x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tianjin, a breath of fresh air from Beijing

An easy day trip from China's capital, the city offers tree-lined boulevards, a sparkling new centre and a stylish riverside.

People enjoy a sunny afternoon on the banks of the Hai River, Tianjin. Daniel Bardsley for The National
People enjoy a sunny afternoon on the banks of the Hai River, Tianjin. Daniel Bardsley for The National

Why Tianjin?

An important city for 800 years, Tianjin retains much from its late 19th-century incarnation as a foreign concession. France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan, among others, established districts here, and some of their best buildings remain.

Tianjin has developed rapidly even by Chinese standards, yet happily many of the new projects near the city centre reflect the concession-era in architectural style, and Middle European apartment blocks are a particularly common sight. Daring modern skyscrapers can also be found aplenty in the city centre, while other redeveloped districts recreate traditional Chinese architecture. The city, despite having the lion's share of the 12-million population of its namesake municipality, has a spacious feel with many wide, tree-lined boulevards. It is also easy to get to, with a 331kph train taking about 30 minutes to make the journey from Beijing.

A comfortable bed

Although Tianjin is an easy day trip from the capital, there is more than enough to justify spending a night. The most convenient hotel is probably Jin Jiang Inn (17 Jinbu Road; 00 86 22 5821 5008) in Hebei district. A budget chain with properties across China, Jin Jiang offers rooms that are fairly basic but always clean and comfortable. The walk-in rate for a double room is 199 yuan (Dh111) per night. There is no English-language website but bookings can be made at www.hotels.com.

Tianjin's high-end hotels include the Westin Tianjin (101 Nanjing Road; www.starwoodhotels.com; 00 86 22 2389 0088) in Heping District, located right in the city centre. Double rooms cost from 977 yuan (Dh546) per night, including taxes. Another well-located five-star is the Astor Hotel Tianjin (33 Taier Zhuang Road; www.starwoodhotels.com; 00 86 22 2331 1688) near Jiefang Beilu. Opened in 1863 and re-opened in September after renovations "in the style of the Victorian era", it has luxuriously appointed rooms from 998 yuan (Dh547) per night, including taxes.

Find your feet

The Hai River is pleasant to stroll along and, during the winter, even to walk on. Yet Tianjin's past really comes alive along Jiefang Beilu, just to the south and west of the river, where most of the treaty-port architecture can be found. This street, relatively traffic-free, has a fair share of neoclassical buildings, among them Jardine Matheson and Co, now a branch of the Bank of China, with grand pillars as part of its facade.

There are countless others designed in a similar vein, many with small plaques bearing details of their heritage, and artists can sometimes be seen capturing the magnificent structures with oils on canvas. The road echoes Shanghai's famous Bund, albeit without the riverside location, and is partly why Tianjin is sometimes described as the "Shanghai of the North". Wandering through the wider city often springs architectural surprises; there is a smattering of Art Deco out there for those who search hard enough.

Meet the locals

The area surrounding the Chinese-style Grand Mosque, north-west of the city centre, showcases traditional street life in a way the more manicured areas in the centre are no longer able to. The mosque is open only to Muslims but it is surrounded by a wealth of foodstalls and restaurants - run mostly by Muslim Hui and Uighur ethnic minorities - that are open to all. Here, elderly Chinese ladies wheel little shopping carts and locals try to squeeze their bikes, laden withproduce, along the narrow alleys. Particular highlights are the stalls selling dried fruits and pastries. Most such traditional neighbourhoods in Tianjin, as in many other Chinese cities, have been flattened in favour of high-rise apartment blocks, so this area (it lies just north of the Xibeijiao subway station) is worth a visit.

Book a table

Although unimaginatively named and with Greco-Roman statues bordering on the kitsch, the "Italian-style Yown"is built within the former Italian concession areas and is a delightful recreation of continental-style architecture with many eateries, most with tables and chairs set beside the cobbled streets. Not all are Italian, though. There are several German venues and a French restaurant called La Seine (00 86 22 2446 0768) that serves the likes of creme brulée (35 yuan, Dh20) and salmon tartare (85 yuan, Dh47). The Muslim restaurants around the Grand Mosque offer tasty main courses from 20 yuan (Dh11).

Shopper's paradise

Just west of the Hai River lies Ancient Culture Street, a series of pedestrianised lanes of shops rebuilt in the traditional style. This is the place to go for lovely Chinese souvenirs: handpainted chopsticks, traditional landscape paintings, face masks, tailor-made clothes, tea sets and jade carvings. Remember to bargain hard - the shopkeepers hike up prices for foreign visitors, who are not very numerous.

Probably the most expensive shopping in Tianjin can be found at Hisense Plaza, west of the Hai River and south of the railway station. Here, many top designer brands such as Gucci, Piaget and Omega have outlets. Stop by if you have 2.3 million yuan (Dh1.2m) to spend on a diamond-encrusted watch.

What to avoid

While there is much to set Tianjin apart from the blandness afflicting many modern Chinese cities, when it came to developing much of the commercial centre, the authorities appear to have been sleepwalking. With several middle-of-the-road shopping centres filled with fast-food restaurants, it has little to draw visitors away from the more characterful modern projects.

Don't miss

The Tianjin Radio and TV Tower, measuring 415.2 metres, is up there with some of the world's most famous towers in terms of height, yet it attracts just a trickle of visitors, even on the weekend. It is, however, the best place from which to observe the extraordinary ambition that has created modern Tianjin. Its revolving cafe, with comfortable if slightly garish red sofas, looks out to dramatic new stadia, corporate headquarters and hundreds of high-rise apartment blocks, as well as the flat expanse of waterlogged land that leads to the seaside town of Tanggu.