Tianjin is one of China’s most important cities, and within easy striking distance of Beijing, too. High-speed trains run between Tianjin and the capital several times an hour and take only 30 minutes. It’s the perfect day trip—but there’s also plenty to do for a whole weekend too. The city does have a population of over 15 million, after all.
As a major port city, Tianjin is also home to some of China’s most interesting history. In the 19th century, foreign powers including the French, British, German, Japanese, and Belgians carved out their own neighborhoods, or foreign concessions. Visitors to Tianjin today can still see these countries’ impacts in the city’s eclectic architecture, which sees 19th-century British-style homes next to cutting-edge 21st-century design.
Ride the Eye of Tianjin
Forget the London Eye, Tianjin sports a copycat of the famous British ride. Tianjin’s, however, is perched impressively atop a bridge, allowing it to claim the title of “the world’s largest Ferris wheel over water.” Grab a ticket and hop on board, and you’ll be treated to sweeping views of the city’s sprawl over the course of half an hour. You’ll be 394 feet (120 meters) high at the wheel’s peak.
Get Your Bearings at Haihe Culture Square
If you arrive in Tianjin by train from Beijing (the easiest and fastest way to get there), you’ll disembark just across from Haihe Culture Square. The large square on the banks of the Hai River presents a magnificent view of old-style European buildings, earning it the nickname “Tianjin’s Bund,” a reference to the famous French-style riverside of Shanghai.
Snap the Perfect Picture at Tianjin Binhai Library
Tianjin Binhai Library is so architecturally stunning that it went viral upon its opening. The massive library serves as the central attraction in Tianjin’s newly-built economic district, Binhai New Area.
Nicknamed “The Eye” for the eye-shaped design on its facade, the library’s curvy indoor atrium is covered floor-to-ceiling with sleek white bookshelves. If it seems like an impossible amount of books in one building, well, that’s because it is. The library caused a minor controversy when it was revealed that the books on its highest shelves were fake. Real books or not, it’s a beautiful example of modern architecture.
Cheer on the Players at a Soccer Game
Tianjin is a soccer lover's town. Until recently, the city was home to two rival teams—Tianjin Tianhai FC and Tianjin TEDA FC—and the atmosphere at their matchups was rowdy. Tianhai FC was dissolved in May 2020, but Tianjin’s soccer fans still flock to the Tianjin Olympic Center for TEDA games against other major Chinese teams from Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou.
Cruise the Hai River
The Hai River is Tianjin’s lifeblood, running from Beijing through Tianjin out to the Bohai Sea. Some of Tianjin’s prettiest architecture is along its banks, and plentiful riverside sidewalks make it a delightful place for a stroll.
But there’s no better way to appreciate the river than on a boat, passing under the city’s numerous historic bridges. You can buy tickets for boat rides at many points along the river, but talking to vendors by the Guwenhua Jie Wharf or along the Haihe Culture Square will give you the most options.
Marvel at the Porcelain House
Tianjin has plenty of impressive architecture, but the Porcelain House is undoubtedly its quirkiest building. This former mansion is covered entirely in bits of ancient porcelain, lending it a strange but fascinating facade. The former owner, Zhang Lianzhi, is a porcelain collector, and this home was his (now-famous) passion project.
You can snap a photo from the street, but the inside, now converted into a museum, is also worth checking out. Visitors like to throw one yuan notes from the top of its swirling stairwell for good luck.
Sip on Local Craft Beer
Tianjiners love their local craft brewer, WE Brewery. Founded by a city local, the brewery features Western-style brews with nods to local ingredients, and serves as a gathering place for the city’s foreign community, with events like yoga classes and poetry nights. It’s situated perfectly in the middle of the city’s charming Wudadao area.
Munch on a Jianbing
People across China love jianbing guozi, but it’s here in Tianjin that the dish originated. The breakfast staple is an egg-based crepe with a youtiao (or fried dough stick) inside. Look around, and you’ll see it everywhere at street-side stalls. Though popular for breakfast, jianbing guozi can be eaten as a snack at any time, and they rarely cost more than 15 yuan.
Check Out Xikai Catholic Church
One of the most fascinating relics of Tianjin’s former foreign concessions is Xikai Catholic Church, formerly known as St. Joseph Cathedral. The Roman Catholic church was built in 1916 as part of the surrounding former French concession. Its location at the end of Binjiang Dao, a bustling shopping street, also makes it a great place to stroll around.
Learn About History at The Astor Hotel
Founded in 1863, The Astor was a hub of diplomatic activity for decades. Herbert Hoover was a regular here during his posting in China, and the hotel also hosted U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant. But its most famous visitor was China’s last emperor, Pu Yi, who stayed regularly at The Astor with his concubine.
The Astor is still an operating hotel, and you can even sleep in Herbert Hoover’s former room. But non-guests can also enjoy its in-house museum, which features artifacts from its illustrious past.
Explore Tianjin’s Five Great Avenues
For the city’s most striking example of European architecture, stroll through Wudadao, or the “Five Great Avenues.” The neighborhood will have you wondering if you’re in Britain—until you smell the jianbing carts lining the streets. English-style townhomes line the quiet, tree-lined avenues, which are named for five southwestern Chinese cities.
The area includes Minyuan Plaza, a stadium dating back to the 1920s that is now used as a public square. If your feet get tired, horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws offer visitors tours of the area.
Peruse the Ancient Culture Street
Had enough of the Europeans? Guwenhua Jie, or Ancient Culture Street, harkens back to a time before foreigners showed up. The pedestrian street is in the style of the Qing dynasty and though it’s been renovated too many times for many of the buildings to actually qualify as historical, the street is still a fun place to hang out, with numerous snack stalls and trinket shops. Try candied hawthorn, served glistening on a stick, for an authentic treat. The street is just a quick stroll from the banks of the Hai River.
Grab a Snack at Nanshi Food Street
Nanshi Food Street is a foodie's paradise. The complex is an indoor shopping arcade dedicated entirely to local foods, many of which are packed in beautiful boxes, bundled up and ready for your flight home.
A must-try is ma hua, sticks of twisted dough that are fried and covered in sesame. Or you can grab a hot goubuli baozi, Tianjin’s own variety of baozi, or steamed bun. There are also tasty shuligao, steamed rice cakes with jelly.
Go on a Museum Tour
Tianjin is perfect for museum lovers because several of its largest museums sit right next to each other. In the city’s Hexi district, you can visit Tianjin Science and Technology Museum, and once you’re done, walk in a large semicircle around the area’s long, mirror-like pool to its other museums. You’ll see dinosaur bones at Tianjin Natural History Museum, and learn about the city’s own history at Tianjin Museum. When you’re ready for a snack afterward, a popular mall with cafes and restaurants sits just across the way.
Enjoy the Yangliuqing New Year Painting Museum
If you’ve ever been in China during the Lunar New Year, then you’ll know that people love to festoon their doorways with calligraphy and art in celebration. The residents of the town of Yangliuqing, in the Western suburbs of Tianjin, are famed for their elaborate Chinese New Year paintings, which feature festive scenes of families sharing meals or exchanging money in traditional red packets, alongside auspicious sayings. But you don’t have to go out to the suburbs to see the artwork in person. The best new year paintings, some of them centuries old, are collected in downtown Tianjin at the Yangliuqing New Year Painting Museum.