How an Ancient City Became a Must-visit Destination
Guangzhou — home to 19 million people — is a trove of historic architecture, cutting-edge design, and fantastic food.
No matter how many cities you've visited around the world, chances are you'll still be amazed by the sheer scale of Guangzhou. Once China's maritime link to the Silk Road, this tech and manufacturing hub in the Pearl River Delta has grown to become the country's third-largest city. From my room on the 22nd floor of the new Conrad Guangzhou, the urban sprawl appeared endless. As midday sunshine ricocheted off futuristic glass towers in the near distance, a rainstorm loomed on the other side of town. The dark clouds were so far away that they appeared to hover over another city entirely.
Prodigious size is, of course, a quality shared by many modern Chinese cities. What sets Guangzhou apart is a sense of architectural and cultural diversity. To the west of my hotel I could make out the historic Liwan district, characterized by its temples and traditional shop-houses, while below me gleamed the ultramodern Zhujiang New Town, known for its expensive high-rises and promenades. Snaking through it all was the Pearl River, while high above, the Canton Tower pierced the clouds — a symbol of the city's upward momentum.
Guangzhou began its ascent as a shipping port in the seventh century and has been a manufacturing powerhouse since the 1980s, so it makes sense that business travel is an integral part of its DNA. But the flurry of development leading up to the Asian Games in 2010 placed the capital of China's Guangdong province on a new, global-facing trajectory. As a result, Guangzhou — an easy two-hour train ride from Hong Kong — now feels like a real, fully rounded destination, a place visitors might well choose to linger in.
French expat Aurélien Lienard is a cofounder of La Medina, a stylish Moroccan restaurant on the edge of Zhujiang New Town. "When I used to travel to Guangzhou for business in the past, I didn't like it that much," he said. "It was a bit messy, a bit dirty. Now Guangzhou is the best city to live in in China. You have the modern city and the old city, and you can cycle around the small, leafy streets."
Then there's the urban design, which gives parts of Guangzhou a dynamism similar to that of Shanghai and Beijing. Zhujiang New Town's promenade connects a series of parks, cultural sites, hotels, and landmark buildings. In just a few minutes, I walked from the Guangzhou International Finance Center (the second tallest building in the city, and home of the Four Seasons Hotel) to the Zaha Hadid–designed Guangzhou Opera House, the geometric Guangdong Museum, and the chiseled Guangzhou Library.
The western districts of Yuexiu and Liwan offer a perfect contrast. As I wandered their green, shady streets and passed flower-lined bridges and ancient temples, a profound sense of peace set in — an unusual experience in a city this size. Along the way, I found centuries-old Chinese gardens, cobblestoned streets, the lush Yuexiu Park, and even an imperial tomb at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. A short stroll led me to the Baroque and Neoclassical buildings of Shamian Island, which the Qing dynasty awarded to Britain and France in the 19th century, after losses in the Second Opium War.
To the west of the island, I stumbled upon the Huangsha Seafood Market, where crowds of diners had come in search of fresh crab, lobster, and crocodile. Food, whether it's cooked at a makeshift street stall or painstakingly presented in a fine-dining restaurant, is integral to Guangzhou's culture — which is understandable given the city's status as the birthplace of Cantonese cooking. "There's a saying that anything that can move, they can catch, and we can eat. Cantonese cuisine is really diverse," says Wai Zhou, founder of Eating Adventures, which offers visitors a range of guided dining, street-food, and market experiences. "People greet each other by asking, 'Have you eaten yet?' Everyone, from the poor to the very rich, can enjoy good food here."
It's true: you can spend $2 on spectacular noodles at a no-name food stall, $15 on a dim sum feast at speedy Dian Dou De, $40 at a beloved institution like Bingsheng Pinwei, or hundreds of dollars at a glitzy hotel restaurant like Yun Pavilion, where molecular-gastronomy techniques are used to create a one-of-a-kind Chinese dining experience complete with smoke effects, nitrogen-blasted ice cream drops, and foamy XO sauce.
The restaurant scene is also showing signs of globalization. In Zhujiang New Town I came across clusters of cool, international restaurants where diners ate at sidewalk tables. Momentum for such places comes in part from enterprising expats like New Zealander Aaron Mckenzie who cater to foreign-educated Guangzhou millennials. Mckenzie's restaurant, Social & Co., which he opened in 2014, was one of the first to introduce Western-style comfort food and craft cocktails to the city. "At the time, all the bars had atrocious wine and a TV screen playing sports," he said. Just three years later, there's a group of contemporary dining spots in the greater Tianhe area, including Cocina, with its Peruvian tapas and river views, and Hay, a London-inspired coffee shop tucked in a quiet corner of Tianhe North.
A trip to Guangzhou is both a blast from China's fascinating past and a peek into its future — at once a gentle energy and an ambitious force. You'll find surprises everywhere in this ancient city, no matter how many times you decide to come back.
The Details: What to Do in Today's Guangzhou
China Southern Airlines offers nonstop flights to Guangzhou from New York City and Los Angeles. The city is also a two-hour train ride from Hong Kong.
Conrad Guangzhou: This new property provides airport transfers in a Tesla Model X with Batmobile-style doors, and has a 90-foot lap pool. doubles from $180.
Four Seasons Guangzhou: The highest hotel in the city provides dramatic river views and easy access to nearby architectural attractions. doubles from $285.
Restaurants & Cafés
Bei Yuan Cuisine: The city’s oldest dim sum restaurant is set in a romantic garden with terraces and a koi pond. entrées $12–$40.
Bingsheng Pinwei: Try the signature char siu (barbecued pork), pineapple buns, and house-made tofu at this popular Cantonese restaurant. entrées $6–$15.
Cocina: Overlooking the Pearl River from a sixth-floor perch, Cocina takes inspiration from Peru for its tapas menu and colorful murals. tapas $6–$15.
Dian Dou De: Sample shrimp dumplings, flaky egg tarts, and earthy pu’er tea in Art Deco–style surroundings. 470 Huifu East Rd., Yuexiu district; 86-20-3726-6163; entrées $3–$6.
Hay Coffee: This coffee shop, which roasts its own beans, serves Aussie-quality flat whites in a cute, London-inspired setting. 43 Qiaoyi Yi St., Tianhe district.
Huangsha Seafood Market: Choose your meal from a fish tank (containing everything from crab to crocodile) and take it upstairs to the restaurant, where chefs will prepare it for a small fee. 15 Huangsha Ave., Liwan district.
La Medina: Round off a feast of tagine and couscous at this open-air Moroccan restaurant by smoking one of its shisha pipes. entrées $11–$15.
Mate Mate: With its bubble-gum-pink façade and neon signage, this café draws a fashionable crowd. Come for coffee, cake, and a side of Instagram inspiration. 23 Choi Yi St., Tianhe North; 86-188-1411-4015.
Social & Co.: A relaxed restaurant with an outdoor deck serving Western comfort food, boutique wines, and a life-altering banoffee pie. entrées $9–$21.
Yun Pavilion: Cantonese cuisine gets a modern makeover thanks to chef Tan Guo Hui’s molecular techniques. entrées $13–$60.
Activities & Tours
Eating Adventures: Sign up for a market tour, try a traditional dim sum meal, or sample the city’s best street snacks.