On the lookout for new stopover destinations, Winston Aldworth explores the best of Guangzhou.

With a quick-fire, 72-hour, visa-free transit in many of China's biggest and most dazzling cities, Kiwis are exploring new stopovers on the route to Europe. Cantonese capital Guangzhou has many surprises in store.

Eat like a king

For Western travellers, Hong Kong has long been considered the home of Cantonese cuisine. The hungry traveller will find that Guangzhou — with 27 food streets, 800 yum cha experiences and 130,000 restaurants — has a strong claim.

As a trading city on the banks of a great river, Guangzhou has imported foods and styles passing through over the centuries.

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On our first day in the city, we wandered into the first place we saw for a quick lunch.

After some translation issues, menu pointing and general hilarity, our family of four pigged out for less than $30. It was the best Chinese meal of my life.

TOP TIP: Be prepared to be discerning. Hotels and other places that have been serving food to Western visitors for years are to be avoided. It's not hard to find good, authentic restaurants. Consider a culinary tour.

Baxter Aldworth with some daft binoculars he bought in Guangzhou. Photo / Winston Aldworth
Baxter Aldworth with some daft binoculars he bought in Guangzhou. Photo / Winston Aldworth

Visit a dead king

In the Nanyue King's mausoleum you'll get a glimpse of ancient China in the burial site of Zhao Mo, the Nanyue king who ruled the area that is now Guangzhou from 137BC to 122BC. His tomb was discovered in 1983 and inside you'll see artefacts and some of the riches with which he was buried. More than 1000 cultural relics were found in the king's tomb, including gold ornaments, weapons, bronzeware and a full chariot. 867 Jiefang Rd, Yuexiu District

TOP TIP: Try to get to the tomb on a public holiday when the crowds have thinned out significantly, and mind your head in the tomb — the ceilings are low.

Ram raid

The Five-Ram Sculpture, one of Guangzhou's most famous structures and an emblem of the city, is the focal point of the beautiful Yuexiu Park. It's not what you'd call huge, but — like Monsieur Eiffel's tower in Paris and Big Ben in London — this is the spot to get your definitive selfie.

TOP TIP: Visit in the early morning when the chatter of birdlife and elderly locals doing tai chi brings the park to life.

Puzzle world

Guangdong is a gleaming new city, putting its best foot forward. The city's bosses are especially proud of the stunning modern architecture in the central city, the Pearl River New Town, and front and centre is the Guangdong Museum — inspired by a traditional Cantonese ivory puzzle ball, but, for Star Trek fans, looking like a Borg ship has parked in the city. Inside the intimidating edifice, there's fine porcelain, artworks and crazily intricate wood carvings in gold lacquer. gdmuseum.com

TOP TIP: Admission is free, but the exterior of the building is the real star.

We love the opera house

The museum sits opposite stunning Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. The performance centre is the biggest in southern China and is meant to look like two rocks washed away by the Pearl River. Architectural critic Jonathan Glancey, of The Guardian, called it "at once highly theatrical and insistently subtle". gzdjy.org

TOP TIP: Tickets to performances are expensive, but you can get a look inside the amazing building by getting a coffee at a bar inside.

Buy weird stuff

Cheap shoes, a teddy-pillow hybrid my daughter has come to know as Teddillow, night-vision binoculars (which are neither night vision and barely binoculars) and a gorgeous hand-carved stamp (zhuanke) with the names of all our family that came in at less than $10 — we shopped well in Guangzhou. From traditional markets to slick malls (of which there are more than 200), it's all here. And even if you're not shopping, places like the bustling Beijing Rd — where incredible temples stand alongside vendors selling balloon puppies — are great for people watching.

TOP TIP: The sizes are kind of on the small side.

Look down on everyone

Canton Tower, at 610m the second-tallest tower in the world, is a shimmering, netted masterpiece with a jaunty twist in its midriff perched near the Pearl River. It's got the world's highest outdoor observation deck (488m), while in the indoor public observatory (a sniff at 449m) you'll find a glass box jutting out on which you're invited to stand.

Looking down from within the glass box is entirely optional.

TOP TIP: Make the trip early in your visit, so you can start to get an idea of the layout of the sprawling city.

Feed the fish

At Baomo Garden, a sprawling park full of pavilions and ponds, the architecture of the ancient Qing dynasty is on display. It's a peaceful break from the busy city.

TOP TIP: Buy some fish food and get into the carp-feeding frenzy.

Craft works

The Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, home to the Guangdong Folk Art Museum, is worth half a day of wandering. Traditional Chinese craft is showcased and celebrated in a beautiful old residence. Ivory carvings, metal works and weaponry are on display alongside clothing and domestic tools.

TOP TIP: Whatever your thoughts on souvenirs, you'll find something great — and authentic — here.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

China Southern flies daily from Auckland to Europe, via their hub Guangzhou. For latest prices, go to

csair.com