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72 Hours in Tianjin

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

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“Tianjin” means “the place where the emperor crossed the river,” named for its past as an imperial port, serving as a vital gateway for the capital city of Beijing to access the sea. In later years, Tianjin continued to be a major port city in northeastern China, with several Western countries occupying the city during the late 19th century. Their European-style buildings, churches and residences can still be seen throughout the city today along Tianjin’s Wudadao (Five Great Avenues) district. Today Tianjin continues to be a thriving yet laidback destination known for its historical heritage mixed with modern skyscrapers and natural attractions. Getting around Tianjin is convenient thanks to its well-planned transportation system. Tianjin’s trains, buses, taxis, and even the sea routes at Tianjin’s port – the largest man-made port in China – are easy to navigate, making getting to Tianjin’s attractions easily doable. Now that visitors transferring through Tianjin’s Binhai International Airport can explore the city for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to see and do while there. Below are some of the top sites and activities in Tianjin to make the most of your 72-hour trip.

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Huangyaguan Great Wall

This portion of the Great Wall of China undulates through the mountainous Ji County and Tianjin city region like a stony dragon, with cliffs on its eastern side and craggy rocks on its west. Huangyaguan – or “Yellow Cliff Pass” – refers to the yellowish hue the cliffs take on at dusk. Huangyaguan was originally constructed in 550 AD and covers just over 26 miles, stretching from the Malanguan Pass in Hebei Province to the General Pass in Beijing, and serving as the northern entrance to Ji County. There are 52 watch towers and 14 beacon towers along the Huangyaguan section of the wall, with 20 of the watch towers having been restored and opened to the public in the 1980s. The Huangyaguan Great Wall is divided into two main areas: Huangya Pass and the Taipingzhai Mountain Stronghold. The Huangya Pass includes Bagua Castle, the Huangya Fortress (which has an outdoor market selling exotic fruits and nuts), and several other military facilities, all of which underwent repair and restoration in the 1984 and are in excellent condition today. Additional attractions, including the Great Wall Museum and Phoenix Fortress, were newly built within the area. The Taiping Mountain Stronghold is six miles northwest of the Pass, located in Xiaopingan Village. Its six watch towers, well-maintained brick walls, stunning views, and 1,400-year history make it an ideal location for the International Great Wall Marathon, which crosses this portion of the wall each year in May, welcoming runners from all over the world. For those looking to visit the wall without running a marathon, hiking Huangyaguan is quite enjoyable. The hike between Huangya Fortress and Taipingzhai is just over four miles and takes approximately two hours since some sections of the wall are quite steep and narrow there. Visitors can also do one section or the other (each hike is about an hour), accessing each from separate ends. Either way, the climb is worth it, as Huangyaguan rewards it visitors with stunning views.

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Great Wall Marathon

The International Great Wall Marathon is considered to be one of the most challenging marathons in the world, with an arduous course that climbs through lower valleys and villages, up thousands of stairs, and through breathtaking surroundings and views. However, race organizers carefully plan the route, starting the race at the highest point and bringing runners down the course to Yin and Yang Square. The first Great Wall Marathon took place in 1999 with 292 runners and has grown to more than 3,000 runners in recent years. In addition to the full marathon, shorter fun runs are held. Click here for more information on the Great Wall Marathon through Huangyaguan.

Mt. Pan

Mount Pan (Panshan)

This 26,000-acre scenic area is 68 miles away from Tianjin in Jixian County. Mt. Panshan is known as the “First Mountain East of Beijing” and is listed as one of the top 15 mountains in China for its natural beauty and historic heritage. Over the centuries (starting in 25 AD), numerous temples, pagodas, and towers have been built on the mountain, with many undergoing renovations since the 1990s to bring these structures back to their original states. Mt. Panshan’s architecture, blended into the surrounding trees, peaks and clear waters, provides awe-inspiring views for visitors. The mountain’s main peak, Guayue (Moon Hanging) Peak, is 2,800 feet above sea level and gives peeks of both the Great Wall and the westward Mt. Taihang. The four major temples on Mt. Panshan are Tiancheng, Yunzhao, Wanfo, and Wansong Temples. To the east of Tiancheng Temple is the Ancient Dagoba, the largest tower on Mt. Panshan, standing 13 stories high. Wanfo Temple has almost 11,000 Buddha statues. Visitors can reach Mt. Panshan by train and bus, or by hiring a private car or joining a group tour. Once there, there are stone steps and walking paths to explore the area, or sightseeing buses, as well as cable cars, to take visitors through the area for a fee.

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Haihe River

Back in Tianjin city, the Haihe River is the convergence of several bodies of water and a massive source of Tianjin’s history as a successful port city and trade center. Several great spots to visit are located along the Haihe River. Haihe Park, for one, serves as an area for leisure and relaxation along the river, with gardens, fountains, sculptures and ivy lattice dotting the park. Haihe Cultural Square is just across from the Tianjin Railway Station, and brings folk customs together with modern design. It is considered to be the “Bund” of Tianjin – a great place to stroll and enjoy lovely views of the river, its bridges, and architecture. The square is a clean and leisurely area, with outdoor restaurants, unhurried locals, small stalls and booths selling snacks and souvenirs, outdoor cultural events and more. At different times of year you’ll see locals fishing in the river, swimming, or ice skating in the winter. It’s also a popular spot for wedding photos (or for tourists to snap their picture with Tianjin’s European-style buildings in the background). The Haihe Fountain Amusement Park occupies another 35 acres along the river. Guests can partake in bumper cars, speed boat tours, and other amusements. The Wanghailou Church is another cultural relic worth stopping in to see while in the Haihe River area. Located on the north bank of the river, the church was visited by many emperors over the centuries.

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Ancient Culture Street

From Haihe Cultural Square, turn onto Ancient Culture Street, or access this 3.6-mile shopping street from its start at Gongbei Avenue from the north, through Gongnan Avenue in the south. Ancient Culture Street (or “Gu Wenhua Jie”) offers visitors excellent sightseeing, eating and shopping. There are hundreds of shops along Ancient Culture Street, with many selling traditional Tianjin items, including art, silk, jewelry, calligraphy, ceramics, antiques and more. The Zhang painted clay sculptures shop is located there, where ceramics from six generations of artists are sold, as well as the Yang Liu Qing painting gallery. Tianhou Palace stands at the middle section of Ancient Culture Street, and houses the Tianjin Folklore Museum, where 2,000 ancient cultural relics and folk arts items are on display. The Palace was originally built in 1326 and is one of only three Mazu temples in the world (with the others in Taiwan). Its architectural style reflects influences from the Ming and Yuan Dynasties, and its structures include an opera tower, bell-drum tower, temple gate, and several temples and pavilions. Due to its location on the Haihe River, in ancient times Tianhou Palace also served as a venue for worshiping the sea, praying for sailors’ safe passages and as a place to celebrate once sailors made their homecomings. Visitors to Ancient Culture Street may also want to visit the nearby Yuhuangge Taoist Temple, which was built in 1368. The Huanghui Fair takes place in March each year on Ancient Culture Street, with performances of dragons, lions, stilt walkers and other festivities. During the rest of the year, Ancient Culture Street is often less crowded than some of the outdoor markets found throughout China, so it’s an excellent place to stroll, take photos of the surrounding architecture, search for the perfect souvenir, and bargain for a good price in a laidback manner. There are also many places to get a snack or drink along this road; visitors may want to sample local delicacies such as Goubuli steamed dumplings, fried cakes and tea soup.

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Five Great Avenues

Another area of Tianjin worth visiting is the Five Great Avenues (“Wu Da Dao” in Chinese), where five streets named after the five major cities of southwest China – Chengdu, Chongqing, Changde, Dali and Munan – make up a rectangular region in Tianjin’s southern downtown. The architecture along the Five Great Avenues is strongly influenced by the European countries that took up residence in Tianjin in the late 19th century (including France, Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain), and there is a sense of history in the air. You can walk, drive, ride a bicycle, or take a horse-drawn carriage ride through this area. While self-touring is quite doable, a tour guide may be helping in pointing out the history of the various buildings in this area.

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Italian Style Street

Rounding out the unofficial Tianjin walking tour is the “Italian Style Street.” The former Italian concession, this area has been updated to feature many Italian (and some other European-style) restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops, making it an Italian oasis within China. Marco Polo Plaza is the hub of this area, where you’ll find historic buildings, fountains, gardens, and sightseeing buses that depart from there for a tour of the area.

Tianjin Water Park

For some modern fun, or simply to cool off in the summer weather, the Tianjin Water Park is an excellent place to spend the day.  Just south of the city, this 410-acre park is a sprawling playland with three lakes, nine islands and vast gardens touting more than 66,000 trees. The park’s Penjing Garden is the largest bonsai garden in northern China, with more than 400 bonsai works. Viewing pavilions allow visitors to take in the lakes below; an amusement park provides fun for young ones; there is boating and sightseeing on the lakes; and also a zoo with pandas, golden monkeys, and 200 other kinds of animals. Admission to the Water Park is free; entry to the zoo is 30 yuan.

Porcelain House

Perhaps one of the most unique sites in Tianjin is the Porcelain House (or “Yuebao House”), where Zhang Lianzhi has spent decades adorning a historic home with millions of antique porcelain pieces. Located on Chifeng Street in the Heping District, this French-architecture house has been transformed into an interesting oddity within Tianjin. The house was once home to a finance minister in the Qing dynasty, then became a bank, then sat deserted until Mr. Lianzhi – a successful restaurant owner and businessman – bought it and spent years (and millions of dollars) decorating it with purportedly 400 million pieces of porcelain, as well as marble and crystal. Even the walls of the courtyard boast thousands of porcelain vases. The exterior of the building is flanked by four Chinese dragons, each more than 650 feet long, and pieced together from thousands of porcelain pieces. In recent years Lianzhi has even added a working Land Rover covered in antique ceramics. This four-story home is a must-see in Tianjin, if only to snap a few photos or to take in the cups, saucers, bowls, vases, and other ceramics that adorn nearly every inch of the property.

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