"Baby, you buy my oyster," shouts a smiling man as we stroll through a steaming, sizzling and occasionally smelly labyrinth of street eats at Huifu Snack Street. The baby in question is my ravenous 10-year-old son, and he happily acquiesces, slurping down the garlicy barbecued delights, along with a tray of local hairy-mitten crabs for good measure. His 8-year-old sister, less inclined to adventurous eating, is wooed by an equally chirpy vendor touting waffles piled with fruit and ice-cream. They both leave the market with full bellies, smiling faces and high fives from the friendly vendors, already feeling very at home in Guangzhou.

China's third largest metropolis, with a population of 14 million, the city formerly known as Canton has become one of the world's fastest-growing tourist hubs. This is in no small part due to its easy accessibility (just 50 minutes from Hong Kong by high-speed train), world-class museums, a thriving arts and culture scene, some of the warmest people in China, and that fabled Cantonese cuisine.

China's City of Flowers is also surprisingly green — both literally and figuratively. At Litchi Bay Park, we punt around a pretty tangle of creeks and lakes past ancestral halls and lovely open spaces. There's a buzz of activity as smiling locals bounce hacky sacks from foot to foot, bat shuttlecocks back and forth, peddle homemade sweets and practice tai chi to a soundtrack of amateur Chinese Opera.

Street scene in Guangzhou. Photo / Kenny Luo
Street scene in Guangzhou. Photo / Kenny Luo

Shamian Island — once a base for British and French colonial powers and the trade of opium — is another gorgeous, green surprise with atmospheric, tree-lined pedestrian avenues, grand colonial buildings and a quirky statue trail where my squealing children devour planet-sized cotton candy.

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At the base of Baiyan Mountain, a stroll through Yuntai Garden, the largest landscaped garden in China, reveals an exquisite carpet of flowers and ornate water features that add a wonderfully tranquil effect. But tranquillity is not really my kids' thing, so while I stop to smell the roses, they dress up warrior-style at costume booths and charge into mock battle among the blooming tulips.

Even the city's expressways and overpasses are strewn with sprays of evergreen bougainvillea. Along with its swathes of foliage and flowers, we're happy to find litter virtually non-existent, sustainable design being integrated into construction, and the smart city's award-winning transport system replacing petrol-powered buses and taxis with electric vehicles.

People riding bicycles in Guangzhou. Photo / Jake To
People riding bicycles in Guangzhou. Photo / Jake To

A switched-on city that's leaping into the future without losing sight of its past, we pay homage to Guangzhou's extraordinary history on a pilgrimage to Yuexiu Park and the statue of the Five Goats. Legend tells of five immortals who rode into town on the rams, gifting the people with an abundance of food and prosperity before turning their steeds to stone and decamping to wherever it is divine types go. One can't help but wonder if it's to the nearby Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. The splendid 1400-year-old temple complex boasts a nine-storey pagoda with enough colour and swirling incense smoke to appease even the fussiest immortal.

The Chen Clan Academy offers another peek into history. The largest traditional structure in Guangzhou, the 124-year old ancestral temple once provided academic lodging for children of the Chen family. It's now home to a folk arts museum and a confection of carvings of larger-than-life figures from Chinese mythology that have my kids' imaginations firing.

For modern balance, we head to Guangzhou's Huacheng Square on the edge of Pearl River in Zhujiang New Town. The square offers access to museums and entertainment complexes including the artful tangle of steel and glass that is Guangzhou Opera House, and the wonderfully interactive Guandong Museum. Underneath it all is the 150,000sq m Mall of the World shopping complex, but we stay at surface level to join local families flying fluttering paper birds and twirling rainbow ribbons under the shadow of Canton Tower.

Guangzhou at night. Photo / Simon Zhu
Guangzhou at night. Photo / Simon Zhu

We rocket our way to the top of the city's landmark tower for a ride in the Bubble Tram, a series of glass-enclosed spheres that rotate precariously around the outside edge of the 604-metre-tall structure. Already raving fans, the kids are further delighted to discover the willowy Canton tower lights up like a rainbow as we cruise the pretty Pearl River in a dragon boat later that night.

When we're not exploring, we're devouring dim sum, a culinary art that originated in Guanzhou. The queues at the many dim sum restaurants are testament to its unwavering popularity and while the offerings are suitably sublime, they're also a tad confusing. There are no trolleys and the picture-free dim sum menus aren't in English, which means this Mandarin-challenged family must resort to guess work, pointing and interpretive dance to conjure up a meal. But the plump dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaf, lusciously fatty goose, fluffy pork stuffed Char Siu Bao and red rice noodle rolls that appear in a magical swathe of steam more than justify our giggling efforts.

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GUANGZHOU

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GETTING THERE China Southern flies direct from Auckland to Guangzhou.