Tianjin is a unique city in China because it’s huge and so close to Beijing, but you can visit it in about a day. I recommend two days (a weekend trip from Beijing!) but one day is enough to see the majority of city. Anything more is giving yourself extra time for eating, rest, and travel between places.
Still, one day is a bit of a rush. You will have to make choices because Tianjin doesn’t have great transportation for travelers. There is supposedly a hop on hop off bus, but I only saw one in two days. It was only at one places and didn’t look like it was waiting for people to get on.
The Non-Negotiables – Go See These!
If you’re visiting Tianjin, there are three places you absolutely have to go. Otherwise, you haven’t actually been to Tianjin. Missing these would be like missing the Great Wall of China before leaving China, or Times Square if you are in New York! Just don’t. Even if people say they’re “overrated”, do it anyway.
[Recommended Read: Itinerary: Hits and Misses of Two Days in Tianjin, China]
Ancient Culture Street – 古文化街, Guwenhua jie
The Ancient Culture Street might just be my favorite place in Tianjin. It’s a pretty long street near the northern part of the city that celebrates Chinese culture – both specific and not to Tianjin. You can spend half a day here shopping for food and souvenirs. Most of the street food worth trying in Tianjin is here at prices no more than ¥10.
You can also find all sorts of trinkets, including things to gift your niece and those to gift your brother-in-law. Contrary to most touristy areas, you might see a small markup but since there are so many vendors, make sure of your prices by walking around and asking a couple vendors about their offers. You should get a good idea of what the thing you’re buying is worth.
[Recommended Read: Street Food Guide: Tianjin, China]
Tianjin Eye – 天津之眼, Tianjin zi yian
If you look at any picture of Tianjin, chances are you’ll see the Tianjin Eye as part of the skyline. It’s one of the biggest ferris wheels in the world. It’s also unique in that it spans a river (the Haihe River that bisects Tianjin). Unfortunately it’s closed on random days (always on Monday morning for routine maintenance, but it was also closed when I was there). Even if you aren’t able to ride it, it makes for a great place to take a picture! It’s also just about a 10 minute bike ride from the Ancient Culture Street, which is very convenient.
The porcelain house is one of the most unique museums in the world. It’s an old structure but has been remodeled into a house with porcelain walls and artwork. Even on the random Wednesday I visited it, there were a good number of people. I can only imagine how crowded it would be during holiday/weekend days, but the exterior of the building was really gorgeous! The colors are beautiful, and really stand out in the area. The whole museum is a work of art, and I would highly recommend seeing it.
[Recommended Read: Porcelain House: Tianjin’s Gorgeous China Museum in Photos!]
Option 1: Staying in the City
The options below are differentiated based on one key fact, which is that the locations are vastly different. If you want to take your time, staying in the city is probably better for you. However, if you want to explore more, I would recommend the second option. I really, really enjoyed the second option, and think these places in the city aren’t nearly as worthy of a visit. However, they do offer more flexibility with your schedule, as they are closer.
Pick this option if you want:
- More flexibility – you can go to these places by bike, walking, subway, taxi, etc. If you already bought your return ticket to Beijing, have a plane ticket to fly out of the airport, etc., you can plan more easily.
- More food options – it’s simply easier to find a place to eat in the city, and you can spend more time at a restaurant or with your street food.
- Not to worry about public transportation – as I mentioned, the best way to get around Tianjin is by bike. If you don’t want to deal with buses, stay in the city on your bike!
[Recommended Read: Guide to the Train Between Beijing and Tianjin]
Unlike the most famous Central Park, the one in Tianjin isn’t grand or an urban oasis. However, it’s right across the street from the Porcelain House and has benches for you to rest on. Don’t be afraid to just sit and watch the people around you walk by!
Five Great Avenues － 五大道, Wudadao
The Five Great Avenues is supposedly one of the main attractions of Tianjin. To me, it’s not a non-negotiable because it completely didn’t meet my expectations. I thought that these avenues would be awesome street markets with European architecture (this is the main draw of this area) and people bustling through them. However, they seem much more like ordinary streets. There are more houses than usual that have Tianjin architectural history explanations on them, but they didn’t stand out from the other buildings in the city. They definitely weren’t bustling markets, either.
This area is actually a fairly large area in southern Tianjin where foreign diplomats and officials used to live. Therefore, there are many European-style buildings around. I didn’t think they stood out a lot, but for some people this is a must-see.
Garden of Serenity －静园, Jingyuan
The Garden of Serenity is the former residence of Puyi, the last emperor of China. He had a bit of a complicated life, and spent part of it in Tianjin in a sort of purgatory between exile and reverence.
The place was under construction when I visited, but I could still see it’s grandness and imagine its glory. This was probably once one of the most lavish places in the country, and some of that grandeur remains. It’s not far from the Five Great Avenues, either, so you can visit both of those together.
Option 2: Culture and History in the Yangliuqing Suburb
I absolutely loved my trip to the Yangliuqing suburbs of Tianjin. The places worth seeing are about an hour away from the city center by public bus. It’s a bit of a trip (considering you can go to Beijing and back on a bullet train during a one-way trip) but I thought it was worth it.
Choose option two if you’re looking for:
- More culture – The Shi Family Courtyard belonged to one of the wealthiest families in Tianjin’s history! Walking through it, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of how the rich lived life. Because they were so wealthy, they could go all out in carrying out Chinese traditions. That’s not even to mention how cool it is to see people actually working on the New Year’s paintings that are famous all over the country!
- Better understanding of Tianjin’s history and characteristics – Getting out of the city gives you a more authentic, traveler-not-tourist feel. The area between the bus stop and the two attractions here are full of classic Chinese architecture, and you can get an amazing picture of it all!
- Get off the beaten path – Because of the long trip and the fact that you’ll need to ride an hour on a bus if you don’t have your own car, few people go to Yangliuqing. In a country of 1 and however many billion, getting away from the crowds is a must!
Shi Family Courtyard － 石家大院
As I mentioned above, the Courtyard is the former residence of one of the most powerful families in the Tianjin area. They made their fortune in grain transport, and slowly accumulated the land to build their mansion. It even has a private theater with enough seats to rival a small room at a modern movie theater, and a park nice enough to remind me of the parks in Japan. When I went it was almost empty, and they have enough explanations in English that you won’t feel lost going through it.
[Recommended Read: Guide to Tianjin’s Shi Family Courtyard (In Pictures)]
New Year’s Yangliuqing Paintings
The Yangliuqing suburb is famous for its New Year’s paintings. On the Chinese New Year holiday, you can see millions of these style paintings around the country for decoration. They’re very traditional, and made almost exclusively by hand! This style of painting has part of its ancestry in Tianjin, and there is a small museum that explains the process and has artists that work on the paintings in front of you! They are really awesome, and I loved being able to see the artists carving out the patterns in wood, and the video explaining how delicate the whole process is.
I saw the artists filling in their art with watercolors, and prints of finished wood blocks that were printed on paper, waiting to be colored. The museum is pretty small, but it has a good amount of English and is absolutely worth the visit, seeing as its only about a 5 minute walk from the Shi Family Courtyard.
[Recommended Read: Tianjin’s Yangliuqing New Year’s Painting Studio]
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