Gorgeous Guangzhou is a clean, green and super smart city that’s marching boldly towards the future, without losing sight of its incredible 2000-year history. China’s third largest city with a population of almost 16-million, it’s one of the world’s fastest growing tourist cities. And, I’m ashamed to admit, a few short months ago I didn’t know about any of the many things to do in Guangzhou.
In fact, all I did know was that it used to be called Canton and was the birthplace of the epic Cantonese Cuisine I devour frequently, and with gusto. Being a card-carrying glutton, I didn’t need any more of a reason than that to visit. But it turns out that Guangzhou holds loads of appeal for families and the city’s world class museums, sprawling parks, arts and culture, ultra-modern architecture, grand ancient temples – and yes, that show stopping Cantonese cuisine – soon had us wrapped around its not-so-little finger.
GZ, as it is known to the lovely locals, is a city working hard at becoming a sustainable super city with award-winning sustainable transport, loads of greens spaces, virtually no litter and some truly forward-thinking environmental programs in place.
But in a mega city that’s growing and changing at hyperspeed, where do you even begin? Here are 25 of the best things to do in Guangzhou with kids to get you started…
1. Devour Guangzhou’s famous dim sum
What kid doesn’t love dim sum? The culinary art originated here in Ghuanzhou, so you know it’s going to be good. But it’s also going to be confusing, because there are no trolleys and the picture-free dim sum menus are written entirely in Mandarin. So be prepared for there to be a whole lot of pointing and wild guessing involved when you order. Famous dim sum dishes in Guangzhou include plump shrimp filled har gau and siu mai steamed dumplings, fluffy pork stuffed Char Siu Bao, sticky rice in lotus leaf, unctuous steamed rice-flour rolls with assorted fillings and fèngzhǎo (chicken feet). You’ll also find our new favourite food ever on the menu. Red rice noodle rolls are an addictive combination of springy shrimp rolled in a crisp fried noodle net, then wrapped in a steamed rice noodle and served with a peanut and soy sauce. They are a revelation of texture and taste.
2. Take a stroll around Guangzhou’s pretty Lychee Bay Park
This sprawling expanse of green is crisscrossed by a tangle of creeks and lakes that flow southwest to the Pearl River, and is one of our family’s favourite spots in the city. A morning stroll delivers a breath of fresh air, as well as delightful people watching opportunities as shuttlecocks bounce back and forth, people play hacky sack, locals start their day with tai chi and eager amateurs perform Chinese Opera. There are timber boats to punt under the park’s ancient bridges and the area is surrounded with great places to eat. Which we do, of course.
3. Get crafty at Chen Clan Academy
The Chen Clan Academy is one Guangzhou’s most popular attractions. The ornately decorated compound consists of nine halls, six courtyards and nineteen buildings connected by corridors, is the ancestral shrine of the Chen Family and was at one time a school for students of the clan. In 1959, the complex became a folk art museum housing a collection of contemporary and historical art from around China, as well as traditional craft demonstrations. The academy is the largest traditional structure in Guangzhou and home to a confection of intricate carvings in wood and stone depicting birds, animals and exciting figures from Chinese mythology that leave my kids’ jaws slack with wonder.
4. Scale Guangzhou’s Canton Tower and ride the bubble tram
The 604-metre tall Canton Tower is the landmark of Guangzhou and one of the highest free-standing towers in the world. Take the lift to the 109th floor for gobsmackingly gorgeous 360-degree views of Guangzhou. There are also booths with transparent glass floors jutting out over the city for people who aren’t me to stand on. Other people who also aren’t me might also like to head to the 110th floor for a ride in the Bubble Tram, a series of spherical, glass-enclosed cabins clinging to the outside edge of the building that rotate around the tower. Come night time the whole thing lights up like a unicorn horn with rainbows of colours pulsing up the tower.
5. Take a Pearl River cruise through Guangzhou
The Pearl River is the third largest river in China and a highlight of a visit to Guangzhou. One of our favourite things to do in Guangzhou with kids is a night dinner cruise. Not only can you can munch on local Cantonese delights but you soak up the views of iconic architectural sights along the sparkling waterway as you do it. Highlights include the rainbow-hued Canton Tower, and the surreal Guanghzou Opera House illuminated at night. Visit during Chinese New Year to see many of the buildings lit up with graphic LED imagery to celebrate the festivities.
6. Visit Yuexiu Park and the Five Ram Statue
The Five Ram Statue in Yuexiu Park is the symbol of the town and one of the most popular things to see in Guangzhou. Legend says that 2000-years ago five immortals came riding in to the then barren town on five rams said to be holding sheaves of rice in their mouths. After the mystical visitors blessed the city with an abundance of food and prosperity forever, they buggered off to wherever it is immortal types go after working their magic, leaving behind the rams who turned to stone.
7. Visit the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees
The striking Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, located in Yuexiu Park, dates back to AD537 and the Liang Dynasty. Imaginatively named because of six banyan trees originally located on the site, the stunning temple complex includes a red and white pagoda that’s a whopping nine-storeys high. The pagoda was constructed in 1900 after fire destroyed the original in 1373 and its replacement was damaged in the 1800s. Boasting several huge statues of Buddha and Guanyin, the gorgeous Goddess of Mercy, locals make the pilgrimage to pray for luck amongst swirls of incense smoke.
8. Explore Shamian Island
While its history is far from pretty, modern day Shamian Island is. Guangzhou’s sandbank island was once a base for British and French colonial powers and a hub for the trade of opium. It wasn’t much more than a swanky, cashed-up drug den, until the Chinese halted the destructive opium trade in the 19th Century and cleaned up its rather stunning act. Today you’ll find atmospheric, tree-lined streets and a Parisian vibe with grand buildings and pretty Victorian houses along with great swathes of gorgeous garden, a statue trail kids will love and an abundance of quaint cafes. But if you ask my daughter, the highlight is the head-sized cotton candy for sale along its main boulevard.
9. Enjoy a night at the Guangzhou Opera
An insanely cool tangle of glass, granite and steel, Guangzhou Opera House is a magical musical grotto inspired by the concept of two rocks washed away by the Pearl River. The whole twisting, curving architectural confection was the creation of the first female winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Zara Hadid. Opened in 2011, this gleaming monument to girl power houses an 1,800-seat theatre plus 400-seat multifunctional hall, rehearsal rooms and entrance hall, and houses performances of everything from classic operas to mainstream musicals like School of Rock.
10. Hang about in Guangzhou’s Huacheng Square
Located on the edge of Pearl River in Zhujiang New Town, this enormous public space is a mecca for local families and offers awesome views of the famous Canton Tower, incredible museums and entertainment complexes including the stunning Guangzhou Opera House, plus a 150,000-square-metre underground shopping complex. But, according to Raffles and Sugarpuff, the most fun is to be found joining the local kids flying their flapping paper birds and twirling rainbow ribbons in the square.
11. Hit the epic Guangzhou food markets
Whether your kids are foodies or not it’s a must to hit up a food market like Huifu Snack Street for steaming, sizzling and sometimes smelly (Yes, we’re talking about you, stinky tofu) street eats. You’ll find unidentifiable things on sticks, alien impersonating seafood, steamers packed full of random dim sum, sizzling stuffed chicken wings, all manner of balls (fish, tofu etc), stir fries, noodles, soups and the slightly less appealing organ stew. But everyone’s a winner at the street markets, so if you have a fussy eater just do as Sugarpuff does and hit up the waffle stand for a giant rolled waffle stuffed with strawberry ice cream slathered with cream and fruit.
12. Celebrate Chinese New Year in Guanghzou
Guangzhou is one of the best places to celebrate Chinese New Year. It’s a time for family and feasting but the city dons its party best for the occasion with red lanterns and zodiac imagery strewn across the city. There are also enormous flower fairs overflowing with blooms, edible sugar paintings, and tangerine and kumquat trees, which all hold special significance when proffered as gifts during the holiday. Raucous lion and dragon dances break out across the city, to bring good luck and fortune and children are gifted red packets, some bearing real cash, others the chocolate variety. The whole shebang is fun, fabulously colourful and definitely worth timing your visit for.
13. See the Guangzhou Spring Festival Lantern Fair
The sheer scale and detail of the lantern fair held in Yuexiu Park during the Spring Festival is like nothing we’ve ever seen before and we couldn’t resist joining the local families to see the 50 plus enormous lanterns on display. Themed around animals from the Chinese Zodiac, there are illuminated multi-storey rabbits, dragons, goats, fish, pandas, pigs and dogs that leave us utterly mesmerised. Pedal boating under the glow of a lake full of illuminated creatures and lotus blooms provides added enchantment. And, as Guangzhou is committed to becoming a sustainable city, the lanterns are all made from recycled products and environmentally friendly materials. Go Guangzhou!
14. Take a stroll down Guangzhou’s Beiing Road Pedestrian Street
Sometimes referred to as Beijing Pedestrian Street, this long stretch of road is packed with shops and malls. Think Hong Kong style bargains as well as designer finds. For those not planning to shop, there are a few impressive temples and trees adorned with pretty red lanterns make it photogenic too! And at CNY a visit to the buzzing Flower market is a must.
15. Dive into history at Guandong Museum
This epic museum, housed in a stunning landmark building in the new financial hub of Zhujiang Xincheng (Pearl River New Town), is an icon of ultra-modern architecture on the outside, with a yin tang interior that reflects traditional Chinese design. Packed with exquisite paintings, ceramics, calligraphy and carvings, there are plenty of interactive displays to keep kids entertained.
16. Stop to smell the flowers at Guangzhou’s Yuntai Garden
Located at the southern foot of the Baiyun Mountain, Yuntai Garden is the largest landscaped garden in China. Integrating both Eastern and Western design, and Covering an area of over 120,000 square metres, Yuntai is often referred to as the Pearl of the Flower City. The exquisite botanic garden is carpeted with hundreds and thousands of flowers with stunning water features that add a wonderfully tranquil effect.
17. Dress up for battle
If like my Raffles and Sugarpuff, “tranquility” is not in your vocab, you can always skip the flowers and head to one of Yuntai Garden’s costume booths to dress up warrior-style and recreate an ancient Chinese fight club, albeit with a backdrop of beautiful blooming tulips.
18. Soak up the sunshine in the Guangzhou Sunflower Garden
Located in Guangzhou’s Xinken Town, the sprawling, sunshiny Sunflower Garden is carpeted with millions of yellow blooms. This place is a riot of colour with more than 20 varieties of sunflowers on display in the park, along with rose and lavender gardens and rare flowers from around the world. Kids will especially love the garden’s Squirrel Paradise, which more than 1,000 squirrels call home.
19. Ride a tuk tuk through Guanghzou
We decided to ditch the taxis and electric buses to instead defy death gadding about Guangzhou in an open air tuk tuk. They’ve always been the kids fave form of transport in Asia, but we are kind of surprised to spot them in this ultra-modern city. The tuk tuks zip, occasionally into oncoming traffic, down one-way streets at speed but it has to be the most exhilarating way of getting around town.
21. Kick back in Yongqing Fang
Take time to explore Yongqing Fang, a creative neighbourhood with unique alleys packed full of cool cafes and modern art. A highlight of any visit is the ancestral home of Bruce Lee. The house is open to the public and filled with mementos of the kung fu legend’s career.
21. See tech and tradition meet at the Guangzhou Art Museum of Cantonese Opera
While Chinese Opera may not be the first thing to spring to mind for holidaying kids, the interactive, technology-infused Art Museum of Cantonese Opera brings traditional opera to life with sensory exhibits they will love. There’s also a pretty garden complete with a lake and a stage where the ancient art is performed live throughout the day.
22. Go herbal at Guangzhou’s Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Guangzhou Shennong Caotang Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine offers more than just an edcuational dip into the origin, traditions and culture of traditional Chinese medicine. It’s home to a beautiful garden full of medicinal plants and enigmatic statues that provide a perfect spot for herbal hide and seek.
23. Unleash your inner tomb raider at the Mausoleum of the Nányuè King
Let your little archaeologists loose (though not too loose) in the 2000-year-old tomb and burial site of Nanyue King, Zhao Mo. One of China’s most impressive historical sites, the tomb was discovered completely intact in the 1980s. Now it’s a three-storey museum, packed with cultural artefacts and show stopping exhibits including the remains of more than a dozen sacrificial courtiers who were buried alive with the king, the dusty remains of concubine, and a remarkable burial suit constructed from over 2,000 pieces of jade.
24. Dig deep at The Site of Nanyue Kingdom Palace
The Nanyue Kingdom Palace Museum has been cleverly designed to both explain and protect the archaeological remains of the Nanyue Kingdom Palace. Located in the city centre, the site of the Nanyue Kingdom Palace houses an excavated area which includes remnants of a garden, waterways and palace walls dating back to 203 B.C. – 111 B.C.
25. Duck duck goose!
Because it is us. And we’re hungry. We can’t possibly leave out one of our favourite Guangzhou eating experiences, the gobbling of goose! This city is big on braised and roasted meats including pork and duck, but it is their roasted, lusciously fatty goose that is one of Gaungzhou’s most famous dishes. Blown, smeared with fragrant seasoning, boiled, chilled, air-dried and then roll roasted over flame for the perfect crispy skin, we can’t resist.
Getting there: China Southern offers direct daily flights to Guangzhou from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Read more about the awesome service on China Southern here.
Disclosure: Some elements of our visit to Guangzhou were supported by Guangzhou Tourism for a print media story. But, because we loved it so much we’ve decided to share more off our adventures here. As always, all exploring, celebrating, scoffing and opinions are 100% our own.