This may sound strange to long-term Beijingers, but when my wife and I want a relaxing overnight retreat from busy Beijing, we don’t head to the hills (although the Brickyard Hotel in Mutianyu is always my top choice). And no, it’s not the Beidaihe beaches, which stunningly still cannot offer one decent internationally-run hotel experience. No, my wife and I now like to drive south — to Tianjin, Beijing’s pretty but little noticed half-sister. For those of you who have never been there, Tianjin is a massively expanding city with multiple areas of European buildings from the opium war days. It’s a vibrant city; its growth is electric; some sections are quite charming; and its snaking riverfront with its new greenery and hotels is quickly starting to remind me of grand European city river walks — at least in potential. So here are my travel tips on Tianjin, a new edition to my website’s collection of daytrips and weekends.
Tip #1: Train or drive. I hear the express train is very easy and fast (less than half an hour!), and Beijing’s super-modern south station is also quite a site. Tianjin’s train station is right on the riverfront and everything is a taxi ride away. For those of you like myself who prefer to drive, my #1 tip is to only take the new highway, the Jingjin highway 京津高速, and at all costs avoid the old pot-holed 2-lane truck-infested nightmare of the original Jingjintang 京津塘高速 highway. It looks longer on the map, but trust me — it’s so uncrowded and fast you’ll actually enjoy a relaxing drive at a steady 120 kph and get there faster. The total toll should be around 55 RMB.
One small disclaimer; I don’t know how it’s possible but Tianjin drivers are far, far crazier than in Beijing, and their pedestrians are generally insane. So driving within the city can definitely be stressful. I suggest you park quickly at your hotel and walk around or let a taxi driver deal with it.
Tip #2: Lounge around in a nice hotel. We don’t often run around the touristy sites and malls as we far prefer to lounge around a nice hotel. I’ve stayed in a few of their high-end places and still can’t believe you can have a big room in a top international hotel in a top city for way under $200 — including breakfast for two! I currently have two favorite hotels. My favorite is the St Regis Hotel mostly because of its outstanding location, right along the Haihe river and literally a 15 minute lovely riverwalk distance to the Italian concession district. This area is definitely one of Tianjin’s tourist highlights, especially at night. I’m really happy to see this neglected area finally getting some serious investment, with Paulaner, Flo Brasserie, Starbucks and others now anchoring this very charming area.
The St Regis itself isn’t a perfect 5-star hotel, but their view of the river is definitely impressive (see the photo below from our room); the customer service was uniformly excellent; and the rooms certainly were a nice size. My wife and I had a very relaxing overnight here, mostly by enjoying their high tea, then having free drinks at their happy hour, then walking over to the Italian area for dinner — at a Thai restaurant, eating the best pad thai we’ve had since San Francsico! Go figure.
My other favorite hotel is the Tianjin Center Hotel, placed atop a skyscraper in the thick of Tianjin on Nanjing Lu, just across the street from their always-packed pedestrian shopping alley (as well as the famous Catholic church). This hotel used to be excellent, initially run by the Raffles group, but now with local ownership the service has slipped a bit. But the best feature, by far, are their standard rooms — at 60 square meters the largest I’ve seen in any hotel anywhere. The designs are very efficient and there’s usually a big tub which has spectacular views 50 stories above the city. They also have a nice Executive level lounge, otherwise you can hang out in your room all day!
Other Tips: As I mentioned, Tianjin’s concession areas, including the Italian section, are all quite charming to stroll or drive through. Their grand street with the Astor Hotel continues its restoration and in a couple more years will be really stunning, comparable to Shanghai’s Bund. For Chinese culture, their reconstructed Ancient Cultural Street is admittedly touristy but far more successfully “authentic” and lively compared to the soul-sucking lifelessness of Beijing’s Qianmen Street. There’s also a genuine temple halfway up the street to take a quiet rest.
Things To Avoid: There’s a “food court” which is passably fun, and I’m sure your tourist guide will force you to eat Tianjin’s famous steamed buns 包子 at Goubuli 狗不理. Apparently, their food is blessed forever since an emperor or Cixi or George Washington once said they were delicious. All I can say is for their price for one, I can get a dozen better tasting 包子 at a dozen restaurants in Beijing. I’d rather eat at Kiesslings, a much more fun landmark restaurant.
Enjoy your trip, and please share your experiences with other readers! Don’t forget to check out other travel suggestions at my website’s collection of daytrips and weekends.