The charm of Guangzhou – a modern, sprawling metropolis on the banks of the Pearl River, the Mother River of South China – lies in its diversity. Steeped in history and culture, the city is home to strikingly up-to-date architecture, experiences and nightlife. Guangzhou’s brilliance is clear for all to see in the bright neon lights of the Canton Tower, as well as in the ancient villas of a community such as Dongshan.
From luxury brands to street wholesale goods, you can buy almost anything in Guangzhou, and the Metro lines easily connect the commerce-dense areas of downtown. In addition to shopping and pedestrian streets Beijing Road and Shangxiajiu, there are several huge shopping malls at Tianhe, one of the city’s most bustling districts. These include OneLink Walk, Tee Mall, Grandview Mall and – in the same complex as Mandarin Oriental, Guangzhou – TaiKoo Hui Mall, which is home to some 180 premium brands, including seven flagship stores, a British-owned supermarket, Olé, and a unique bookstore, Fangsuo Commune, which also has a café and hosts lectures by authors. Alongside public facilities and skyscrapers, the neighbouring Central Business District, Zhujiang New Town, accommodates Gold Tak Land Plaza, the underground complex Mall of the World, and the time-honoured Friendship Store, where you can buy Chinese tea, handicrafts and local snacks as souvenirs..
See the sights
A Pearl River cruise offers the perfect opportunity to check out the city’s most iconic landmarks. The 75-minute tour in daylight brings a delightful view of the skyscrapers and the magnificent bridges dotted along the river, while at night you can experience the city’s vivacious side as it comes alive in alluring neon. Several companies (+86 20 8375 3751 for reservations) run the cruises – embark at Tianzi Dock on Yanjiang Zhong Road, Yuexiu District.
In an up-and-coming area, Lizhiwan canal offers a nostalgic and idealised version of Guangzhou in the 19th century, with lychee trees growing along the waterfront. The 668-metre-long narrow waterway features traditional shops and greenery on each bank. Strolling alongside the water or taking a small boat trip are brilliant ways to enjoy this area. Lantern festivals and traditional dances often take place here, which add to the charming atmosphere.
You can also stroll around the tranquil Shamian Island in Liwan District, or along Xinhepu Road in Yuexiu District, both of which showcase the best in Western colonial-style architecture built in the Twenties, amid a lush environs. Many of the old residences are now romantic cafés, bars and galleries.
Adjacent to Hong Kong and at the estuary of the Pearl River Delta region, Guangzhou has absorbed exotic cultures from east and west throughout its vibrant history, acting as the pioneer of trade between China and the world. Temples and churches are dotted around the city in equal numbers, a testimony to Guangzhou’s multicultural flavour.
Furthermore, the city still plays host to millennium-old traditions. Cantonese Opera, a performance combining elements of martial arts, acrobatics, singing and dancing, is now listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, in recognition of its traditional values. You can appreciate classic melodies at the Rong Hua teahouse (712, Longjin Dong Road, Liwan District) even if you cannot understand the Chinese. Tourism puppet shows at the Guangzhou Puppet Art Center (51, Hongde Road, Haizhu District) are an alternative way to experience the stagecraft of folk.
There are many other places to indulge in nostalgia and learn about Guangzhou’s history. The five-storied Zhenhai Lou, the giant red structure that is the ancient city's watchtower, is perched on what was once the highest point, Yuexiu Mountain. It now functions as the Guangzhou Museum, and here you can learn all about the past 100 years of the city’s heritage. Chen Clan Academy (Zhongshan Qi Road, Liwan District) is a fantastic 19th-century homestead built by the Chens. Glazed glass windows, richly decorated furniture and exquisite clay sculptures on the roof have been preserved and treasured, and it takes on a second role as the Guangdong Folk Art Museum.
Art lovers won’t run out of things to see in Guangzhou. There’s contemporary art at the Guangdong Museum of Art, ancient masterpieces at the Guangzhou Museum of Art, and a comprehensive overview of Chinese artworks at the Guangdong Museum.
Recently, more and more creative zones have sprung up to allure artists. Spacious and fashionable, old industrial parts of the city have been transformed into chic and hip photography studios and design spaces. Xiaozhou Village is one such place that retains the typical Cantonese community landscapes – houses along the canals and ancestral temples – yet is now home to a thriving art community. And Redtory, once a food-canning factory, is now an art and design centre, home to galleries, fashion studios and restaurants. The old machinery and waste make for striking works of art.
Rejuvenate at the luxurious Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Guangzhou, in the heart of the bustling metropolis. A therapist will offer an in-depth consultation to determine the perfect treatments for you, before you have a relaxing session of Tian Quan, a Chinese bathing therapy. Drawing on ancient wisdom and modern techniques, this therapy helps to relieve stress and muscular pain and aid detoxification.
It’s no exaggeration to praise Guangzhou as a gastronomic paradise, which is what the city is renowned for worldwide. The locals like their food fresh and light, but the cuisine has also merged with successive waves of immigrants, creating the ultimate in fusion food. Cantonese dishes, including ‘long-time boiled soup’, steamed fish, or poached chicken with garlic and ginger, are iconic and must be tried.
Drinking tea with Cantonese dim sum is a long-held tradition of catching up with friends and spending time with the family. Try dim sum breakfast at the spacious Taikoo tea lounge at Mandarin Oriental, Guangzhou. A pot of artisanal Chinese tea will help balance the richness of the pastries and the meaty steamed dumplings.
Once the sun sets on Guangzhou, the nightlife starts. Bars and clubs abound throughout the whole city, a delightful spattering of which can be found on the north riverside at Changdi, or downtown in Huanshi Dong Road. The chic bars bring an international flavour to a night out, especially Thai Restaurant Soi 5 (1 Jianshe Liu Ma Lu, Yuexiu District).
For the night owls among you, Guangzhou has its own Party Pier. This area, conveniently situated next to the Pearl River Brewery on Yuejiang Xi Road, offers unparalleled and exhilarating views of the Canton Tower and Zhujiang New Town. And you will be spoilt for choice, as French, Brazilian, Mexican, Japanese and Chinese restaurants and bars sit along the water’s edge. Shows, parties and festivals all add to this highlight of Guangzhou.