Guangzhou’s location at the Pearl River Delta made it a focal point for Arabian and Persian pirates during the 8th century. By the early 16th century the Portuguese had arrived, and by 1517 they had established a monopoly on the city’s harbour trade. They were later expelled but not before their name for their settlement, Cantão, had become the basis for Guangzhou’s Anglicised name, Canton.
Nowadays Guangzhou is China’s third most populated city and home to more than 10 million residents. Its location on the Pearl River, less than 110km and 130km respectively from the autonomous Macau and Hong Kong ‘Special Administrative Regions’ makes it one of the most popular entry – and exit – points of mainland China.
Guangzhou’s chaotic traffic and urban bustle used to overwhelm, but the city’s recent makeover has had a calming effect on the sights and sounds of this metropolis. The city is also home to numerous parks which give Guangzhou its alternative name, the City of Flowers.
One of the first things visitors will see in Guangzhou is Baiyun or ‘White Cloud’ Mountain, and during spring the peak is ringed by the fluffy clouds which give it its name. Visitors can hike to the peak but a cable car is a quicker and equally scenic option. The mountain comprises around 30 peaks, the highest of which is 382m and is named Moxing Ling (Star Touching Peak). At the foot of the mountain is Yuntai Garden, the largest of its kind in China. Encompassing over 120,000m², its vividly coloured landscapes include 200 rare Chinese flowers alongside architectural attractions.
In the heart of Guangzhou is Pearl River, and a boat tour is a good way to orient yourself to the city. Glide down the river on a night cruise and enjoy the neon lights which light up the banks between White Goose Pool and White Crane Cave. As well as sights such as Zhuhai Square, Aiqun Mansion and the Guangzhou Hotel, the cruise passes under ten of Guangzhou’s famous bridges.
Also on the Pearl River is Shamian Island, ceded as a permanent trading base to the French and British in 1859 after the Second Opium War. It still retains some of its former colonial grandeur and many of the city’s elegant churches, villas and mansions have been carefully restored. A line of bars and cafés on the southwest side offers pretty views over the Pearl River.
Residents of Guangzhou are said to eat everything that swims except the submarine; everything that flies except the aircraft; and everything with legs except the table. Whether this is true or not, the Cantonese cuisine is certainly varied and travellers looking to enjoy traditional dishes will not be disappointed.
Dim Sum is a Guangzhou speciality and these savoury dumplings, often enjoyed for breakfast, can be found in Liwan and across the city. Try other local favourites such as Wenchang chicken, roast suckling pig, Wonton noodles and vermicelli steamed rolls – suggested areas are Liwan, Shimao and Tianhe.
Guangzhou is also home to Japanese, American, French, Indian, Italian and Thai restaurants, many of which can be found in Tianhe and Yuexiu districts.
Bars and nightclubs are prevalent in Guangzhou. Baietan Bar Street in Fangcun overlooks the Pearl River and is decked with neon lit buildings. Further afield in Yuexiu is Yan Jiang Bar Street, a one kilometre strip of busy nightclubs and bars. For the latest nightlife reviews, pick up a free copy of That’s PRD, an English language monthly listings magazine.
Just two hours south of Guangzhou is Macau, one of China’s Special Administrative Regions. As with Hong Kong, Macau was under overseas rule – in this instance, Portugal – until it was handed back to the Chinese in 1999. To ease the transition from 450 years of Portuguese rule, China implemented a ‘one country, two systems’ formula in which Macau remains virtually autonomous for 50 years, allowing it to retain its ‘Las Vegas of the Orient’ moniker. However, there is far more to Macau than casinos. A large section of Macau Peninsula has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the best way to cover it is to do the guided Macau Heritage Walk.