(With Michelle Woo)
Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, is mostly known for two things: the Canton Fair and Cantonese food. The city has been known in the West as Canton for centuries, and crowds flock here for trade shows, dim sum and the strange delicacies of the sea. Here, you’ll find constant reminders of the old saying: “They’ll eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything that flies except a plane.” (“四只脚的，除了桌子什么都吃；天上飞的，除了飞机什么都吃。Sì zhǐ jiǎo de, chúle zhuōzi shénme dōu chī; tiānshàng fēi de, chúle fēijī shénme dōu chī.”) It’s not necessarily true, though. As one blogger quipped: “I’m from Guangzhou, and I’ve eaten the table, too.”
But this isn’t all there is to the capital ofGuangdongProvince. It’s a lush city, with scores of gorgeous temples. The markets are unrivaled in scope and individuality. To battle the incredible traffic, the city has an excellent subway and, if you’ve the nerve, dangerous three-seat dune-buggy cabs that veer thrillingly through the city’s tight alleyways.
8 a.m. – Milk Bomb Breakfast
On the northeast corner of Haizhu Square sits a fairly nondescript restaurant called Renxin Old Shop (仁信老铺, 180 Taikang Road, 8318-6113), where locals sit at dirty tables, ordering six kuai bowls of milk from menus tucked under plastic tablecloths. It’s not a high-class establishment, but it is the legendary home ofGuangzhou’s deadliest treat: double skin milk. Try plain “double-layer milk” (双皮奶 shuāngpínǎi), which is anything but, or the “ginger battling milk” (姜撞奶 jiāngzhuàngnǎi), a bowl so pungent and wonderful you’ll actually smell it on your own breath.
8:30 a.m. – Churches and Alleyways
Somewhere northwest of Haizhu Square, you’ll find the peaks of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (石室圣心大教堂 Shíshì Shèngxīn Dàjiàotáng, 56 Yide Road, 8333-6737) emerging above a charismatic neighborhood filled with faux-colonial buildings. The cathedral has a dark history: it was built by the French on the site of the Governor General’s mansion, which was destroyed during the second Opium War. But it’s become a part of the neighborhood, and during popular services crowds will overflow, kneeling on the pavement as they pray.
Maima Street (卖麻街 Màimájiē, literally “Sell Hemp Street”) leads lazily west of the church, and it’s lined with sidewalk barbers and vendors selling snacks, all under the shade of hanging laundry and drooping Banyan trees. It’s a narrow street, but bicycle rickshaws regularly clatter down it, piled high with crates of who-knows-what. The entire neighborhood is a wonder of unexpected and disconnected markets. On one block, every shop will sell toys. On the next, every shop offers chains by the meter, or doorknobs or brass rings. 323 Daxin Road (大新路323号) has just about everything you need to host a lion dance. From this sidewalk perspective, the Canton Fair always feels just moments away.
11 a.m. – Midmorning Snacks
Shangxia Jiu Lu (上下九路) is actually a pairing of two walking streets which are loud, crowded and quite unpleasant. But tucked away, leading northwest from the open square in the middle, is a fantastic little snack street, 名江中华小吃街 Míngjiāng Zhōnghuá Xiǎochījiē. Scorpions are sold on skewers, and crunchy deep-fried prawns by the stack. The most popular treat, for which mobs will throng, is a small paper cup filled with offal and guts in a bubbling brown sauce. It’s weird, but tasty.
11:30 a.m. – Heavenly Jade
A small doorway from the back of Snack Street, much like the closet from Narnia, leads somewhere quite unexpected: into a cavernous mall devoted entirely to jade. There are hundreds of dealers selling bracelets, pendants, carvings and more. But wind your way through the myriad stalls until you find the northern exit. Here the mall will open onto an entire neighborhood of jade!
Tucked behind a simple stone wall, the incense-filled Hualin Temple (华林寺 Huálín Sì, 31 Xiajiu Road, 8139-0574) is an escape from the mad commerce. Five hundred life-size gold arhats, or enlightened Buddhists, line the corridors in 500 different poses. Some of them are scary, some are funny, and all of them are worth seeing. In other rooms, offerings are left for the departed, and carefully-carved pillars flank rotund Buddhas.
Just north of the temple, follow the small alleyway west and you’ll discover a behind-the-scenes look at small makeshift jade workshops. Lines of workers stare through microscopes as they carve and polish the stones. To get a glimpse of an older, untouched side of Guangzhou, peek into the beautiful wooden doorways that line the alley.
2 p.m. – Wenchang Chicken
All across the city, posters and billboards make claims about the best places to eat Wenchang Chicken, a plump bird fed on coconut and peanut bran. The tastiest of these can unsurprisingly be found on Wenchang Road, among the crowds at Guangzhou Restaurant (广州酒家, 2 Wenchang Nan Road, 8138-0388), the most famous eatery in this town of eaters. Here, the chicken is fat, buttery and delicious, and served alongside thin slices of ham and divine chicken livers.
Also, don’t miss the dim sum here. Having tried shrimp dumplings the world over, I’d bet these to be the best: delicately-skinned with slight slivers of bamboo inside. For the more eccentrically-palated, there are also shrimp-balls served in webbed duck’s feet. The crunch is minimal, but the chewiness goes on for a long, long time.
3:30 p.m. – Streets of Remedies
A few blocks south of Guangzhou Restaurant lies the city’s greatest market. Qingping Traditional Chinese Medicine Market is where to keep your qi regulated, your yin balanced, and internal fire at bay. The multi-storied warehouse west of Shiba Nanbei Lu claims to be the actual Qingping Market, and the adjective “exotic” would be an understatement here. Bundles of dried caterpillars are sold next to buckets of water beetles and large carpenter bees, as well as more varieties of fungus and ginseng than you might have realized existed. The market continues for miles, sprawling outwards in a maze of mysterious and pungent and wonderful alleyways.
5 p.m. – An Island of Respite
South of the market sits an oasis of calm: the tiny Shamian Island. It was taken by the Europeans after the Opium Wars, and is filled with some impressive restored colonial buildings, which now house cute cafes and a wealth of restaurants. The lack of cars on the island adds to the wonder—it’s rare not to be surrounded by honking traffic in the congested city. Retirees spread out on the southern stretch along the Pearl River, playing cards—clipping clothespins to their ears for lost games—and singing amateur opera. If you need a foot massage after such a day of walking, a great one can be found on the island’s northwest corner at the Shamian TCM Center (85-87 Shamian Bei Jie, 8121-8383).
8 p.m. – The Live Seafood Palace
Sitting on the riverfront, Hong Xing Haixian Jiujia (鸿星海鲜酒家, 2 Qiaoguang Road, 8318-4901) is a mammoth eatery, with ceilings that tower above the diners. The main draw here is the incredible selection of fresh seafood, living in hundreds of tanks in the middle of the restaurant. Guangzhou cuisine is celebrated for simple cooking of fresh ingredients, and these may be the freshest: fish, mollusks, eels, water-borne bugs, and, well, other creatures too foreign for us to identify. Watch out for the leashed alligators crawling around the tiledfloor, or the slithering eels that escaped the fish tanks. One regular customer at a nearby table told us, “I literally have dreams about this place.”
9 a.m. – A Moment of History
As the home of Sun Yat-sen, Guangzhou played an integral part in China’s revolutionary history. The Peasant Movement Institute (农民运动讲习所 Nóngmín Yùndòng Jiǎngxísuǒ, 42 Zhongshan 4 Lu, 8333-3936) presents a romantic snapshot of this time, when the nationalist KMT and the Communist Party were joined together in anti-feudal uprising. It was originally a Confucian Temple in the 1300s, but became a school for soldiers in the early 1920s, named the Panyu Academy. Mao taught here, as did Zhou Enlai and even Sun Yat-sen. Today, mannequins and animated videos replay scenes, and with a little imagination, you can still feel the revolutionary fervor in this ancient space.
10 a.m. – A Pavement of History
Just a few blocks away lies Beijing Lu (北京路), a locally-famous pedestrian street that’s filled with wandering teens, chain shops and chain eateries. The main reason to visit is the wonderful window into the past, where the road has been excavated to reveal the ancient stretches of Beijing Lu from the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties.
11:00 a.m. – The Big Park
Yuexiu Park (越秀公园 Yuèxiù Gōngyuán), a sprawling and labyrinthine mass of hills and land, offers yet another chance to get lost in Guangzhou. Windy paths and hidden staircases open unexpectedly on giant monuments, museums and old lady disco classes. Climb to the memorial to Sun Yat-sen atop a giant hill, then make your way down to the bizarre five goats statue. This statue is Guangzhou’s mascot—the city was founded by five immortals riding on goats, and when they left, the goats turned to stone. Here, they suckle, preen and scowl ominously. One Spanish tourist gaped back, then tossed out a single word: “Surreal.”
1 p.m. – Swims, Flies, and Has Four Legs
The row of restaurants along Panfu Lu offers anything you desire in the way of Guangzhou Cantonese food, but Xin Tai Le (新泰乐, 63 Panfu Lu, 8354-5431) is probably the most famous. They’re known for fatty pork, sliced and bubbling in a thick rich sauce, as well as a wide array of eel dishes. Finish your meal with their sweet, spongy honey cake, served with sweetened condensed milk.
2 p.m. – The Return of the King
During the early years of Reform and Opening up, a shopping mall was planned inGuangzhou. But when digging began, an ancient tomb was revealed. Today, the tomb and its contents (including a jade shroud, a collection of ancient instruments and—most interesting of all—the disintegrated body of one of his concubines) have been preserved in this fascinating museum dedicated to Zhao Mo, “the Nanyue King” (西汉南越王博物馆 Xīhàn Nányuèwáng Bówùguǎn, 867 Jiefang Bei Road, 3618-2920).
3 p.m. – A Neighborhood of Temples
There are temples all throughGuangzhou, but a fantastic trio are cluttered south of the Nanyue Tomb.
The Temple of Six Banyan Trees (六榕寺 Liùróng Sì, 87 Liurong Road, 8737-2187) is visible from afar: not only does its57m-tall pagoda stand sentry over the entire neighborhood, but a sea of gift shops sprawls out from the base. Inside, it can be either a sacred haven or a crowded hotspot, depending on how many tour buses have just arrived.
A quieter option is the large and so pleasant Guangxiao Temple (光孝寺 Guāngxiào Sì, 109 Guangxiao Road, 8108-8867), which can be found by walking west down an alleyway just north of the Banyan Temple. Some locals make offerings to their ancestors with incense and prayer, but many make shredded cabbage offerings to the temple’s koi fish instead.
Further south, the Five Immortals Taoist Temple (五仙观 Wǔxian Guān, 135 Huifu Xi Road, 8333-6853) is often completely devoid of people. Guangzhou’s only bell tower watches over a secluded, peaceful garden, removed from the madness of the city streets. The temple was built in tribute to the immortals who settled the city, and features some curious décor, such as the bronze dragon holding the tower’s bell in place with its teeth, or the bizarre and colorful aoyu—fish that swallowed magic pearls and became dragons—perched atop an adjacent building’s roof.
6 p.m. – Wedding Madness
One of Guangzhou’s most unique markets can be found unfolding out of the 2nd Workers’ Cultural Palace (市二宫 Shì’èr Gōng) subway station. The Bridal Street Market isn’t just the number of malls that host nothing but bridal boutiques—it’s also the alleyways, which are lined with thousands of mannequins dressed in all types of nuptial wear, from the gorgeous to the garish. It’s weird and wonderful, but be careful stumbling on the neighborhood with a date—it’s sure to bring the conversation around to a related topic.
7:30 p.m. – Favorite Meal
We can’t say that Bingsheng Haixian Jiujia (炳胜海鲜酒家, 33 Dongxiao Road, 3428-6911) offers the best food in Guangzhou, but we can say it was our favorite. Huge and bustling, just south of the Haiyin Bridge, they serve up glorious fresh tofu, covered in a light meat sauce, and a bizarre Guangzhou sea bass platter, in which one single fish is served up in myriad ways: sashimi’d, fried, the head and tail in a thick soybean sauce, and the skin served boiled. It was unforgettable.
- Which way to the snack street?
- No thanks, I don’t want to eat alligator.