Guǎngdōng’s unique culture and natural beauty fly under the radar and have yet to be discovered by many travelers, so you may have a plethora of sublime sights (not to mention great dim sum) all to yourself.
Northern Guǎngdōng (广东) is home to some wild and wondrous landscapes. In the blue pine forests of Nánlǐng, the music of waterfalls and windswept trees boomerangs in your direction. If it’s Unesco-crowned heritage you’re after, Kāipíng’s flamboyant watchtowers and the stylised poses of Cantonese opera will leave you riveted. What's all the fuss about Hakka and Chiuchow cultures? Well, find out in Méizhōu and Cháozhōu.
Historically Guǎngdōng was the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road and the birthplace of revolution. On the scenic byways of the Pearl River delta, you’ll uncover the glory of China’s revolutionary past. While on the surf-beaten beaches of Hǎilíng Island, an ancient shipwreck and its treasures await.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Guangdong.
By far the best place for strolling or simply hanging out in the city is the breezy OCT-LOFT complex, a warren of repurposed communist-era factories criss-crossed by cobbled laneways. It's also a great place to browse a multitude of contemporary art spaces in between pit stops at the area's excellent cafes, design shops, music venues, bars, restaurants and Shenzhen's best bookshop.
Don't depart Guangzhou without an amble through the concession-era gem that is Shamian Island. The central east–west drag is a time-warp boulevard of faded European-style buildings shaded by columns of banyan trees. It's a charming setting and the backdrop to many a wedding photo shoot. Choose a quiet time of day, and duck into side streets where you can peek into lived-in residences with wooden staircases and cracked Victorian floor tiles.
Zili, 11km west of Kaiping, has the largest collection of diāolóu historic watchtowers in the area, though only a few of the 15 are open to the public. The most stunning is Míngshí Lóu (铭石楼), which has a veranda with Ionic columns and a hexagonal pavilion on its roof. It appeared in the film Let the Bullets Fly. Yúnhuàn Lóu (云幻楼) has four towers known as ‘swallow nests’, each with embrasures, cobblestones and a water cannon.
An all-in-one ancestral shrine, Confucian school and ‘chamber of commerce’ for the Chen clan, this compound was built in 1894 by the residents of 72 villages in Guangdong, where the Chen lineage is predominant. There are 19 buildings in the traditional Lingnan style, all featuring exquisite carvings, statues and paintings, and decorated with ornate scrollwork throughout.
This folksy urban village of narrow lanes and alleys is a pleasure to visit in itself, but what makes Dafen simply unmissable is the hundreds of art studios and shops churning out reproduction oil paintings by hand, from Van Gogh's sunflowers (yours for less than ¥100) to enormous, gilt-framed scenes of mounted cavalry or galleons at sea rendered in lavish detail, costing upwards of ¥2000. Or why not go pop art with a Mona Lisa–meets-Minions mash-up?
The moat of ancient Chaozhou is a lake inside a park well loved by locals. Around the lake are a few notable buildings. Hanbi Building served as a military office during anti-warlord expeditions in 1925. Sitting on a knoll is Phoenix Building, with its bird-like shape, iron moongate, gourd-shaped ceiling openings, and quirky interior spaces formed by the fowl’s anatomy.
Originally a 12th-century pontoon bridge with 86 boats straddling the Hán River, Guangji Bridge suffered repeated destruction over the centuries. The current version is a brilliant, faux-ancient passageway with 18 wooden boats hooked up afresh every morning and 24 stone piers topped with pagodas. A ticket allows you one crossing. If you want to come back, remember to tell the staff ‘I want to come back’ (我要回来, ‘ wǒyào huílai’) before leaving the bridge.
It's an easy half-hour amble up to the top of this tropical hill in the heart of Futian District for Shenzhen's best skyline photographs. Appropriately, you'll be sharing the mind-blowing vistas with Deng Xiaoping (in statue form), whose economic reforms in the 1980s made this whole crazy mess of prosperity possible.
The 11th-century Zumiao temple is believed to be the site where Cantonese opera flourished. The art is still performed today during festivals to entertain the gods…and the tourists. Sharing the complex are a Confucius temple (c 1911) and memorial halls dedicated to two martial artists born in Foshan – Wong Fei Hung (aka Huang Fei Hong) and Ip Man – and kung fu cinema in general.