As southern China’s primary transport hub, there is a strong chance you will spend a night or two in Guangzhou. Although known primarily for trade and commerce, there is much more to this city than meets the eye.
Guangzhou echoes Shanghai’s fabulous blend of tradition and innovation, with spectacularly lit, futuristic buildings like the Canton tower and Guangzhou Opera House standing alongside ancient temples and museums housing an abundance of historical treasures. Like Shanghai, the city's international trade roots manifest themselves in its colonial architecture, particularly in the old concession area of Shaiman Island and the impressive Sacred Heart Cathedral. With this rich blend of old and new, Guangzhou may start out as a stopover destination and end up being one of the highlights of your trip.
Located in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Guangzhou is one of the country's main transport hubs. The city is well connected to Southeast Asian and further afield by both land and air. You will undoubtedly have to pass through Guangzhou at some point during your China trip
Flights: Baiyun International Airport is located around 30km north of Guangzhou city center. You can fly from here to many international destinations such as Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Flights to Beijing take around 3 hours and Shanghai can be reached in 2 hours 30 minutes. The airport is easily reached from downtown; you can either catch metro line 3 or take one of the several shuttle buses that regularly depart from the city.
Trains: A high-speed rail line connects Beijing and Guangzhou, with a journey time of 8-10 hours. There are also slower overnight trains available for the budget traveler. The city has three main train stations: Guangzhou main train station, which has daily trains to Lhasa (54 hours); Guangzhou south station, located 50 minutes from the city, which is the high-speed rail hub for trains to Beijing and Shanghai; and Guangzhou east station, which has overnight sleeper trains to Beijing (21 hours 30 minutes) and Shanghai (17 hours).
The city of Guangzhou is famous for foreign trade and business and hosts China's largest trade fair, the Canton Fair. Yet in between the seemingly endless skyscrapers, shopping malls, and building sites, there is a lot of culture and history. Guangzhou’s relatively isolated geography and comparatively early exposure to the outside world have created a unique culture, lifestyle, and cuisine that makes it a fascinating destination to visit. The city is home to some of China’s most impressive colonial architecture and some beautiful parks that serve as a welcome respite from the fast pace of life.
Guangzhou has a ten line metro system and a very extensive bus network which make traveling around the city very easy. You can purchase a transit pass (30 CNY deposit) that can be used on buses, trains, and yellow taxis.
Shamian Island: The old foreign concession area of Shamian Island offers a glimpse into Guangzhou’s colonial past and is a tranquil oasis in the heart of the city. Once a major trading port, the island is now one of the best-preserved examples of European architecture anywhere in China. Many of the old buildings have been converted into chic restaurants and boutique shops. Huangsha station on metro line 1 is the closest stop to the concession area.
Canton Tower: Standing at just under 600 meters tall, this tower once topped the list of the world’s tallest buildings. The building is best viewed from afar at night when it is spectacularly illuminated, but there is also a dizzying observation deck. On the observation deck, you will find a track running the circumference of the building with moving observation “bubbles”. A ride around will take roughly 30 minutes and offers fantastic views for those unafraid of heights!
Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King: Accidentally discovered in 1983, this museum is home to some of China’s best cultural relics. The museum is divided into separate chambers, the most impressive of which holds the burial suit of Zhao Mo (the Nanyue King), which is lavishly embellished with the jade, once believed to make one immortal.
Sacred Heart Cathedral: This still-active Cathedral is another physical representation of the city's colonial past. Built just after the second opium war (1856-1860), its 48-meter-high neo-gothic towers stand in impressive juxtaposition to Guangzhou’s modern skyscrapers. Alighting at Haizhu Square station on metro line 2 will take you to the Cathedral.
Chen Clan Academy: Built in 1894, the Chen Clan Academy is an architecturally fascinating complex of 19 buildings constructed in the traditional southern Chinese style (also known as the Lingnan Style). The buildings themselves are as intricate and beautiful as the many artworks that they house. This site is easily reached via the Chen Clan Academy stop on Metro line 1.
Temple of the Six Banyan Trees: Originally built in AD 537, this 57-meter-high pagoda received its current name from the poet Su Dongpo, who spoke of the banyan trees that once surrounded the pagoda in a poem. It is a steep but worthwhile climb to the top of the pagoda’s seventeen floors.
Yuexiu Park and Guangzhou City Museum: With three large lakes, beautiful flower gardens, the historical Three-Ram Monument, and a great museum in the center, Yuexiu Park is well worth a visit. It is one of the cities many beautiful parks, another notable one being the Orchid Garden, famed for its beautiful flowers.
Pearl River Cruise: The best way to take in Guangzhou’s spectacularly illuminated night skyline. The cruise takes passengers on a 1 hour 30 minute tour of the river.
Baiyun Mountain: Literally translated as “White Cloud Mountain”, Baiyun is situated around 15km north of Guangzhou city center. This area is actually a small mountain range rather than a single peak, the highest point is Moxing Peak - a climb to the top offers spectacular views of the city. As well as the hills and peaks, you will also find the Yuntai Garden and Baiyun Sculpture Park, making for a great day trip outside of the city. Buses 11, 24 and 36 will take you to the Baiyun Mountain area.
By far one of the biggest attractions of Guangzhou is the food. Cantonese cuisine emphasizes the freshness and flavor of ingredients such as green vegetables and just-caught seafood, avoiding the strong seasoning and saucing of northern Chinese cuisines. Roasted meats such as goose, duck, and pork are a regional specialty and are often served sliced on the bone with a plate of dipping sauce. Head to the Xiguan district to sample a range of the authentic local dishes.
However, if you only have time for one meal while in Guangzhou, make it dim sum (also known as yum cha). Served primarily at breakfast and lunch, a dim sum meal consists of dozens of small plates of buns, steamed dumplings, and noodle dishes, accompanied by copious amounts of tea.
Guangzhou's history of bustling trade means there are also many international restaurants to be found around the city, especially if you head to the old concession area.
Guangzhou’s night scene is ever ever-expanding. From clubs to craft breweries to trendy cocktail bars, you are guaranteed to find something to suit your tastes.
For fans of the performing arts, Guangzhou Opera House is both architecturally spectacular (especially when lit up at night) and plays host to a wealth of different acts and performances.
Spring and autumn are the perfect time of year to visit the region, with October to December offering less rainfall than the spring, but temperatures in spring reaching slightly higher. Avoid the in between months if possible to escape the high rainfall and chance of typhoons.