What's it really like?
Shanghai is China at its most dizzyingly modern, with jaw-dropping skyscrapers, young trendy crowds, and a vibrant nightlife to rival some of Asia’s biggest party hubs. However, it is also rich in history and tradition, from the elegant colonial architecture of The Bund to beautiful temples and narrow winding lanes serving steaming-hot street food. There is perhaps no better place to understand the past, present, and future of China than Shanghai, and it is an equally great destination for eating, shopping, exploring, and partying.
For the gay traveler, Shanghai is home to the country’s most progressive and gay-friendly nightlife, with plenty of gay bars, clubs, and saunas to enjoy. It is at the heart of China’s emerging LGBT movement, as evidenced by the fact that it is home to the country’s only major Pride event every June. Gay Shanghai is extremely condensed for one of the biggest cities in the world, but on the bright side, that means you know exactly where to go.
Shanghai is miles ahead of any other city in mainland China in terms of gay nightlife, though it still lags behind other Asian cities like Bangkok, Taipei or Tokyo. There are a few great gay bars and clubs, plenty of gay-friendly mixed venues, and a strong local gay community that frequents them.
Whilst not really a “Gay Area”, the hub of gay Shanghai is located in the Changing district, albeit at the very edge of it, next to the French Concession area. This makes it very easy to mix gay and straight bars on a night out, which is particularly handy if you are traveling with straight friends.
Many gay visitors choose to stay in the French Concession area as it offers a good compromise between tourist activities and gay Shanghai nightlife. From true 5 star luxury to backpacker hostels Shanghai has it all. As a general rule, you should not struggle to find gay-friendly accommodation in Shanghai. Most places welcome same-sex couples when booking double rooms, but opt for international chains if you want to be sure. Stay in the French Concession area for a good compromise between tourist activities and gay Shanghai nightlife.
Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in China in 1997, and homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 2001. Same-sex marriage remains illegal, and a large number of Chinese gay men remain closeted due to societal pressures.
The authorities in Shanghai are not particularly gay-friendly, but they will most likely not give you a hard time. The locals do not tend to be homophobic, particularly the young, trendy crowd you are likely to see in areas like the French Concession and Jing’an. It is relatively normal for heterosexual men to hold hands, so a certain level of PDA will go by unnoticed. Overall, you are not likely to be hassled, but be discreet unless you are in a gay space.
Getting tested for HIV in Shanghai can be a bit tricky, but is not too complicated if you know where to go. Avoid big international clinics, as they require a consultation – including a discussion of lifestyle choices – as well as your name and passport number to be registered. Patients who test positive for HIV may also have their visas revoked.
Smart Shanghai has compiled a detailed – and very handy – guide to HIV testing in Shanghai public hospitals, including where to go, what to say, and the speed, discretion, and friendliness of the service. However many people still travel aboard or to Hong Kong to get truly anonymous testing.
China’s rate of HIV infection is 5-6%, but rises to 20% amongst the highest-risk groups, which include the patrons of gay saunas and brothels. 30% of new HIV infections in the country are reported to come from male gay sex. Condoms are easily found in shops throughout the city; lube can be a bit harder to find but is still available.
Despite probably being the most gay-friendly city in mainland China, Shanghai does not have a defined “Gay District”. Gay venues are spread out across the city, except for the Changning District, which is the closest thing to a Gay Shanghai area.
French Concession – The trendiest and most sophisticated area of the city, this is where Shanghai’s affluent youth go to let their hair down. It has the highest concentration of bars and clubs in the city, with plenty of gay-friendly places that you can enjoy with straight friends. The gay bars of Changing District (see below) are very close.
Changning District – The suburban west of the city is mainly a business and residential area, and does not have much to offer for the regular tourist. It does however contain the main hub of Gay Shanghai, with popular destinations like Lucca, Happiness 42, and Telephone 6 just a stone’s throw away from each other. Stay nearby to be at the heart of the gay Shanghai scene while still being close to the more tourist-friendly French Concession.
Jing’an – North of the French Concession lies Jing’an, a harmonious blend of high-end luxury and traditional architecture. It is home to gay Shanghai’s famous ANGEL parties: massive, state-of-the-art dance parties that welcome international DJs and crowds of local and international gay men.
The Bund & People’s Square – The tourist heart of the city, with the main attraction being the iconic Bund, a curving riverside promenade. Best for museum hopping and shopping, there is not much here specifically for the gay traveler, except for a gay spa near People’s Square, Shanghai Thailand Health Club.
Pudong – Shanghai’s gleaming modern mecca, lined with famous and unique skyscrapers. Nothing here catering to gay nightlife, but this is the place for sipping cocktails on dizzying rooftop terraces alongside Shanghai’s business elite. It is also home to Shanghai’s brand-new Disneyland resort, which opened in 2016.
Hongkou – A grittier area of the city, often ignored by tourists. However, it is home to a few gay spas as well as one of Gay Shanghai – and Gay China’s – most iconic venues, the Lai Lai Dance Hall.
From Pudong International Airport – Zoom into central Pudong on a high-speed Maglev (magnetic levitation) train to Lonyang Station or a Metro 2 to Guanglan Road: in both cases, you will have to make a switch to reach Puxi (the other side of the river, where most attractions are). Alternatively, Airport buses run direct to the city center, but tend to take longer, particularly if you are traveling during rush hour. A taxi will cost you around ¥160, but the price will again depend on traffic.
From Hongqiao International Airport – Closer to central Shanghai than Pudong, and connected to key areas in the city by Metro lines 2 and 10 (10 only for Terminal 1). Multiple buses are available to reach various areas of the city, most of them running until late at night. A taxi to the Bund will cost about ¥100.
Metro – Shanghai’s metro system is extensive, comfortable, and reliable, and will be your best friend during your time in the city. However, it closes at 10:30 or 11pm, meaning it is not really an option for nightlife. For either airport, it is best to take the metro when you are flying out of the city: you don’t want to be late for your flight because you were stuck in Shanghai traffic.
Taxi – Taxis are your best option for traveling to and from nightclubs and bars. They are plentiful and generally affordable, but a more expensive rate applies between 11 pm and 5 am. You can either hail one from the street (look for ones with an illuminated sign) or get one at a taxi rank, which are common around nightlife hubs.
Bus – Shanghai has an extensive bus network that reaches the areas not covered by the metro. However, they tend to get stuck in traffic and are difficult to navigate if you do not speak Mandarin.
Bicycle – Renting a bike is a good way to explore a neighborhood, but do not expect to make your way around the whole city on two wheels: we are talking about one of the biggest cities in the world.
Walking – Same goes. Walk around areas to get a feel of them, but do not underestimate the distances between districts. You can easily walk between venues within the Gay Shanghai area of Changning.
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