Shamian in Guangzhou is a former concession island that was established by the French and British after the Second Opium War. This small island has some of the best preserved colonial architecture in Asia. It might also be the best 19th century historical site that isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage Site (yet).
The island was originally a sandbank (Shamian means “sandy surface” in Chinese) that was conceded to France and the United Kingdom by the Qing government. In 1859 work began to turn this sand bank into an island.
The land is on the Pearl River, and on the landslide a canal was dug to separate it from the mainland, turning it into an trading enclave.
The land is 900 metres facing the Pearl River, and 300 metres from canal to river.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons.]
The land was gridded out and then filled in with stately commercial and administrative buildings typical of the Victorian-era.
There is also early 20th century architecture, such as the Bank of Taiwan building.
The road that runs down the middle of the island doubles as a park, so you can walk the length of the island through total greenery.
Even if you aren’t using the main thoroughfare, all the other streets are tree-lined and pleasant.
I think future town planners should be having conferences here to see how good town planning works (ie use a gridded pattern of walkable streets and plant lots of trees).
Given how many heritage buildings were lost in China it’s remarkable how intact the buildings on this island are.
Churches were spared the fate of demolition by being converted into factories.
Not only are the buildings in good condition, but every notable building has information in English about the buildings original purpose.
There are also statues around the island, such as this “east meets west” trading scene.
There is a bigger park on the banks of the Pearl River.
And apart from the old banking and commercial buildings there are old apartment blocks here as well.
This building was the residence of Indian Nationals.
Some of the buildings are perfect for cafes.
This was the nicest Starbucks I’ve seen in a long time.
I enjoyed the outdoor seating with ceiling fans.
Everyone I’ve spoken to about my trip had never heard of it. When I went in the morning it was like I had the island to myself. It was a bit busier in the afternoon, but it wan’t over-tourism mayhem.
I was surprised that Shamian isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage site yet. Gulangyu (Kulangsu) near Xiamen is also a concession island, and that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. Gulangyu is bigger and is a car-free island so it was worthy of being listed before Shamian. I would be amazed though if Shamian isn’t eventually listed.
Where to stay on Shamian Island
Shamian is a small island so there’s not a lot of places to stay. Here are the main options.
The Guangdong Youth Hostel (listed as Etan Hotel or Swan Hostel on the map) is the only backpacker accommodation on the island.
On the canal-side of the island is the 4-star Guangdong Victory Hotel.
To stay in style the White Swan Hotel is one of the most famous hotels in China. This five star luxury hotel overlooking the Pearl River was built in 1983. It’s on the edge of the island so it doesn’t interrupt the aesthetic of the 19th century architecture. The hotel even has its own private driveway along the riverfront. It’s had its fair share of famous guests, including Kim Jong Il, Queen Elizabeth II, and President George W. Bush.
I first visited Shamian in 2010 and on that trip I stayed at the hostel. Prices have gone up since then and it’s not the budget accommodation that I remember it to be. An alternative to staying on Shamian is to stay at a hotel near Shamian along the Pearl River. The riverfront also has a good collection of heritage buildings so it feels like you are staying in “Old Canton”. I think if you are a casual tourist to the city then the island or riverside is the best area to stay in Guangzhou. If you are visiting for the Canton Fair then I would stay at a hotel near there to save yourself travel time.
The LN White House Hotel is another budget hotel that is closer to the entrance of the island.
Search for more hotels near Shamian Island.
Getting to Shamian Island
If you aren’t staying on the island then the closest metro is Huangsha Station on Line 1 of the Guangzhou Metro. From the metro there is an overpass that will bring you to the footbridge at the northwest corner of the island.
Shamian Island Map
Map of Shamian Island, Guangzhou.