24 Hours in Guangzhou
Diving into history and classic cuisine in the futuristic city.
Despite being China’s third-largest city with an urban population in excess of 11 million, Guangzhou is not a city with which many foreigners are familiar. But mention Canton, its English name likely derived from Portuguese, and eyes light up. Today, the city is best known for its Cantonese cuisine and the Canton Fair, China’s largest trade show held every spring and autumn.
With one of the best subway systems in China, getting around the city is relatively easy; a one-day pass costs only RMB20 (roughly US$3) and is available for purchase at the main stations, including Baiyun Airport.
The Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou tastefully blends modern luxury with traditional Chinese elements in an understated manner. Located in the central Tianhe district, the hotel aims to impress with quality and service rather than the size of its lobby or rooms. Fuel up with the breakfast spread at the Mandarin’s Ebony restaurant. If the weather allows, dine outside in the lush garden while kickstarting the day with one of the barista’s expertly poured lattés.
Leave early to avoid the worst of the rush hour and hop on the subway at nearby Shipaiqiao Station. Take Line 3 and make your way to Huangsha Station on Line 1. A short walk will lead you to another world on Shamian Island, separated from the city’s usual bustle. The island was granted as a foreign concession after the famed Opium Wars, fought over British and French traders’ access to the huge Chinese market. A legacy of old colonial buildings and gardens remains, set amongst banyan tree–lined streets. The former British Canton Club is particularly impressive, with its imposing colonnades, as is the French Our Lady of Lourdes church dating back to 1892.
Go back two stations along Line 1 to the Chen Clan Academy, whose subway stop goes by the same name. Completed in 1893, the 19 buildings exemplify the local Lingnan style of architecture, characterized by intricate carvings on stone and wood. Explore the spacious interiors and make sure to look up, as many of the designs — ranging from auspicious animals to scenes from classic Chinese stories — are carved into the roofs.
About a 10-minute walk from Ximenkou Station (another stop down Line 1) is the Huaisheng Mosque. One of the first mosques in China, the site is said to have been founded in 627 by Abu Waqas, the uncle of the prophet, for some of the earliest traders who came to the city by way of the maritime Silk Road. Much of the mosque is quite Chinese in style, dating back to a rebuild in 1695, but its distinctive white minaret (a tall, slender tower used to call Muslims to prayer) is said to be older and quite unusual for a mosque in China.
Arrive back at Shipaiqiao and head to Meixin Jade Garden, one of the best places in the city to enjoy dim sum. A highlight of Cantonese cuisine, this style of food (characterized by small dishes) can admittedly be difficult to order, but this upscale Hong Kong chain offers an English menu with pictures. The shumai pork dumplings topped with crab roe are a good bet, and the fun guo dumplings — a mix of pork, vegetables and peanuts — come highly regarded. Pair your order with some good-quality Chinese tea and savor the authentic local experience.
Head for Exit E of Yuexui Park Station, situated on Line 2. The Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King nearby contains the tomb of Zhao Mo, who ruled from 137 B.C. to 122 B.C., and includes his burial suit made up of 2,291 pieces of jade.
After a trip through the museum, head across the road to Yuexiu Park for a pleasant afternoon stroll. The Five Rams statue within the park reflects the city’s foundational story, about five immortals who entered Guangzhou on rams and gave the local people rice. Folklore says the rams turned to stone after their departure, becoming the statue you’ll find here. Also in the park is the five-story Zhenhai Tower; inside, the Guangzhou Museum provides a comprehensive look at the city’s history.
Arrive at the Canton Tower, which at 600 meters stood briefly as the world’s highest tower. The open-air observation platform toward the top provides breathtaking views of the city, as well as rides on a quirky bubble tram around the tower.
Once back on ground, take the APM — a driverless subway system — to Guangzhou Opera House Station. At the center of the city’s newest buildings, this area provides a spectacular way to see the futuristic Guangzhou cityscape and take in the evening light show. For a particularly refined cocktail hour, soak in the view from the Tian Bar on the 99th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel.
Return to Shipaiqiao and join the queue for the well-known Bingsheng Pinwei restaurant (you’ll need a ticket number). Serving up local Cantonese cuisine, Shipaiqiou is famous for its barbecued pork (char siu). The menu is thick, thanks to plenty of pictures and English descriptions, but the restaurant’s high demand means that many items often run out. Keep an open mind — as well as a few backup options, just in case.
For a nightcap, head to Xingsheng Lu, near Liede Station on Line 5. The area boasts a whole street of bars and restaurants, but Revolucion Cocktail is a good standby known for its cocktails. Toast your first 24 hours in Guangzhou with the bar’s signature drink — a mix of rum, rosemary, passion fruit and apple juice — before resting up for another day in the lively city.