Two became one: it’s a gospel verse, it’s a Spice Girls lyric, and it’s basically what’s happening with Beijing and our girl next door, Tianjin. As our two metropoleis sprawl into urban matrimony, it’s high time to get savvy on what the neighbouring city has to offer, namely a refreshing change of scenery amongst its smattering of European-style architecture.
Fortunately, such escapism could hardly be more convenient, with the half-an- hour, 54.5RMB high-speed train from Beijing South dropping us Jingers right in the heart of the action, from which all of the best sights are relatively central and accessible on foot, share bike or by subway. Trains run as often as ten times an hour from 6am, with return services continuing up until 11pm. It’s a nice change, but is it the Shanghai of the North? You decide. Here’s how to catch Tianjin’s best in a day.
Despite a centuries-long history as an important port and trade hub, signs of an ancient Tianjin have been almost entirely lost in the city’s unrelenting charge upwards, though several spots of interest remain to the northwest of the train station.
The tour-group magnet of the Ancient Culture Street is mostly devoid of anything genuinely ancient and feels slightly conceited culturally, with the the exception of the pleasant Tianhou Temple, which dates back to 1326 and was created for worshipping Mazu, goddess of the sea. The 17th-century Dabei Monastery that sits just east of the Haihe is also a worth a stop.
Tianjin’s true charm and perhaps strongest attraction, however, lies in its more recent landmarks left behind by the European residents of the 19th and 20th centuries. Saddle up on the share bike of your choice and head towards the action, starting at the Xikai Church.
First opened in 1916, the Xikai (or St Joseph’s Cathedral) has had an eventful past featuring damaging earthquakes and attacks, yet remains one of China’s largest churches and one of the finest examples of European architecture in Tianjin.
Scoot past the vendors in the temple (who park in the courtyard selling rosaries, assorted Christian iconography and jianbing) and head inside. Beautiful blue-tint domes tower over the cavernous nave, which can seat as many as 1,500 people, while its aisles are lined with plentiful portraits and statues.
Info 8am-8pm daily. 9 Xining Dao, Heping district.
Architectural eye candy or eyesore? Covering a historic colonial mansion in thousands of bits of broken porcelain may be divisive, but it’s certainly eye-catching. Wealthy ceramics collector Zhang Lianzhi spent four years crafting this motley, Gaudi-esque facade, as well as its courtyard and vase-laden outer wall, before opening it to the public in 2007.
The 50RMB entrance can feel a little steep when you step inside, where its floors are populated almost entirely by what looks like Tianjin’s largest collection of wooden cupboards, but the walls and ceilings are still decked out with plentiful ceramic murals and bizarre fittings. In any case, it’s worth it for a close-up ogle at the intricate detailing of the puzzling facade.
Info 9am-6pm daily. 72 Chifeng Dao, Heping district.
After the signing of the Treaties of Tianjin in 1860 brought an end to the Second Opium War and opened the city up to foreign trade, European settlers began to establish their home- comfort concessions, many centred around the charming boulevard of Jiefang Beilu, just off the Hai River’s south bank. They may be a reminder of an uneasy past, but are delightful architectural anomalies.
From pillared, Wall Street- ish financial buildings – most of which now house Chinese banks – to art deco apartment towers, each edifice has its own unique characteristics, though unfortunately many are closed to the public, with some even vacant. For a peek inside, stop by the lobby of the Astor Hotel, its museum or bistro. You could even stay the whole night, if you want more of Tianjin’s terrific tourist treats.
After all the architectural appetite-whetting, head south to Wudadao for even more. A vast concession area with over 200 European-style buildings spread over 'Five Great Avenues', it’s a surprisingly peaceful place for an afternoon saunter or bike ride that feels far flung from the cluttered Beijing streets. It feels like the Shanghai of the North, maybe, if not exactly Europe.
Its villas, townhouses and occasional art deco structures were the former residences of various premiers, prime ministers and high-ranking officials of the Qing dynasty and Republic of China, and the area is now dotted with cafés and restaurants. Some buildings are empty or a little unkempt, though it feels like the avenues could be on the brink of a new era of gentrification, with ever-flashier developments and lifestyle spots popping up all the time. There’s already a Starbucks...
After a long day gallivanting across the city, nothing beats the cool, refreshing taste of a crisp pint of We – We Brewery’s beer. Tianjin’s first and finest craft brewery, its excellent little taproom and courtyard is a local expat favourite, hidden down a backstreet just north of Wudadao.
The punchy Broken Compass IPA (40RMB) quenches a hard- earned thirst nicely, while the bar menu is complete with hot dogs, burgers, fish ‘n’ chips and the like, if you’re already feeling homesick after a few hours away from Great Leap
. It’s possible that the deep-fried Oreos (20RMB for three) are at once the strangest and best thing we’ve put in our mouths in a while.
Info From 5pm daily. 4 Yiheli, Xi’an Dao, Heping district (186 3088 8114).
The Tianjin Eye
When night falls, the banks of the Haihe come alive with activity and quaint lighting reflecting off the water. Follow the path on the east bank all the way up to possibly the city’s favourite landmark, the Tianjin Eye; a half-hour ride on the 120-metre Ferris wheel is a great opportunity to take in the splendid cityscape before heading for the hills.
From there, it’s just a short jaunt back to Tianjin Station where your gaotie chariot awaits, ready to whisk you back to the Jing nursing your newfound love for thy neighbour.
Info 9.30am-9.30pm. Yongle Qiao, Hebei district. 70RMB; 35RMB (children under 1.2m).