I don’t know anyone who has ever gone to Guangzhou just for a holiday. I have many friends who go for the Canton Fair, but don’t venture beyond the fair zone. I was here via a stop-over deal with China Southern on a flight from London to Saigon. Stopovers are part of my long-haul travel strategy which is like a free holiday, such as my stopover in Kazakhstan.
If you ever find a cheap deal with China Southern then I recommend building in a stopover as it’s well worth a visit. In addition to being a modern megacity, it also has some of the best preserved heritage architecture in Asia. And depending on your country you can visit on a free transit visa, saving the hassle of applying for a China visa. This visa is for stopover travel, not return flights.
Guangzhou is a huge city that feels even bigger as it merges into the urban conurbation that is the Pearl River Delta megacity. I had a full day so I didn’t even attempt to visit too many places. My day was split between highlights of old and new Guangzhou.
I stayed by the Pearl River in the most historic section of the city. My budget hotel turned out to be one of the most historic buildings in the city and an ideal base to explore from.
Along the river are remnants of the old trading days when the city was better known as Canton. While it’s not as grand as the Bund in Shanghai, there are still an impressive amount of heritage buildings here, especially when comparing to cities in Southeast Asia. I’m surprised it’s not more well known.
The air pollution was still as bad as I remembered from my last trip. I went by the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Disease and I couldn’t help but think that they’re going to need a bigger building.
Even without the old buildings the riverfront is an attractive landscape, with old tress and a footpath wide enough for pedestrians and cyclists to share.
The highlight of Guangzhou is Shamian Island. This island was a concession island built by the British and French. The island was a sand bar that was transormed into an island by dredging a canal on the land side. I will have a separate post about Shamian Island that will go into more details.
I try and walk everywhere as I enjoy taking in street-level activity as much as the site I’m walking to. My walking tactic is to star some highlights in Google Maps and then randomly walk from there. Of course Google doesn’t work in China because of the Great Fire wall, so you need to pre-load your map before you go off the grid. Make sure you preload some recommended VPN’s before you go as well.
From Shamian Island my next target was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Some of the streets around here actually look what I imagined an old market in China to look like. I loved walking around these covered walkways with the overhead fans.
The Shangxiajiu Commercial Pedestrian Street has some interesting old buildings as well.
There are still old alleys around here that look like the last remnants of old Chinese cities.
Many of the old neighbourhoods with the little alleys have been razed to the ground in the big cities of China, including Guangzhou.
I could have spent the day wandering this area, but I wanted to check out some of the modern icons of the city. I got a metro to the new part of the city and realised that I didn’t stop for lunch. I had what must now be the national dish of China – instant noodles. Go to a convenience store like 7/Eleven and you will find a overwhelming amount of noodles to choose from. There is hot water on site, and bigger stores have seats like a restaurant.
For new Guangzhou I headed for the Canton Tower and walked around from there. The Canton Tower is best viewed at night when it is lit up like a rainbow Christmas tree. In the daytime the tower merges with the smog-grey sky. It took me about an hour to get here from my hotel though, and I couldn’t be arsed going back in the evening.
Facing the Canton Tower is the Mall of the World, where the two the largest buildings in Guangzhou face each other (CTF Finance Centre at 530m and Guangzhou International Finance Center at 438m).
Also near here is the new Guangzhou Library building.
Being based in Southeast Asia, one thing that is noticeable about big cities in China is how clean the streets are. Apart from Singapore, you never see street cleaners like this.
Before going out wandering I had a look if there were any hipster cafes in the area, but nothing showed up. I starred some Starbucks on my map as potential rest places (and for good toilets). I went to the Starbucks on Shamian Island, which is in a classic heritage building.
Unfortunately you need a Chinese SIM card to use the internet. I was only here for two days so I didn’t bother getting a local SIM.
One cafe I wanted to try was Luckin Cafe. This cafe chain is going through explosive growth, and its backers are trying to make it bigger than Starbucks.
I went by a branch so I stopped for a coffee. The menu was entirely in Chinese and none of the staff spoke English. One of the young guys got out his translator app and worked out that I wanted a cafe latte. I usually get a cafe latte as my standard comparison drink. The milk was a long life variety and didn’t taste good, so I don’t know what the coffee was like. I should have got an Americano.
Without internet I went through my saved articles in Pocket and relaxed for a while after a solid walking session. There where no other customers, but there was a steady stream delivery riders picking up orders. Bicycle delivery is big business here, and most of the bikes are electric.
The bike sharing economy is still big here as well, with bikes everywhere.
And even the police are in on the electric bikes.
And as I noted on my previous visit to China, mobile payments are killing the cash economy. I saw these bike taxis waiting outside a metro station and they had their WeChat codes hanging around their necks.
At night the new riverside buildings put on a spectacular light show similar to Hong Kong. The lights here though are more colour co-ordinated.
There are cruises that run during this, or just go to the Jiefang Bridge or Haizhu Bridge and watch it from there.
The river walk is the best reason to stay in this part of the city.
That was my brief visit to Guangzhou. I would actually like to go to the Canton Fair one day, so I could see myself being back here again.
Here are some of the locations mentioned in this post.