Guangzhou is an underestimated and mad Southern Chinese megacity. Look at the best things you can do and see there!
Do you remember that time when I really wanted to go to Macau and I only did so after six months of living in China? Well, I'll tell you something even more embarrassing. It took me about seven months to properly see Guangzhou. A city less than hour away from where I live.
I mean, I HAVE been to Guangzhou before. We went to see the skyscrapers, took a calligraphy class there, we went out drinking and explored the old part of the city. I've even slept in a park in Guangzhou.
The problem is that not much has been written about Guangzhou so you get a feeling there's not much to see. You know what I mean. Everyone knows you NEED to go to Shanghai, even though you are not completely sure why. But Guangzhou? Even my edition of Lonely Planet gave it less than two pages.
Well, now I can responsibly tell you that Guangzhou IS worth seeing. What you shouldn't miss and where to find it? Have a look at the list of Guangzhou's musts I compiled and fall in love with this mad megacity!
1. modern architecture
Zhujiang New Town is where it all is. Unlike many sterile business centres, this one is covered in lush trees, flower beds and bamboo patches. The prominent building is definitely IFC tower with the Four Seasons Hotel on the 70th floor. You can pop in for a drink in a bar but smart clothes is recommended (hence I haven't been yet). The views are supposed to be amazing.
While enjoying cocktails on the top floor, you can't miss the new symbol of the city - The Canton Tower. It's tall, sleek and glows with all the colours of the rainbow at night. While getting to the top is quite pricey, you can appreciate its design better from the ground anyway. Walk to the river to get the pictures of the Tower and Zhujiang New Town.
If you enjoy looking at pretty buildings, definitely go and see Guangzhou Opera House. Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, you will find everything you would expect from her. Futuristic structure resembling a space ship, smooth abstract concrete curves.
But MY favourite building, Guangzhou library, is a little walk away. First, I love that a majestic modern building was made not for a hotel or offices but for a library. Second, I LOVE the interior. The two parts are connected by bridges so there is loads of natural light inside. And lastly, everyone really loves it there. The whole building is full of people reading and strolling through the book shelves. Definitely go and have a look!
Where to go: Get off at Zhujiang New Town metro stop (line 3 and 5), exit C. Once you're outside, just follow the tallest building. To see the Opera House and Library, walk further down to the river or get off at Opera House (APM line). For the Canton Tower, go to metro stop Canton Tower (line 3 and APM), exit C or D.
2. dirty alleys
Not far from the glamorous skyscrapers is a much scruffier part of town. These are the last places where you can see old Guangzhou - what this city used to look like before the money started pouring in and it turned into a rich mega-city. Quite possibly, the little dingy alleys won't last for long as they'll need to give place to new development.
People there live in cute neighbourhoods, light up incense at the threshold and dry their clothes above roads. Everything is happening on the street.
Where to go: Guangzhou's Old town (between metro stops Chen Clan Academy and Changshou Lu) has some lovely old neighbourhoods. You can continue walking from Changshou Lu along Changshou West Road and then turn to Wenchang South Road. Walk along the main road all the way to Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street or explore the alleys around and get a taste of old Guangzhou.
If you find yourself around Liwan Lake Park (Zhongshanba metro stop, line 5), go to see Renwei Ancestral Temple. After that, facing the temple, go left along the lake and then walk into the maze of little streets and alleys on your right. Some of them are abandoned, some buzzing with life. Walk through to Pantang Wuyue New Street to get back to Zhongshanba metro station.
3. European heritage
A long time ago, Guangzhou used to be full of foreigners trading opium and building colonial villas. The opium is no longer there but you can see the villas on lush Shamian island. Although called an island, it is rather a stretch of land separated by two rivers. Almost the whole area is a pedestrian zone so it makes for a perfect walk and relief from the city heat and smog.
At weekends, Chinese youngsters flock there with their selfie sticks and phones and pose for the best We Chat pictures (Chinese obsession with posting pictures on social media is even worse than Facebook updates. Trust me on this one.) As a foreigner, you'll be asked for a picture several times and people will take a sneaky photo of you all the time while the kids will be whispering to their parents "wai guo ren!" - foreigner.
Other than selfie sticks, there are a lot of professional photographers shooting for fashion magazines or wedding couples. A LOT of them.
You will also meet a lot of Chinese tourists by Guangzhou's most famous cathedral - Sacred Heart Cathedral. It's surprisingly big and the queues are ridiculously long. Definitely worth seeing even just from outside though.
Where to go: Huangsha metro stop, exit D. Follow the signs to Shamian Island. When you get to first European-style building hidden between massive trees, you know you're there. For the Sacred Heart Cathedral, get off at Yide Lu metro stop and follow the Yide road. The cathedral will be on your left.
If you can't cope with the scorching heat of Guangzhou summer, aim for one of the parks. Unlike parks in the West, the Chinese ones are always buzzing with things happening. Chinese men practising tai chi, ladies rehearsing their dancing choreography, clusters of people playing Chinese chess, cards or exercising in outdoor "gyms". Last time I was in Guangzhou, I even saw Chinese opera singing. Western pensioners definitely have a lot to learn from their Chinese counterparts.
Where to go: Despite the monstrous memorial, my favourite park is Martyr's Park with little paths, flowers and lakes. Go to Martyr's park (line 1) metro stop, exit C or D. If you are visiting Liu Rong Temple or Guang Xiao Temple, also have a walk around People's park. It's smaller than the others but very popular with locals. Get off at Gong Yuan Qian metro stop (line 1), exits H, G or F.
Another great place is Liwan Lake Park. It is a complex of lakes with bridges and little pavilions. You can spend ages walking around and there are tons of restaurants nearby. Don't miss the Renwei Ancestral Temple near the Southeast Gate either. Get off at Zhongshanba metro stop (line 5), exit B. For the rough experience, cross the road and continue straight along Pantangwuyue Street. It will take you to the park through old and dark alleys. If you don't feel adventurous, cross the street from the exit B and walk left along the Zhongshanba Road. Walk for a few minutes and then turn right to Pantang Road. Walk straight until you get to the park.
5. traditional Chinese sights
Let's put this straight. Guangzhou doesn't have the tallest pagodas or the most impressive temples. They definitely are nice though and especially if you are at the beginning of your Chinese trip, it will give you a good idea of the buddhist and taoist temples.
While not being a temple expert by any means, I like the Guang Xiao Temple the best. It is a beautiful complex and it reminded me rather of a park than a temple with a spacious courtyard. It was also here where I saw my first ever buddhist service. I wasn't able to find out if this was a regular event but if it was, I definitely recommend having a look. It's an amazing experience.
I liked the Liu Rong Temple too, mainly because of this wee fella giving me a company.
Where to go: For Liu Rong Temple, get off at Gong Yuan Qian metro stop (line 1), exit A. Cross the big road and continue to your left for a few minutes until you get to Liurong Road on your right. Walk straight and after a few more minutes, the temple will be on your left. For Guang Xiao Temple, go to Xi Men metro stop (line 1), exit C. When you get out, turn right. The temple is at the end of this road. For an example of traditional Chinese architecture, continue one more stop on line 1 to Chen Clan Academy.
See? Guangzhou is amazing! Don't let the lack of attention on this city stop you from coming!
What about you? Have you ever been to Guangzhou? What was your favourite part? Or what you would like to see there?