Guangzhou has the reputation of a business city. Indeed, the capital of Guangdong province was built on trade. Vessels transporting silks left Guangzhou seaport (then known as ‘Panyu’) as early as the Han dynasty (200 BC – 220 AD). Chinese silk found its way to the Roman emperors through the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. Since that time, the city has taken a prominent role in foreign trade and was the origin of the maritime silk route.
In present days, buyers come from all over the world to attend the seasonal Canton Fair, held twice a year during the April/May and October/November months at the Pazhou Exhibition Center, has been acting, over the centuries as the main trading platform between China and the rest of the world.
Let’s be honest, Guangzhou is not a popular tourist destination and most people come for business. Yet, there are a lot of cultural and interesting places to see in Guangzhou. You just have to know where to find them. Here are a few nice places to go to complete your business trip.
Zhujiang New Town – architecture as cultural landmarks
The city of Guangzhou has hired the best architectural firms to build a new central business district. Go to Zhujiang New Town to look at the skyscrapers and three of the Guangzhou’s newest cultural landmarks. Start with the new opera house designed by Zaha Hadid. There are guided tours of the inside between 10 AM and 4PM during which you can gaze at this dramatic structure.
In front of the opera, you will find a giant black and red cube: it’s the museum of Guangdong. Popular for its collection of calligraphy and wood carving, you can enter for free (don’t forget your ID). The space layout is impressive and will wow architecture lovers.
Standing next to the museum and designed to look like a stack of open books, Guangzhou’s new library is another grandiose building. Get inside the atrium for to get another impression.
Subway: line 3 or 5. Stop at Zhujiang New Town station (珠江新城站)
Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall – a glimpse into recent Chinese history
Built in the center of the city with funds raised by local and overseas Chinese, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial pays tribute to the man who contributed to the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Sun Yat-sen gave the early 20th century China a new direction and he is therefore often acclaimed as China’s first revolutionary. His Memorial Hall is an octagonal pagoda-shaped building in the middle of Guangzhou.Converted into a museum, the visitor can grasp the complexity of Chinese modern history at a time the country was struggling to make its way out of feudalism.
Subway: line 2. Stop at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall station (孙中山纪念堂)
Chen Clan Academy – A classic of Lingnan architecture
This impressive academic temple was built at the end of the 19th century by members of the Chen clan. It was the place where the sons of the Chen were to live and study for the imperial examination. Now transformed into a Chinese folk art museum, the Chen Clan Academy embodies the finest example of Lingnan architecture, notable for its delicately carved miniature scenes.
Subway: line 1. Stop at Chen Clan Academy station (陈家祠站)
Shamian Island – Western architecture and a fresh breeze
Guangzhou was also the first Chinese city to receive western visitors when the Portuguese arrived in 1514, followed later by the British and French who were allowed to settle in 1861 on Shamian Island. In Chinese it means “Sandy Island” and I often compare it to the Bund in Shanghai because of the European architecture of its buildings (without the view on the city skyline). Shamian Island used to be the designated place where Western merchants were to live while doing business in Guangzhou. Relatively quiet, it is a very sought-after week-end hangouts amongst locals and expat who enjoy walking on the paved streets of this historically-rich neighborhood of Guangzhou.
Subway: line 1. Stop at Huangsha station (黄沙站)
Hualin Temple – Get in touch with Buddha
According to the Chinese legend, Boddhidharma, a famous Indian Buddhist monk, set up an altar to preach Buddhism in the 6th century. One thousand year later, in 1655, a Zen master named Zongfu rehabilitated the place and built a temple he named Hualin. Divided into several halls, the most impressive is the Arhat Hall built in 1849. There were five hundred statues of arhats (Buddhist saints) that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. All the statues were replaced during the reconstruction of the hall in 1990s. Hualin Temple is situated in the heart of Xiguan, an old neighbourhood of Guangzhou and next to a vibrant jade market you ought to pay a visit on your way.
Subway: line 1. Stop at Changshou Road station (长寿路站)