Guangzhou is a major port city and gateway to southern China. Since the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), merchants from the Middle East came and traded in Guangzhou, followed by merchants from India and Europe centuries later.
Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is the city to visit if you love Cantonese cuisine like dim sum, barbecue meat, and wonton noodles. Besides food, Guangzhou has 2,000 years of Chinese history, ancient and modern architectural marvels and the famous Pearl River.
Guangzhou is 121 miles from Hong Kong. It takes only three hours by train to travel between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. You can take a day trip from Hong Kong, but we recommend at least two nights if you want to get acquainted with the city.
Here’s what you should do in Guangzhou:
1. Discover old buildings and alleys of Xiguan neighborhood
Eastern and western architecturally influenced tong lau or qilou are row houses built in the 1900s in Old Guangzhou. The first floors of these houses are for commercial use, and the top floors are private homes. You can find these along the busy Shangxiajiu Road.
On Shangxiajiu, a vehicle-free road, the tong lau now house restaurants, bakeries, souvenirs shops, electronic stores, and much more.
Other attractions that are worth a visit are the twisting alleys and traditional Xiguan houses. Xiguan houses have gray bricks and horizontal wooden bar gates or tanglong in front. These tanglong are for security reasons and better ventilation for the homes.
The number of narrow alleys and traditional houses is diminishing each year, making way for modern buildings.
2. Explore Shamian Island
Before crossing the footbridges to Shamian Island, stop by at Qingping Medicine Market (located at the southern end of Shangxiajiu Road) where you’ll find traditional Chinese medicine including dried scorpions, insects, spices and a variety of roots.
Shamian Island was a former British and French concession area. The merchants worked on this 44-acre island from the early 18th century to mid-19th century. At the old French concession is the Old French Consulate, French Consul’s Garden (Shamian Park), Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and the French missionary residence.
On the British side are the trading houses, apartments, mansions, and churches. The merchants did not get the full freedom to leave Shamian Island until the 19th century. The bridges were closed by 10 p.m. each night.
Located by the sandbank of the Pearl River, the island is well connected to other parts of Guangzhou by a series of footbridges.
3. Visit Yuexiu Park
At the park are the famous Five Rams Sculpture and Zhenhai Tower (Five-story Tower). Visit Guangzhou City Museum and learn about the city’s history and cultural heritage.
Take a stroll around the ruins of the old Ming Dynasty city wall and through the gardens and see locals dancing or practicing tai chi and men whiling their time away fishing at the lakes.
4. Pearl River night cruise
Take a night cruise on the Pearl River and get a different view of the city’s skyline at night. On the cruise, you’ll be under Guangzhou Bridge, Haizhu Bridge, Jiangwan, Haiyin, Jiefang Bridge and Renmin Bridge. You’ll see Canton Tower, Zhuhai Square, Shamian Island, Aiqun Mansion, and more.
The Pearl River, known as Zhujiang to the locals, runs from the west to the east of Guangzhou. It is an important landmark of the city and the fourth longest river (1,376 miles) in China.
5. Enjoy Cantonese food
Guangzhou’s Cantonese food is similar to those found in Hong Kong. When in Guangzhou you must try dim sum at Guangzhou Restaurant. The restaurant has stayed open in its original location at 2 Wenchang South Road since 1935. Catering mainly to local diners, Guangzhou Restaurant’s menu is only in Chinese. Meixin Garden on Tianhe East Road and Southern Garden Restaurant on Qianjin Road are also highly recommended for dim sum. You’ll pay the same dim sum like in Hong Kong for half the price.
Other foods to try include wonton noodles, barbecue meat, and rice noodle rolls. If you’re adventurous, wander along the alleys and check out the small shops selling pig knuckles with ginger and rice served with a variety of dishes of your choice.