China Travel blog > What to do in Guangzhou: Glen Russell's top-three lists (tourist-friendly version)

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Guangzhou five rams statue

Legend has it that long, long ago five rams opened up a toy factory on the Pearl River, founding Guangzhou. (OK, the rams didn't open a factory; they bore five Immortals down from Heaven on their backs... and the Immortals opened the toy factory).

After living in Suzhou for two years, in July of 2010 Glen found himself in Guangzhou, where he works as a teacher at an international school. He writes/argues with other people at both Lost Laowai (a "no-nonsense China expat and traveler community"), and his own personal blog Glen Thoughts. Much to his surprise, neither have been blocked in China. Here, just in time for the Guangzhou Asian Games, Glen shares his top-three picks for dining, shopping, drinking and sightseeing in Guangzhou, among other choice insights.

The Asian Games are well underway in Guangzhou now, and hopefully a few of you have either made the trek down here or plan to in the near future. But of course, Guangzhou doesn't have the same cachet with tourists as Beijing or Shanghai. There are no Lonely Planet guides to the city (other than the section in the Hong Kong edition), so nobody really knows what to do or where to go. I moved to the Five Rams City back in July, and the truth is, I don't know a thing either. I constantly get lost in the urban sprawl and get turned around amid all the commotion.  While that's daunting at first, it really is part of the city's charm.

Trust me, it'll grow on you.

In this article I'm going to try and give out a bit of advice for people coming to this city. I'm not a "Guangzhou Insider" and I know that I never will be. I'm simply someone who has spent some time in the city, and is slightly less lost than a tourist.

Check out my Top Three picks for Guangzhou's food, drink, relaxation spots and more below, and feel free to add or take away as you see fit...

Guangzhou starfish

In Guangzhou, the streets are paved with starfish (which you can buy at the Chinese Traditional Medicine market just across the Pearl River from Shamian Island).

Top 3 Guangzhou tourist sights


Guangzhou doesn't have anything as grand as the Great Wall, or as glamorous as the Bund, but it has its share of interesting places to wander around in.

3. Chen Clan Academy—A great old family home! It has excellent old architecture and houses a lot of art and sculptures. It's very easy to get to, cheap to get in, and an easy place to wander away an afternoon.

2. Baiyun Mountain—Simply an amazing reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city, without actually leaving the city.  Every time I've wandered up the mountain I've had to stop myself and say "Oh yeah, I'm in a city of 12 million people". It has excellent panoramic views of the city that really give you a sense of how massive it is.  The main path can get crowded on the weekends, so watch the timing of it all.

1. Shamian Island—Where it all began! This is the site of the first foreign concession in China.  It's hard to imagine that the pseudo-colonization of the Middle Kingdom began in such a tiny little place. The island has a ton of architecture from days past, and has a very different feel than the rest of the city. This is an absolute must for anyone coming to town. Right across the canal from the island there is a great traditional medicine market if you fancy buying any dried seahorses or turtle shells... or even if you just want to look around.

Top 3 places to shop in Guangzhou


That's why you're here right? Of course we all know by now that China can be either a shopper's paradise or nightmare. This city is obviously no exception. Here are my favorite places to spend some of my disposable income...

3.  Grandview Mall—At the corner of Tianhe Lu and TiYu Dong Lu is this monument to consumerism. I've been there a ton of times and still haven't seen everything. It is seven floors with everything you've ever wanted, and a great place to go if you want to buy something legitimate.

2.  Tianhe Computer City—Just east of Grandview Mall there are several buildings housing computer markets. DVDs, iPods, iPads, iPhones, aPhones, Laptops, Video Games, these places have it all! Just wander around and take your chances. Seriously, if it's electronic, and you can imagine it, it's probably there somewhere!

1.  Haizhu Square—You know how every little tacky knick-knack we buy in the West is made in China? Well it all comes through here. This is unquestionably the place to go for cheap junk. There are a ton of malls and shops around here that have all the pens, stickers, lighters, decorations, and anything and everything all in one convenient low-price location for junk.

Guangzhou park

In Guangzhou, feeding the fish is almost as popular as eating them.

Top 3 places to eat in Guangzhou


This is a city that takes its eating very seriously. If you ask anyone here they will tell you that Guangzhou is the food city in China. With a host of restaurants everywhere, it is hard to argue. Obviously my tastes are probably different than yours, and I would encourage you to try just about anything in this city, but here are my three favourite places.

3.  Pandan—A wonderful Indonesian restaurant that serves a variety of great dishes. What I love about it is that it has a great selection of mock meat dishes, which I normally shy away from, but theses are too good to ignore. You can find this among a host of Western restaurants near the Garden Hotel and the Taojin metro stop.

2.  Hunan Restaurant—Okay, so I don't actually know the name of this place, but it is fantastic.  It's on Tianhe Bei Lu just east of the Park and Shop on the south side. It has a big white sign that says "Hunan Restaurant." If you can follow my terrible directions you wont' be disappointed!

1.  Vaastu, a date with India—Sorry, it's not a Chinese restaurant, but this place is too good to ignore. It is a little out of the way, but well worth the journey. The staff are excellent and the food is even better. Their website has great information, especially for the events that they sometimes host.

Top 3 places to grab a drink in Guangzhou


While it is hardly a place full of classy wine bars like Shanghai, there are still some great places around town for a pint or three. Now I haven't been to that many, but I do have my favorites.

3.  The Paddy Field—a nice Irish Pub near the Garden Hotel (along with everything, like Pandan above).  It serves very good pub grub, and often has sports on TV.

2.  C: Union—I must confess, I've only been here once, and that was for a band that I didn't like. So I'm certainly no expert on the place. While I couldn't stand the band, I did enjoy the scene of the bar. It's hidden in a back alley, has great decor, and outdoor pool tables. Hopefully the next band there will be better.

1.  Hooley's—For my money, the best bar to be a regular at in the city. It has good food, and a huge selection of beer, with decent happy hour prices, especially for the Mitre of Beer. Most weekends it has live music, and my favorite local band, Bolt Action, frequently performs there and is well worth seeing. It's very popular with the expat crowd, so if you see me there, I'll have a Tiger!

Sleeping in Guangzhou

What could me more relaxing than a snooze in the park (construction site) on Shamian Island?

Top 3 places to relax in Guangzhou


With all the eating, drinking, crowds, and Asian Games you'll probably need somewhere to unwind right? Well these are just the places for you!

3.  South China Normal University Campus—While it is hardly the ancient architectural wonder of an Oxford or Harvard, it still has a nice vibe to it. The buildings leave a lot to be desired, but the paths and lakes that go through the campus are a nice place to wander through. It is also easily accessible by Tianhe Lu, so you can get right back into the action once you're recharged.

2. Yuexiu Park—Home of the Five Rams Statue, which seems to be the symbol for Guangzhou. The statue itself can be both busy and underwhelming, but the park that surrounds it is great. It is easy to join locals playing badminton, or just be by yourself.

1.  Ersha Island—This island in the Pearl River is covered in parks and riverside strolls. You can get some great views of the city from here, or feel like you are on a whole other world in the interior. The island also has some very nice cafes, the Opera House, and some new museums.

Top 3 Guangzhou subway lines


In the past year or so, the Guangzhou subway system has seen a rapid expansion, making it incredibly convenient and comprehensive. It now goes to neighbouring Foshan, and plans to go to Zhuhai soon. Of course, subway systems are primarily designed for locals, which could make some of the lines more or less useless for a tourist. If you are planning to have your hotel near a station, be sure it is near one of these lines. (Click on the map to enlarge).

Guangzhou Metro map3.  Line 3 from Tiyu Xi Lu to the Airport—For the life of me I don't understand why this isn't numbered as a separate line. Line 3 splits at Tiyu Xi Lu and part of it goes to the airport, while the other section runs from the Coach Terminal to Panyu. This recently expanded branch goes from the airport to this great interchange spot for a little over 10 RMB. It takes roughly 45 minutes and connects to the East Train Station, the APM, and Line 2 on the way.

2.  Line 5—The oldest of the new lines has been a great addition. This goes through all the new sections of town, and most importantly, connects Pandan and Vaastu (see the food section above) as well as the main train station and Zhujaing New Town.

1.  Line 2—Let's see, two train stations, Haizhu Square, Beijing Lu Pedestrian Street, some tourist attractions, and an interchange with the airport line? The only thing I don't like about this line is that it's not closer to my apartment!

Top 3 day trips from Guangzhou


As much as I love the city, it is certainly important to get out once in a while. Luckily, the city is very well connected and a host of great places are within a 2-3 hour transit.

3.  Zhuhai/Macau—From virtually every corner of the city you can catch a bus to the Gongbei border crossing between these two cities. While most people would tend to hop the fence to start gambling, I think that Zhuhai has a laid-back charm to it and is well worth lingering in. Of course the "Other SAR" has some great places away from the casinos as well. They are apparently building a light rail to connect Guangzhou to Zhuhai, which should cut the commute down.

2.  Changsha ... Heng Shan ... Shaoguan ... Wuhan ... really anywhere on the Wuguang Railway—The pride and joy of the Chinese Railway is the newly opened high speed train connection Wuhan and Guangzhou. The train has average speeds above 300km/h and can make the trip to Wuhan from the South Railway station in just over three hours, making it easy to get half way across the country for the weekend.

1.  Hong Kong—The train ride from Guangzhou East Station to Kowloon's Hung Hom takes around 2 hours.  Why would you not go?

Top 3 Guangzhou Web resources


Hopefully this article is just the start of your exploration of the city, or a chance for you to laugh at someone who has no idea what they are talking about. I have found these sites helpful in learning more about my current temporary home...

3. Wikitravel—Sure Wikipedia gets a lot of flack for being inaccurate, but the same can't be said for this site!  It's entry on Guangzhou is top notch and full of up to date information about sites, restaurants, and anything else you'd care to know.

2. Life of Guangzhou—News, city guide, Asian Games info... seriously, it has it all.

1. GZ Stuff—A Guangzhou Specific Facebook... but not banned!  While it's primary function as a social network for people in the city may not be of great use to a tourist, it is still up-to-the-minute with city events like band performances, happy hours and restaurant openings. It's a great place to feel the pulse of the city and plan your evening.

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