I bet that if I would do a survey within our readers that have lived in China for awhile very few of them visited Tianjin.
Situated at only thirty minutes from Beijing (by train), Tianjin is a modern and vibrant city that deserves a visit.
In this article I’ll talk about what you can see in Tianjin, the forgotten city (at least within expats and tourists). If you live in Beijing you can visit the city in a day and come back to Beijing in the evening.
P.s. If you decide to spend a night or two in Tianjin, here you find our recommendations for booking a hotel in the city.
What the hell is Tianjin?
With a population of “only” fourteen millions of people, Tianjin is the fourth biggest city of China. Further, is one of the main economical centers of the country and, if this wasn’t enough, the closest port from Beijing.
The clock outside the railway station of Tianjin
After thirty minutes on the high speed train that leaves from South Beijing Rail Station (Beijing Nan Zhan), I arrive for the first time in Tianjin.
After walking for awhile through the maze that compose the train station I start to wonder if I’m arrived in yet another town where there is nothing to see. This impression grows when I get close to the exit of the station and I see the usual mess typical of many Chinese cities: farmers carrying huge boxes, people sleeping or playing cards on the street and the unavoidable kid that stares at you and then says “Kan kan laowai!.”
Fuck, I thought I was coming in a modern city this time!
But then I reach the square in front of the station and everything changes: there is a big clock that welcomes the travelers and a modern bridge that crosses the Hai River (海河). It may not be that bad…
The Hai River in Tianjin
Walking by the river
I decide to walk along the river, through the North, where I hope to stumble upon the old foreign concessions and the old town (or at least this is what the map I just bought says). What surprises me it’s the peaceful of this place: there aren’t food stalls, construction sites, electrical bikes that attempt to kill you, cars parked in random locations or Chinese guys that run into you because the walk paying attention exclusively to the Weibo account on their smartphone.
After a pleasant stroll where I enjoy the modern architecture on one side and the colonial houses on the other, I arrive to the old town.
The Old Town of Tianjin
The Old Town of Tianjin
The old town, which has been mostly renovated and converted to a market for the tourists, it’s the best place to find plenty of gewgaws. Within my favorite there are the 3D paints that feature Christian images (I’m sure they would have been a huge hit in the eighties).
After I wonder for while around the market I finally get to the famous shop (it’s called 泥人张, Nírén zhāng) that sells plaster works. I can’t resist and I buy an horrible statue.
煎饼果子 (Jiān bing guǒzi or Chinese crèpe)
Street food in Tianjin
Satisfied for having acquired such a precious object I move to a much more attractive place, that is the food market called 南市食品街 (Nán shì shípǐn jiē), where I’m supposed to find the local delicatessens. My goal is to buy a ton of 麻花 (Mahua), a kind of sweet biscuit typical of Tianjin. Why? Because if I don’t it to the office my Chinese coworkers will never forgive me.
After I’m done with the shopping I decide to taste another local specialty, that is a crèpe called 煎饼果子 (Jiān bing guǒzi), which doesn’t disappoint me. At this point I only miss a coffee in order to feel completely happy. As usual in China, I end up spending more money for the coffee than for the lunch.
I then head towards visit the Italian quarter. Maybe I’ll find a better and cheaper coffee over there. The truth is that I’m not expecting much because the “European quarter” in China are usually whatever.
Bars at the Italian Quarter
The Italian Quarter (意式风情区)
The Chinese couldn’t resist to add their “Disney” touch to the neighborhood, but I must say that overall the Italian quarter is quite enjoyable: the colonial houses look original and have been renovated in a decent way. I drink a beer inside one of the many bars that you can find here and I wait for the sunset.
I then leave the bar looking for… more food. Yeah, it’s almost dinner time. I smell a nice pizza flavor and I decide to take the risk. I seat on the terrace of the Italian restaurant, order my pizza with rucola (hmmm I love rucola) and, after waiting for a long time, I can finally enjoy my dinner. I’m surprised: it’s probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in China. OK, I know that’s not really difficult but anyway, not bad Tianjin!
Tianjin by Night
If you read till here I hope you are now persuaded that Tianjin deserves at least a visit, especially if you live in Beijing!
Have you ever been in Tianjin? How was your experience?
[Photo Credits Jiān bing guǒzi: www.flickr.com/photos/ilooch/]