Background

Known originally by outsiders as Canton, Guangzhou (Goat City to its intimates) was one of the few Chinese trading ports open to foreigners in the 19th century. Eclipsed by Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong in 1841, it receded further into the background when other nearby cities, notably Zhuhai and Shenzhen, were awarded Special Economic Zone status in the late 20th century. That was then – this is now. Guangzhou staged a determined renaissance and shifted its entire city centre eastwards to get back into the limelight in time for the Asian Games which it hosted in 2010. Prime focus is on the 610-metre TV and Sightseeing Tower, south of the River Pearl, which will be connected to the main railway station by a new metro line, flanked by a vast underground shopping arcade and surmounted by a canal and park.

On the opposite bank to the Tower, trophy projects such as an opera house (by Lebanese architect Zaha Hadid) and a museum designed to echo the shape of a lacquer box will stand side by side with office blocks and five-star hotels, some of which are already up and running. While the grand opening ceremony is some way off, an infectious air of excitement infuses the city. Shamian Island – where in the 19th century foreign traders were confined by imperial edict – is an alluring time capsule worth a good day’s exploration. Cantonese cuisine is reputedly among China’s best, and with astute bargaining shopaholics will leave smiling. This is a grand historic city, but with its gaze fixed firmly on the future

Where to stay

Best Hotels

Grand or Ritz? A not overly stark choice faces visitors headed for the upper end of Guangzhou’s hotels. Both Grand Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton occupy sites in the up-and-up-and-up-and-coming Tianhe district (Pearl River New City). The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou comes out top by a nose, with choice views of the TV Tower which seems to grow by the minute, the Pearl River, and the sturm und drang of adjacent construction sites. Double glazing keeps out the noise, and within all is five-star calm. The Club Floor is of particular note, with savvy staff and state-of-the-art facilities. A close second, the Grand Hyatt, Guangzhou does things a little differently, with a ‘sky lobby’ on the 22nd floor and 375 contemporary rooms freshened by their ‘bathroom island’ with separate soaking tub and rain shower.

Also Worth a Look

The Shangri-La, Guangzhou takes third place in the Guangzhou hotel race – an excellent five-star distinguished by the inspirational open kitchen of WOK TOO Café featuring western, Macanese, Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian cuisines, and both indoor and outdoor swimming-pools. And the 699-room Dong Fang is a surprising inner-city oasis, secluded behind a high surrounding wall near Linhuahu Park. Built in 1961 and renovated in 2006, its convention and exhibition centre attracts executives but everyone should delight in its beautifully lush central garden.

The Westin is a close neighbour of the Ritz-Carlton and the Grand Hyatt, and adjacent to CITIC Plaza where most of the city’s Fortune 500 companies are headquartered. Like most of the city’s mainstream hotels, the angle is toward executives rather than leisure travellers, with both fitness centre and spa open 24 hours a day. The White Swan, once proud host to Queen Elizabeth II and long without peer in Guangzhou, is in danger of reverting to ugly duckling mode; on Shamian Island (and rather at odds with the surrounding architectural vocabulary), it is heavily favoured by North American wannabe parents bent on adoption, as the US Consulate is just around the corner. The China Hotel – part of the Marriott stable – has likewise seen better days, and gets the worst-of-the-best award. Those who favour a more urban contemporary option should look to either the W Hotel & Residences or the more recently opened Sofitel. 

Where to eat

Best Lunch Spots

A current fad for rustic simplicity means that restaurants like Nong Jia Ji Zhuang, serving steamed fish, tofu and farmer’s chicken – heaped with shallots and perilla leaves – are full to bursting at lunchtimes. Cantonese stir-frys are highly popular at Xin Wei Dao Si Fang Cai Guan . Wilber’s has a relaxed atmosphere and an inspiring pan-Asian menu.

Best Supper Spots

Guangzhou eats Chinese daily, but heads to Japanese for a treat. The crystal chandeliers, smart bar and faux French furniture all add to the fun at Japanese Dororo. And, although there was a time when Chinese palates were thought to be shy of cheese, the pizzas and other Italian food at La Dolce Vita da Raffaele are popular with local customers. It may seem odd to eat in an Italian restaurant in Asia, but when the locals themselves are in on the action (especially Chinese, who love food and have discerning taste) you know you’re in the right place. Meanwhile Guangzhou Restaurant is the city’s classic everyday Cantonese, stretching over three floors and doing an especially good braised pigeon. And for more fine Cantonese dining, Chef Ooi Soon Lok works wonders at Lai Heen (Ritz-Carlton); the sommeliers will be happy to advise on the menu’s paired tea and wine options. Book one of the private dining rooms for an intimate evening.

What to order

Check what’s in season; for example, stewed crab and radish with spring water is the summer speciality. Dim sum, whether for breakfast or lunch, is perennially popular, and the seafood is always good.

Best Night on the Town

If your tipple is Chivas Regal with chrysanthemum honey then you’ve come to the right place. If not, enjoy the party anyway. Guangzhou’s nightlife fairly rockets, witness the drinking games that are a sine qua non of any night out. Soho Bar (147 Yan Jiang Lu; +86 20 8336 6688) buzzes from early evening till the small hours, while Hooley’s (Bing Hua Hotel, 2 Tian He Bei Lu; +86 20 3886 2675; http://www.hooleys-pub.com) pounds to a variety of live jazz, acoustic rock and funk.

Best Recovery Plan

For millennia, sporting a tan in China meant you worked outdoors shovelling seven days a week and took a bath once a month if you were lucky. Raise the Bamboo Curtain, and suddenly daringly avant-garde spas appeared and even – gasp – tanning salons. The Ritz-Carlton Spa (see above) is currently top of the lot. At Sunlight Tanning Studio (Room 1102, Ocean Commercial Plaza, 414-416 Huanshi Dong Lu; +86 20 3273 8466) you can simply enjoy some rays in peace; or try something called Tibetan backbone fuming at Breathe Beauty Spa (4 Huale Lu; +86 20 8371 0289).

Best of the Rest

Best Shops

Hardly surprisingly given its mercantile history, Guangzhou arranges the bulk of the retail side of things into a number of markets and pedestrianised shopping streets, all of which are familiar to even the most wayward taxi drivers. Both Beijing Lu (Yuexiu District) and Shangxiajiu (Liwan District) are lined with a variety of fashion and accessories stores; a decoration and handicrafts mart occupies much of Haizu Square; the wedding goods at Jiangnan Da Dao Bei are aimed primarily at local consumers, so more of a curiosity but a good photo op; telecom goods sprout along Lingyuan Xi Lu, and ceramics and jade on Yuansheng Lu. The Guangzhou Friendship Store (369 Huanshi Dong Lu; +86 20 8348 3105), a relic of the communist era, features some inexpensive souvenirs and homewares. Prices are generally modest, but credit cards are not widely accepted and banks will only change money on sight of a passport, strictly no exceptions.

Best Secret Agent

The free English language listings magazine that is PRD (for Pearl River Delta) is largely written by and for expat residents and very much au courant. Call Tiger Zhang (+86 20 2627 7932 or email tiger@echinasource.com) for personal fix-it stuff.

Best Culture

Originally the base for foreign traders, Shamian Island is without doubt the most picturesque part of Guangzhou, with a wealth of 19th-century architecture, churches, schools whose pupils pour into the streets at break time, a couple of sleepy cafés and a riverside park that is chock-a-block with locals most hours of the day performing tai chi, ballroom dancing, kicking feathered quoits back and forth, playing mah-jong, breast-feeding babies and generally revelling in their own mini island resort.

Best Escape

To appreciate Guangzhou in its best (neon) light, board one of the gentle river cruises which depart from Tianzi Pier and generally last 90 minutes, starting from around 6.30pm. Light refreshments are usually served, and with tickets starting at a mere RMB 48 (£3.50), this is an undoubted bargain.

Best Read

The Chinese Opium Wars by Jack Beeching; Encounters with China by Trea Wiltshire; China – Renaissance of the Middle Kingdom by Charis Chan.

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