A Canton Weekender

With Chinese New Year already passed, hopefully you can relax a bit with a trip close to home. this time, forget the airports, visas and passports. This next trip is just a train ride away.

As hundreds of millions took part in Chunyun—the world’s largest annual human holiday migration—last month, the prospect of travelling anywhere might have seemed terrifying. Sure, you have plenty of days off, but flights were double the price and China’s transport system nearly bursts at its seams. For those that simply can’t be bothered to venture to far-off lands, but still fancy escaping Dongguan for a weekend, why not try somewhere closer to home?

Guangzhou (historically Canton) is a place of burgeoning commerce and trade and happens to be China’s third largest city. With a 2,000-year-plus history, hundreds of historical sites and some of the best cuisine in the country, this gigantic urban hub in the Pearl River Delta has plenty to offer and a distinct character that’s entirely its own. It’s the perfect place for a fun-filled weekend, or longer, should you have the time.

First, the food
Before starting with the city’s cultural jewels, you’ll want to eat and you should eat well. You can’t go wrong with the excellent Social & Co, a hit with locals and foreigners, alike. Located in the city center of Tianhe, it regularly picks up awards for having the best brunch offering in the city. Cooking up high-end, tapas-style dishes, try mini-portions like fish and chips, fresh mussels and perhaps the best banoffee pie you are ever likely to eat. Throw an excellent wine list on top of that and for less than 200 RMB, you can feast like a king.

“Hey, Miss Wong, how you doing, want carp today? They just arrived, very fresh la!”

If you prefer tastes from America, seek out the slightly hidden 13 Factories. Opened by an American-born, Chinese gentleman, gorge on some of the best American soul food you are likely to get in China. Cajun classics abound, try the gumbo, waffle fried chicken and mini pulled-pork burgers. A chilled-out atmosphere and a neat spot for a date, 13 Factories is one of the hippest and most understated spots for a bite in the city.

For a local neighborhood vibe, try Zebra. Not far from the Taojin subway station (Line 5), this isn’t a place to spot striped horses, but an idyllic, local cafe that feels cut off from the rest of the world. Soak into the small Cantonese village feeling that’s surrounded by a little garden for a perfect escape to sip a soothing lemon tea or coffee and watch the world go by.

Get to know the real Guangzhou
For a break from the city, don’t miss the beautiful Yuexiu Park, which is reliably full of old men playing chess, casually swapping war stories or recalling the heroics of Chairman Mao. If you’re lucky, you might chance upon someone practicing Cantonese opera, but will probably join plenty of families just enjoying an afternoon walk like you.

Walking through the local markets is a dream. Locals calling out across the chaos: “Hey Miss Wong, how you doing, want carp today? They just arrived, very fresh la!”
Small talk is everywhere. Occasionally, you’ll hear an old lady blurt out curse words, probably just like me when I am old. It’ll make you laugh, and it’s very Canton. The people here can sound rude sometimes, but it’s all part of Guangzhou culture. Simply, pure expression.

Now, be a tourist
Shamian Island is a much-loved tourist locale that once served as a French and British concession during the Qing Dynasty. It’s a beautiful and quiet reminder of Europe’s colonial era and also a great place to grab souvenirs or take photos of the fading Western buildings. Stop by the two beautiful churches, too; one from the French Catholics and the other from British Protestants.

Guangzhou is famed for its melding of the present with the past and it’s perhaps nowhere more visible than in the diverse art and fashion. Redtory is considered the holy land for young art lovers here, where disused factories have been transformed into a vibrant artistic zone. It’s a great destination for an afternoon walk, peeking around and stepping into some lovely little galleries. The area itself is dotted with bits of outdoor installation art for all to enjoy.

Last, but not least, is Zencheng, where you can really get away from the city and disappear into pristine nature. It has the longest cycling path in China (a whopping 500 km), the majestic Niuguzhang Mountain (ideal for camping) and the soothing Park River Hot Springs. My mother and I once visited during Spring Festival when I jumped into the cold water and swam while it was only 4 degrees out. Stimulating, indeed.

Sometimes, the places we love best are just a stone’s throw from our own doorstep, and Guangzhou does not disappoint. Get there for a place to explore, have fun, chill out and discover.