When it comes to culture and history, few cities can compete with Beijing, located two hours by car to the northeast of the port of Xingang. Its Forbidden City is unparalleled: This massive former imperial complex is home to the Palace Museum and its collection of nearly 1 million Chinese antiquities. At the Summer Palace, you can stroll the same covered walkways that were stormed initially during the second Opium War and then again during the Boxer Rebellion. The Temple of Heaven is a handsome Taoist place of worship surrounded by a large public park where you will witness locals making offerings, practicing tai chi and flying kites. The Great Wall is a true wonder of the world—great is an apt word for a structure of such staggering length, a whopping 21,000 kilometers (over 13,000 miles).
Though Tianjin often plays second fiddle to Beijing, this city 30 minutes from the capital by train has plenty of its own cultural sites. At the Confucius Temple, learn about the teachings of Confucius and do as the locals do, writing prayers or wishes on small plaques. Dig into Tianjin history at the excellent Tianjin Museum and at the Shi Family Mansion, the stately former home of the wealthy Shi family.