There’s a pretty good chance you haven’t heard of Guangzhou, but I’d say you’ve heard the name Canton before. They are one and the same, a huge city in South-East China, located on the mighty Pearl River. Even if you haven’t heard of them before, you’ve almost certainly worn clothes that have passed through Guangzhou at some stage.
While it may not immediately spring up on your travel radar, it’s a great place to visit if you find yourself in Hong Kong and want to experience a part of China.
Getting there is easy and fast thanks to the train line that runs direct from Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station right up to Guangzhou station. A one way ticket sets you back around $35AU and it’s a short two hour trip on a comfortable train. The scenery on the way is open green fields and small villages, giving you a taste of rural life in China.
Arriving in Guangzhou can be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re coming from Hong Kong with its cosmopolitan feel. It has a completely different feel to cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, a sense that everyone keeps to themselves and goes about their business, but not in a rude or excluding way. It just feels like they are busy and going about day to day life, not really taking much notice of tourists.
It isn’t exactly a small town, with a population estimated to be in the vicinity of 14 million it crams in over half of Australia’s entire population; making it China’s third largest city. It is a sprawling expanse of high rise buildings and buzzing locals and perfectly combines the old with the new. There’s a smog in the air that can be a bit unsettling at first, but once you get into the main areas it somehow seems less weird.
Ancient facades from historical China are backed with huge skyscrapers that tower above. Older locals wear conservative clothing teamed up with converse high tops and mega food chains like Starbucks sit next door to tiny local restaurants. It’s a culture that has embraced the west, but kept its traditional eastern roots. Around every corner there’s an interesting shop selling something weird, cool or unusual. There’s so much shopping to do that it’s almost overwhelming. Almost.
Discovering the city on foot is a mammoth task, trust me, so you’re best advised to use the efficient and affordable train system to get you around. Trains come every few minutes and cost around $0.80AU per person one-way. Just prepare to be stared at if you’re 5’9″ with bright blonde hair (me) as your appearance is quite different to everyone else.
For a seemingly endless shopping experience the Shangziajiu Pedestrian Street is a must do. The street is partly closed off to cars and absolutely packed to the rafters with food and shops. It comes alive and makes your local Westfield look like amateur hour.
Visit the Temple of Six Banyan Trees, a 1,400 year old Buddhist Temple with a stunning pagoda which has stood through China’s famed dynasties. The pagoda towers high above and there surrounding gardens are the perfect spot to sit a while and soak it all in. The surrounding shops sell bright and beautiful trinkets worthy of a look.
Stroll the hundreds of shops lining Beijing Road and haggle with shop owners for bargain buys on clothes, backpacks, luggage, shoes, hats and everything else you can think of. Take a wander through the Daxiong Baodian Hall, home to three huge copper Buddhist statues that will take your breath away.
For a slower pace and to spend time with the locals, head to People’s Park and Fuqian Square near Gongyuanqian Station. Older local men and women spend days playing checkers, talking, laughing and napping under the shade of beautiful trees that create a dreamy green canopy above. You can also take a visit to the Guangzhou Orchid Garden, which is pretty dang beautiful and a nice escape from the skyscrapers and busy streets.
As night starts to fall, hop aboard a cruise along the mighty Pearl River and watch as the city lights up, particularly the multi-coloured Canton Tower. If you’re not afraid of heights, jump on the Bubble Tram ride which sits atop the tower and gives you absolutely unbeatable panoramic views of the city.
The best place to base yourself is close to Beijing Road. I don’t normally like to stay in the heart of the tourist areas, but after spending 2 hellish nights in a different part of town with nothing to see and do, I realised it really is essential to stay in the tourist/city central areas of Guangzhou. We stayed at South & North International Apartment right on Beijing Road and loved it, it’s definitely the best place to stay in Guangzhou.
I found the clothing factory and outlet areas to be a bit more cold and much preferred being in the areas near the Temple of Six Banyan Trees and around Beijing Road. These areas felt much friendlier and like you got to connect with locals and be part of the area. For me, it was a much more enjoyable place to explore, eat, stay and shop and the spot I recommend for other visitors too.
In terms of food, there’s a load of different restaurants of varying cuisines to try. The best place to find food in Guangzhou is, again, around the Beijing Road area. There are heaps of places to try. Unfortunately I didn’t find any restaurants that were a real stand-out to recommend, but if you need a good place to visit, try Old HK and Chung Kee Desserts. I also recommend you grab a massive cup of ice lemon tea or similar deliciousness from one of the bubble-tea shops. It’s a huge thing in Guangzhou and they make amazing ice teas!
Phoebe Lee is a writer, award-winning blogger and travel lover sharing helpful travel tips, insight and reviews for regular people. Follow her adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.