How an Ancient City Became a Must-visit Destination

Guangzhou — home to 19 million people — is a trove of historic architecture, cutting-edge design, and fantastic food ...

No matter how many cities you've visited around the world, chances are you'll still be amazed by the sheer scale of Guangzhou. Once China's maritime link to the Silk Road, this tech and manufacturing hub in the Pearl River Delta has grown to become the country's third-largest city. From my room on the 22nd floor of the new Conrad Guangzhou, the urban sprawl appeared endless. As midday sunshine ricocheted off futuristic glass towers in the near distance, a rainstorm loomed on the other side of town. The dark clouds were so far away that they appeared to hover over another city entirely.

Prodigious size is, of course, a quality shared by many modern Chinese cities. What sets Guangzhou apart is a sense of architectural and cultural diversity. To the west of my hotel I could make out the historic Liwan district, characterized by its temples and traditional shop-houses, while below me gleamed the ultramodern Zhujiang New Town, known for its expensive high-rises and promenades. Snaking through it all was the Pearl River, while high above, the Canton Tower pierced the clouds — a symbol of the city's upward momentum.

Guangzhou began its ascent as a shipping port in the seventh century and has been a manufacturing powerhouse since the 1980s, so it makes sense that business travel is an integral part of its DNA. But the flurry of development leading up to the Asian Games in 2010 placed the capital of China's Guangdong province on a new, global-facing trajectory. As a result, Guangzhou — an easy two-hour train ride from Hong Kong — now feels like a real, fully rounded destination, a place visitors might well choose to linger in.

French expat Aurélien Lienard is a cofounder of La Medina, a stylish Moroccan restaurant on the edge of Zhujiang New Town. "When I used to travel to Guangzhou for business in the past, I didn't like it that much," he said. "It was a bit messy, a bit dirty. Now Guangzhou is the best city to live in in China. You have the modern city and the old city, and you can cycle around the small, leafy streets."