Modern metropolis ... an aerial view of Canton Tower and the Pearl River. Photo: AFP
China's thriving southern port city has long had one eye on the West. Robert Milliken absorbs its spirit in one perfect day.
On the sprawling Pearl River Delta just north of Hong Kong, Guangzhou - once known as Canton - is China's third biggest city (12 million inhabitants and counting) and the place where Western influences first took root in China.
The British shipped opium from India through Guangzhou, sparking the Opium Wars of the 1800s. Even when China turned its back on the world after the communist revolution of 1949, the Canton Fair became the one market for foreigners to do business with China. It still operates, well after free-market ways that started in Guangzhou have spread to the rest of China.
From its hub in Guangzhou, China Southern Airlines, the country's biggest carrier, opened a route to London this year, dubbed the Canton route, linking 38 flights a week it operates from Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian and New Zealand cities. This has turned the city into an alternative to the traditional Europe stopover cities of Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
As the homeland of dim sum, the city has a thriving Cantonese food culture. Guangdong province, of which Guangzhou is the capital, is a manufacturing hub. As residents pour in from the countryside and its middle class grows, Guangzhou's shopping scene is exploding; prices rival even nearby Hong Kong. And getting between museums, restaurants and shops is easy, thanks to a swish underground metro network built when the city hosted the Asian Games in 2010. Taxis are plentiful but get your hotel to write destinations in Chinese; most drivers don't speak English.
Start with breakfast at Guangzhou's newest hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, to orient yourself to the modern-day city. Between the hotel and the Pearl River sits the new Guangzhou Opera House, designed by the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid (some reckon its spectacular forms outshine even the Sydney Opera House). Next door is the equally impressive International Finance Centre, Guangzhou's tallest building.
Ritz-Carlton, 3 Xing An Road, Pearl River New City, Tianhe District, rooms from $296 a night; see ritzcarlton.com.
Head to the Liwan district in west Guangzhou and stroll through Qingping, one of China's oldest outdoor traditional medicine markets. Traders tout remedies such as dried seahorses, deers' tails, chrysanthemums, seaweed and ginseng ("good for bones", "good for immune system", "good for men"). Don't miss Fengyuan Road behind the market, a district where people play mah-jong in lanes surrounded by traditional Xiguan-style old Guangzhou houses, with intricate wooden doors and stained-glass windows. Authorities have slated much of this area for demolition and yet more towers.
Qingping Market, Liu Er San and Qingping Lu, western old town; see lifeofguangzhou.com.
For a sense of Guangzhou's pivotal role as a bulwark against European colonialism, walk to Shamian Island on the Pearl River, next to Qingping market. Separated by a canal, this is where foreigners wanting to do business with China were once confined. In 1859, after the Opium Wars, the Qing Dynasty divided Shamian Island into British and French concessions. The restored 19th-century European buildings (one now hosts Starbucks) form elegant boulevards. Modern sculptures capture the confrontation between China and the West from those times. Wander into Shamian Park, a riverside oasis, to watch (from a respectful distance) couples ballroom dancing to Chinese music in the open air. The post-Mao era's first high-rise hotel, the White Swan, is another island landmark.
Go for lunch at Panxi Restaurant, one of Guangzhou's top eating places and possibly the biggest. A maze of rooms set in elaborate gardens holds 3000 diners served by 1000 staff. Diners have included the father of China's post-Mao modernisation, Deng Xiaoping, as well as Henry Kissinger and Malcolm Fraser. The quality of the cuisine has survived the fame and size. Delicious dim sum, shaped as echidnas, tiny pigs, birds and eggplants, complement Panxi's signature dishes of roast goose and barbecued suckling pig. It's popular, so book ahead.
Panxi Restaurant, 151 Longjin Xi Lu, Liwan; +86 20 8172 1328; see lifeofguangzhou.com.
Take the metro (or a taxi) to Yuexiu Park on a hill above the city, home to some of Guangzhou's most interesting cultural monuments. Walk uphill from the huge granite Five Rams Statue (a Guangzhou city symbol), past a surviving Ming Dynasty wall, to a stunning five-storey red watchtower from the 1300s that is now the Guangzhou Museum. There's a map of Australia among the places Chinese seafarers "discovered" from mediaeval times to the 1840s. Alas, skyscrapers now obscure the views of the Pearl River from the top storey. Finish at the park's southern edge at the imperial-style hall honouring Sun Yat-sen, the revered Cantonese revolutionary and Chinese nationalist.
Guangzhou Museum, open daily 9am-5.30pm, Metro Line 2 Yuexiu Park Station, entry 10 yuan ($1.50); Sun Yat-sen Memorial, open daily 8am-6pm, Metro Line 2 Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall Station, entry 10 yuan.
Just outside Yuexiu Park, a sight not to be missed is the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. Authorities discovered this 2000-year-old buried tomb in 1983, while excavating a small hill to build apartments. The presentation of relics buried with the king, Zhao Mo, and 15 human sacrificial victims, is superb. The highlight is the king's jade burial suit.
Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, 867 Jiefang Bei Lu, open daily 9am-5.30pm, entry 12 yuan, Metro Line 2 Yuexiu Park Station, see gznywmuseum.org.
Join the young faces of modern China on Beijing Road, one of Guangzhou's most lively shopping streets, for casual clothing buys. The remains of a stone road from the 1300s are preserved under glass. Art lovers should go to parallel Wende Road, with shops selling Chinese paintings and calligraphy. Another vibrant mall is Shangxia Jiu Lu, also known as Up Down Nine Street, in the old Liwan district, where shoppers can bargain.
Take two separate lifts to the top of the 600-metre Canton Tower for stunning views, day or night, across the Pearl River and Guangzhou. If the Five Rams Statue represents old China, this tower, built for the 2010 Asian Games, is the unmistakable symbol of new China: big, bold, flamboyant. Its slim structure changes colour under lights all night. Dry Storage Puer Tea House, a shop at ground level, sells elegant teapots and packs of tea.
Canton Tower, 222 Yuejiangxi Road, Haizhu District, open daily 9am-11pm, entry from $7.50-$22 depending on tower levels; see cantontower.com.
Head back directly across the Pearl River to what has become Guangzhou's new central business district for dinner in the Lai Heen Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Its excellent Cantonese cuisine includes a "tea-pairing" yum cha in which teas (rose, jasmine, lychee, golden throat and puer) are served with each course.
Unwind with a cruise along the Pearl River, Guangzhou's defining artery for centuries. Night cruises are best. There's no holding back Guangzhou's efforts to show off its reinvented self, with light shows across the waterfront and city towers that leave most other cities for dead.
Robert Milliken travelled courtesy of China Southern Airlines and the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou.
China Southern Airlines has a fare to Guangzhou from Sydney and Melbourne (9hr 40min) for about $780 low-season return, including tax; see flychinasouthern.com. This fare allows travellers to fly to and from other Chinese cities via Guangzhou. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days. For more information, see travelchinaguide.com/cruise/pearlriver.