Massive and dynamic, TIANJIN is China's third-largest city, located near the coast some 80km east of Beijing. The city has few actual sights; it's the streetscapes – an assemblage of ageing nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European architecture, juxtaposed with the concrete and glass monoliths of wealthy contemporary China – that are its most engrossing attraction. Though wide swaths of the city are being redeveloped, much of the colonial architecture has been placed under protection, and the shopping opportunities, especially for antiques, just about justify a day-trip from the capital, an hour away by train.
In the nineteenth century, the port city caught the attention of the seafaring Western powers, who used the boarding of an English ship by Chinese troops as an excuse to declare war. With well-armed gunboats, they were assured of victory, and the Treaty of Tianjin, signed in 1856, gave the Europeans the right to establish nine concessionary bases on the mainland, from which they could conduct trade and sell opium. These concessions, along the banks of the Hai River, were self-contained European fantasy worlds: the French built elegant chateaux and towers, while the Germans constructed red-tiled Bavarian villas. Tensions between the indigenous population and the foreigners exploded in the Tianjin Incident of 1870, when a Chinese mob attacked a French-run orphanage, and again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, after which the foreigners levelled the walls around the old Chinese city to enable them to keep an eye on its residents.
The dense network of ex-concession streets south and west of the central train station, and south of the Hai River, now constitute the areas of most interest to visitors. Unmistakable are the chateaux of the French concession, which now make up the downtown district just south of the river, and the haughty mansions the British built east of here. Farther east, also south of the river, the architecture of an otherwise unremarkable district has a sprinkling of stern German constructions.
"Jin" in hip local speak, or "Diamond of the Bohai Gulf" in chamber of commerce terms, Tianjin is one of China's largest industrial cities with a staggering twelve million citizens. Like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chongqing, Tianjin is an autonomous municipality that does not have a provincial authority overseeing it. Simultaneously gritty and vibrant, it is a city just beginning to realize its tourism potential. New swanky four star hotels and skyscrapers dot the downtown skyline with sophistication, while airy parks and gardens along the Hai River challenge Tianjin's industrial image. Ancient temples and pagodas plus elaborate colonial buildings are no longer blights of neglect but prized pieces of the city's past. The surrounding mountains to the north access, among other things, a jaw-stretching part of China's Great Wall. Keep in mind, however, that unlike some of the tourist-friendly coastal cities, Tianjin's attractions are widely dispersed. They tend to get lost in the city's overwhelming size and fist-shaking traffic, making it less than accommodating for "see-it-all" organized tours and do-it-yourself types alike.Pack your patience as well as a good map for Tianjin.
Like many other Chinese coastal cities, Tianjin harbors a history heavy with military squabbles and colonial concessions. Following the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s, Great Britain, Russia, France and Japan swarmed the streets and docks claiming residency. The relics they left behind color the city with a mosaic of architectural influences. During the first half of the Twentieth Century, Tianjin was cursed with three successive wars which replaced modernization drives and economic progress with the limiting vision of day-to-day survival. Disaster struck again in the form of a powerful 8.2 earthquake in 1976, killing close to 24,000 people in urban Tianjin and a sickening 240,000 in nearby Tangshan. Along with shattering the people, the earthquake took its toll on much of the city's antiquated infrastructure. Eventual economic relief came when Chinese officials allowed Tianjin to open its doors to foreign investors. Since then, it has become the largest seaport in northern China. As part of the Grand Canal that historically connected the Yellow and Yangzte Rivers, Tianjin remains an important economic and industrial waterway connecting Beijing with the Bohai Bay. With so much going on in Tianjin, tourism remains a subplot to the city's industrial focus. Thus, many foreign visitors to Tianjin find themselves here for business rather than pleasure or for a round of study at one of the city's many competitive universities.
Tianjin is divided into six city districts:
Heping Heping means peace, and while the urban excitement of this most central Tianjin district may not be peaceful, it surely is a site not to be missed. As the former concession area for Great Britain and France, its streets are lined with an eccentric mix of contemporary skyscrapers and double-take colonial buildings. Visitors might choose between the ultra-modern Renaissance Tianjin Hotel or the wonderfully regal if slightly shabby Tianjin First Hotel , built in 1922, as home base for a stay in Tianjin. Both provide quick access to famous restaurants, including the Bader Brauhaus and the Goubuli Dumpling Restaurant. The Tianjin Concert Hall , the Art Museum, the Catholic Church , famous Ancient Culture Street and the warren-like hutongs of the Antique Market are all within Heping as well.
Hebei Located north of Heping District, it almost feels calm here compared to downtown's hypersonic pace. The four-star Holiday Inn and the Ocean Hotel are prized room and board sites. Both are within walking distance of Ancient Culture Street and the architecturally impressive Notre Dame des Victories . Beining Park , home of the celebrated Zhiyuan Pagoda, is just a hop away by taxi. Ancient Monastery of Deep Compassion , Tiajin's most important Buddhist temple, sits near the meeting point of the Xinkai and the Hai Rivers.
Hongqiao Situated northwest of downtown, Hongqiao is best known for where visitors go to snap photos of the Grand Mosque. The general public is not admitted to the mosque, but visitors may enjoy the many small alleys and neighborhoods surrounding the mosque, so plan on exploring this area on foot.
Hexi Formerly a German colony during Tianjin's "concession years" this district now boasts some of the area's best lodging options, such as the Sheraton Tianjin Hotel, the city's only five star lodging, the impossibly huge Tianjin Grand Hotel , and the impressive Geneva Hotel . Out of all its dining options, however, the Quanjude Roast Duck Factory ranks as its most popular. It is one of the only restaurants in Tianjin that serves authentic Beijing duck. Several universities and parks including the Yinhe Park and Tianjin Amusement Park are located in Hexi.
Nankai Nestled south of downtown, Nankai is best known for housing Tianjin University and Nankai University, as well as Tianjin's famously scenic Shuishang Park . Nankai is part of the historic center of Tianjin and holds many historical places of interest. The Zoo, the Tianjin Museum are nearby, as is the Olympic Center Stadium or "Waterdrop" that hosted the football competitions for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The Tianfei Palace is an important Mazu temple dating from the yuan Dynasty. In 2001 it was renovated to house a museum in the original site on Dazhigu Road.
Hedong Hedong may be quieter than Nankai and Heping, but this largely residential district has a long history. A taste of that can be found at the Jianfu Guanyin Temple at Dazhigu. Among its many treasures is a 600 year old scholar tree and large copper bell. The popular imperial style restaurant Royal Court is also found in Hedong.
In a city of 9 million, it is reasonably safe to assume that Tianjin enjoys an abundance of restaurants. Its scope of culinary deliciousness is vast and varied, encompassing tastes from France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Korea. Chinese cooking styles are bounteous too and come within one regional chicken recipe variation shy of becoming confusing. So unlike most other cities, Tianjin's evening dining quandary does not center on "what to eat," but more so on "where to eat."
The priciest restaurants generally tenant inside the major hotels. While some may lack the charm and authenticity of independently owned eateries, they easily compensate with attentive service, elegant atmospheres, bilingual menus, well trained chefs, and consistent meal quality. The Hyatt Regency's Xiang Wei Zhai Dumpling Restaurant specializes in northern China fare with a heavy emphasis on, yes, you guessed it, dumplings. The Holiday Inn's Loong Yuen Restaurant matches the hotel's four-star rating with four-star service. Diners can choose from authentic Cantonese or Japanese fare in an oh-so-nice setting.
If the tongue starts flapping for local cuisine few, if any, can match the Goubili Restaurant for popularity. Its kitchen serves the best baozis (dumplings stuffed with pork or various other seafood and vegetable fillings) in Tianjin, if not all of China. Lust, crave, covet, desire, hanker, hunger and pine are all suitable adjectives in describing Tianjin's addiction to these delectable dumplings. Even former United States President George Bush Sr. caught the dumpling craze while stationed in China during his pre-power years. Do not expect an elegant dining setting, however, for the dumplings are delicious, not highbrow. The Tianyi Fang Restaurant also prides itself on dumpling mastery, and enjoys a zealous retinue of diners addicted to its special minced meat concoction. For something other than dumplings but still with a local flare opt for the Xiangjiang Seafood Company. Its menu is so deep with fish options that rumor has it that even visiting marine biologists have been overheard to ask, "I have never heard of this fish. What is it?"
The Royal Court enjoys a strong reputation for authentic Beijing/Shandong style dining. Designed and decorated in the regal manner of an ancient Chinese palace, it is extremely popular with tourists. All that it is missing is the sounding of a gong upon entering. The Quanjude Roast Duck Store enjoys an impressive reputation for being one of the very few restaurants in Tianjin to serve true, bona fide Beijing roasted duck. And better yet its prices are budget-merciful. The Dengying Building Restaurant also enjoys delicious duck status. Its popularity can easily be gauged by the eye-bulging fact it boasts a seating capacity of 1,200. Tianjin's Cantonese options taunt the concepts of infinity. Yet, out of this maw, the Ancient Well prominently distinguishes itself as one of the deans of Cantonese dining. It rates as the oldest restaurant in Tianjin and prepares all its dishes with water drawn from its ancient well. Hence, the name. Shark's fin, Bird's Nest and snake meat are just a few its menu mentions. The Hong Kong Cafe also rates high, as does the Jixian Restaurant for its special Cantonese lobster.
For a taste of true Americana consider no other restaurant than the Broadway Cafe . Owned and managed by an American family diners can enjoy everything from biscuits and gravy to cheeseburgers and french fries. For a burger and a beer in an eclectic setting join the college crowd at Ali Babba's . The Bader Brauhaus offers a variety of western tastes including Weiner schnitzel and Mexican fare. Or if the belly beckons for Japanese try the Fusang Garden Restaurant, or the highly acclaimed and highly priced Ganbeiyiding.
Tianjin's famous Food Street deserves mention too. More than 100 restaurants pack this "dining mall" creating a scene that depending on your view borders on either being fantastic or a blatant tourist trap.
This major city possesses major attractions. Plotting a course so as to maximize your Tianjin experience becomes imperative, especially if restricted with time.
Downtown A stroll along the Hai River serves as the perfect starting point for initiating oneself with Tianjin's widespread allurements. Enter at the Liberation Bridge and huff north. Paved walking trails parallel the river and afford up-close views of Tianjin's downtown mish-mash of Chinese, Russian, British, Portuguese and Japanese architecture ranging from colonial to contemporary. Numerous parks, fountains and gardens along the walk provide eye-pleasing pause points for snapping photos and pointing to tall buildings and saying "Oooh, look at that."
Turn west at Jingang Bridge and amble one block to Ancient Culture Street . Wooden shops fronted with prominent balconies and red and green painted columns canyon the street, creating a replicated 19th century market setting. Trinkets, carved jade figurines, calligraphy, teapots, and fine handmade porcelain pack the stores. Judicial souvenir seekers can also snare famous Yangliuqing New Year's prints at the Tianjin Yangliuqing Gallery and authentic clay figurines at Nirenzhang Clay Figurine Store . Shopping, however, does not need to be the main motivation for entering for this is one of Tianjin's "Do Not Miss" attractions. While there be sure to visit the Tianhuo Temple . Built in 1326 it stands as Tianjin's oldest building. After countless renovations, it now serves as a museum displaying ancient artwork from the Ming and Yuan dynasties.
From here drift one more block west to the Confucian Temple. It, obviously by virtue of its name, is dedicated to the life of Confucius, one of China's greatest sages. Pagodas frame a goldfish pond blanketed with water lilies creating the quintessential Chinese setting usually found in travel brochures and complimentary airline magazines.
For more architectural wonderment board a taxi and speed several blocks northwest to the Grand Mosque. Entrance is limited but guests can still wander the grounds and grasp the mind-buckling splendor of this Muslim monument. Compass directly south from here to the campuses of Tianjin University and Nankai University. Both make for eye-happy strolling grounds. While at Nankai fuel the body with hamburgers and spicy Indian fare at wonderfully eclectic Ali Babba's .
Further south sits the locally revered Zhou Enai and Deng Yingchao Memorial Hall . This husband and wife team played major roles in forming the Chinese Communist Party while displaying uncanny loyalty to Mao Zedong. The museum borders Shuishang Park , Tianjin's largest. Ambling past its endless ponds all colored with weeping willows and water lilies is akin to stepping inside a still wet Monet painting.
After this mind balm hop into a taxi and conclude your city tour with a visit to downtown's Antique Market . Hundreds of vendors sit on mats and under umbrellas trying to impress shoppers with their large collections of jewelry and Chinese knickknacks. Haggling is not viewed as a hassle here, but instead as a heaven-sent virtue.
Mountains For a quick city escape drift north for about 25 minutes to the Dongli Lake Hot Spring Holiday Resort . Though excessively crowded its convenient access to water-skiing and sailing helps distract the humanity issue. But if the mind is locked on sightseeing mode simply bypass the resort and venture 70 miles north to Jixian City's Dule Temple . Erected more than 1,000 years ago this Buddhist house of worship harbors the 52-foot tall Eleven Face Guanyin statue. To only describe it as stunning falls about nine adjectives short of properly conveying the magnitude of this statue.
Continue another 23 miles north to Mount Pan for staggering mountain views full of waterfalls, gorges, ancient pagodas and numerous tourists bent over from the thin air proclaiming their need to get in shape. The Great Wall at Huangyaguan Pass ribbons these mountains and rates as one of the planet's greatest manmade landmarks. Unlike other Great Wall sections that are close to Beijing, crowds are never a problem. Despite the Wall's distance from Tianjin, it should crown everyone's "Things to See" list. Tour buses from downtown run every weekend to the Wall. Or, simply travel via a rental car.