China‘s third largest city and the capital of Guangdong Province, Guangzhou is located on the Pearl River, 100 km or so inland from the estuary cities Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. Seen as ‘culture-less’ by the rest of China, Guangzhou has always been relatively isolated from other parts of the country, but it was exposed to the outside world much earlier. Most early Chinese immigrants around the world came from this region, formerly known as Canton. Today, it is mostly famous for its cuisine and its shopping, with numerous huge markets all over the city.
Best Time to Go
Guangzhou has hot and humid summers and mild, dry winters. The best months to visit are October and November. April and May are pleasant temperature-wise, but the monsoon season runs from April through September, so you’ll likely get some rain. June to September is the typhoon season. The Canton Fair takes place from the middle of April to early May and again from the middle of October to early November; during these times, hotel rooms become scarce and the prices skyrocket.
Getting to Guangzhou
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport lies 28 km north of downtown. The best way to get to the city is line 3 of the Guangzhou Metro. It costs 12 RMB. A taxi to the city costs around 120 and takes about the same time as the subway; catch one from the taxi stand, not from the touts.
You could also take an Airport Express Bus, but you’re generally better off with the metro. The only time it makes sense to take one of the buses is when there’s a stop right where you want to go.
Guangzhou has a number of train stations, but the three main ones are Guangzhou East Railway Station, which is mainly for trains from Hong Kong, Shenzhen and a few other mainland cities; Guangzhou Railway Station, which is one of China’s biggest and has services all over the country; and Guangzhou South Railway Station, which is the newest and serves the high-speed rail network. All three stations are connected to the metro system.
There are too many long distance bus stations to list here. Some have connections to the metro, but not all of them do. If you are arriving by bus, find out beforehand which station you will arrive at and how to get into town from there. Of course, you could always just take a taxi.
Finally, you could arrive by boat from Macau or Hong Kong further down the Pearl River or even from much further away like Shanghai or Qingdao. The port is far from downtown Guangzhou, but there are buses to take you to the city.
The Guangzhou Metro System is the best way to get around the city. The buses are cheaper, but they are not always signed in English, which makes them a bit more difficult to navigate. Additionally, there’s the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) which runs toward the eastern suburbs along the Tianhe Road and Zhongshan Avenue corridor. These buses use a dedicated lane and are thus faster than a regular bus line.
When I stayed in Guangzhou, there were very few budget accommodation options that allowed foreigners and the ones that did exist were not in the city center. That has changed and foreign visitors now have a number of hostels to choose from. The Lazy Gaga Hostel is by far the best, with beds for under $10 and a great location right downtown and close to two subway lines.
If you prefer a hotel, the Xinghe Business Hotel is reasonably priced and has a great downtown location close to the Guangzhou Railway Station. If you’re looking for a room closer to the East Railway Station, the Gorgeous Hotel is a good choice. If you have an early flight, Pullman Guangzhou Baiyun Airport Hotel is the only hotel in the airport.
For something a little different, try the Mountain Villa Hotel. Located in the White Cloud Mountain park, this place used to be the residence of the ex Prime Minister. Despite that, it is reasonably priced, with standard twin rooms for under $60.
Don’t forget that hotel rooms become scarce and the prices skyrocket during the Canton Fair (from the middle of April to early May and again from the middle of October to early November).
Eating & Drinking
When it comes to nightlife, Guangzhou is probably second only to Shanghai among Chinese cities, although people from Beijing will likely dispute that. Either way, those three are far ahead of anywhere else. As for places to go, you’ll want to ask someone at your hostel or hotel. Things change very quickly in Guangzhou, even for China.
The food served in most Chinese restaurant in the west is Cantonese, but that does not mean it’s the same; real Cantonese food includes MANY animal parts most people from the west do not particularly want to see on their plates. When people talk about the Chinese eating absolutely everything, they’re really talking about the Cantonese.
Luckily, you can get any kind of Chinese food in Guangzhou and if you’re willing to pay a bit (in some cases a lot) more, you can get any kind of food period. To save money, stick to the local restaurants. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat Cantonese food; local restaurants serving food from Sichuan or Xinjiang or anywhere else in China will be very inexpensive as well.
Guangzhou has a reputation for petty crimes among the Chinese, but foreigners are rarely targeted. Even the scams geared toward foreign tourists that are so common in Beijing and, to a lesser degree, in Shanghai are virtually nonexistent here. That doesn’t mean you should let your guard down though.
Things to Do
- Qingping Market: just north of Shamian Island, this market is world famous for its wild animal trades, though it hasn’t been the same since the SARS outbreak
- Other Markets: Guangzhou is famous for its markets and here are a few:
- Haiyin Shopping District (appliances, sporting goods, cloth, fabrics, camera accessories and electronics): at the northwest side of Haiyin Bridge
- Jade Street: Changshou Road and Wenchang Road
- Household Merchandise Street: Gaodi Street
- Ivory and Sea products: Daxin Road
- Toy Street and Dried goods and snacks Street: Yide Road
- Global International Shoes Trade Centre: 26 Zhan Xi Road
- Flowers, Aquatic and Lightings Street: Danan Road near Beijing Road
- Bridal Street: Jiangnan North Road
- Xiguan Antique Street: near Liwan Park
- Flower Street: Baohua Road
- Cultural Street (antiques and traditional Chinese artistic goods): Wende Road
- Beijing Lu Pedestrian Street: the main shopping street, where young people hang out and shop
- Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street: shopping area with traditional Cantonese architecture; nice when lit up at night; prices are lower than on Beijing Lu, but you’ll have to bargain hard
- Canton Tower: the tallest structure in China; ¥150
- Guangzhou’s Traditional Buildings: great photo opportunities; the few that remain can be found near Yide Road, Renmin Nan Road and Zhongshan Road
- Baiyun Mountain (White Cloud Mountain): lush, rolling hills with great views over the city; open 24 hours; entrance ¥5; cable car round trip ¥40; tram from ¥20
- Shamian Island: beautifully renovated former British and French concession with architecture from the colonial era of the 19th Century; tranquil area right in the middle of the hectic and chaotic city
- Xiao Bei / Siu Bak: one of Guangzhou’s most diverse neighborhoods full of middle eastern and African shops and restaurants
- Liurong Temple: The Temple of Six Banyan Trees, including the 17-storey, eight-sided Hua Ta (Flower Pagoda); entrance ¥5; Flower Pagoda ¥10.
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport or the train stations; take the Guangzhou Metro instead
- if arriving by long distance bus, find out beforehand where you will arrive and if there’s a metro connection downtown; if not, find out how to get where you want to go by public bus
- basically, try to avoid taking taxis as much as possible; with the extensive subway and bus system in Guangzhou, you don’t really ever need to take one
- as always in China, bargain very hard at the markets
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