The city lights up at night. // © 2013 Four Seasons Guangzhou
From the 99th-floor of Four Seasons Guangzhou, the southern Chinese metropolis spreads out below me on each side of the broad Pearl River. Formerly called Canton, China’s third-largest city has been an important trading port and commercial city for centuries. Since hosting the 2010 Asian Games, it has been transformed, with a shiny new business and entertainment district springing up to showcase impressive modern architecture and luxury hotels. Guangzhou is now reaping the dividend with a boom in visitor numbers.
Most of the development is centered on the riverside Pearl River New Town. Well serviced by metro lines and highways trimmed with tropical foliage (Guangzhou is known as the Flower City due to its abundant flora), the district is being developed as a new business and cultural hub. It’s a 45-minute commute from Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport and adjacent to the East Railway Station, terminus of the high-speed trains that travel to and from Hong Kong in under two hours.
I start my tour of modern Guangzhou in the leaf-shaped Flower City Square dotted with civic landmarks by renowned international architects. Most iconic is the Guangzhou Opera House designed by Zaha Hadid. The sci-fi structure, built at a cost of more than $200 million, is encased in monochromatic granite and evokes the smooth rocks of the Pearl River.
Directly opposite, the Guangzhou New Library resembles stacks of books, while an antique lacquer box was the inspiration for the Guangdong Museum, whose airy halls house a collection of more than 130,000 historical exhibits.
Beneath the Square, the state-of-the-art Mall of the World is nearing completion, featuring high-end shopping, dining and a 3D IMAX cinema. The surrounding area is also home to a cluster of Guangzhou’s newest luxury hotels, including Four Seasons Guangzhou, which sits atop the 103-story International Finance Center tower, Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou and W Guangzhou, slated to open in March.
Guangzhou’s sky-high ambitions are evident in the impressive Canton Tower, which soars approximately 1,970 feet over the district and is illuminated in hot pink at night. Opened in 2010, the slender skyscraper rotates on its axis halfway up and boasts one of the world’s highest Ferris wheels. For a real high, clients can hop aboard one of the enclosed glass pods and take a 30-minute rotation of the city landmarks, Pearl River and surrounding mountains from nearly 1,500 feet in the air.
Returning to earth, I opted for a more grass-roots experience at Redtory, a late 19th-century canning factory converted into an edgy art district. The old factory buildings, complete with abandoned equipment, are now home to contemporary art galleries, artist studios and quaint cafes reminiscent of Beijing’s 798 and Shanghai’s M50 art districts.
Stepping further back in time, I take a late-afternoon stroll around Shamian Island, established in 1862 as a British and French Concession. Recently spruced up, its picturesque streets are flanked by colonnaded and neoclassical buildings, churches and banks interspersed with 200-year-old fig trees.
More treasures can be found nearby on the old Canton Bund, notably the stone-fronted old post office and clock-tower Customs House. From here, clients can hop on a cruise boat along the Pearl River to enjoy front-row views of Guangzhou as it lights up in the evening.
No trip to Guangzhou would be complete without sampling the city’s world-famous Cantonese cuisine. Bei Yuan Restaurant is housed in a beautiful courtyard residence dating from 1928, and serves local seafood and dim sum overlooking lantern-strung gardens and goldfish ponds. It’s a classic finale to the distinctive delights of this revitalized southern megacity.