Straddling the Pearl River, a city of immense magnitude and beauty enchants visitors coming to South East China. Standing at an equal distance from both Hong Kong and Macau, Guangzhou is still not a very popular city among travellers. With this article, I hope to put it on the radar of many.
I spent three months living, working, and travelling around, so expect plenty of insider tips to make your stay an unforgettable one. It’ll always have a special place in my heart and hopefully, it will enter yours, too.
This post is one of the most comprehensive guides on things to do Guangzhou, and is close to 4,000 words. If you don’t have time to read it now, pin it for later.
Peculiar Facts, Brief History, and Location of Guangzhou
This section will mention where Guangzhou is located, shed some light on its important place in the history of China, and mention some interesting data about the city.
Known as the Chinese City of Flowers and by its Portuguese name, Canton, in February 2015, it surpassed the Japanese capital – Tokyo – and became the largest metropolitan agglomeration. Its population now amounts to more than 45 million people, including the cities of Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Foshan, Jiangmen, Zhuhai, and Huizhou.
But before I fascinate you with more data and tell you the things to do in Guangzhou, China, let me explain why its nickname is the Chinese City of Flowers. See, Guangzhou’s location is in South East China. This is a spot in the world where snow and dry cold occur once in a century. In other words, the humid, temperate climate is the perfect breeding ground for legions of plants and flowers.
Cosily sitting on the Pearl River, very near to its delta and the South China Sea, it is the 5th largest Chinese and the 7th largest world port. Guangzhou City (广州市) is located in South-Central China, about 120 km north-northwest of Hong Kong and 145 km north of Macau.
Since ancient times, Canton has been an important port in China. In fact, it was the birthplace of the Maritime Silk Road in ancient China.
Blessed with an extremely favourable geographical position, Guangzhou has been the largest river and sea port in South China since the olden days. It thrived in an abundance of trade and commerce. Since the Qin and Han dynasties, the city has been a powerful magnet for domestic and foreign merchants.
The first Europeans to set foot in Guangzhou were the Portuguese. They arrived by sea in 1514 and established a monopoly on the external trade of the harbour. Later, they were banished from their settlements in Guangzhou (Cantão in Portuguese), but they took over Macau and used it as a trade base.
Guangzhou’s port was one of the world’s great trading ports by the middle of the 18th century. It was the only Chinese port open for trading before the outbreak of the First Opium War in 1839 and the opening of other Chinese ports in 1842. This made Guangzhou one of the top three leading cities in the world at the time.
Modern-day Guangzhou is a cosmopolitan city. As the capital of and the biggest city in Guangdong Province, it’s a humongous metropolis that’s a melting pot of civilisations. There are gardens and greenery everywhere, owing it to the warm, evergreen climate all year round. If you detest snow, this is your place!
|Friendly advice: If you have a choice, avoid visiting between April and September when it is quite hot, very humid, and rains cats and dogs.|
Having lived there for 3 months and especially during the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year), I could easily say that Guangzhou people (广州人) are crazy about flowers. During the festival, every park holds a flower show, and the streets are richly adorned with odorous fresh flowers and kumquats.
Sadly, most kumquats are then thrown away as they mostly serve as an adornment of your house.
Guangzhou’s Canton Fair – the Largest Trade Fair in China
Established in the spring of 1957, the Canton Fair takes place in Guangzhou twice a year – in April and October. I guess this is a good idea because in this way visitors can escape the scorching sun and the unbearable humidity in between.
From 2007 onwards, it has also been known by the name of China Import and Export Fair. Co-hosted by the Ministry of Commerce of China and the People’s Government of Guangdong Province, it is the largest trade fair in the Middle Kingdom.
The new Canton Fair Complex is located in Pazhou, Haizhu District, right next to the Pearl River. It hosts numerous exhibits all year long. Since I have had the privilege to work in its vicinity and visit it, I could say that describing the complex as immense would be an understatement. See for yourself.
Insider Tip: If you’re planning on visiting the Canton Fair, make sure to book a place in advance as accommodation in Guangzhou during that time is quite expensive.
Skyline of Guangzhou
If you have been to other gigantic Chinese metropolises, their skylines have without a doubt impressed you a lot. The city of Guangzhou has one of the most spectacular pieces of contemporary architecture in the world. These include the greenest building in the world, the Canton Tower, and the fastest topped out building in the world.
All these neck-bending architectural pieces overlook the city’s Central Business District, at the heart of which lies a lush park. Under the park is located the world’s largest underground mall.
Guangzhou City recently surpassed both Singapore and Hong Kong in terms of GDP. The heavy industrialisation contributed to it turning into one of China’s most prosperous cities but also one of its most polluted ones (visible from the grey sky in the photos).
|Insider TIP: If you’re on a budget, but you’d like to ponder at the city from above, you can go to the 99th floor of the tower by taking the lift for FREE. That’s how I took this photo. 🙂|
Guangzhou Opera House – A Staggering Architectural Miracle
Located in Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou Opera House is an architectural miracle, whose beauty is comparable only to Guangzhou’s City Library (see below).
The opera house complex rests in the heart of Guangzhou’s cultural development, almost hugging the banks of the Pearl River. The staggering construction, whose “skin” comprises concrete, glass, and steel, is a chic, urban icon of the city’s growing importance as a cultural epicentre.
In addition to a gigantic theatre with 1,800 seats, there is also a multifunctional hall and several auxiliary facilities.
Designed by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the building resembles two rocks that are washed away by the Pearl River. Zaha Hadid was an Iraqi-British architect, winner of countless prizes. The list includes some of UK’s most prestigious ones, such as the Stirling Prize.
It took more than five years to construct the complex. It officially opened its doors to the public in 2011. The total cost of the building was estimated at 1.38 billion RMB (about 200 million USD). The Opera House is among the TOP 10 best opera houses in the world.
Location and Opening Hours of the Opera House
The address of Guangzhou Opera House is 1 Zhujiang West Road.
The opening hours are from 08:30 to 21:30. You can get your tickets for various performances through the official website. Prices vary from 80 RMB (11 USD) to 480 RMB (70 USD), depending on the seat and the performance.
How to get there:
- By bus: 40, 63, and 407.
- By metro: Line 3 or 5 to Zhujiang New Town Metro Station.
Guangzhou Library – Contemporary Design Meets Centuries of Culture and History
The first time I saw the building you’re about to marvel at, I’d have never guessed it was a library. However, taking a closer look, Guangzhou Library‘s intricate design epitomises “Beautiful Books“. The library is at the new central axis of the city.
The exterior’s cascading style of the “books” represents the overlap of culture and history. At one fell swoop, the library design embodies Lingnan art elements and integrates the arcade, a typical architectural concept.
The 11-storey building’s gross area is truly gigantic and holds an excess of 3.8 million books. Visitors can benefit from 500 computers and 4,000 seats. There’s free wireless everywhere. The library is one of the most open and automated public facilities in China and worldwide.
|Insider TIP: My passport allowed me to get books from the library for free for up to two months. So, I guess you could do the same with yours if you’re planning to stay a bit more in Guangzhou, and you’d like to read something.|
Guangzhou Library – Opening Hours, Location, and How to Get There
The library’s opening hours are from 09:00 until 21:00. On Wednesdays, the library is usually closed. During holidays, it’s open as usual.
Guangzhou Library is at the heart of ZhuJiang New Town. Here’s how to get there:
- By bus, you have two options:
- The Opera House stop (广州大剧院西门站), which is served by buses 40 and 407.
- Xian Cun Road South stop (冼村路南站), served by buses: 293, 886, and 886A.
- By metro. The station’s name is Zhujiang New Town. To reach it, you also have two options:
- Line 3 – Leave the station from exit B1, walk along Huaxia Road for around 400 metres, and then turn left on Huajiu Road. Walk for another 500 metres, and you’ll reach the library.
- Line 5 (Liede) – Leave the station at exit D. Go on Xiancun Road until Xiancun Nan (south) Road and take a left. Walk for around 200 metres to arrive at the library.
Shamian Island – Guangzhou’s “Hidden” Gem
Shamian Island (沙面) is a sandbank island in Guangzhou’s Liwan District. Despite its minuscule size of just 0.3 square km, it served as a vital port for Guangzhou’s foreign and domestic trade from the Song (10th-13th century) to the Qing dynasty (17th-20th century) until it became a French and British concession after the Opium Wars. Nowadays, Shamian Island is a scenic area of national class.
The island is dotted with tranquil pedestrian avenues along whose flanks verdant trees flirt with historical buildings from Europe’s colonial period. A canal, on one side, and the Pearl River, on the other, separate the island from the mainland.
In the past, Shamian had a host of Consulates, including those of Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Portugal, the Soviet Union, the U.K., and the U.S.A. Today, the only diplomatic mission is the Consulate of Poland. A youth hostel, several hotels, restaurants, as well as tourist shops keep visitors entertained and full.
How to Get to Shamian Island
The easiest way to reach the island is via metro. It’s within a short walking distance from Huangsha Metro Station. You’ll have to take the overpass crossing of Liu’ersan Road.
A ferry, which runs from Huangsha Pier to Fangcun Pier, goes forth and back every 10 minutes. You can also bring your bicycle on the ferry.
Despite that there are several nearby bus stops, no public buses run on the island itself.
Canton Tower – Guangzhou’s Gargantuan Symbol
A pearl in the crown of Guangzhou’s jaw-dropping skyline is the Canton Tower. With its staggering 604 metres (1,982 ft), it was the tallest tower in the world for a brief period after its inauguration. In China, it’s the second tallest building after the Shanghai Tower, which barely surpasses it with a few metres. The Canton Tower casts its ginormous shadows over Haizhu District, but it’s visible from almost every corner of Guangzhou.
Fun name fact: After a contest in September 2009, the name “Haixin Tower” (Chinese: 海心塔; literally meaning “Tower in the Sea“) won the first prize. Remember Guangzhou was the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road? That’s why the name Haixin Tower alluded well to the city’s historical setting.
However, this name was not clear to people who’re unfamiliar with the city’s history. So, after several rounds of public opinions and polls, “Canton Tower” came to be the official name. The new English name was chosen because it was the least ambiguous and the most identifying, hinting at the prosperous past of the city.
The tower has outdoor gardens that are set within the tower. An observation deck at 450 m (1,480 ft) boggles the mind of visitors who came to peek at the Chinese City of Flowers from above. The tower also boasts restaurants, conference rooms, exhibition spaces, computer gaming, 4-D cinemas, and a revolving restaurant at the top.
There’s an easy access to the tower via public transportation. Both the metro and bus stations are underground.
Lighting Design of the Canton Tower
During nighttime, rather than being uplit, the tower radiates a glow. The continuous glow is owed to the 7,000 LED fixtures that light the rings of the structure of the tower, each from underneath.
Due to the LED-lights, the electricity consumption is only 15% of what’s allowed for this kind of façade lighting. Every single node in the lighting can be controlled individually, thus allowing for various animations and colour changes across the tower’s entire height.
I can assure you the lit tower is a flabbergasting sight, which beautifies the whole skyline around it. Prepare to be mesmerised!
Canton Tower – Opening Hours, Ticket Prices, and Attractions Atop
The business hours of the tower are from 09:30 to 22:30 (9:30 AM to 10:30 PM). The last trip to the top is at 22:00, but it’s better to go a bit earlier so you have more time to marvel at the city, embracing the Pearl River, from above.
Tickets start at 150 CNY (22 USD) and go up to 400 CNY (58 USD), depending on which floor you’d like to visit and if you’d like to ride some of the attractions at the top.
Yes, you read that right. There are roller coasters and other attractions on the top of the tower!
The Sky Drop 100-foot freefall is the world’s highest tear-jerking, heart-stopping vertical free fall. Starting at 485 m (1,591 ft), the free fall ride gives you two options. A free-fall “Standing Drop” or a traditional “Sitting Drop”. Both are a guarantee your heart will sink in your feet, and you’ll kiss boredom a sound goodbye.
If you’d like to take it a tad easier, Bubble Tram, with its 16 cabins, will circle you around the top at a height of 455 m (1,492 ft). The stupendous panoramic view of the city makes the Bubble Tram a great place for marriage proposals. So, if you’re thinking of offering your lady to spend the rest of her life with you, this is a fantastic spot to do so.
Engineering Marvel Tour Hall
Canton Tower’s 109th and 110th floors house the Engineering Marvel Tour Hall. These two floors serve as a protection from earthquakes and hurricanes. Now, you know where to hide if a powerful wind starts blowing during your visit. And they’re a common occurrence in Guangzhou.
Cloud Observation Deck & Star Observation Deck
The Cloud/Star Observation Deck takes the 107th and 108th floor of the tower. In the rare case of no smog, the deck gives you a fabulous view of fluffy white clouds and azure skies during the day, and mind-boggling silhouettes and stars at night.
Cantonese Cuisine – A Testament to Your Taste Buds
When people outside of China speak about Chinese cuisine, most of the time they refer to Cantonese cuisine – the food that originates in Guangdong province, where Guangzhou is located.
Due to its long-standing history of a major port in China, Guangzhou has attracted many imported foods and ingredients which further enrich the Cantonese cuisine. These include pork, chicken, beef, and many other edible types of meat, including, but not limited to,
- chicken feet,
- duck’s tongue.
Although lamb and goat are widely consumed in northern and western China, they are not preferred in Guangdong. Owing to its location on the southeastern coast of China, fresh seafood is eminent in Guangdong. Seafood tanks and aquariums are a common occurrence in local restaurants.
There are two very specific Cantonese dishes, which will put your taste buds to the ultimate test. One of them is cow’s rectum with sauerkraut. The other one is a fish intestines omelette. I’ve tried both. Despite that the first one sounds more disgusting, it was chewy and somewhat edible. The second one – the omelette – was disgusting. My experience should not discourage you from trying them, though, especially if you’d like to entertain your stomach juices.
If you have not disgorged yet, I will bestow your strength with a photo of a seafood buffet, which I attended for just 80¥ (yuan) or around 12,50$. Simply delectable.
There are numerous hotels and restaurants that offer seafood buffets, ranging from $10 to $20. They usually include several draft beers and ice-cream (try the durian one!)
And, finally, here is something which (almost) every traveller tries – the local beer (珠江啤酒 – Zhūjiāng Píjiǔ).
For all you, Belgian beer lovers: Yes, that is a limited edition of a Duvel glass, which I won at a local brewery in Guangzhou ^_^.
Day Trips from Guangzhou
As you’ve seen, there is a tonne of things to do in Guangzhou. If you want to venture out, here are two must-visit places:
Baiyun Mountain – the White Clouds Mountain
Since the olden days, Baiyun Mountain has been a place of enchanting beauty in the vicinity of the city. In Mandarin, Baiyun means “White Clouds“. The mountains’ peaks receive a shroud of mist after rain or during late spring. This is how its name materialised. Characterised by the valley’s tranquil and secluded environment, Baiyun Mountain is a marvellous escape from the big city buzz.
Standing at 17 km (10 mi) north of Canton, the mountain consists of 30 peaks, the highest of which is 427 m (1,400 ft). Moxing Ridge, also known as Star-Scraping Ridge or “the first peak under the southern sky”, is one of the most famous of the 30 peaks. Standing atop, you can marvel at both the city and the Pearl River.
How to Get to Baiyun Mountain:
- By bus:
- Hop on buses 63 or 245 to Yuntai HuaYuan (Yuntai Garden)
- Hop on Buses B16, B18, B18 Express, Guang 10, as well as numbers 32, 46, 60, 63, 127, 175, 179, 199, 210, 223, 241, 257, 285, 298, 540, 841 to Baiyuan Suodao station – the Cable Car Station.
- By metro:
- Hop on Line 2 and get off at Xiaogang. From there to Baiyun’s West Gate, it’s 10 minutes on foot.
- Hop on Line 3 and get off at Meihuayuan. From there to Baiyun’s Plum Garden, it’s a 15-minute walk.
Lotus Hill – Where Quarries Merge with Flowers and Goddesses
Lianhuashan (莲花山) is a place of resplendent gorgeousness, just an hour away from the city. Nestled on Panyu City’s eastern suburb, Lotus Hill stands at just 20 km (13 mi) from Guangzhou. Lianhuashan is home to the best preserved ancient quarry in China, priding itself on a history of over 2000 years.
The quarry sites from previous dynasties have left behind a combination of breath-taking red sandstone rocks, jaw-dropping peaks, and magnificent stone forests that dazzles the visitor. And if you’re wondering what stands behind the name “Lotus Hill“, take a look at this article.
How to Get to Lotus Hill:
- Hop on Metro Line 3. Get off at Shiqiao station and take bus Pan 92 to “Lianhuashan” station.
- Hop on Metro Line 3. Get off at Panyu Square and take bus Pan 93 to “Lianhuashan” station.
Handy Travel Tips Before Going to Guangzhou
- Guangzhou’s other name is Canton. It comes from Portuguese.
- Locals used to speak only Cantonese in the past. Due to the recent influx of people from all parts of China, Mandarin is also spoken widely.
- Canton’s location is in South East China. It stands at an almost equal distance from both Hong Kong and Macau.
- Since Hong Kong and Macau are around 2 hours away, you might be tempted to visit them. Bear in mind they are Special Administrative Regions of China, and you must have a multiple-entry visa for China if you wish to come back to the mainland.
- When it comes to population, Guangzhou is China’s third largest city (after Shanghai and Beijing) when measured by urban area, and China’s largest city when measured by urban agglomeration.
- Guangzhou’s moniker “The Chinese City of Flowers” stems from the abundance of flowers that are there all year round.
- The city was the major terminus of China’s maritime Silk Road.
- Guangzhou is China’s fifth busiest port after Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo-Zhoushan, and Hong Kong.
- The enormous metropolis has a humid subtropical climate. Summers are characterised by high humidity, high temperatures, and high heat index. Winters are comparatively dry and mild. Since I lived there in winter, I’d have to warn you to pack a jacket because the combination between humidity and wind is dangerous.
- Guangzhou has an extensive public transportation system, including buses, metro, trams, and water transport. Bullet trains link the city to gorgeous places like Guilin and Yangshuo, and major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
- The capital of Guangdong attracts an excess of 100 million visitors each year.
- Most malls and shopping centres are nestled in the Tianhe District. Some of the most famous ones are China Plaza, Liwan Plaza, Wanguo Plaza, Fashion Tianhe, Victory Plaza, Teem Plaza, and Mall of the World.
Guangzhou – a City of Sheer Magnitude, Alluring Beauty, and Vigorous Pace
Guangzhou is one of China’s ancient cities. Nowadays, it prides itself on an ultra-modern look where humongous skyscrapers tower over verdant parks, teeming with fragrant flowers. Every boulevard you walk around, every street you stroll, and every park you saunter – you’ll be surrounded by legions of plants and flowers.
Despite that the Pearl River is not the cleanest in the world, it sure gives the gigantic metropolis an even more intriguing look – be it from the river shore or from a bird’s-eye view. One thing is for certain – you’ll have plenty of things to do in Guangzhou (eat, too). Plus, it’s a great point to visit both Hong Kong and Macau.
Guangzhou is a city of many contradictions, but also many mergers. It is a vigorous place with its own pace, yet it holds myriads of historical objects and cultural heritage. Definitely a must-visit should you be wondering where to go around in China.
Have you ever trotted Canton’s fascinating boulevards? Did you savour the peculiar food?
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