Since emerging as one of the world’s greatest trading ports in the mid-18th century, Guangzhou has been at the nexus of China’s political and economic history. Traders no longer haul bales of opium off barges moored on the steamy Pearl River, but instead swarm through the city’s famous Canton Fair every spring and autumn.
And while commerce is still the main lure here, there are enough distractions to keep you entertained should you need a cheap weekend break from Beijing’s winter. January temperatures in Guangzhou hover at a relatively balmy 10-18°C, making it a tempting destination for this time of year. And with the launch of a high-speed rail line from Beijing last month, it just got a whole lot closer; trip times have been cut dramatically from 24 hours to a mere nine.
Guangzhou’s once-bleak skyline was spruced up in preparation for the city hosting the 2010 Asian Games. The most impressive architectural fruits from the past decade’s cash injection are all concentrated in the Zhujiang New Town area in the east of the city. They include the maze-like Guangdong Museum (worth a visit for its Opium Wars artefacts), the enormous Guangzhou New Library (designed to resemble the character ‘zhi’(之), but still yet to open), and the spaceship-like Guangzhou Opera House. These modernist fantasies line a leafy green axis known as Huacheng Square.
For the ultimate neon-by-night experience, hop aboard one of the many leisurely river cruises from Tianzi Pier (Beijing Lu; open 6.30pm-10pm daily; tickets from 38RMB). The boat ride affords great views of the sky-piercing Canton Tower, which, at 600 metres, briefly enjoyed the status of world’s tallest tower when it opened in 2010.
But Guangzhou is not all about the shock of the new. It has plenty of historical vestiges too, most of which can be found in the west of the city. Atmospheric Shamian Island, which was granted as a concession to the British and French in 1959 during the Second Opium War, is a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood with tree-lined streets, a park and restored colonial-era buildings. Built around the same time, the nearby Sacred Heart Cathedral on Yide Lu is reminiscent of Paris’s Notre Dame, and is still used for Roman Catholic services. Also within the historic old town, don’t miss the Chen Clan Academy (Zhongshan Qi Lu; open 8.30am-5.30pm daily; entry 10RMB). Built by a wealthy local family in 1894, this is a gorgeous example of traditional southern Chinese architecture.
Need a shot of tranquillity after all the sightseeing? Then head to the ‘lungs of Canton’, Baiyun Mountain, a virescent collection of peaks, the tallest of which can be reached by cable car (entrance at Yuntai Garden; 25RMB ascent, 15RMB descent). Or, slightly closer to the city centre, Ya Yun Xuan teahouse (43 Qingbo Lu, Ersha Island; open 10am-1am daily) offers tea ceremonies in authentically antique surroundings.
The Cantonese wear their omnivorousness as a badge of pride. You can try frog, turtle, snake, bat, sea slug, insects and pretty much every other living thing at the infamous Qingping Market (Qingping Lu; open 8am-6pm daily), a zoo-like destination that can seem both appalling and enthralling.
Anyone after something less adventurous than the delicacies at Qingping – chicken feet, say, which is not so much a big deal as a raw deal; there’s little to swallow – can stay fully authentic by eating dim sum at Tao Tao Ju Restaurant (20 Dishifu Lu; open 7am-11.30pm daily) which offers hundreds of varieties. Or take advantage of Guangzhou’s access to fresh catch at the numerous seafood eateries: Bing Sheng (33 Dongxiao Lu; open 11am-midnight daily) has the name and rep, but also the hype and high costs that come with that. For less pomp and price, hit the bustling Hongxing Restaurant (2 Qiaoguan Lu; open 11am-5am daily) and order the ‘pissing shrimp’ (濑尿虾) or pick a live lobster out of the tank and have it Cantonese-style, lightly steamed with ginger, soya sauce and spring onions.
Speaking of water, those hungry after a Pearl River cruise should make for the sausage selection at the riverside’s 1920 Restaurant (183 Yanjiangzhong Lu, open 11.30am-1.30am), an esteemed German café-style eatery and Guangzhou’s go-to place for Bavarian beer.
Locals seem oddly convinced that The Tavern (6 Huajiu Lu, open 11am-2am daily), a well-established pub with a pool table, is the place to direct tourists. But unless you’re an ageing businessman who enjoys self-loathing, better try the more sophisticated The Happy Monk (29 Jianshe Wu Lu; open 10am-2am daily), a cocktail bar with outdoor seating and gay-friendly weekends.
After live music? The T-Union, situated inside a sculpture park (545 Xiatang Xi Lu; open 10am-midnight), is Guangzhou’s equivalent of Yugong Yishan, mostly showing local rock and folk bands, but also world-touring Chinese stars such as Hanggai.
And if you want to get your dance on, head to the Party Pier (118 Modiesha Dajie). This riverside precinct is the place for late-night bars and clubs, the most respectable of which is Suns (B25 26 Party Pier; open 8pm-2am Sun-Thur), which plays house, techno or hip-hop depending on the night and has enough clout to often pull in the odd international DJ.
The Riverside Hostel (15 Changdi Jie; 65RMB dorm beds; private doubles from 185RMB) has decent rooms and service within walking distance of Shamian Island, Fangcun Pier cruises and Qingping Market. Downtown, the five-star Grand Hyatt (12 Zhujiang Xi Lu; doubles from 1,120RMB) overlooks Huacheng Square.
Hainan Airlines has return flights from Beijing from 1,210RMB (including taxes, from ctrip.com). High-speed trains from Beijing West Station cost 1,383RMB for a first class seat or 865RMB for a second-class seat.