Four Days in Tianjin
To kick off this blog, I wanted to write my first city overview on Beijing since it is one of my favorite cities in the world; however, after perusing the interwebs for common Chinese cities reviewed, I quickly realized there is absolutely no shortage of blogging on Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong. So, for now, I will avoid those destinations as to provide a different introductory taste of China. After knocking off Beijing, my mind immediately went to Tianjin. Only thirty min from Beijing by speed rail, this delightful city is often overlooked in Beijing’s large shadow.
I decided to visit Tianjin after I finished my winter term teaching and had several days before my flight back to America. Since I had four full days, I decided I wanted to do more than Beijing, and immediately started looking at cities close to Beijing since I worry when it comes to flying and being too far away in case something happens. Tianjin was the perfect answer since it is so close to Beijing, as well as because I had a friend who had spent a large amount of Tianjin before. So with that, I got on a cheap, slow train at 5 am in Shijiazhuang and arrived in Tianjin at 10 am on New Years Day.
Getting to Tianjin
As stated before, Tianjin is only thirty minutes from Beijing by fast rail so it makes for an extremely convenient trip from one of China’s most popular cities. Tianjin also has an international airport. Therefore if you are flying within China, this is a viable option. It is China’s 19th largest airport, so if you are flying into China, Beijing might be cheaper or more convenient. Overnight buses from Beijing and surrounding cities are also an option, but given the relatively inexpensive train prices, I think this is the best option if you are based in northern China. I always use trip.com to book reservations in English.
Where to Eat
Given Tianjin’s size, you won’t have any trouble finding a place with some good food of any kind. That being said, and this might come as a surprise, but you should stop by the Tianjin Haihe Italian Style Town. Within this quaint little area is Venezia Club Italian Restaurant. Now China isn’t my usual go-to for great Italian food, but this place has amazing bruschetta and thick-cut smoked salami pizza just to name a couple of their delicious options. Italy actually controlled a portion of Tianjin between 1901 and 1947, along with a number of other states that owned concessions after they were ceded by the failing Qing Dynasty. Throughout Tianjin, you can see many western style buildings and the different states former consuls and architecture, but the Italian Style Town is definitely noteworthy for some good food. It wasn’t terribly expensive although not on the cheap side either.
Good Chinese street food is to be found in basically any city in China, and Tianjin is no exception. One place to find some traditional and inexpensive snacks is the Ancient Culture Street. Located next to the Haihe River, you can walk this street and eat snacks from booths such as roasted sweet potatoes, sugar spun into the Chinese zodiac animals, or soups and small dishes. Eat and shop at the numerous stores selling traditional Chinese goods at fairly reasonable prices.
The Sites of Tianjin
Tianjin is in no way short of things to do and see. One of the most unique buildings I have seen is the Tianjin Porcelain House. Built like a French style house, this little mansion is styled out of porcelain by Zhang Lianzhi. Using porcelain shards and pieces from multiple time periods in China, this is one of the more unique art museums you will ever visit, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Meticulously detailed and only costing 20 kuai, the Porcelain house is located within walking distance of Subway line 3, Heping Road Station. While you are in the area, if you walk just two blocks over you’ll arrive at a popular street for shopping. This street has a multitude of shops and small malls with mostly standard
shopping and western stores. The architecture of some of the buildings is western from back when other states built in Tianjin; it makes for a nice stroll though. At the end of this shopping street, is St. Joseph’s Cathedral also located in the former French concessions of Tianjin. Built in 1913, this historical site is a place of worship for many of Tianjin’s Chinese-Catholics. For me, it is interesting how different cultures approach religions, so I always love visiting churches, temples, and other places of worship in other countries. Especially in China, you don’t often observe Western religion being practiced, so I found it interesting to visit a church with a fairly large following. They even have a service in English on Sundays if you are interested in attending!
Recently the new Tianjin Binhai Library has been in the news for its amazing futuristic architecture. As an avid book lover, a new, one-of-a-kind library was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to see in Tianjin. This library is a bit out of the way. It isn’t in the center of the city like most of the other sites, but it also isn’t overly difficult to get to either. Just take the subway to line 9 and get off at Tanggu Station and then take a short cab ride to the location. You will arrive at the Tianjin Binhai Culture Center which houses the library as well as some other
museums of art and science as well as a theater and some food and shopping. Architecturally, I have never seen anything like this library. It’s modernly stunning and a work of art in and of itself. I was happy to be there as a photographer. However, as a reader, I was heavily disappointed. From the pictures I took, it looks as though there are rivets and levels of books climbing up to the ceiling, but what you see in the beautiful pictures are stickers of books. The 1.2 million books are in other rooms in the library not seen when you are in the main area. Although the books are still within the library, it still felt as though the experience was ever so slightly cheapened for me, or it was not as authentic as I had wished it to be. I had hoped that maybe only the extremely high levels had the fake sticker books, but sadly all of it was fake. That being said, if you enjoy some modern aesthetic, I would still recommend the trip out, because the layout itself is stunning.
If you want things to do in the center of Tianjin, you have to take a ride on the Tianjin Eye. This Ferris wheel is the world’s second largest and takes about 40 min to complete. It offers a beautiful panoramic view of the city. Tickets for one person were 200 kuai, although if you have more than two people I believe you can get a discount. It isn’t super cheap, but I enjoyed the ride and considered it money well spent, after all that’s what vacation is for!
After the Eye, you can pop on over to the Dabei Buddhist Monastery, only around 500 meters away tucked behind some buildings and dating back to the Ming Dynasty. This well-preserved temple is quiet and serene. It is worth noting however that this isn’t a tourism-minded temple. Some sites in Asia although religious have become famous and attract visitors from around the world, and it’s permissible to take pictures and whatnot, but it is important to remember temples are also places of worship for many and to respect that. To me, you can judge by the temple environment. Are even native visitors taking pictures and visiting more for its fame and history than to worship? Or are the majority of the visitors trying to pray and worship in peace? The Dabei Buddhist Monastery is more of a quiet place to worship, and so I would recommend not taking pictures and dressing respectfully, and instead quietly observe the worshiping going on and pass through if you are interested in Buddhist culture and religion. There are some beggars outside the temple, but the way I see it is if I can enter their place of worship, the least I can do is donate at least some small change to those in need and praying there.
If you are interested in more of a tourist-friendly temple or you just want to do a little shopping and walking along some ancient style buildings, I would recommend the Ancient Culture Street. If you want to visit, take subway line 2 exit D and it is about 500 meters from there. It also isn’t too far from the Ferris wheel and the Dabei Temple if you walk or take a cab. Not only is there some fun and fairly inexpensive shopping to do if you want some souvenirs, the Ancient Culture Street also houses the Tianhou Palace. This Taoist style temple was built in honor of the Goddess of the Sea. Tickets to enter were under 20 kuai, and it was a lovely place to visit. One of the side corridors leads to an area where couples and lovers can hang a red prayer ribbon or heart so as to have luck in their relationship, and it was really cute and romantic to see a whole corridor and the windows absolutely covered in red tassels.
A Cheap but Satisfying Stay in the Center of the City
I stayed at the Tianjin Cloudy Bay Hostel for $8 a day. Now I visited in winter which isn’t peak traveling season, and spring and summer prices are closer to $10 a night. They provide all male and female rooms and the staff was friendly and helpful. The bathrooms were shared but the showers were stalled and had locks so it wasn’t an issue. You do need to bring your own towel and shower shoes and toiletries. It was extremely easy to get to as well. After getting off the train I took subway line three to Heping Road Station, took exit E, turned right and walked for about five minutes. Given its location from the subway and other city sites as well as the price, I would recommend a stay here if you are comfortable with hostels. It is within walking distance of the subway, the Porcelain House, and the shopping district. I booked through the Hostelworld app. It is also an option to pay upon arrival.
Tianjin is where East meets West. There is a fascinating blend of culture within the city. What is beautiful is how Tianjin has taken former foreign imperialism and absorbed the leftover foreign influences into their city. For example, the Porcelain House was originally a French mansion until a private individual took it and made it into a piece of Chinese art. Tianjin is a culturally and historically rich city, that continues to please with its newer feats as well. I would happily return again to Tianjin any day.