What to See, Do, Eat in Guangzhou, China – A Not So Famous Mega City
August 16th, 2018, Contributed by Michael Mo, Friend of the Editor and Current Resident of Guangzhou, China.
The name Guangzhou will probably not ring a bell for most of you,
unless you are an avid traveler or have studied Chinese geography.
It’s probably not even in the list of Chinese cities that most are familiar with, and for good reason, since there are several famous sister cities that overshadow Guangzhou. Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are without a doubt the top three answers when a foreigner is asked to name a Chinese city (I am fully aware that some might not view Hong Kong as a Chinese city, but let’s leave that to a political discussion forum).
But make no mistake about it, this little-known-outside-of-China city can hold its own with competence when it comes to cultural uniqueness, economic influence, political importance, or any other traditional measuring stick you define a mega city with.
If you don’t believe me, then chew on these facts about Guangzhou:
It has the third most populous Chinese urban city area with just under 20 million people
- It was tied for third place along with Shenzhen in terms of GDP in 2017 with 330 billion USD
- It serves as the southern hub for the ever-expanding high-speed railway system.
- Twice a year it hosts The Canton Fair–also known as the China Import & Export Fair, China’s oldest, largest, and most famous international trade show; established in 1957 and boasts over 20,000 of China’s best manufacturers.
Have I whet your appetite yet?
Well, don’t worry, the main course is still to come. So sit back and allow me to properly introduce you to a mega city that you might have never heard of.
The Basic Biography and History
The City of Guangzhou, a city with more than 2000 years of history, is the provincial capital of Guangdong province which also includes cities like Shenzhen (one of the first modern Chinese cities open to foreign investment) and Dongguan (a major manufacturing hub and one of the biggest export regions in China).
It is also known as The City of Flowers or The City of the Five Rams. Being a city in the sub-tropical region, having a name like the City of Flowers is not surprising. So what do rams have anything to do with this city you ask?
Legend has it that in ancient times, Guangzhou–or Chuting as it was known at the time–was suffering from heavy drought. As a result, famine was spreading throughout the region.
Fortunately, a group of 5 celestial beings were traveling through the region and saw what was happening, and they decided to help by having their rams deliver blessed spikes of rice to the people. Farmers were able to grow and harvest enough to feed everyone and thus the city was saved from the brink of collapse.
In addition, the celestial beings blessed the region so that this land would never suffer from drought again. By the time they decided to leave, the rams had taken a liking to the local mortals and chose to remain here. Many years later, the locals built a statue to commemorate the five rams and thus the name was established.
If you visit enough places in China, you will no doubt begin to realize that different regions can have vastly different cultures. Guangzhou is no exception, it is vastly different from other mega cities in China in almost all aspects.
So with that in mind, let me spend some time highlights some of the things that make this city unique.
Guangzhou is located pretty much in the middle of the Guangdong province in the southern part of China. As I mentioned before, it has more than 2000 years of history, and has always been one of the major political and commercial hubs in south China.
The city was developed along the southern end of the Pearl River (the third largest river in China) and had been the main port for foreign trades until Hong Kong was occupied by the British Empire and developed into what it is today.
In the Qin dynasty, Guangzhou was still considered the land of the barbarians. During the unification campaign by the first emperor of China, Guangzhou was annexed and became the southern county of the empire.
However, the sheer distance from the central government and the mountain range acting as a natural barrier meant the region enjoyed a high level of autonomy, which allowed the people to develop their own customs and cultural values independently.
It stayed virtually the same way even after the fall of the Qin dynasty and through many of the subsequent dynasties.
Cantonese is the local dialect in Guangzhou. Historians have suggested that the dialect was actually one of the few legacies left over from Qin as the so called southern barbarians were forced to adapt the official language of the empire. Since the Qin dynasty was short-lived and overthrown by the Han dynasty, its official language was quickly forgotten except for the southern barbarians.
Fun fact: The Han dynasty marked the beginning of the dominance of the Han people in China. They currently make up 91.6% of all Chinese citizens.
If you have met a Chinese immigrant in North America or Europe and heard them speak any time before the last 10 years, you will most certainly have heard the Cantonese dialect. It is the predominant dialect of Chinese people living outside of China.
The reason is simple: Cantonese people were the first group of Chinese immigrant workers exported to the United States to work on the railways during the westward expansion era. They provided cheap alternatives to the more expensive and more demanding workforce from European countries.
What’s more, the first waves of Chinese people who had the financial means to immigrate to North America and Western Europe were almost all from Guangdong, which further increased the influence of the Cantonese dialect in Chinese communities overseas.
As mentioned in the geography section, the southern regions of China enjoyed high level of autonomy throughout the dynasties.
This is why when you meet true southerners in China, they look more similar to Southeast Asians. They are generally shorter and darker than northern Chinese.
Other differences include bigger eyes and flatter noses. However, it is increasingly rare to have a “pure” southerner nowadays because of the enormous migrant worker inflow since the early 90’s, which has allowed people from different regions of the country to settle down, marry locals and start families here.
If you have ever tried Chinese food in North America or Europe, it’s probably Cantonese food.
It is famous for its taste and its utilization of a large variety of ingredients and all cooking methods. Having access to so many different sources of ingredients (from seafood to meats like beef and pork, and countless number of vegetables and spices) has allowed the Cantonese people to develop the world famous cuisine.
It is only natural then that food is an integral part of everyone’s life here.
Families and friends often gather to Yum Cha (have morning tea and dim sum) on the weekends. Not to mention a sea of people filling up the countless number of restaurants during lunch time and dinner time, with yet more people waiting for their turn at the table.
In any mega city, having a comprehensive transportation system is essential. You will be pleased to know that Guangzhou is one of the easiest cities to get around via public transport.
From its access to a major international airport to vast metro system, its setup allows you to get to pretty much any point within the city without much trouble at all.
Here is an overall look at the system as a whole along with the specifics of each form of transportation you will rely on while getting around the city:
The New Baiyun Airport
The original Baiyun Airport was actually very much near the center of the city, just a few kilometers away in fact. However, as the economy grew the need for an upgrade was inevitable.
Construction of the new airport began in earnest in 2000 and completed in 2004. (Yes, you read that right, it only took 4 years to build a major international airport from the ground up. It may be shocking but such building speed is commonplace in China. It is totally fair to question the quality of construction. In mega cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, quality control is substantially stricter compared to second and third tier cities. Therefore, while traveling around different parts of the country, you will notice different levels of build quality.)
Anyway, once you pass the customs, you will have a few choices to get to the city, given that you are not wealthy or a VIP with drivers waiting to welcome you at the gate.
Personally, I usually jump on the metro/subway/the tube as it is the cheapest form of transportation. But that’s just me. If it is your first time visiting the city or if you have too much luggage, then I would recommend other forms of transportation.
You can also choose between the airport express buses or taxis. The buses run between the airport and many drop-off points throughout the city near major hotels. Though finding out which bus to take is a bit of a challenge if you don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. If you think by taking the taxi you will get to your hotel with ease, think again. I have yet to meet a taxi driver who can speak even at a functional level of English.
A way to remedy the situation is to get a translation of the hotel name in advance or use a translation app on your phone. If you book any of the major hotels, drivers will have no problem getting you there.
The Metro System
Once you are in the city, the metro system is by far the best choice getting around in my opinion. Reason number one: it runs frequently. During normal hours, you won’t have to wait for more than 3 minutes for any train. It is almost a blink of an eye compared to the subway system in New York City where I grew up in. Normal waiting time is 10 – 15 minutes even during rush hours. However, the system only operates from 6am to 12am. Reason number two: it reaches wide and far. The system can get you to any tourist attraction within the city with ease. Reason number 3: it is cheap. Metro fair is capped at 7 yuan, which converts to about 1.1 USD or 0.8 Euro. Reason number 4: it is new and in good condition. All metro stations are climate-controlled, so you can travel with comfort…if there are not too many people on the trains; all waiting platforms have protective glass walls preventing commuters from accidentally falling onto the tracks.
Fun fact: Even though Guangzhou’s metro system only started operation in 1997 with a single line and didn’t add a second line until 2002, it is already the world’s fourth busiest metro system by annual ridership as of 2017. Having recently surpassed Tokyo and Moscow to jump up two places, it will surpass Seoul to take over third place in 2018. Yeah, the top 3 busiest systems in the world will all be in China, no surprise there.
WhichCity Editor’s Tip: If you’re going to utilize the subway system short OR long-term, then you should most definitely check out the “Explore” app. It’s super easy to use and is available for a variety of Chinese cities, including Guangzhou. I’ve personally used them for over five years and still find them to be the simplest and easiest to understand. You can access and use the map directly at this address.
Or, you can do what I did and download the Explore Guangzhou Metro Map from their site or one of the other locations below:
Taxi and Buses
The only piece of information I need to talk about here is the price. All taxis start at 12 yuan for the first 3 kilometers, then each additional kilometer will cost 2.6 yuan. There are other charges such as traffic wait time charge, which costs 44 yuan for every hour in which the taxi travels below the speed of 10 km/hr.
For buses, prices will range from 2 – 3 yuan depending on the line.
It is worth mentioning that the recent popularization of Uber has helped to create China’s own brand of ride sharing business. It is called DD, and it has become a tough competition to the conventional taxis. Tourists won’t be able to use the DD service though, because you need to download the app onto your phone, not to mention you need to have a local bank account to be able to par for the fair.
Public Bicycle Sharing Service (not for tourists)
If you are a local resident and have access to a local bank account, this will prove to be a very good choice if you are looking to travel short distances during rush hours (which means most of the day). You need access to a local bank because that’s the only way you can pay for the service. I myself use this service quite often if I don’t want to turn into a sardine on the metro during rush hours. Taking a taxi or riding a bus is out of the question, because I can literally walk faster than the traffic. However, you do have to be pretty brave to weave in and out of traffic on the bike.
In terms of choosing a suitable form of transportation if you are here as a tourist, I would definitely use the metro system any time during its operation hours. If you stay out late at a bar of other places and need to get back to your hotel late at night, then taxi is your choice.
Places of Interest
I will categorize tourist attractions into three groups: places with cultural values; places of modern design; places for activities. I will only include directions to different places by taking the metro system, since taking a taxi self-explanatory and you won’t be taking the bus.
Places with Cultural Values
- The Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
Sun Yat-Sen is considered the father of modern China. He was instrumental in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and later became the first president of the Republic of China. He is revered by people from both mainland China and Taiwan, as well as by members of both the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party. As such, you can find many institutions and streets bearing his name. The Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall is a great place to learn not only who this man was, but also the early history of modern China. It is free to get into the grounds, but costs 10 yuan to get into the museum.
How to get there : by metro you can get no line 2 and get off at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall station.
- Yuexiu Park
The main reason I include this place is because here is where you can find the 5-Ram statue. Other spots in this park worth mentioning include the old military command center building near the top of the mountain and the original Ming dynastic city wall near the east entrance of the park. You can have a nice stroll through the park and enjoy the many tropical trees that line the walkways. If you visit the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, then you are literally right next to the park, as the south exit of the park is adjacent to the north end of the memorial hall. The park is free, but the old military command center costs 5 yuan.
How to get there : metro line 2 and get off at Yuexiu Park
- The Chen Clan Academy
It was an educational institution established in late Qing dynasty (1888). It has preserved many of the original buildings, sculptures and paintings from its hay days. It is a must if you want to learn the local history and bask yourself in the atmosphere of the once famous academy. Also a great place to get some souvenirs. Admission is 10 yuan.
How to get there: metro line 1 and get off at the Chen Clan Academy (do you see the trend yet?)
- Whampoa Military Academy
Established by the Nationalist Party in 1924, many of its early graduates fought in the war against the invading Japanese imperial army and later became important officers in both the Nationalist Party and Communist Party. During the Chinese civil war that would decide the fate of modern China, many classmates would face off again each other. Interestingly, the academy was built on the grounds of the Qing dynasty military academy, so the place was the grooming ground for more than a few important figures in the last few centuries. It has been listed as a historical site since 1988 and serves as a museum. Admission is 4 yuan.
How to get there: getting there is a bit tricky because it’s on an island. Metro line 5 and get off at Yuzhu Pier Station, then take a ferry across the river.
Places of Modern Design
- The Canton Tower
One of the most popular modern attractions even for local residents. It is a unique structure utilizing an innovative design scheme to provide support. It is the tallest tower in China and second to the Tokyo tower in the world. On its summit, there is a viewing platform with mini roller coaster carts that circle around the top of the tower. There is also the rotating restaurant if that your thing. It has become quite a popular choice for newly-wed couples to get their wedding pictures taken on top of the tower. Admission for adults is 150 yuan, for children above 1.2 meters tall is 100 yuan, children below 1.2 meters tall get on for free. Special student discount is 120 yuan.
How to get there: metro line 3 get off at Canton Tower Station
- The Guangdong Museum
It is located at the southern end of the new city center point at Zhujiang New Town. The original building was finished and open to public in 1959. In 2004, reconstruction began. It has been serving the public since its reconstruction was completed in 2010. A popular spot for people of all ages and especially students. It displays many artifacts and artworks from many dynasties throughout Chinese history. The free admission has no doubt made it even more attractive to museum goers.
How to get there: metro line 3, transfer to the APM line and get off at the Grand Theater Station
- The Grandview Mall
It is a relatively typical modern shopping mall anyway you look at it. However, if you want to take a break from running around the city hunting down historical sites to visit and just want to relax in familiar setting and get your hands on some comfort food, this is the place to go. It has most of the famous brand from around the world as well as the most common fast food restaurants chains. What’s more, there is even an ice skating rink if you feel like it.
How to get there : metro line 1 get off at the Sports Complex Station
Places for Activities
- The Pearl River Night Cruise
Seeing the city during the day is nice, but enjoying the light show on office buildings while cruising down the river is quite a different experience. I highly recommend this no matter if you are with your family or traveling with a few friends. The cruise will allow you to take in most of the famous high rise buildings in the city, including the Canton Tower, and both the East and West towers of the Guangzhou world trade complex. You can get on a cruise boat from one of many piers along the river. And if you get on a high-end cruise, you will even enjoy a nice meal. Ticket prices range from 50 yuan to 250 yuan.
How to get there : there are at least 3 different piers where you can get on a boat. You can just walk along the river and find one.
- Chimelong Amusement Park and Safari Park
If you are looking for a little excitement, then you have come to the right place. The park has a number of roller coaster rides that will be sure to make you scream. It is located in the suburbs of the city and easily accessible by metro. However, if you come during the summer vacation months, expect to spend hours waiting online as it is one of the most popular places for students and young adults. Admission starting at 280 yuan.
If you are looking for a place for the whole family, you can come to the Chimelong Safari Park. You can see more than 20,000 animals from 500 different species including 10 giant pandas, and over 150 tigers. You can relax and take in everything by riding on a trolley through the park. What’s more, there is even a circus show for the kids. Admission starting at 280 yuan.
How to get there : metro line 3 get off at Hanxi Changlong Station
The Last thing I want to write about is the food.
I really can’t make recommendations regarding restaurants because there are just so many to choose from. It depends on your preferences and no matter what you like, you will find at least a few good places to go.
The Main Thing to Remember
is to stick to big restaurants as you don’t know how clean the food is at small establishments. The last thing you want to happen in a foreign country is getting sick from mystery food. Unless of course you know a local resident who knows where to go.
There are plenty of exotic cuisines that you can’t find anywhere else, but those places are usually off the beaten track.