To overlook Beijing is to miss out on the big travel destination – China – and its most dazzling city. History and archaeology buffs alike will be astounded by the thousands of years of history at their feet – from the ancient sites of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven.
Yet while it’s steeped in history, Beijing is striving forward and cutting edge architecture (check out the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium for starters) abound signalling Beijing’s intent to become a world city.
Factor in a fabulous scene and blissfully affordable prices, and Beijing scores.
Cruise port location
Cruise ships dock at Tianjin International Cruise Terminal. Opened in June 2010, the port is located on reclaimed land in the Tianjin region but is still 70km from Tianjin proper and approximately 180km from Beijing. The closest town is Tanggu, roughly 30km away.
The port boasts three berths, allowing two big-sized cruise ships to be docked simultaneously. Cruise ships including Ocean Princess, Ocean Nautica, Costa Classica, Celebrity Millennium, Crystal Symphony, Volendam, Sapphire Princess, Azamara Quest and Arcadia all call Tianjin International Cruise Terminal home.
Don’t confuse Tianjin International Cruise Terminal with Xingang port – something that is easily done owing to their close proximity. Xiangang port serves as the main terminal for domestic cruises along the majestic Yangtze River. Passengers embarking or disembarking an international cruise ship, will do so at Tianjin International Cruise Terminal.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Beyond taking advantage of duty free shopping at the cruise terminal or hitting the (man-made) Dongjiang Bay Beach (a mile and a half north), there’s very little to see and do around the port, per se. Most passengers either take a trip to Tianjin, a city that has come a long way in the last 10 years and developed a scene for everyone, or better still Beijing.
The closest train station to the cruise terminal is Tanggu station, approximately 30 minutes away, but be warned: the train is popular with commuters so book in advance to secure a seat.
When it comes to getting around both Beijing and Tianjin, walking or cycling is the best way to see the cities. Everywhere has something of interest, but keep your wits about you: traffic is chaotic and aggressive and pedestrians occupy the bottom rung in the hierarchy of road users, below bicycles, buses, tuks tuks and cars.
Alternatively use the subway which is super cheap, clean, efficient and easy to use – if crowded – or take a taxi. Drivers rarely speak English, which can prove problematic if your Mandarin is less than masterful (try and present your directions in Chinese to local drivers) – but they are a bargain and, unless it’s raining, in plentiful supply.
What to see and do
An exhilarating clash of the ancient and the modern, Beijing and its port city neighbour reward a visit.
What can I do in four hours or less?
With only four hours to play with, make Tianjin your port of call. Classical sightseeing should start in the old quarter: don’t miss the Drum Tower, with its decorative archways, and the Confucian Temple – the city’s biggest shrine.
Next, wander around Wudadao which was home to warlords, bankers and concubines in Tianjin’s chaotic pre communist era: the plaques on the buildings provide further information on this fascinating period.
Continue your cultural odyssey at Jiefang Bei Lu, where Tianjin’s history as a concession port (the city housed enclaves of British, German, French and Americans in the early 20th century), is reflected in the varied and elegant architectural styles on show.
Then make for the Memorial Hall to Zhou Enlai for the low-down on the Tianjin born former Chinese Premier.
Aim to end your time in Tianjin with a cruise down the Haihe River – a great way tick off the Beijing’s little sister’s main sights.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Beijing has a wealth of historical sights but the magnificent Forbidden City – which took more than one million labourers over 15 years to build – is arguably the linchpin of Beijing’s tourism. Once the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it is now recognised as one of the five most important palaces in the world and also, at 74 hectares, the world’s largest.
A trip to the Temple of Heaven (a place of worship for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties) should also rank highly on every visitor’s itinerary. Other staple sites include the Summer Palace (built to be a getaway for the royals), Tiananmen Square – the largest public square in the world – and, of course, the Great Wall aka the symbol of China. As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, but that’s the problem: it’s crowded. To avoid the sharing the wall with hordes of tourists, visit on a weekday in winter, skip the Badaling section of the Great Wall and make for Mutianyu.
But while Beijing’s blockbuster sights are instantly familiar, iconic landmarks guaranteed to jump start a cold tourist engine, they’re not the whole picture. Not by far. Some of the finest sights can be found by accident: simply by losing yourself in the labyrinth like hutongs (alleyways) that are arguably the heart and soul of China’s capital. Spending some time strolling around the hutongs offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of locals: expect to see old men and women sitting on the floor playing Chinese chess or mah jong, while grandmothers gossip and chew the fat over endless cups of tea as they have done for centuries. The buzzing Nanluogu Xiang has been developed for tourists, but for the most part hutongs in areas like Chongwen, Xicheng and Xuanwu are for locals.
In town after dark? Skip Sanlitun and Houhai (two of Beijing’s most popular nightlife destinations) and party like a local by heading to a karaoke bar (aka KTV). Laowai (foreigners) might see it as an odd way to spend an evening but, once you get started, you’ll soon discover that it’s great fun.
If playing air guitar isn’t your bag, catch a performance of Peking Opera – Beijing’s oldest art form. Admittedly it’s an acquired taste but, when in Rome…
It’s perfectly possible for passengers to reach all of the aforementioned sights and attractions under their own steam, but Beijing isn’t the easiest place to explore independently (you’ll need to jump over language barriers and be alert to scams). Why not take the hassle out of your trip and sign up for a ship-sponsored excursion or use a local company like Bespoke Beijing? Started by a former Time Out editor, the company’s focus is on offering customised, insider, hassle free experiences to visitors; services include port transfers, expert guides, pocket guides that offer a custom edit of the best restaurants and bars in town during your trip, and more.
Eat and drink
“Chi fan” (let’s eat), is a phrase you’ll hear all over Beijing. China’s capital has over 60,000 restaurants dedicated to feeding you up, that are juxtaposed alongside food (hawker) stalls and night markets like Donghuamen. The latter isn’t for the faint hearted (expect to see vendors peddling seahorse, silkworms, scorpions, starfish and snake) but it’s certainly Instagram-worthy. Wander around the food stalls, then sit and feast with locals indulging in noodles and jiaozi (steamed dumplings) that are to die for.
Carnivores can’t leave the Imperial City without tucking into Peking duck. Try it at Beijing Da Dong Duck restaurant which has built up a reputation for serving superior (leaner) versions of Beijing’s signature dish, in a stylish setting. Be prepared to battle for a booking, but if you get one, your taste-buds will say “thank-you.”
In Tianjin, try the city’s signature snack, mahua (twisted, and moreish, dough sticks).
Don’t leave Beijing without…
Hitting up Beijing’s Silk Market where industrious bootleggers will be happy to test your conscience by offering DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters long before they hit screens in the West for RMB12 (approximately £1.20). Here (provided you’re prepared to haggle hard), you can pick up, ahem, Chanel bags for the price of a pizza.
If you’re in town on a Saturday or Sunday, head for the colourful Panjiayuan Antique Market – a photographer’s dream.
In Tianjin, amble along Ancient Culture Street – the colourful, crowded passageways are a great place to stock up on souvenirs.
Lastly, don’t leave town without trying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which aims to balance your yin and yang through treatments such as acupuncture (where fine needles are inserted into the skin), moxibustion (an alternative to acupuncture which involves a therapist moving a heated cup of herbs above your body), mediation and traditional Chinese massage. Granted, TCM treatments aren’t exactly pain free but persevere as, after a few days, you’ll feel like a brand new person.
Need to know
Air China and British Airways both fly non-stop from London to Beijing and can have you on the ground in China’s cultural capital in under 11 hours.
By and large, Beijing is a safe city just be vigilant against pickpockets and wise to petty scams. Case in point? Take small bills with you and always check your change as counterfeit money is common.
Best time to go
The best times to visit Beijing are from March to May and from September to October when the weather is warm but pleasant. Summer can be scorching while, in winter, Beijing freezes over: temperatures regularly drop to -9°C and there’s a strong chance of snow.
Not a fan of crowds? Steer clear of public holidays when domestic tourists descend on Beijing’s sacred sites in their droves.
Beijing’s shops are open seven days a week. Most museums will close on Mondays (except for National Holidays).