Guangzhou's 21st-century blend of ancient and modern makes it the perfect entree to the Middle Kingdom. From its early days as an inland port, Guangzhou has become a bustling metropolis that manages to look to the future without losing sight of the past. This is where you will find skyscrapers sitting happily next to ancient temples; where you can eat in grand restaurants one night and the next graze on Cantonese dim sum in little hole-in-the-wall cafes; where you can shop until you drop or watch the locals chilling with their songbirds in the city's parks.
Shamian Island was essentially a large sandbank when the imperial court allowed foreign traders to set up their factories and homes there in the 18th century. Today it is a small, tree-lined oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city and worth a stroll for the variety of its restored colonial architecture.
Hong Xing Seafood Restaurant (2 Qiaoguang Road, Yuexiu) is a barn of a place that's part restaurant, part fresh seafood market. On the left as you enter is a large room with a cornucopia of seafood on display. In the restaurant proper you can order and eat what you just saw wriggling around. Panxi (see www.gzpanxi.com.cn/en) is in the old city, surrounded by gardens and fish ponds. A huge and quintessentially Cantonese yum cha restaurant, it's popular with locals but less so with tourists. Check out the little curry-filled dumplings in the shape of pigs; cute and very tasty.
The Canton Tower (see www.cantontower.com/en) is a 600-metre observation tower in the Haizhu district. It opened in 2010, has a public observatory 449 metres above ground and what it calls "the world's highest Bubble Tram" – 16 glass passenger "cars" that travel on a track round the edge of the tower's roof. Even if that's not your thing, the views of the city and the Pearl River are fantastic.
Yuexiu Park is the biggest park in the city, covering 860,000 square metres, and contains the Zhenhai Tower, a monument to Sun Yat-sen, popular revolutionary and first president of the Republic of China, and the stone statue of the Five Rams – the official emblem of Guangzhou. A great place to watch the locals at play. Catch a group of them playing hacky-sack and you'll probably get invited to join in. Well, I did. Also, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in central Guangzhou features the pretty, octagonal, 55-metre Flowery Pagoda.
The five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel (see www.mandarinoriental.com.cn/guangzhou) is in the buzzy Tianhe district. Its large floor-to-ceiling windows offer dramatic views of the skyline. Perfectly situated for all the city's major attractions and commercial areas. The Shangri-La (see www.shangri-la.com/guangzhou/shangrila) sits in almost five hectares of landscaped gardens and fountains overlooking the Pearl River. The tram stop beside the hotel provides easy access all to the landmarks along the river, including Canton Tower and the Zhujiang business district. Or try the newly renovated White Swan Hotel (www.whiteswanhotel.com/en) on Shamian Island, which reopened last year after renovations.
A night boat trip along the Pearl River is a good way to get a handle on Guangzhou old and new. Various boat companies ply the waterways and most cruises cover all the city's iconic landmarks. One of the more unchanged areas is Huangpu fishing village. Once an old port, the village boasts temples from the 17th and 18th centuries and tourism has, largely, passed it by.
Keith Austin was a guest of Anantara Hotels & Spas and China Southern Airlines.