Guangzhou, city of contrasts

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Boats at Lizhiwan in Guangzhou — Navjot Singh

A trading capital between the Middle East, Africa and China for centuries, Guangzhou is a brash city. Yet this Cantonese capital city has an appealing mix of culture, history and cuisine.

Striking a captivating balance between venerable dignity and cutting-edge style, Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province abounds with hidden treasures. Guangzhou was the first city that I saw when I arrived in China in 2003. I was immediately captivated by its beauty.

Despite its modern appearance and abundance of somewhat youthful energy, Guangzhou’s roots stretch back thousands of years, and its rich historical legacy is most viable in the stunning architectural marvels that still occupy parts of the Yuexiu District of this gorgeous metropolis.

Covering an area of about 7,430 square kilometers, Guangzhou is home to more than 12 million people. It’s the center of the Pearl River Delta industrial power house. Since hosting the 16th Asian Games in 2010, Guangzhou has grown to become a booming international business and travel epicenter.

Nostalgia with modernization

Guangzhou has always had a long historical trade affiliation with the West, ever since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when thousands of ships visited the city annually, especially from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. While on a stay-over at the city during their trade visit, the Arab and African traders used to reside in the Liwan and Xiaobei areas of Guangzhou — and even today they still do. This history brings the magnificent voyage to the vibrancy of modern-day Guangzhou.

If you want to experience a bit of nostalgia blending in neatly with the modernization of Zhujiang New Town, then head to an area called Lizhiwan. This historical part of Guangzhou may look like the Chinese version of Venice or Amsterdam at first glance. However, it really is an impressive setting with boats navigating through the 743 meter-long waterway from the equally enchanting Shamian Island to Liwan Lake. With lush greenery, numerous shops selling all kinds of traditional Cantonese food and period-style buildings there is no better way to spend your day. The one thing that does catch the eyes is the sensational colonial-style buildings that lie right next to the rather traditional Cantonese-style buildings.

Not far away in the city center are two repositories of the city’s history. Along Dongfeng Road M. near the southern tip of Yuexiu Park, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall is one of the most important and fascinating cultural relics in Guangdong. Very close by is the Chen Clan Academy, known as Chen Jia Ci. The academy, classed as a Guangdong Folk Craftwork Museum, is the largest, most well preserved, and most exquisitely decorated ancient building in Guangdong. There are a variety of inspiring woodcarvings, iron castings, brick carvings, ceramic sculptures and paintings.

Should you wish to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, then head to Yuexiu Park, then followed by Baiyun Mountain Park to do some hiking and sight-seeing. Yuexiu Park contains the astonishing Zhenhai Tower. It’s a red brick palace, which was formally named Wanghai Tower, meaning tower overlooking the sea. The tower contains many artefacts that relate to Guangzhou’s past. Within Yuexiu Park lies the famous Five Rams statue, a symbol of the city.

Baiyun refers to the hill range around 8 kilometers northwest of Guangzhou and made up of around 30 small peaks. The highest peak, Moxing Ridge, stands in the center of Baiyun Mountain. Measuring 382 meters in height, it provides beautiful panoramic views of the city on clear days. There is a cable car that takes people to the peak. Allow at least half a day to experience Baiyun Mountain, and the other half to explore Yuexiu Park.

Bargains and food

In southern China, after Hong Kong, most people come to Guangzhou for shopping. Your best bargains are going to be found in the local and traditional street markets around Beijing Road. Start there if you like to poke around. All the luxury shopping is in the flashy Grandbuy Mall in Zhujiang New Town.

Apart from Beijing Road and Zhujiang New Town, there is the large TeeMall opposite Citic Plaza, the city’s tallest building in Tianhe District. TeeMall is one of the largest shopping malls in Southeast Asia. However, the key attraction of Guangzhou is the food. Many of Guangzhou’s best dining experiences can still be had in modest diners where service is almost guaranteed to be warm and portions generous. Local specialities include siu mei (Cantonese-style roasted meat) platter, which includes roast beef, roast goose, boiled sliced chicken and jellyfish, and blanched kai-lan (Chinese broccoli) with oyster sauce. Both dishes are reasonably priced, flavorful, and accompanied by a dazzling array of side dishes.

After dinner, stroll along to one of the ferry piers along the Pearl River, or visit the top of the futuristic Canton Tower to absorb some stunning views of the city. However, no trip to Guangzhou is complete without an evening cruise on the Pearl. The mesmerizing views across the banks of the River Pearl are sometimes compared to Hong Kong. Ferries can be taken from either Tianzi Pier (near Beijing Road), or from the Dashaton passenger terminal pier (near Binjiang Road M.).

When to visit:

Because of the cityÕs location in the tropics, winter, spring and autumn are the best times to visit Guangzhou since itÕs not so hot and less humid. It is advisable to have an umbrella with you as it is known as the city of umbrellas.

How to get there:

Shanghai East Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Air China all operate direct flight between Shanghai and Guangzhou on a daily basis. A single flight takes about two and a half hours. Guangzhou has a modern, convenient, reliable public transport system. The relatively new and clean subway system has eight lines. Passengers can either pay by cash or purchase a transport card. Taxis are ubiquitous and safe. They are available 24 hours a day.

Where to Stay:

The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou

Rooms providing stunning views across the Pearl River and it has the best cigar bar in town. Visit for more information. (3 XingÕan Rd, 020-3813-6688)

Garden Hotel

Beautifully decorated, this historic landmark hotel features Lingnan garden characteristics. Check (368 Huanshi Rd E., 020-8333-8989)

Grand Hyatt, Guangzhou

Futuristic and trendy. Restaurant G offers everything for the classy diner plus priceless evening views. Visit (12 Zhujiang Rd W., 020-8396-1234)

Where to Eat:

Beiyuan Cuisine Restaurant

Near Xiaobei Road, Beiyuan is one of the best and oldest Cantonese restaurants in Guangzhou. (200-202 Xiaobei Rd, 020-8356-3365)

The Cow and Bridge

Well-known eatery serving Thai cuisine. (33 Zhongshan Rd No. 5, 020-8317-9039; 34 Huale Rd, 020-8360-1468)

Orient Express

Neatly decorated, this stylish French eatery is inside an old train carriage at Shamian Island. (1-1 Shamian St N.)

Where to shop:

Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street ranks amongst the best shopping streets in the city.

Beijing Road houses traditional arts and crafts including fine antique carpets, Chinese tea, and much more.

Pick up various designer threads at TeeMall, an ultra-chic shopping mall in Tianhe District.

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