Shades of old Canton hide in the shadows of glittering Guangzhou. This is China’s third-largest city, a booming metropolis and a far cry from the village it once was. As the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine and a rich history influenced by the British and Portuguese, there are plenty of exciting things to do in Guangzhou.
The city on the Pearl River Delta is now China’s third-largest, with a population of 14 million and is a hub for China’s booming economy.
As a tourist destination, Guangzhou is rapidly catching up to Shanghai and Beijing. Factories are moving out of the Pearl River Delta and the city is shedding its industrial image.
As China steams towards the future, the remnants of old Canton, however charming, are gradually being overshadowed by Guangzhou’s new image.
Gleaming skyscrapers, modern shopping malls and contemporary buildings are adding to the city’s sleek lines.
Projects include a US$200m Opera House designed by Zaha Hadid (also responsible for the London Aquatic Centre), the 103-storey Guangzhou International Finance Centre and the 600m Canton Tower.
- 20 Things To Do In Guangzhou
- 1- See The Statues In The Friendship Garden
- 2- Dress Up For A Wedding Photoshoot
- 3- Admire The Architecture On Shamian Island
- 4- See the Sacred Heart Cathedral
- 5- Visit Guangxiao Temple
- 6- Explore the Qing Ping Medicine Market
- 7- Visit Canton Tower
- 8- Eat Cantonese Food
- 9- Have Fun At Chimelong Paradise
- 10- Cruise The Pearl River
- 11- Hike Around Baiyan Mountain
- 12- Visit the Guangzhou Opera House
- 13- Hang Around A Shopping Mall
- 14- Learn something new at the Guangzhou Science Centre
- 15- See the Five Ram Statue in Yuexiu Park
- 16- Visit the Six Banyan Trees Temple
- 17- Get Creative At Forest of Life and Future Park
- 18- Experience Winter At Yuemei Ice World
- 19- See a Cantonese Opera
- 20- Explore the Mausoleum of the Nanyue Kingdom
- Where to stay in Guangzhou
- How to get around Guangzhou
20 Things To Do In Guangzhou
1- See The Statues In The Friendship Garden
In the 1880s, Wesleyan missionary John Turner described Canton’s Shamian Island as “a beautiful island, fronted with lawns and flower gardens, with the foreign consular and merchants’ houses standing behind them, on either side of an avenue of banyan trees.”
This travel quote is a description that has stood the test of time.
Not a lot has changed on Shamian Island, which is a historic part of the city that is now known as Guangzhou.
I stroll beneath the leafy canopy of the banyan trees, past colonial buildings with pale-coloured walls, curved archways and airy verandahs.
There’s a Starbucks in one building and traditional red lanterns hanging in the windows of another.
Bronze statues are scattered among the lush foliage in the Friendship Garden.
Sydney in Australia is a sister city of Guangzhou and Sydney’s Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour was built as a result of the friendship and cooperation between the two cities.
Guangzhou’s youth might be attracted by western culture but the city is no stranger to European influence.
The Portuguese arrived in Canton in 1514; eager to trade they tried to establish a monopoly but were expelled to Macau.
Then the British fell in love with tea.
By the 1780s, Britain’s appetite for tea had produced a trade deficit that the East India Company filled by supplying opium grown in British Bengal to the Chinese.
The relationship between China and Britain soured when opium was banned by the Chinese emperor, resulting in two battles known as the Opium Wars.
After the last battle, Shamian Island was divided into a concession for the French and one for the British.
2- Dress Up For A Wedding Photoshoot
It’s midweek, but for a dozen or so young couples and their professional photographers, there’s hardly a soul around.
The couples are dressed in western-style clothes: brides in white, black and hot pink gowns and men wearing white suits with matching shoes that wouldn’t look out of place in Las Vegas.
Curiously, a professional wedding photoshoot (you can rent the clothing) is one of the cultural things to do in Guangzhou in the 21st century.
3- Admire The Architecture On Shamian Island
The European architectural influence on Shamian Island makes it a lovely spot for a walking tour.
The old Anglican Church across from the White Swan Hotel (a favourite of couples travelling to Guangzhou to adopt a child) languished as a warehouse for years after the Cultural Revolution but has since reopened.
The park opposite the former British consulate, which was built in 1865, is where retirees practice tai chi.
4- See the Sacred Heart Cathedral
Completed in 1888 after 25 years, Guangzhou’s Sacred Heart Cathedral is one of the few in the world built from granite.
Attend Mass or go and admire the architecture, which is based on a French cathedral design and was known as the Notre Dame de Paris in the Far East.
Another church to visit is Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, built by the French in 1892 and has been beautifully restored.
Sacred Heart Cathedral is at Jiubuqian 56, Yide Lu, Yuexiu District, Guangzhou.
5- Visit Guangxiao Temple
Away from the churches and colonial buildings, other parts of Guangzhou retain an ambience of pre-European Canton.
The city’s oldest and grandest temple, Guangxiao Temple (or Bright Filial Piety Temple) is a 1700-year-old hideaway away from the city’s pace.
6- Explore the Qing Ping Medicine Market
Even more fascinating, are the narrow lanes at the Qing Ping medicine market.
I squeeze past locals haggling among sacks of medicinal herbs and buckets of dried nuts, roots and leaves.
Locals line up to visit the medicine men, who dish out everything from ginseng to dried snake’s skin.
7- Visit Canton Tower
Canton Tower is a tourist destination with restaurants, cafes, a shopping arcade, 4D cinema and viewing decks that have birds-eye views of the skyscrapers below.
The top deck is 450m, and where thrill-seekers can board the Mega Drop, which is the tallest freefall drop ride in the world. Another fun thing to do in Guangzhou Tower is to jump into a pod on the Bubble Tram and circle around the edge of the tower’s roof at a 15-degree incline.
8- Eat Cantonese Food
As Guangzhou is the birthplace of Cantonese cooking (the type of Chinese cuisine most of us are familiar with), it’s no surprise that the food in Guangzhou is lip-smackingly good.
Guangzhou is the home of dim sum, shrimp dumplings and barbecued pork buns.
The city is famous for its shrimp-filled har gau, siu mai steamed dumplings and sweet pork-stuffed Char Siu Bao.
You have probably tasted all of the above in a Chinese restaurant near you but you need to try them in Guangzhou.
Cantonese cuisine is everywhere in Guangzhou: in street stalls, local eateries and the city’s best hotels.
The city’s luxury hotels all have excellent restaurants that dish up Cantonese and international fare.
9- Have Fun At Chimelong Paradise
With 70 rides and attractions from Ferris wheels to a 10-loop rollercoaster that will make your head spin, Chimelong Paradise is an amusement park that delivers the thrills.
If rollercoasters aren’t your thing, watch the choreographed stunts or see the animals in the Safari Park.
The park has a self-drive safari and cable car where you can look down upon the animals.
There’s also a Bird Park and the Chimelong International Circus offers dazzling aerial ballets and magicians from around the world.
If you’re visiting Guangzhou with kids, this is the place to keep them happy and Saturday night (8 pm) is the time to go to catch the fireworks display.
10- Cruise The Pearl River
China’s third-largest river, which flows into the South China Sea, is a region that has seen massive growth in recent years.
Cruising the Pearl River and seeing the skyscrapers that have popped up along the river is easy on the feet and an excellent way to see the city.
A night cruise is especially enchanting when the buildings are all lit up like a fairyland.
11- Hike Around Baiyan Mountain
One of the things to do in Guangzhou is to take a hike up Baiyun mountain, which is a scenic place to spend half a day hiking and enjoying the outdoors.
Pathways lead past pergolas, gardens, statues, ponds and through forested areas.
If you get tired, there’s a cableway (it’s a good idea to take the cableway up the mountain and hike down) and a minibus too.
The Moxing Summit is an excellent spot for a bird’s-eye view of the Pearl River.
Love locks, good luck charms and hanging love trinkets seems to be all the rage in China.
As hanging love locks are popular for good luck in the love department, check out the locks at the Moxing Summit and hang a lock to see what it might bring.
Entry to Baiyun is CNY 5 and it’s a popular spot so try to get there early to avoid the crowds.
12- Visit the Guangzhou Opera House
The Guangzhou Opera House is a futuristic Zaha Hadid design that is a stunning landmark in Guangzhou.
The creation of steel, glass and granite takes its inspiration from the concept of two rocks that were washed away by the Pearl River.
It’s dreamy curves house a 1,800-seat theatre, a smaller hall and rehearsal rooms.
When visiting Guangzhou, check out the programme and go and see an opera, ballet, musical or a play.
13- Hang Around A Shopping Mall
Guangzhou is a shopping hub with massive mega malls that have hundreds of shops.
Popular shopping malls are Guangzhou Grandbuy, Victory Plaza in Tianhe district, which has two towers and is a sort of cultural theme park.
Guangzhou’s largest shopping mall is Guangzhou Wangfujing, which has anything you’ll need.
The fashion might be a touch eccentric but if you want to act like a local, Guangzhou’s malls are where you should hang out.
14- Learn something new at the Guangzhou Science Centre
Guangzhou’s Science Centre is an impressive interactive museum with eight learning pavilions, open-plan laboratory areas, four theatres and the largest IMAX theatre in Asia.
If you’re visiting Guangzhou with kids,
15- See the Five Ram Statue in Yuexiu Park
According to legend, 2000 years ago, five immortals rode down from the heavens on five rams.
The immortals cast their magic and granted the city abundant food and prosperity forever then they turned their rams into stone.
That’s why the Five Ram Statue in Yuexiu Park is a landmark in Guangzhou and the place to go if you want to catch some of that good fortune.
16- Visit the Six Banyan Trees Temple
Also in Yuexiu Park is the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees.
This historic temple was built in the sixth century and named for the six Banyan trees that originally grew on the site the temple was built.
It’s a working temple where you can see the locals offering prayers.
There are several massive Buddha statues, a striking nine-storey pagoda and a lovely statue of Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
17- Get Creative At Forest of Life and Future Park
An educational project for kids and those with an artistic side, the interactive displays and installations at Forest of Life and Future Park will stimulate the creative juices.
The concept encourages engagement with the artworks and the people around you.
Forest of Life and Future Park is at Party Pier Culture and Art Zone
Yujiang West Road, Haizhu District, Guangzhou.
18- Experience Winter At Yuemei Ice World
If the steamy tropical weather in Guangzhou gets too muggy, a fun place to cool down is at Yuemei Ice World.
Winter comes to Guangzhou every day here and it’s where you can watch snowflakes fall on cabins and trees, build a snowman and throw snowballs.
The temperatures can get down to a chilly -10 degrees Celsius and you don’t have to travel to Harbin to see ice sculptures either.
There’s a decent display of things made out of ice right in Guangzhou.
Yuemei Ice World is at 1 Erlu, No. 1 Industrial Zone, Hengjiang village, Shatou Jie, Panyu District, Guangzhou.
19- See a Cantonese Opera
During the Ming Dynasty, Cantonese Opera became the main artistic expression and is sung in Cantonese.
It’s now a traditional art form that is still popular in the Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau.
You may not understand the worlds and the singing might sound like wailing but watching a Cantonese Opera is definitely one of the things to do in Guangzhou to lap up the culture.
Jiangnan Theater in the Haizhu district is one of the famous places to watch an authentic Cantonese Opera in Guangzhou.
If you’d rather learn about Cantonese Opera in a museum, the Art Museum of Cantonese Opera has interactive displays and exhibits as well as performances in a garden setting through the day.
Jiangman Theatre is at 130, Chang Gang Zhong Rd. Guangzhou.
20- Explore the Mausoleum of the Nanyue Kingdom
Walk into a 2000-year-old tomb of the Nanyue Kingdom, which was discovered in 1983.
The Nanyue Kingdom (founded in 204 BC) stretched from Guangdong to Guangxi, Yunnan and Northern Vietnam.
There’s a three-storey museum with artefacts and impressive exhibits, including 2000 jade pieces as well as remains of courtiers and a concubine buried with the king.
The Mausoleum of the Nanyue Kingdom is at 316 Zhongshan 4th Rd, Yuexiu Qu, Guangzhou.
Where to stay in Guangzhou
Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich
Five-star hotel chains have also flocked to open new hotels, such as Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich.
The hotel brings French flair to Guangzhou through Parisian-style indulgences such as pampering treatments at So Spa and the sophisticated Club Millésime on the 29th floor.
The hotel’s 493 rooms are a chic blend of Parisian and Asian styles, with French poetry woven in the carpet, Hermes and L’Occitane bathroom accessories and the latest mod cons.
How to get around Guangzhou
Guangzhou has a new and efficient metro system with ticket machines and signs in English. The metro is clean, cost-effective and the fastest way to get around.