There is a certain irony to the history of Guangzhou. Once upon a time, Canton was China’s gateway to the world, a prosperous port city in the sweltering south to which foreigners of all shades, merchant to missionary, flocked with the gospels of Christ and capital to cleanse the souls of the celestial kingdom.
This was a city poised at the vanguard of modern history, of world trade, a place where empires could be made and unmade by the stroke of a financier’s pen.
And while Guangzhou remains a powerhouse of global commerce today, it is often overlooked by travelers to China, many of whom seek their metropolitan kicks in other cities like Shanghai, Beijing and nearby Shenzhen. These people are missing out.
Guangzhou is by some metrics older than those three combined, and history flows untrammeled from her streets and temples, markets and memorials. From the culinary to the cultural, Guangzhou has it all, so to help visitors get started we’ve prepared a useful a guide to our favorite historic Guangzhou neighborhoods:
Beijing Road (北京路)
A technicolor highway of shops, markets and restaurants in the heart of the old city, Beijing Road is a popular shopping street in Guangzhou’s historic Yuexiu District. Research suggests that as the city grew, this was its first commercial center, reflected by the concentration of cultural sites and relics in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Busy, bold and bustling, Beijing Road today is an ode to modern China and her colorful, energetic spirit, but beneath the surface lay the roots of Guangzhou’s ancient past – literally. An archaeological display housing the excavated Song Dynasty road is visible beneath glass panels in the pavement of the now pedestrianized street.
Gaodi Street (高第街)
The commercial energy of Beijing Road spills out into the lanes and alleyways that adjoin it. Chief among these is Gaodi Street, which in the 1980s became known nationwide for wholesale clothing, in particular underwear.
It might sound like a strange sort of attraction, but the narrow, pedestrianized lane has a certain old-world charm and offers a glimpse of reform-era Guangzhou, a time when southern markets like this epitomized the buccaneering spirit of the new Chinese economy.
Gaodi Street has older historical secrets too. Xudi, a community of traditional alleys and houses, is the ancestral home of the Xu clan, a prestigious Guangzhou family that has produced a range of influential figures from Kuomintang general Xu Chongzhi to the activist partner of Lu Xun, Xu Guangping.
Daxin Road (大新路)
Daxin Road is best known for the leather and shoe wholesalers at its eastern end, but clues remain elsewhere of the area’s illustrious past. The western section, toward Renmin South Road, has a cluster of jewelry and handicraft shops selling items with a distinct southern Chinese style, the last vestiges of a trade that once dominated this part of Guangzhou.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties Daxin Road was renowned for its craftsmen, in particular ivory carvers whose wares were once considered the finest in the world. At its peak there were hundreds of ivory workshops on Daxin Road, but shifting legislation and attitudes toward ivory over the last century have slowly but surely condemned this trade to history. Daxin Road nonetheless remains a stirring place to imagine Guangzhou’s thought-provoking past.
Yide Road (一德路)
Yide Road, near the northern bank of the Pearl River in the south of Yuexiu District, is a feast for the senses. Since the Republican-era, the road has been known for the dried goods market that runs its length, a bazaar selling everything from dried nuts and fruits to dehydrated seafood products. Today, that market is as busy as ever, offering a human tableaux of sensory delights throughout its covered arcade.
The road is also home to one of Guangzhou’s greatest architectural treasures, the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a spectacular gothic structure in the center of the modern city. The site of the church used to be home to the Viceroy of Guangxi and Guangdong – one of the most powerful political offices in imperial China – but the residence was destroyed during the Opium Wars and the cathedral built in its place, a reminder of the colonial power struggles that beset 19th-century Canton.
Shamian Island (沙面)
Shamian – more of a sandbar than an island despite its name – is one of the best known and most frequented historic neighborhoods of Guangzhou thanks to its pristinely preserved colonial-era mansions.
Claimed and developed by the British and French during the fractious events of the 19th century, Shamian was once home to the consulates, banks and churches of its European residents, its bridges protected by Sikh police and Vietnamese guards deployed from other colonial outposts.
Today the island’s European architecture and stately, tree-lined avenues are popular among wedding photographers and make for a peaceful, somewhat surreal, escape from Guangzhou’s 21st-century metropolitan pulse.
Qingping Road (清平路)
Just north of Shamian Island on Qingping Road is one of the largest traditional medicine markets anywhere in China. The stalls here offer a mystifying array of herbs, fungi, sea creatures and animal products, fresh, dried, ground, preserved or otherwise presented in jars, sacks and boxes to cure a range of ailments in traditional Chinese medicine.
The formal market dates back to 1979, but traditional medicines have been traded here for much longer and Qingping Road’s history runs deeper still. Formerly known as Lantern Street, many of the neighborhood’s inhabitants were involved in the lantern trade. Unsurprisingly, fires are said to have frequently broken out in the area.
Enning Road (恩宁路)
Enning Road is instantly recognizable for its qilou architecture. Some say that qilou – early 20th-century buildings with colonnaded arcades – evolved from native stilt houses, while others suggest the style was borrowed from colonial structures.
Regardless, the street has an historic association with the performing arts in Guangzhou, particularly Cantonese opera, with old guildhalls, actors unions and the ancestral home of Bruce Lee, whose father was himself a Cantonese opera performer, among the structures on Enning Road.
The architecture and culture here are typical of Liwan District, which until the 1920s was part of a separate village called Xiguan that lay outside the city walls of Guangzhou. Even today Xiguan retains its own distinct dialect despite long ago being enveloped by the ever expanding city.
Fengyuan Street (逢源正街)
The area surrounding Fengyuan Street is the heart of old Xiguan, the once thriving village outside the city walls of old Guangzhou. The traditional houses here, many of which are built in the qilou style, were once home to the village’s well-to-do, and Fengyuan Street continues to be one of the district’s most desirable neighborhoods to this day.
The street itself is quaint and leafy, with old-style stores and restaurants offering traditional Xiguan fare, its arcades and alleys a portal into a lesser known facet of Guangzhou’s history and culture.
Lychee Bay (荔枝湾)
Lychee Bay, a series of creeks and lakes in the west of Guangzhou, has a history of around 2000 years, but the modern waterways are much younger. Having been filled in and polluted during China’s push for industrialization in the second half of the 20th century, the canals were rebuilt and refilled prior to the Asian Games in 2009.
Still, Lychee Bay boasts many excellent examples of Xiguan architecture, cuisine and culture – including the magnificent Xiguan House, a 19th-century mansion – and open-air performances of Cantonese opera which are often staged in the lake park.