Guangdong is the gateway to southern China, China’s most populous province and one of the most highly cultivated and densely developed areas in the world. It often flies under the radar for leisure travelers, as many only transit through its busy Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. However, there is ample reason to recommend making the province a destination in itself.
Guangdong is synonymous with trade and economy. One of the earliest parts of China to open up to international trade, it became a window to the world, with European merchants trading extensively through Guangzhou as early as the 16th century. Trade and influence flowed outward as well as inwards, with many Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew merchants traveling to Southeast Asia to find their fortune. To this day, their language, food, and customs have an important influence on the culture of countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
Since the latter quarter of the 20th century, Guangdong has been at the forefront of China’s economic development, a key target of the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, with cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen blooming into bustling modern metropolises.
Nevertheless, in more far-flung corners of the province, you’ll find that things move at a slower pace, where traditional ways of life go on much as they always have. Guangdong’s cultural diversity is front and center in these regions, from the traditional fortified residential structures of the Hakka people to the traditional opera of the Teochew people.
Hot and hectic Guangzhou will be most air-arriving visitors’ first port of call in Guangdong, and even if you never travel further on, the city will give you a taste of the province’s particular allure. Guangzhou represents the breadth and depth of Guangdong’s history and culture. In the space of a single day, you can descend into a 2,000-year-old tomb (the tomb of King Zhao Mo of the ancient Nanyue Kingdom, to be exact), stroll the elegant streets of a 19th-century colonial enclave, and dine in style at the top of the city’s tallest skyscraper.
Guangzhou is also the best place to get a literal taste of Guangdong, sitting at the heart of the province’s food scene. It was the second city in China after Shanghai to merit a Michelin guide, a testament to the discernment of local diners, who champion freshness of ingredients above all. Guangzhou is also a mecca for those who love dim sum – an assortment of small dishes enjoyed by Cantonese people for breakfast and lunch. A morning spent having yumcha at a bustling restaurant is one of the best ways to experience the city like the locals.
Don’t miss: While dim sum is a must-have, we also recommend making a stop at Foodom – China’s first-ever robot-run restaurant. Enjoy a futuristic, robo-dining experience – offering a mix of western and classic Cantonese dishes that is prepared and served by the restaurant’s fleet of 70 robots.
The city of Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong is the center of the culturally significant Chaoshan region, the home of the Teochew people, who have a distinctive dialect — more akin to ancient Chinese than modern Mandarin — and rich cultural heritage. The city itself has a pleasant, small-town ambiance that is great for wandering, its well-preserved Ming dynasty architecture giving it an air of fading imperial splendor.
Chaozhou is also noted for its cuisine, often called Chiuchow cuisine, which shares similarities with both Cantonese and Fujian cuisine. Lighter and more delicate than many other Chinese cooking styles, Chiuchow cuisine is noted for its seafood dishes, which are often prepared poached, steamed, or braised. Perhaps the most famous Chiuchow dish is bak kut teh, a soup of pork ribs in a complex broth flavored with local herbs and spices, many of which are thought to have medicinal properties.
What we love: Between food samplings, stop to visit the Guangji Bridge, an ancient architectural marvel built during the Song Dynasty. Aside from its antiquity and historical significance, it is the world’s first pontoon bridge that opens and closes to let boats pass through. The bridge’s middle pontoon section is flanked by 30 bridge pavilions in the east and west. There even is an old Chinese saying that translates to mean: if you haven’t been to Guangji Bridge on your visit to Chaozhou, you have not visited Chaozhou at all.
Mountainous Meizhou is home to one of the most concentrated settlements of Hakka people. The Hakka are Han Chinese people who are thought to have migrated to the hilly areas of Guangzhou, Fujian, and Jiangxi, among others, from northern China and, over the course of thousands of years, developed their own cultural identity.
Compared to the faded imperial refinement of Chaozhou, the area around Meizhou is altogether more rustic. Nestled among the terraced paddy fields and hillsides, you’ll find traditional Hakka-style walled dwellings called weilongwu (self-enclosed homes), which take their name from their resemblance to the coiled body of a sleeping dragon. Some of the best remaining examples can be found in the village of Nankou, just west of Meizhou.
What we love: Discover the history of the Hakka people as you step into one of the dozen surviving weilongwu. Designed by fengshui principles, the circular compound is composed of two semicircles – has a semi-circularthe front half is a fishing pond and the rear half is a residential compound.
Around 100km west of Guangzhou, Kaiping is the jumping-off point to explore the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kaiping Diaolou. Rising incongruously out of countryside, diaolou are fortified watchtowers built in the late 19th/early 20th century by the families of overseas Chinese with the aim of fending off bandits and raiders. The diaolou are a flamboyant combination of Chinese and Western architectural styles, inspired by the trends émigrés from the region saw in Europe and the US. The grandest diaolou can be found in the villages of Zili and Sanmenli.
What we love: Get a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside when you climb to the top of an iconic dialou, Ruishi Lou - best known for its Byzantine-style architecture. Make a stop at another famous cluster in Majianglong, located along the Tanjiang River and against an idyllic mountain backdrop.