Discovering a rich history and classic cuisine in one of China's busiest centers of commerce
China’s third largest city, Guangzhou, on the sprawling Pearl River Delta, is a vibrant metropolis where past and present come together. Once known as Canton, Western influences first took root in China here and colonial architecture still dots the city alongside avant-garde landmarks. Guangzhou is also the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine and the homeland of dim sum. The leafy streets host a thriving shopping scene, too, in between the excellent museums, mosques and temples,distinctive qílóu shophouses and Lǐngnán architecture.
Guangzhou glitters with all the big international hotel groups. However,Four Seasons Guangzhoucontinues to take all the top prizes. The highest hotel in the city,rooms feature bold, contemporary interiors inspired by nature. Natural light fills every space with floor-to-ceilings windows maxing out the dramatic river views. Another option istheRosewood Guangzhouwhich opens this summer in another soaring skyscraperin the heart of Tianhe District’s central business area. This monumental property will have 251 guestrooms and 355 Rosewood Residences plus seven bars and restaurants, a grand ballroom, a Sky Mansion on the 108th floor and a sumptuous spa.
Rather than tucking into the hotel buffet, head to picturesqueShāmiàn Islandfor breakfast.
Separated from the city by a canal, the territory was divided intoBritish and French concessions by the Qing Dynasty in 1859, after the Opium Wars. Today, the island has a quaint European feel to it. The tree-lined boulevards are awash with pretty gardens, colonial buildings, galleries and charming cafés (Kafelaku, in an old colonial mansion, serves the best coffee). Make a stop at the park in the centre of the island where you can relax on one of the benches and watch locals practicing tai chi.
Head to the Liwan district in west Guangzhou, a short drive away, and stroll throughQingping, one of China's oldest outdoor traditional medicine markets. With open-fronted vendors arranged beneath an arcade and in the tiny alleys behind, traders offer countless restorative tonic essentials such as ginseng, goji berries, antler, dried seahorses, chrysanthemums and deers' tails. Don't missFengyuan Road, just behind the market, where people play mah-jong in lanes surrounded by traditional Xiguan-style Guangzhou houses.
Continue exploring with a wander downShangxiajiu, a few blocks away. The first commercial pedestrian street in Guangzhou, officially opened in 1995, both sides of the street are lined with shops of every kind plus several malls. It’s also worth meandering down the alleys and laneways to discover the more traditional shops, markets, and street snacks.
Guangzhou is considered the home of dim sum. And there’s no better place to go for Yum Cha (a meal of dim sum and hot tea) thanPanxi, one of Guangzhou’s most famous traditional Cantonese eateries. Established in 1947, Panxi is set in ornamental gardens on the edge of Liwan Lake. Delicious dim sum, shaped as echidnas, tiny pigs, birds and eggplants complement Panxi's signature dishes of roast goose and barbecued suckling pig.
Now, it’s time to hit the museums. Head toYuexiu Park, an uphill trek but worth it. Historical landmarks line the way: the huge granite Five Rams Statue (a Guangzhou city symbol), a surviving piece of a Ming dynasty wall and a 13th-century five-storey red watchtower that is now theGuangzhou City Museum. Just outside is the 2,000-year-old Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. The presentation of relics buried with the king, Zhao Mo, is superb, including a jade burial suit. Alternatively, there’s theChen Clan Ancestral Hall, built in 1894 for the Qing Dynasty by the powerful Chen Clans, which now houses the impressive Guangdong Folk Art Museum. One of the best preserved and most beautiful ancestral buildings in South China, the complex is huge with 19 ornately decorated buildings connected by courtyards.
As sunset falls, scale the dizzying heights of the Canton Tower. Built for the 2010 Asian games, this 604m cloud-piercing edifice is the unmistakable symbol of new China. Go up its observation deck for an incredible bird’s-eye view of the city.The Canton Tower is also noted for its unique design. The Dutch architects were inspired by the bones of the female hip joint, creating a slim waist in the middle of the tower reflecting the shape of a lady twisting her waist while looking behind.
Guangzhou has a fantastic food scene. Make your way toHuangsha Fish Market, one of the biggest fish markets in southern China, where restaurants in the market building will cook the seafood you’ve just bought downstairs. The city is also fast raking in Michelin stars with eight restaurants awarded their first star last year – tryBingSheng Private Kitchenwhich servesCanto classics with a creative twist in an elegant dining space.
Finish the day with anight cruisedown the Pearl River. After dark, Guangzhou is at its most beautiful as twinkling buildings illuminate the night ski and the Canton Tower glows in a rainbow of colours. Snaking through the heart of the city, the Pearl River runs alongside Guangzhou’s architectural hotspots, including Dame Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Opera House and the historic Huangpu Military Academy.