have any convenience stores or restaurants nearby. You may find yourself frustrated without these conveniences you’re likely accustomed to.
Secondly, be cognizant that Shanghai taxis are not always easy to obtain. This is due to both the language barrier as well as restricted pick up/drop off locations.
Staying at a large hotel, the taxi situation shouldn’t be an issue since staff can order a cab for you. If you’re staying in an apartment rental without such services, then I suggest you position yourself near a metro stop for more accessibility.
I stayed in a hotel close to attractions in the core of Shanghai for part of my visit. I spent the remaining time in a tourist apartment rental within walking distance to the gay bars so I wouldn’t have any issues with late-night transportation.
Neighborhoods surrounding People’s Square are generally quite vibrant and a fantastic place for tourists to stay.
Xintiandi (which translates to New World) is amazingly modern and filled with ex-pats. Xintiandi is your safest bet if you’re prone to feeling comfortable as a foreigner.
The Nanjing Pedestrian Street area is a more culturally authentic neighborhood in Shanghai. Here you’ll find a ton of shopping and restaurants. It’s kind of like the Times Square of Shanghai, except everything is impeccably clean.
The part of the Jing’an neighborhood closest to People’s Square is also a great area to stay. Hotels like the JW Marriott Tomorrow Square and the Portman Ritz Carlton Shanghai are here.
The Sukhothai Shanghai is one of the best-designed hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms are huge and quite luxurious. They also have an amazing steam room and sauna that I used just about every day!
Travelers in Shanghai should try to avoid staying on the east side of Huangpu River in the financial district. This is the area near the Shanghai Tower.
It can become a bit lifeless after business hours and is farther from many of Shanghai’s attractions.
Does Shanghai Have a Gay Neighborhood?
Some gay travel sites classify the eastern part of the Changning District or the French Concession as the Shanghai gay neighborhood. This is quite a broad generalization though. Both Changning and the French Concession are huge districts by themselves.
Shanghai doesn’t have much of a true gay area. But local gay bars are within Changning, an area called Xinhua Road Residential District. This is what I’d classify as the Shanghai gay neighborhood.
Shanghai Gay Travel Experiences
There are so many things to do in Shanghai, both during the day and night. And even though the city is huge, transportation is so inexpensive that taking a taxi or the metro between attractions is super affordable.
Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street
Walking down Nanjing Road was one of my most memorable Shanghai experiences. Everything here is frenetic, yet happy. There are hundreds of markets, small restaurants, and other stores to explore.
It’s one of the busiest areas of Shanghai, popular with both locals and tourists. You’ll get to see families and friends spending free time out and about.
You can pretty much do any activity imaginable on Nanjing Road. Browse luxury watches, get a massage, try local desserts, you name it!
Get some sweets at one of the window shops. They’re oily and delicious. I grabbed some packaged black bean treats too as a present for my mom in one of the market halls.
Tianzifang is an adorable, cozy district in Shanghai with an incredibly unique vibe. Ex-pats specifically love Tianzifang, and it’s easy to understand why. International restaurant chains and many other western comforts are available here.
Walking through Tianzifang can feel like you’ve been transported back to the western world. Tianzifang’s architecture gives the neighborhood a warm, pleasant feeling. Low-rise buildings, well-designed streetscapes, and a plethora of restaurants make it a place people love to hang out.
While it’s not a place to find authentic Chinese food, Tianzifang is definitely an area to see! Some locals hang out here drinking at the outdoor bars and such. The majority of people in Tianzifang will be foreigners, though.
People’s Square & People’s Park
People’s Square is a large public green space in central Shanghai. There are vast stretches of gardens with colorful flowers and lush patches of grass. It’s beautiful to wander through here.
Many people spend some time in Peoples Square to see the fountain show. Peaceful music plays while the fountain shows off different effects.
People’s Park is on the opposite side of the Urban Planning Exhibition Center and is a lot denser with trees and natural life. There is a small lake, lots of park benches, and more shade to escape the summer heat.
Shanghai’s Hong Kong Shopping Centre is a maze of underground corridors lined with arcades, restaurants, and small shops.
This lively concourse is hidden beneath the pavement of People’s Square. If you’re visiting during the cooler months, you may find most people hanging out down here!
The Shanghai Maglev Train
Don’t miss out on taking the Shanghai Maglev, the fastest commercial train in the world! The Maglev links Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) to the greater Shanghai city area.
The train has an impressive speed capacity of 431 kilometers per hour. The train usually tops out around 350 km/hour during normal operation.
Shanghai Pudong Airport is quite far from the city center. The Maglev train reduces a ride that normally takes forty minutes to just under eight! This might just be the first time you take a train ride that you wish was a little longer.
The most important thing to know about the Shanghai Maglev is that the terminus is at Longyang Road Subway Station, which is not in the center of Shanghai. You will need to either take the subway or a taxi from here.
Overall, I recommend taking the Maglev for the experience, even if you have to shift modes of transport. It does save a good chunk of time.
Like most non-luxury things in China, the Maglev is quite inexpensive. A single ride costs 50 Yuan or the equivalent of only USD $7. There is no need to buy tickets online beforehand. There is a ticket booth near the platform.
The Bund is Shanghai’s iconic waterfront promenade popular for stunning skyline views. It’s one of the most popular places to visit in the city and truly a must-see for every tourist.
Iconic to Shanghai’s history, the Bund transformed over hundreds of years from a commercial port filled with tiny wooden boats to the beautiful promenade it is today.
Although you can see the skyline across the Huangpu River from the Bund at any time, I recommend going at night. Shanghai’s glistening colors reflect on the water.
Make your way toward the area between Huangpu Park and Shanghai People’s Heroes Memorial Tower to take in these views.
No matter what time of year it is, expect a crowd at the Bund. I was there in quite cold weather and there were still thousands of people about.
Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
One of the upper floors of the museum has an absolutely stunning, full-floor scaled model of Shanghai. The images on this page simply cannot capture the grandeur of this meticulous model.
Other floors of the museum feature exhibits of urban history, city planning feats, and plans for Shanghai’s future. You can easily spend three hours here.
I was actually interviewed for a short clip about the museum while walking around. The woman interviewing me mentioned that the museum would be installing an updated city model and performing building upgrades. So you might be able to see the latest stuff!
Sichuan Citizen Restaurant
Before having dinner at Sichuan Citizen, I had not experienced such high-quality service in any local Chinese restaurants. This place was amazing in every sense.
Fun custom cocktails (try the vodka basil drop martini), and cheerful staff were a highlight. Sichuan Citizen is a Shanghai is a truly authentic restaurant you can’t skip!
Mercato Shanghai by Jean-Georges
Mercato offers a luxurious dining experience with skyline views of Shanghai’s Bund. Part of the Jean-Georges Vongerichten line of restaurants, they received a Michelin star in 2019. They serve delicious Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
While it’s not Chinese or even Asian food, I recommend Mercato Shanghai for unmatched city views and top-of-the-line service. For anyone who wants a night of western food in a friendly atmosphere, this is the best restaurant for it!
Starbucks Reserve Shanghai
I stopped by the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Jing’an to warm up from the chilly November weather. The high-end coffee was great, but watching them make it was probably even more enjoyable than the drink itself!
Shanghai Gay Bars & Parties
Gay bars in Shanghai are clustered in one area of town, which is on the border of the Changning District and the French Concession.
It is important to know before heading out that Google is not helpful with sorting through Shanghai’s gay bars. So I’ll give you the needed info for a fun night out and what to expect.
Lucca 390 & Telephone 6
Firstly, 390 Café & Bar is an old name for the current Lucca 390 gay bar. The bar’s name changed in the mid-2010s, however, they kept the number 390 in the name. This just comes from the building’s street number.
Lucca 390 is probably the best gay bar in Shanghai for foreigners. They warmly welcome travelers and ex-pats. On Saturdays, expect a sizable crowd ready to dance!
Since so many gay travel websites list mention Lucca 390, this is one of the few gay bars where you’re likely to find another gay travel buddy. Solo travelers are usually out and about exploring what the Shanghai gay scene is like.
Telephone 6 is in the same building. It’s connected to and above Lucca 390. This area of the bar was not open on the night I visited and so I didn’t experience it!
There isn’t much other information about Telephone 6 online, however, the space is simply a lounge-like room with a bar above Lucca 390.
Happiness 42 Shanghai (New Location)
Happiness 42 is another Shanghai gay bar, only a short walk from Lucca 390. The busiest nights here are on weekends, and the bar has a good mix of foreigners and locals. They host RuPaul’s Drag Race viewings and play all the pop song favorites.
The location of Happiness 42 may be difficult to find and/or incorrect on most travel websites. Note that the bar is no longer in the same location it used to be. If the name “Shanghai Studio” appears, then the address is wrong.
The adjacent Panyu Building (West Gate) is great for dinner, cocktails, or a little shopping. Expect a dreamy modern streetscape lined with ice cream shops, boutique stores, and restaurants.
Angel Shanghai Circuit Party
Angel is a huge Shanghai gay dance party attended mostly by locals. It has a powerful circuit party vibe. The club venue changes and may not be near the center of Shanghai.
Take note that these types of gay parties in Shanghai may only host events sporadically. It’s possible they go many months without organizing an event.
I did not get to attend the Angel Party for myself, so if you attended, send wolfyy an email talking about your experience there. I’d love to know!
Tips for Visiting Gay Bars in Shanghai
Local gay bars are predominantly busy on weekends. During the workweek, you will experience more of a calm night of casual drinks in lieu of a rowdy dancefloor escape. If you’re looking for a crowd, then Friday night or Saturday night is best.
Some traveler friends of mine mentioned that the city’s gay bars were much less crowded than they had anticipated during their trip. All you can do is manage your expectations and just go with your gut!
Privacy Among Locals
Many Shanghai gay locals prefer to keep their parties closed to foreigners for privacy reasons. You may notice that when gay bars in Shanghai publish photos online, they blur the faces or eyes of everyone shown.
While being gay in China is not illegal, the cultural norm is to maintain a decent level of privacy.
Shanghai Travel Tips
Does Google Maps Work in China?
One of the biggest challenges with travel in China is not having the wealth of information on Google Maps. Directions via public transit as well as information for establishments in China are largely unavailable on Google. This makes finding things pretty difficult.
Going to mainland China will truly test your ability to live without plentiful help from Google. Yes, you will still be able to use Google Maps and all of Google’s platforms while in China. You just have to download a VPN application.
I use a robust app called NordVPN. All the nonsense online hype about not being able to access your Gmail and such is annoyingly incorrect.
Taking Taxis in Shanghai
Getting a taxi in Shanghai was probably the most difficult and frustrating thing about my visit. This is true for a number of reasons, many of which have been experienced by other world travelers.
Most importantly, transportation via taxis in Shanghai is difficult because ride-share applications will not work unless you have a Chinese bank account.
DiDi is the main ride-share application in Shanghai. You’ll be able to download it, but don’t bet on using it! This means the only option is to hail a cab on the street.
It took me a bit of time to realize that Shanghai taxi cabs don’t stop just anywhere. They can only pull over on certain streets, or in the pickup area or driveway of a building. A yellow curb will be an indication that they cannot stop. I had to walk quite a bit to find a place where taxis stopped.
Next, the attitude of almost every cab driver of mine was quite poor. The language barrier was one thing, but aside from that, I often sensed rude impatience. I was once refused a ride by a Shanghai taxi without reason and I still have no idea why.
Do Shanghai Taxi Drivers Speak English?
Shanghai taxi drivers rarely speak any English at all. Many also are not interested in trying to figure out where you want to go either. To deal with this, get your destination address written in Mandarin and have it ready before you enter the vehicle.
If they see English, they will hand your directions back to you. On a couple of occasions, the driver became frustrated while I attempted to find the address translation. Lastly, attempting to point to a location on your phone map doesn’t work in my experience.
Don’t Let Taxis Rip You Off
Taxis in Shanghai are supposed to be inexpensive. Often, rides around thirty minutes cost the equivalent of 3 to 4 US Dollars! Make sure you understand this fact because many drivers will assume you do not know the fair price. Insist that they use the meter by pointing to it.
Some taxi cabs will try to take advantage of tourists. While exiting a cab with my boyfriend Michael, one driver tried to charge us more than 30 times the fair price! We knew he inflated it, so we yelled at him and walked away after giving a fair sum.
Being Gay in China: Past & Present
While mainland China currently lacks basic LGBT protections, the quality of life for LGBT Chinese citizens has certainly improved since China’s Communist Cultural Revolution. During this time, China classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
From then, Chinese society progressed toward treating homosexuality as taboo, eventually reaching today’s state of ambiguous tolerance.
Interesting LGBT Rights Milestones in China
Between 1994 and 2009, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association applied repeatedly to be a member of the UN Economic and Social Council. China voted against their inclusion on various occasions.
After an additional application in 2009, China changed its position and joined eight other nations in supporting ILGBTA’s inclusion. This was a close vote, and China helped make a big difference.
Also noteworthy is a recent Lunar New Year advertisement in China. In January 2020, the gay community applauded the inclusion of a gay couple on a Chinese online shopping site. This barely ever happens, so LGBT Chinese citizens were happily surprised.
Is It Illegal to Be Gay in China?
It is not illegal to be gay in China, as the nation decriminalized homosexuality in 1997. Public opinion isn’t the highest regarding homosexuality though, and a stigma continues to exist.
Beijing policymakers have declined to extend any marriage rights to the gay community and have dismissed same-sex marriage lawsuits in the past.
For now, there is a legal workaround. Those married overseas can exercise certain legal rights that would otherwise not be available for a gay couple in China.
Homosexuality in Ancient & Imperial China
Homosexuality in ancient China was tolerated very well. Continuing later into Imperial China, things began to change. The Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties kept the status quo with homosexuality being completely normal.
Female homosexuality was first mentioned during the later Han Dynasty (a Chinese golden age 206 BC to 220 CE).
The Song Dynasty introduced the first law against being gay in China, around the year 1115 CE. Although this law is not known to have been enforced, it was definitely a turning point in Chinese history.
Continuing forward through the Ming Dynasty, being gay was well normal. Gay male prostitution even flourished during these decades.
Once the Qing Dynasty began after 1644 (China’s final Dynasty), things became more socially conservative. The first anti-gay law in China that threatened legal consequences went into effect in 1740.
This was the start of China’s government equating being gay as a mental illness. Stigma against homosexuality then continued in China for centuries.
History of Gay Life in China’s Modern Era
Being gay in China was traditionally accepted and widely tolerated until the Imperial Era. Throughout ancient Chinese history, same-sex sexual relations were never even questioned. The Chinese characters “Luan Feng,” which denote homosexuality, were formed during this time.
Once the 18th century came around, gay rights and general sentiment toward homosexuality shifted for the worse. Gay people in China faced brutal persecution and arrest during the Communist Cultural Revolution. The situation only deteriorated progressing into the era of Communist China.
See wolfyy’s complete collection of gay travel guides for more gay destination ideas around the world.