Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
Tianjin’s landscape is a pleasant surprise. After arriving from Beijing, it’s noticeably greener and slower paced and, unlike the dry capital, there is a broad river meandering through the center. The scene strikes me as more evocative of Shanghai, with 20th-century European architecture and tree-lined streets offsetting a glassy modern skyline.
The immediate eye-catcher, however, is definitively 21st century. The Tianjin Eye is a 394-foot-high Ferris wheel built on the Yongle Bridge spanning the Hai River. Chinese tourists line up excitedly for a ride in one of 48 glass cabins that afford superb views over the city toward Bohai Bay. Later, after dark, the brightly illuminated wheel attracts sightseers to the riverside.
Tianjin is located 80 miles from Beijing and has reason to thank the capital for its rising tourism status. It hosted soccer matches during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and, in return, was rewarded with a high-speed railway connecting the cities in just 30 minutes.
Like China’s other major cities, it has undergone a major makeover. The banks of the River Hai have been gentrified with parks and pleasure boats, clusters of skyscrapers and shopping malls have sprung up and historic neighborhoods are under restoration.
Even though Tianjin is modernizing fast, its historic ambience continues to appeal. Tianjin sits on an inlet of the Yellow Sea near what was once a strategic commercial port in the late 19th century. The second Opium War, in 1859, resulted in France and Britain establishing self-run concessions here, followed by six more concessions governed by Japan, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Belgium.
The legacy of that era is magnificent European architecture, particularly in the district around Jiefang Bei Lu. Here, clients will see grand stone-fronted banks, offices and mansions with neoclassical arches and Doric columns, all of which seem imported directly from London.
A short walk away, the tree-lined former French Concession district is home to several photogenic churches. The most notable are the Notre Dame des Victoires and the Romanesque green domes of Xi Kai Cathedral, which was originally built in 1916. A sense of local spirituality can be observed at the Confucius Temple (Wen Miao), on the strangely named Ancient Culture Street. First built in 1436, but restored several times since, it features a statue of Confucius surrounded by ancient musical instruments.
For expert insight on Tianjin’s past and present, U.S.-born longtime China resident Doug Red has created Asia Walking Tours. His informative guided walks through the historic neighborhoods are enhanced by intriguing stories of the characters who lived in Tianjin during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also provides context on the modern development of one of China’s most progressive cities.
Tianjin has long been considered a day excursion from Beijing, but its burgeoning suite of fine hotels entices clients to linger longer. Recent openings include the boutique-style Hotel Indigo Haihe and The St. Regis while Banyan Tree, Shangri-La, Conrad and The Ritz-Carlton are slated to open this year.
The most historic abode is the Astor Hotel. Dating from 1863, the Astor is a grand city landmark and was one of China’s finest hotels. During its heyday, it hosted global VIPs, including U.S. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Herbert Hoover. Recently restored as a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel, its period furnishings are paired with contemporary amenities. Even if clients are not staying here, high tea in the Victorian-style lobby lounge captures the essence of Tianjin’s historic-modern charm.
The St. Regis TianjinThe 274-room hotel is located along the picturesque Hai River. The property offers easy train access and is within walking distance of the Gold Street shopping district, the Italian quarter and Jinwan Square.www.starwoodhotels.com/stregis
The Astor HotelThe Astor Hotel, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, can trace its history back to 1863. Tastefully decorated in classic Victorian-era style, the hotel’s 152 guestrooms and suites were upgraded in 2010.www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury
Hotel Indigo HaihePart of the InterContinental Hotel Group, Hotel Indigo Haihe is located in the colorful Germanic Street neighborhood, approximately 12 miles from the Tianjin Binhai Airport. Guestrooms are cozy and feature over-size beds, high-speed Internet access, signature artwork and spa-inspired showers. www.ichotelsgroup.com/hotelindigo
Banyan Tree Tianjin RiversideThe upscale Banyan Tree Tianjin Riverside is located in the former Austrian concession and in close proximity to the Italian concession. Measuring nearly 3,000 square feet, its finest suite, the Banyan Tree Suite, offers two bedrooms, a living room, a study, a dining room, a private garden and dedicated Host Service to accommodate just about any request.www.banyantree.com