Shenzhen China: An Insider’s Guide

An ex-pat’s glimpse into the urban culture of China’s fastest growing Megacity

The Di Wang Building, an iconic skyscraper in Shenzhen, China. photos by Darian Gier
The Di Wang Building, an iconic skyscraper in Shenzhen, China. photos by Darian Gier

By Darian Gier

Get to Know the Real Shenzhen

If you’ve heard anything about Shenzhen in the West, it was probably that Shenzhen is where all the world’s tech gadgets and smart phones are made. And if you know any more than that, you still probably see it as a fast-paced business city, just a necessary stop on the way to Hong Kong, and not a destination for tourists.

But if you’re willing to look past Shenzhen’s glossy veneer of neon lights and steel skyscrapers, you’ll find an urban culture that is dynamic, growing, and full of great sites for travelers. I’m an American, and I’ve called Shenzhen my home for over a year. Let me be your guide, and give you an inside glimpse at life in the fastest growing city in the world.

A Brief History of Shenzhen

Unlike most of China’s famous destinations, which exhibit ancient temples and vast histories, Shenzhen is a very, very new city to the world stage. The policies of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping led to the creation of the Chinese Special Economic Zones (SEZs) during the late 70s and early 80s, of which Shenzhen was the first.

The SEZs allowed foreign investment in China, particularly in coastal areas, and a chance for China to experiment with “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a highly regulated market economy.

Shenzhen Civic Center's ray-like bridge.
Shenzhen Civic Center’s ray-like bridge.

By most accounts, the experiment has worked, as Shenzhen has grown over its brief thirty-year history from a tiny fishing community to one of the largest and richest cities in China, and a world leader in technology and manufacturing. Thanks to his success in policy making, Deng Xiaoping has become something of a demigod to Shenzhen, with iconic statues and billboards of him gracing the city.

As a result of such rapid growth, Shenzhen’s culture and identity are still developing. New generations of young Chinese are emerging, having called Shenzhen home their whole lives, but the vast majority of city residents are migrants from surrounding provinces, having come to Shenzhen to find work and opportunity. This has given Shenzhen the reputation among Chinese as a kind of melting-pot of different regional identities.

As a visitor to Shenzhen, you’ll probably stay in the main districts of Louhu, Futian, and Nanshan, wherein an ultra-modern cityscape of lights and LCD screens rules the senses. But most of Shenzhen’s coolest places exist as hidden gems, so be prepared to get off the beaten path, and dive in to local life. Luckily, the modern Shenzhen metro was expanded for the 2011 Shenzhen Universiade, and now features several lines to all corners of the city. It’s easy to use and English-speaker friendly, so don’t hesitate to hop on.

Getting In Via Hong Kong

If you’re visiting Shenzhen, chances are you’ll be coming from Hong Kong. International flights are cheapest through Hong Kong International Airport, although you could fly to Shenzhen’s Boa’an International Airport or nearby Guangzhou International Airport, but these will most likely be pricier if you’re coming from out of China.

The Lianhua mountain footbridge to the Civic Center.
The Lianhua mountain footbridge to the Civic Center.

Getting to Shenzhen via Hong Kong airport is easy with several options. Upon landing, simply follow signs that say “Transport to China Mainland” which will take you to a lower level where you can get a shuttle bus or private van to one of the border checkpoints between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, Louhu, Futian, or Huanggang.

Depending on which mode of transport you chose, you’ll pay between 80-150 HKD for a ticket. I usually opt for the cheaper shuttle bus choice. If you know you need to get to Shekou directly, you can also take a ferry to Shekou Port in Nanshan straight from the airport, but this will be pricier than the bus.

If you are coming from Hong Kong Island itself, there are a few ways to get into Shenzhen, but a lesser known option is best. You can simply take Hong Kong’s MTR to one of two Shenzhen checkpoints, Futian (“Lok Ma Chau” in Cantonese) or Louhu (Lo Wu), then catch Shenzhen’s metro on the other side of the border.

Shoppers in Dongmen in Louhu District in Shenzhen.
Shoppers in Dongmen in Louhu District in Shenzhen.

But from Hong Kong Island to Shenzhen will cost you about 50 HKD on the MTR, and you’ll have to change subway lines a couple of times.

Also, waiting lines can be long during rush hour times at each checkpoint, especially Louhu. I recommend taking a much lesser known option, a bus to the China Mainland taken from the Wan Chai ferry, which will only cost 45 HKD and gives you a relaxing and scenic ride of about 45 minutes to the Huanggang border crossing.

You’ll have to get off the bus and go through customs and get back on at the border, and once you’re across the border you’ll have to take a taxi or bus to your destination, but in my experience this is always the swiftest and most hassle-free way to get between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

A Necessary Pilgrimage

One essential stop you must make upon first visiting Shenzhen is to pay your respects to the father of the city itself, Deng Xiaoping, as he watches over it from atop Lianhua Mountain in Futian. Take the metro to Shaonian Gong station (line 3/line 4) and make the short ten minute climb to the top of the lushly covered mountain to find the bronze statue of China’s former leader and a great view of Shenzhen’s impressive skyline.

shenzhen library and concert hall
Shenzhen library and concert hall.

Once you’ve snapped a few photos of Deng and the skyline, stroll back down the mountain and over the footbridge connecting Lianhua Mountain, Shenzhen’s Book City (one of the largest book malls in the world), and the Shenzhen Civic Center, the ray-like super structure that you’re sure to notice from atop Lianhua Mountain. The Shenzhen Civic Center holds Shenzhen’s municipal government as well as an art museum in its east end.

Eating Out in Shenzhen

In Shenzhen you’ll find restaurants of any variety of Chinese regional cuisine, but being situated on China’s southern coast, seafood is king. Get used to passing seafood restaurants with large systems of water tanks out front holding varieties of fish, crabs, shrimp, and other ocean crustaceans to be eaten.

One of the best places for seafood in all of Shenzhen is Leyuan Street in Louhu (Hubei metro stop, line 2, exit B), or as I know it simply, ‘seafood street’, where enormous seafood restaurant after seafood restaurant line up and down the block, with tank after tank of live seafood, ready to be prepared at your command.

Seafood on Leyuan street
Seafood on Leyuan street

Patrons of the restaurants will be sitting inside and out, enjoying food and conversation until the wee hours of the morning.

I recommend grabbing a bottle of Chinese rice alcohol called baijiu (pronounced ‘by-jo’) from one the many small alcohol vendors on the block, pick one of the restaurants, order from the array of live seafood, and enjoy! Now you’re really eating like a Shenzhener.

Another must-stop destination for Shenzhen eats is the Xiangmihu food park, a massive park-like space filled with endless restaurants (Xiangmihu metro stop, line 1, exit B). Exit the subway and then be prepared for a decent walk beneath a blue arch, through an expansive parking lot, and into a space with restaurant after restaurant.

Some local favorites are Muwu Xiaokao for Chinese barbecue, where one can eat grilled kebabs and drink beer for hours without spending too much, or Chuan Fu Lin, a Sichuan-style outdoor hotpot restaurant where you eat under the cover of ominous, viney trees and in the red light of traditional Chinese lanterns.

Night Life: Go Expat or Go Local

There are plenty of great places to go out in Shenzhen, for locals and expats alike. If you’re looking for the real

Restaurant row at Xiangmihu Food Park.
Restaurant row at Xiangmihu Food Park.

Chinese nightclub experience, Le Nest in Louhu on Renmin Nan Lu is the place. Situated a few stories above street level with a modern, cylindrical tower holding its marquee, this club is always pumpin’ on any night of the week, with big crowds and loud music. But be warned: if you arrive any time after 10pm, the place will be packed wall-to-wall, and to get even a small table, a minimum tab of over 650 RMB (more than 100 USD) is necessary.

For a quieter and more charming alternative, I highly recommend Changpoo Tree bar in the OCT Loft area (Qiaocheng East metro stop, line 1, exit A). Changpoo Tree’s environment is relaxed and eclectic.

It has a good selection of western drinks which you can sip at the bar, in a booth, or on leather couches, as Thai statues and retro Maoist-era art set the mood around you. There’s also a wooden patio for a drink on a hot summer’s day, and the OCT Loft area is excellent to take in and watch passersby. But more on the OCT Loft area to come.

For just a cold beer and a chance to chat with someone whose first language is probably English, you’ll find most Shenzhen expats tend to stick to two main spots: Coco Park in Futian (Shopping Park metro stop, line 1), and Sea World in Nanshan district (Sea World metro stop, line 2).

Both are home to bars, clubs, restaurants, and even retail space to do some shopping. Coco Park is located conveniently in the heart of Futian. Stop by McCawley’s Irish Pub for the true pub environment, or head next door to Tequila Coyote Cantina for excellent Mexican food, a rarity in Asia. A newer establishment named Rapscallion’s Café Bar is great for a drink and a chance to relax on the rooftop, gazing at Futian’s skyscrapers and the cranes that are building more.

Shopping mecca at Hua Giang North street.
Shopping mecca at Hua Giang North street.

Sea World is nestled nearer to the ocean in the expat heavy area of Shekou in Nanshan. Here, many of the same restaurants and bars as Coco Park abide, as well as more options for ethnic food such as German and Indian.

But the main attraction at Sea World is the massive ocean liner that once actually traveled the seas, now permanently anchored inland to a concrete base, and home to the X-ta-Sea Sports Bar and Restaurant. It’s kind of tacky, but fine for a night out if you want to be with other expats. Just roll up to another expat and start a conversation. Chances are he or she will be either a pilot or an English teacher.

More than Just Commerce

Many accuse Shenzhen as being a good metaphor for modern Mainland Chinese society: all commerce and no culture. But such critics can be proven wrong by many attractions in Shenzhen, should they only look a little deeper.

One of the most unique and sophisticated places in all of Shenzhen is the OCT Loft area, a mixture of contemporary art galleries, design studios, coffee shops, bars and restaurants, all forged from former industrial buildings into a shining example of the progress and sensibility of new China.

Patio bar at Changpoo Tree Bar oct loft
Patio bar at Changpoo Tree Bar oct loft

Stroll through it for an afternoon, take in some art, grab a bite to eat, and you may discover a book fair or crafts market taking place. I Du Tang restaurant is great for food, particularly pizza, and a great place to hear some of Shenzhen’s rising rock and folk bands live. OCT Loft is also situated in one of the lusher and more affluent areas of Shenzhen, and is near one of the coolest hostels you’ll discover anywhere: Shenzhen Loft.

To take in a real gem of Shenzhen urban culture and hear some good Shenzhen local bands, there’s no better place than True Color music club. There are several True Colors in Shenzhen, but the original and one with most character is on Dong Yuan Street in Futian (4/F Dong Yuan Building) about a fifteen minute walk from the Science Museum metro stop.

The environment inside is dimly lit and the décor, as well as the cocktail menu, are classy. Though as is common in China, expect to pay a premium for the tables up-front near the stage. You’re probably not that familiar with Chinese music, but don’t have to be to have a great time here, as the bands always showcase high levels of musicianship and energy.

Stay late, rocking out to some Chinese music, and you’ll really feel like a Shenzhen local.
For more upscale musical enlightenment, check out Shenzhen Concert Hall in Futian (Children’s Palace metro stop, line 3/line 4) for any classical musical concerts or bigger name Chinese pop-stars that may be in town. Part of one connected, ultra-modern glass structure with the Shenzhen library, it’s worth a visit just to glance at the new-age architecture.

Foreign trade clothing mart
Foreign trade clothing mart

Knock-Off Heaven

Shenzhen is known for its technology and manufacturing, but actually, if you are looking for name brand goods and gadgets at a good price, Hong Kong is the better destination. What Shenzhen can offer instead is high-quality knock-offs, so well-made that you won’t care that they’re fake.

Try Jiahua Foreign Trade Clothing Market (Hua Qiang North metro stop, exit B, line 2) for one of the best knock-off malls in Shenzhen. Hua Qiang Road is also the best place in the city to browse for tech gadgets like cell phones, cameras, and even counterfeit software.

The outdoor pedestrian shopping mall of Dongmen (Lao Jie metro stop, line 1/line 3) is also good for shopping Chinese-style. Check the underground shops just outside metro stop exit A for quality fake gadgets and a great variety of pirated DVDs.

Websites for more info:

Places to stay:

Shenzhen Loft

City Inn OCT Loft

Darian Gier

Darian Gier is from Wheaton, Illinois and has lived in China for over two years as an English teacher. He has also traveled throughout much of Asia. He moonlights as a travel writer, film critic, and amateur filmmaker. Check his personal blog to read more about his travels and some of his film reviews:


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