As an expat in Beijing, I am slightly embarrassed to admit it took me so long to travel around China! Tianjin is only a 35-minute train ride from Beijing’s South Railway Station. It’s about 2 hours away by bus. At this rate, you will probably spend more time getting to the railway station than on the train between the cities!
[Recommended Read: Guide to the Train Between Beijing and Tianjin]
What to Expect in Tianjin
On paper, Tianjin seems like it is a typical big city. The population is approximately 16 million, really large until compared to 21 in Beijing and 24 in Shanghai. When I visited, the streets definitely seemed calmer and cleaner than those in Beijing. I didn’t see as many people walking around the economic center of town, which was surprising because it was Wednesday and Thursday.
Getting Around Tianjin
Tianjin has a pretty big subway system, but unfortunately it doesn’t serve the biggest tourist attractions in town. You will end up walking a huge portion of the commute if you try taking the subway. The buses are similar – they serve the working Chinese, not the tourists. (Half the reason is the Haihe River, which runs through the middle of town.) If you want to use subways and buses, the high speed train that you take will sell you a public transportation card. That way, you won’t have to buy one when you arrive.
There is a sightseeing bus in the city. I saw one stopped outside the Italian Culture Street. However, information about it is sparse. I didn’t see anyone riding it, and didn’t see the buses at any other tourist stop, including the Tianjin Eye and the Ancient Culture Street. There is no website for more information that I could find, either.
The best way to get around is actually bike! As long as the weather is not too hot or too cold, you can find bikes anywhere. (Pay attention to air pollution levels, as well.) China has a really great shared dockless bike system, with MoBike (orange) or Ofo (yellow). For these systems, you can use WeChat or Alipay, pay a deposit, and it costs just ¥1 or so to ride each time. Tianjin seems to take that convenience further by having hoards of bikes outside subway stations, tourist attractions, and pretty much anywhere you can think of!
If you’re not in great shape, you can still ride. Just make sure you take breaks, drink water, and go in the right direction!
How Many Days to Spend in Tianjin
Despite its huge population, Tianjin isn’t that rich in places to visit. One of my coworkers advised me to take two instead of one day, and I definitely agree. Tianjin is just big enough to fill two days of sightseeing. If you want to see the Great Wall of China, you can go to Jixian County, in the north. Both Huangyaguan Pass and Taipingzhai are there, but it might be difficult to actually get to each of these Great Wall sections. If you don’t fancy trying, two days is enough to never have to return to Tianjin!
[Recommended Read: Itinerary: A Day Trip to Tianjin]
Why Tianjin is a Cultural Mix
Beijing has been an important city in China even before it was the capital. As a result of its strategic position as the port city to Beijing, Tianjin has always been important in the military and economic sense. Because of that, losses by the Chinese in ancient wars resulted in the concession of Tianjin to other countries, creating the mix of Chinese and foreign architecture all around town that you can see today.
Day 1: Downtown Tianjin & Traditional Tianjin Food!
I arrived in the city just before 11 am. I left my Beijing apartment at around 8:30, but it took me a hour to get to the Beijing South Railway Station. While other stations in Beijing can get you to Tianjin, the available trains are few and far between. At Beijing South, trains leave every 15 minutes or so.
The Tianjin Train Station is the most common destination (the other being Tianjin West). From there, you can follow the signs to the center and tourism sites in the city! I took the subway one stop because I thought it would be faster than walking, but I was wrong – no need to take the subway!
Italian Culture Street
I came here first because it seemed closest to the train station. I expected it to be similar to Little Italy in other cities, but it definitely wasn’t. There was Italian architecture in the square, and some people were selling European-looking scarves and trinkets. However, it was not very lively (though it was a Wednesday at late morning) and didn’t have any Italian restaurants! The one thing I was looking for – a mouthwatering fettuccine alfredo! But nope, not even a hint of an Italian restaurant in sight, or any restaurant at all, for that matter.
There are a couple nice structures and statues in the area, but nothing exceptionally grand. Overall, I would say this was a miss. However, it is so close to the Haihe Culture Square and the waterfront that you will probably pass by it anyways. Taking a 10-minute detour wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Haihe Culture Square
The Haihe River curves beautifully through the city, and the Culture Square sits smack dab at the swell of the curve. It can give you a great view of the water and the towering buildings surrounding it. I saw several elderly people doing some exercises or just enjoying the fresh air outside there. There isn’t much to do aside from walk around, but it’s a nice place to sit down and relax for a bit. If you’re looking to enjoy the riverfront, you can actually do that from a bike all along the center of Tianjin, so it would be extraneous to take special time to do that at the Culture Square.
Visiting the Culture Square definitely is not a must. However, it is right at the edge of the Italian Culture Street, just down the block from the Century Clock (see below). You don’t have to pay, nor do you have to spend a lot of time here. If you like some sun, you can sit by and read a book. Otherwise, just pass by.
If you go towards Liberation Bridge, you will see a giant clock on the left. It’s in the middle of a roundabout, but you should be able to get a good look from afar. The 40-meter clock has carvings of the 12 astrology symbols on the sides, but you’ll have to look closely to get a good view. Even at the awkward time I visited, I still saw several people taking pictures of it from the riverside. Afterward, you can cross the Liberation Bridge to the other side of the city.
If you arrive to Tianjin at the main Tianjin Train Station (not the West Station), you don’t need to take public transportation yet. Go out the southwest exit and you can see the Century Clock, Haihe Culture Square, and Italian Culture Street in the reverse order that I did, all within walking distance!
Ancient Culture Street
I ended up eating lunch here, but I definitely don’t regret it. The Ancient Culture Street is farther north from the previous spots, so it took about 20-30 minutes on a bike. Good thing it worked up my appetite!
Tianjin is famous for several kinds of street foods, and you can find basically everything here. Even on the obscure Wednesday I visited, all the vendors were there in full force. I even saw tour buses, which is when you know some place is famous and visit-worthy.
The Ancient Culture Street is known as that for two reasons – the food and the architecture. Everything looks just as you would expect from Ancient China, and reminded me a little of the Hutong roads in Beijing. The stalls on both sides are overflowing with goods, and they’re all priced pretty well. The great thing is you can pay for everything with your phone, if you don’t like cash.
The foods you have to try in Tianjin are the Goubuli Baozi (狗不理包子, buns with meat filling, sounds weird but I promise they’re not) and the fried pancake (煎饼果子). They’re both surprisingly good, and I would go back to Tianjin just to have some of both again!
I ended up buying a lot of snacks and some chocolate here. Anything that is classically Chinese, you should find it here with a surprisingly good price (¥15 for 4 baozi) as you wander through the streets.
[Recommended Read: Street Food Guide: Tianjin, China]
The Tianjin Eye is probably the most iconic ferris wheel in China! It’s the only one that spans a river, and you can see it from the Ancient Culture Street. Unfortunately, it was closed on the days that I visited for some sort of special maintenance. It is always closed on Monday mornings for routine maintenance (apparently open by Monday afternoon) but they also had a more extensive closing the days I was there. Oh well. Still, I got a great view of the majestic structure straddling the water!
A thing to note is that the air pollution directly affects your experience with the Tianjin Eye. You should not expect to see anything on a day that the air pollution is really bad, which happens with higher probability in the winter than summer.
The Porcelain, or China, House is one of the most unique museums in the world. It’s a pure tourist attraction, which means a lot of tour groups and people, so lots of people online denounce it (“Don’t waste your money!!!!!!!!”). I, however, have never been fazed by those people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with visiting places like this, as they’re meant to be visited, and are still very unique.
It was originally built in the 1920s, but in 2002 was bought and remodeled to its current form. You can see pieces of Chinese porcelain in the entire exterior, all the ceilings, and even pieced together into different shapes in the building. The building itself has a lot of random stuff, but the walls and even the bathroom (the private, not public one) have gorgeous decor.
Overall, I had no problem visiting it. There were a ton of people, yes, but I also thought the building was unique and worth a stop!
[Recommended Read: Porcelain House: Tianjin’s Gorgeous China Museum in Photos!]
Unlike the Central Park of New York, the one in Tianjin was kind of a bummer. It’s right next to the Porcelain House, about a 5 minute walk, so it has that going for it. However, it was small and a little barren. The only thing that I liked seeing was this musical portion of the park. There were small groups of people playing music for the whole park.
The Former Residence of Zhang Xueliang
Zhang Xueliang is Communist warlord, and his former residence is right in the area of the Porcelain House. I wasn’t originally planning on visiting it, but I saw large signs for it and decided I had nothing to lose. It has a really nice house front. Everything was really polished and classy, as one would expect for a war general. However, all the descriptions were written in Chinese. There was nothing besides the introduction outside the building in English, so it was a bit hard to navigate and understand. Still, it was pretty interesting to see the house of a wealthy Chinese person in the early and mid 1900s.
If you have time and you’re in the area, you can stop by. There aren’t very many people and you will get to see old outfits from the time and large dining sets. However, if you are busy or aren’t interested in relics, skip it!
Day 2: Tianjin History and the Yangliuqing Suburbs
Five Great Avenues (WuDaDao)
Don’t Make My Mistake
I had wanted to visit the Five Great Avenues, one of the premier Tianjin attractions on my first day. I stayed in the Westin Tianjin with my Starwood Preferred Guest points, and the Great Avenues are just across the intersection. However, the Avenues were definitely not what I expected. They are supposed to be part of a stretch of houses and architecture left over from the past, especially various European styles of architecture.
I thought this meant that these avenues would be similar to the Ancient Culture Street, with buildings and food and little shops. I thought I would still be able to see everything if I went after sunset, but I was WRONG! In the morning, the Avenues are a set of calm, empty-ish streets. There is very little going on, but you can bike around and see some of the buildings that are marked with a little label. At night, it’s just a little eerie, with not enough street lights to let you see anything. Don’t wait after sunset!
I thought the Five Great Avenues would be incredible streets to walk through, but it wasn’t really the case. It was like walking through a busy suburb, with people walking around but not much else. All the roads are named for cities around China, but the architecture doesn’t follow any particular pattern. There wasn’t any building that really stood out to me, except the school. There’s a school that looks a lot like those from classic British literature, and I would highly recommend seeing it! However, there really isn’t much else to see after that.
Garden of Serenity (aka JingYuan, PuYi’s Residence)
Puyi has some seriously complicated backstory. He was the last Emperor of China, abdicated the throne, was kicked out of Beijing’s Forbidden City into Tianjin, eventually fled China, and then came back with Mao Zedong.
That’s just the nutshell; to really understand his story is a huge other task. While in Tianjin, he lived at the Garden of Serenity (in Chinese, JingYuan). It looks modest from the street, but it has a pretty grand interior. He has a large garden and an expansive house. Most of it is covered in Chinese explanations of his life, but you can see some basic English translations as well. His house is larger and more ornate than other places, so if you want to see royalty in historical China, this is the best place to see it.
XiKai Church (Catholic Cathedral)
This Catholic Church was built by the French when they arrived in Tianjin. It resembles a lot of the churches you will see in Europe and as a result, South America. It’s one of the oldest Catholic churches in China, and a nice place to stop by. The artwork inside the building is really grand and beautiful, but if you’re really familiar with European churches, there’s no need to stop by.
This Courtyard and the next New Year’s Painting Studio are the only places that I would encourage you not to miss. The unfortunate thing is they are located in the suburbs of Tianjin. They are, fortunately, accessible by public transportation though. I took bus 824 to the Shi Family Courtyard stop from the city center. It took about an hour, but the good thing is the trip took me just ¥2.
The Shis were one of the most powerful families in Tianjin’s history, and they have a grand courtyard. It took me about an hour to see the whole thing, and it reminded me of Prince Gong’s Mansion in the middle of Beijing. The area is basically a very traditional, huge complex that was meant to house the family, and it is now Shi Wancheng was one of the eight “great masters” of Tianjin, and his son, Shi Yuanshi, built the courtyard. It covers over 6,000 square meters and even has its own pond and garden, theater, and what definitely felt like 200+ rooms!
The surrounding area is awesome as well. The short walk from the bus station to the courtyard entrance has rows of classic Chinese architecture – right down to the arch doors!
[Recommended Read: Guide to Tianjin’s Shi Family Courtyard (In Pictures)]
This art form is a very traditional one from this suburb of Tianjin. The New Year’s paintings are a unique art form that uses a combination of carving and painting. The initial designs of the print need to be carved into wood, with thin, elevated lines that form the “stamp” part of the picture. These wood blocks are covered in cover and then pressed onto thin paper, which is then filled in to create the final product.
The prints typically depict scenes from traditional Chinese folklore or everyday life.
At the studio, you can actually see the artists who still make these works in the middle of the process! The location is also just around the back of the Shi Family Courtyard, so there’s no reason to visit one without the other.
This whole studio is pretty small, and you can see everything within about an hour. I highly recommend going!
[Recommended Read: Tianjin’s Yangliuqing New Year’s Painting Studio]
Overall Hits of Two Days in Tianjin
Aside from the surprise closure of the Tianjin Eye, I left nothing else I wanted to do that I didn’t. Tianjin is a really quaint city, and I would come here just for the Ancient Culture Street again. I really liked it and the Chinese culture immersion that it seems to be. There are plenty of places to see history through the eyes of wealthy Chinese – and it doesn’t feel overwhelming to be there. You can walk by the riverfront to relax, and then bike through the streets to get a feel for contemporary living.
If you take nothing else away from this post, I highly recommend doing at least these:
- Ancient Culture Street
- Porcelain House
- Shi Family Courtyard
- Yangliuqing New Year’s Painting Studio
I think that visiting Tianjin was a hit overall, seeing as I did my research. I definitely would have loved to eat more of the street food, but the only street food I saw was in the Ancient Culture Street, or a small stall near the Garden of Serenity.
Also, I was severely disappointed by the Five Great Avenues and the Italian Culture Street. They sounded so majestic, and even in both the entire areas they have maps of places you should visit. However, very little about either one stood out to me. I guess I either missed it, or the name is more for Chinese people who have never traveled abroad than someone who has gone to many of them, and plans to go to even more.
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