As well as amazing food and world-class shopping, Guangzhou is home to some of the world's coolest buildings. Linda Meads reports on some of the southern Chinese city's absolute must-sees
Like all of China's mega cities, the architecture in the southern city of Guangzhou is a fascinating mash-up of culturally significant old and new structures, though more of the new exists following the Chinese economic boom of the past few decades.
A couple of its more bizarre structures, namely the disc-shaped Guangzhou Circle, now serve as enormous time capsules of this period in the country's history, following the Chinese government's decision to curb the building of "oversized, xenocentric, weird" buildings in 2016 in favour of those that are more "suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye".
While China's third-largest city, home to nearly 15 million people and just an hour by bullet train from Hong Kong, is prosperous, modern and exciting, it is still possible to catch a glimpse of its storied history and traditions through the treasured buildings still standing from its past, which include one of the world's oldest mosques.
A self-guided architectural tour of the city will see you transported through millennia in just a few days. Here are some of the highlights.
Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King
The museum that houses the tomb of Zhao Mo, the region's Nanyue King from 137 to 122BC, was built after the mausoleum was discovered 20m under downtown Guangzhou in the 80s. As well as the impressive 11m x 12m tomb itself, which is split into seven rooms, visitors can also see some of the cultural relics that were found with his remains, including his jade burial suit, weapons, musical instruments and artworks of the era, and a chariot.
This historic building, also known as the Five-Storey Pagoda, is where you'll find the Guangzhou Museum. First constructed in 1380 at the start of the Ming dynasty, the tower, which sits atop Yuexiu Mountain in Yuexiu Park, offers a bird's-eye view of Guangzhou. It was rebuilt in 1928 and became the city's museum in the 1950s; today its permanent display The Exhibition of Guangzhou History covers key moments during its 5000 years of civilisation and showcases nearly 1000 exhibits, including ivory carvings and pottery.
Sacred Heart Cathedral
This Gothic Revival style, Roman Catholic cathedral, is one of only a handful in the world to be built entirely from granite. Largely funded by Napoleon III in the late 19th century, the church is modelled on Paris' Basilica of St Clotilde and was built by hand over 25 years. Under the church's foundation stones are a stone from Jerusalem and 1kg of soil from Rome, while four enormous bronze bells from France chime in its eastern tower.
Built: 7th century
Though it has been rebuilt a few times, Guangzhou's main mosque is one of the most ancient in the world at more than 1300 years old. Merging both Islamic and Chinese culture, Huaisheng is known for its unusual minaret, thought to be the oldest example of Islamic architecture in the country. Dubbed the "Lighthouse", the 36m tall round tower once possibly doubled as a beacon for boats on the Pearl River. A wander around its beautiful grounds takes in many historical relics including ancient stele (stone slab monuments) and stone carvings.
Canton (Guangzhou) Tower
Very briefly the world's tallest tower at 604m, the Canton or Guangzhou Tower is known as "Slim Waist" and "Twisted Firewood" to the local people and is the city's best-known landmark. A multi-purpose structure, the tower lays claim to a rooftop observatory, open-air skywalk, outdoor gardens, revolving restaurants and many other attractions including the Sky Drop, the world's highest vertical freefall at 30.5m, and the Bubble Tram: 16 sightseeing cabins that spin around the top of the tower in a kind of horizontal ferris wheel. Canton Tower is, of course, illuminated at night which makes for an impressive and impossible-to-miss sight.
Canton Fair Complex
One of the largest convention centres in the world, the Canton Fair Complex was designed to emulate the flow of the Pearl River with a wave-like rooftop. Located on Pazhou Island, the complex, previously known as the Guangzhou (or Pazhou) International Convention and Exhibition Center, has a mammoth 13 exhibition halls and is a spectacular example of modern Chinese architecture.
Guangzhou Opera House
Whatever you do during your time in Guangzhou, do not miss a visit to its spectacular opera house, a wonder of modern design which is particularly beautiful at night. One of the biggest theatres in China, the Guangzhou Opera House, or "Double Pebble" building, was designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid around the idea of two stones washed up on to the banks of the Pearl River. Its irregularly shaped main auditorium has a stunning starry sky made from twinkling fairy lights and features acoustics designed by New Zealander Harold Marshall to suit both Western and traditional Chinese opera.
THE PLAIN BIZARRE
The city's most newsworthy build of recent times is the doughnut-shaped Guangzhou Circle building - the tallest of its kind in the world at 33 floors and 138m high, with the hole in its centre nearly 50m wide alone. Designed by Italian architect Joseph di Pasquale, the building was inspired by China's ancient jade discs and is loaded with symbolism - even its reflection in the Pearl River it sits alongside makes a figure of eight, a symbol of luck in Chinese culture.
The multi-layered traditional Cantonese ivory puzzle ball was the inspiration behind this museum whose exterior resembles a giant Pandora's Box. Worth admiring from the outside before discovering the treasures within, the museum's exhibits cover the Chinese province's history, art, nature and culture. It is best known for its collection of painting and porcelain from the Lingnan school of painting in the late 19th century and its intricate Chaozhou wood carvings.