Most people visit China for its outstanding natural sites, charming ancient towns and the world-class metropolis of Beijing and Shanghai. Other large cities remain undiscovered, except for Xi’an, visited mostly for its stunning Terracota Warriors. Some people may argue that most Chinese megacities have a similar skyline dominated by endless monotonous towers and super-wide motorways. But there are quite a few notable exceptions. We loved Chengdu in Sichuan for its ancient neighborhoods and gorgeous parks, and even Yunnan’s Kunming with an interesting historical center was not that bad! We visited both as part of a larger tour around their respective provinces. However, three Chinese megacities are destinations on their own: Tianjin, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.
In all honesty we had no intention of visiting Tianjin. We wanted to spend less time in big cities and more time in nature. But our plane ticket to Hong Kong was significantly cheaper from Tianjin than from Beijing, so we had to visit. What a surprise! As Shanghai, Tianjin came into prominence after the II Opium War, when it was forced to open itself to Foreign Concessions. As a result, the city is full of European heritage.
So where do you stay in a city with so much to see and do? In its very own center. Just north of the Italian Quarter the Tianjin Main Train Station is the meeting point of three metro lines. One connects you to the airport, one to the new fast train station and the last one to the port town of Binhai. Our Radisson Tianjin Hotel, located just a step away, is fantastic value for money and within walking distance to many interesting areas.
The most remarkable part of historical Tianjin is the touristy Italian Quarter. Its main street Ziyou Road is an open space market place, surrounded by gorgeous villas. South of the Italian Quarter, across the Haihe River there are some really cool ultramodern buildings and lavish mansions. Behind them lies Tianjin’s largest pedestrian area with Heping Road as the main thoroughfare. The always packed Binjiang Road ends at the beautiful St. Joseph Cathedral. Do not forget to visit the nearby bizarre Porcelain House.
Several kilometers southeast the Five Avenues Area inside the former British Quarter has a more secluded feel. The monumental Minyuan Stadium is a great place to spend a few hours and people watch. If you get there by metro, you’ll love the area around the Xiaobailou Metro Station. If you are looking for something old yet Chinese, you should head up north of the city center to the pedestrian Gulou Street (Ancient Cultural Street) with its monumental Drum Tower. The few remains of Japanese and Austro-Hungarian Concession are also worth visiting. Try to discover them by yourself.
Some influential internet sites, like Wikipedia, claim that Chinese people consider Guangzhou to be cultureless and not especially interesting. We beg to differ: we absolutely loved the city! You’ll also find websites saying that it’s China’s richest city, yet somehow we felt it was more rundown than other Chinese megacities. It was kind of cool to see Guangzhou in its uncorrupted form. Surely they are planning something big, and many old neighborhoods might disappear soon. So we were happy to visit it before that happens.
Guangzhou has three interesting areas: The City Center in Yuexiu District, The Old Town (Xiguan) in Liwan District and the Business Area in Tianhe District. The city center is where all the sights are: the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-Sen’s Memorial Hall, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees & Flower Pagoda, the Sacred Heart Cathedral and the Yuexiu Mountain and Park. The city’s main shopping alley Beijing Street is also here.
The Old Town is our favorite. We stayed at the gorgeous Hotel Citadines Lizhiwan Guangzhou located inside the so-called Lychee Bay Scenic Area. It’s a beautiful street packed with authentic old houses surrounded by a lush park with a huge lake – Liwan Lake Park. We loved strolling around this crumbling neighborhood and were ecstatic when we stumbled upon a lovely Chinese opera in the middle of Liwan Lake Park. We also loved walking down the Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street and the amazing colonial neighborhood on Shamian Island. Outstanding!
You’ll find neighborhoods like the Business Area of Guangzhou in most other Chinese megacities. But there is one thing that sets this area apart: Its gigantic pedestrian zone. Yes, the skyscrapers are impressive, and the Canton Tower is truly beautiful, but the green oasis inside the Zhujiang Road and the Huachang Square is quite unique. That’s what cities should be all about: enjoying your time walking in peace.
We spent our last week in China around the Shanghai area. Apart from China’s largest city we wanted to visit another giant metropolis. Suzhou with its numerous beautiful gardens was one option, but we felt like we wanted to see something different. So, Hangzhou got into our minds. It has what probably no other big Chinese city has: an incredible natural spot in its very own center. Of course, we are talking about the famous West Lake. The place is so special that it was included in the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2011.
We stayed at the Westlake 7 Apartment in the city center. Located inside a fancy residential building it belongs to a group of serviced apartments. Our first apartment had a typical Chinese extra hard bed, so we changed rooms and were given one with a slightly softer, yet acceptable bed. Chinese people are very straightforward; you can always ask what you want, and they will respond the way they feel. No hurt feelings! Anyhow, the hotel’s location is perfect; we could walk everywhere, with the lake a couple of blocks away.
The West Lake Cultural Landscape comprises numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, hills and artificial islands. It is practically the city’s only major attraction. You can spend days just walking about and people watching. The northern part of the city center is packed with shopping centers and interesting skyscrapers. The cool Zhejiang Science & Technology Museum is here too. Hangzhou’s few remaining historical sites are in the southern part of the center, next to the lake. Amongst them, check out the Drum Tower and the charming Hefang Street.