First-timers guide: things to do in Guangzhou

Canton Tower, the brightly lit observation tower, which can be seen all over Guangzhou.
SUPPLIED/ GUANGZHOU DAILY NEWS

Canton Tower, the brightly lit observation tower, which can be seen all over Guangzhou.

Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is the capital city of Guangdong Province in Southern China. For hundreds of years it has played a strategic role as a port where citizens encountered traders from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Today Guangzhou is a bustling metropolis, with a population of 16.6 million and is the largest urban ancestral home of the Chinese diaspora.

Locals describe Guangzhou - the mainland's third biggest centre - as a "real" Chinese city. While Shanghai is characterised by bling and Beijing by power and influence, the focus in Guangzhou is on quality of life. It has a grittiness and character to it and  its citizens' wealth is not as ostentatious as you'll find in other big Asian capitals. 

The city, dubbed "The Flower City" is surprisingly green, with trees along the streets and ivy on pedestrian walkways. Along its canals and none too salubrious side streets in the old town you encounter bursts of colour as trees and flowers blossom from the most unlikely of places.

Sun Yat Memorial Hall.
SUPPLIED/ GUANGZHOU DAILY NEWS

Sun Yat Memorial Hall.

Food is a big part of life here. Cantonese cuisine was brought all over the world by the huge number of emigrants from Guangdong province and you won't be short of places to dine in the capital. The food is less spicy than what you would find in Sichuan, with fresh vegetables a main staple of meals.

Guangzhou is relatively safe and easy to get around. The biggest problem you may encounter is air pollution. On certain days there is a haze of smog over the city and it's not uncommon to see people wearing face masks while out and about.

WHERE EAST MET WEST AT SHAMIAN ISLAND

Shamian Island in Guangzhou, which was where early Western traders were segregated in the late 1800s.
SUPPLIED/GUANGZHOU DAILY NEWS

Shamian Island in Guangzhou, which was where early Western traders were segregated in the late 1800s.

Shamian Island played an important part in Canton's history:  foreign traders were restricted to this area when they arrived in China in the late-1800s. Today, European influences are not hard to find, and include the stone Western-style mansions and the French Catholic church. The island provides a quaint setting for wedding photographs and has a small number of hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. 

CURES FOR ALL TYPES OF AILMENTS

Known to locals as Qingpeng, this market sells all manner of weird and otherworldly herbal medicines - from dried seahorses, locusts and snakeskins to the more appetising dried mandarin peel and red dates. For every ailment there is a vendor with something that will supposedly treat it. 

Qingpeng Chinese herbal medicine market in Guangzhou's old town.
CATHY OSULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Qingpeng Chinese herbal medicine market in Guangzhou's old town.

WOW AT WET MARKETS

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Not far from the medicine market are the wet markets, another window into the world of daily life in Guangzhou. As well as meat and poultry and traditional fruit and vegetables, you'll find surprising items such as live eels, baby scorpions and turtles. It's loud, bustling and smelly, but well worth a look.

CRUISE THE PEARL RIVER

A sculpture in Shaiman island in Guangzhou.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/ FAIRFAX MEDIA

A sculpture in Shaiman island in Guangzhou.

Although this is also something that can be done during the day, it's better to cruise at night. When the sun goes down the multicoloured dancing lights of bridges and buildings along the Pearl River provide an enchanting display.  The highlight of the tour is getting to see Canton Tower up close from the water in all her glory.

SEE THE CITY FROM THE HIGHS OF CANTON TOWER

Built in 2009, this 595.7-metre observation tower briefly held the title of world's highest building until it was surpassed by Dubai's Burj Khalifa. At night it changes colours and on a clear evening - if smog hasn't set in - it can be seen from all over Guangzhou. From the top of the tower you get great views of the city and river below. The top zone of the structure has a rotating restaurant with a decent buffet as well as a kitsch post box, apparently the highest post box in the world. 

Canton Tower, the 595.7-metre tall observation tower in Guangzhou.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Canton Tower, the 595.7-metre tall observation tower in Guangzhou.

INDULGE IN A FOOD TOUR

Curious about Cantonese cuisine? Book a food tour with local resident Janvi, who runs walking tours around his hometown. Janvi will take you to parts of Guangzhou usually hidden to tourists, including a noodle house that uses bamboo sticks to make noodles in a traditional manner. If you're feeling adventurous leave the selection of food up to him. Check out gzguide.net for more details. 

SOAK UP HISTORY

A selection of Cantonese food in Guangzhou.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/ FAIRFAX MEDIA

A selection of Cantonese food in Guangzhou.

Dr Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary, first president and founding father of the Republic of China was held in high esteem by locals and Guangdong diaspora, who raised funds to build this memorial hall in 1929. While the hall has historical significance, the venue is also used for theatre and dance performances. Even if you're not a history buff, the manicured grounds and Chinese architectural style of the octagon-shaped building make it worth a visit. 

GET CRAFTY AT CHEN CLAN HALL

First built in the late-1800s during the Qing dynasty, the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall was used for preparing young students for their imperial exams. It was turned into an arts and crafts museum in the late 1950s. The building is in a constant state of restoration as it battles the elements. It is intricately decorated with carvings and colourful hand painted traditional Chinese scenes. The building houses a collection of  contemporary and historical art from around China and has artists on site, making paper cuttings and sculptures. 

Renwei Temple, a Taoist temple which was first built in 1052 nd reconstructed at various times over the centuries.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Renwei Temple, a Taoist temple which was first built in 1052 nd reconstructed at various times over the centuries.

LOUNGE ABOUT AT LIWAN LAKE PARK

Popular with tourists and locals, Liwan Lake Park is a tranquil spot to while away a few hours during the day. There are boat cruises around the man-made lake and if you visit on the weekend you might come across a free opera performance. What's most entertaining is watching local - mostly retired - residents playing games of foot badminton. If you watch long enough they might even invite you to join a game.

NIGHT SHOPPING ON BEIJING ROAD

The newly constructed Opera Museum alongside one of the canals in Guangzhou.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

The newly constructed Opera Museum alongside one of the canals in Guangzhou.

For retail therapy, the vibrant pedestrian shopping street of Beijing Lu is worth a wander. The area is extremely busy, particularly at night when the stores stay open until 10pm. As you walk along the street music blares and shop staff clap their hands and do their utmost to entice you into their store. Most of the goods on offer are typical high-street and expect to haggle if you want to get a good deal. Tourists get cornered by those peddling knock-off luxury handbags and watches. 

VISIT THE KING

The 2000-year-old tomb of the Nanyue King Zhao Mo has been classed as one of China's major historical sites. The burial site of the king was only discovered in the 1980s and was developed into a museum complex. The mausoleum and museum have a fascinating array of artefacts, including the grim remains of 15 courtiers who were buried alive to serve the king in death. 

Beijing Lu Street, the main shopping thoroughfare,  where most stores are open from 9am to 10pm.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Beijing Lu Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, where most stores are open from 9am to 10pm.

SMELL THE ORCHIDS

The best time to visit Canton Orchid Garden is during Spring Festival in January/February when the gardens are in full bloom. The park has 200-plus varieties of orchids and other flowers, and is a veritable oasis in the city. Even if you visit outside of blooming season, the gardens provide an antidote to the city's hustle and bustle. 

GET IN TOUCH WITH THE GODS

The Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, built by the 72 Chen clans in 1894 in Qing Dynasty.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

The Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, built by the 72 Chen clans in 1894 in Qing Dynasty.

In the surrounds of Liwan Park  is Renwei Temple, a 900-year-old Taoist temple dedicated to the worship of the Northern Emperor. Like many temples, it is incredibly ornate and has dozens of statues of deities. It is a site of continued significance to Taoist worshippers, who offer up gifts of fruit and incense on a daily basis.  

BE ONE WITH BUDDHA

The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees is striking because of its height and elaborate structure. The temple's flower pagoda has a number of roof sections which curl upwards like flower petals and can been seen from a distance. This Buddhist temple was first built in 537 and has been restored numerous times over the centuries. Many prominent monks taught at this temple, including Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. 

Boats on Liwan Lake.
CATHY O'SULLIVAN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Boats on Liwan Lake.

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE

What was, until recently, rice paddies is now the central business district of the future. Zhujiang New Town is the newest part of Guangzhou and has the highest concentration of luxury hotels and stores in the city. It is home to skyscrapers and underground malls, and represents future China. The area  has great vantage points for views of Canton Tower and strolling around the area, you'll encounter the modern architecture of the IFC, Guangdong Museum and Opera House.

Cathy O'Sullivan travelled to Guangzhou courtesy of China's Foreign Affairs MInistry as part of the ASEM Media Dialogue on Connectivity.

 - Stuff.co.nz

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