Serving it up, the Canton way

On a 24-hour stopover in Guangzhou, Isobel King ticks off some of the best places to eat and shop, with sightseeing in between.

I saw Guangzhou unfold through the icy windows of a fabulously airconditioned mini-bus, watching in comfort as we crawled through traffic. It felt like any big, heaving Asian city, with hunched figures on bicycles engulfed by belching fumes, rickety hawker stalls propped outside shopping malls, and vignettes of an exotic underbelly quickly erased by soaring skyscrapers.

With a population of 13 million and a legacy as one of China's major trade centres (it was the main port of the Chinese Silk Road), Guangzhou is a surprisingly orderly melting pot of old and new. Menacing little motorbikes are a noticeable absence, banned in the city centre since 2007 to help control the chaos. Honking is also outlawed.

Guangzhou's 10 official districts lie either side of the Pearl River Delta, many just rural outposts until recent decades, when galloping capitalism devoured them. The old part of the city, Liwan, is probably the best window into the city's layered past.

On a 24-hour stopover in this gateway to southern China, a personalised tour was certainly the most comfortable way to dip into its tourist highlights, but I couldn't help wonder if getting a handle on the city's revamped subway system might not yield a speedier and more authentic glimpse of Guangzhou's personality.

For those on a flying visit, you could do worse than simply embark on a 24-hour foodfest. Guangzhou (pronounced gwong-joe and formerly known by its colonial name of Canton) is, after all, the traditional home of Cantonese cuisine, with every street stall and restaurant serving up a smorgasbord of regional specialties, from roast suckling pig and pork belly, to the more unpalatable animal parts best left for local consumption. Its claim to fame, according to our guide, is more restaurants per head than any other Chinese city, including some of the most famous ones.

Where to eat

Bingsheng, 2 Xiancun Road, Zhujiang New Town, Tianhe District This flashy seafood restaurant specialises in Cantonese cuisine and has a couple of other branches in Guangzhou. Expensive by local standards, but still reasonable, it has a series of private dining rooms upstairs that encourage small groups and the opportunity to dabble in a whole range of dishes. Swing that lazy susan, take courage and try specialties such as the rice-paddy eel or goose intestines in soy sauce. Otherwise, staples such as crispy pork, steamed chicken, whole coral fish and their own home-made tofu are good stand-bys.

Panxi, 151 Longjin Lu, Liwan District Several notches down from Bingsheng is this huge dining barn in the old part of the city and it is surrounded by tropical gardens and fish ponds. It seats 3000 and the dishes come out fast and furious. The menu is book-size, peppered with treats such as braised sea cucumber with dried shrimp rice, and home-made goose-liver paste with sliced suckling pig. We were there for Sunday lunch and it was packed with big families of Chinese heartily tucking in.

Pantang Lu, Liwan The eat street leading up to Panxi is worth a graze, if only to take in the atmosphere, traditional architecture and to eat where locals do. We seemed to be the only Westerners. On one side of the road are restaurants serving up delectably simple dishes at dirt-cheap prices, which you can eat at pavement tables; on the other side are foodie places where you can size up curious delicacies. Don't miss the beautiful Liwanhu Park as you stroll along, with its lake of floating lilies, lychee trees, water pavilions and towers. You should start your stroll at Pantang Bus Terminal and work your way down.

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Buffet breakfast, Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich A good breakfast buffet is always a telling insight into the local fare and this one deserves a mention. It took me 10 minutes just to scope out the offering. Play it safe with French pastries or standard Western fare, or take a punt, as I did, and sample the huge variety of Chinese and Japanese dishes. There's hot noodle soups with your choice of fresh ingredients, stir fries, fiery condiments, little sticky buns, and concoctions that, to this day, remain a mystery to me, such as the drink that was translated as "mixed grain smoothie". Binge on this smorgasbord and you wouldn't need to eat for a week.

Attractions

Canton Tower, Haizhu District The claustrophobic lift ride to the top of Canton Tower ("maximum load" clearly carries no weight) is worth it if only to get a perspective on the city. Even through the permanent layer of pinky smog you can see for kilometres. This observation tower is the tallest structure in China and is known as the "slim waist" by locals, because of its elongated, hour-glass shape.

Zhu Jiang New Town, Tianhe For a starkly modern take on Guangzhou, take a walk through its cultural heartland, dubbed "the new CBD". All within a few minutes of each other are Guangzhou Opera House, New Library, Provincial Museum and New Children's Palace - fiercely contemporary pieces of architecture that showcase "new" Guangzhou. Nearby is the New Haixinsha Asian Game Park, venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010. Kick off your cultural tour at Hua Cheng Square, the city's largest public square, as most of the buildings fan out from here.

Shamian Island, Liwan Just 900 metres long by 300 metres wide is Shamian Island, which literally translates as "sandy surface". That's because it's actually a sandbar in the middle of the Pearl River and a popular residence for expats, drawn by its Parisian feel and wide, tree-lined streets. Most of its buildings were constructed while in the hands of the French and British. On our brief drive around, it was chockers with glamorous wedding couples draped around lamp posts and trees, getting ready for their close-up.

Where to shop

One Link Plaza, 39 Jiefang North Road, Yue Xiu district If you can stand the crowds and get past all the tacky fare at ground level, it's worth fossicking through the seven levels of wholesale stalls at One Link Plaza. There are designated zones for everything from toys and electronics to homewares, clothes, and weird and wonderful decorations.

Tee Mall in Tianhe Popular for famous brands, while the pedestrian streets, Shangxiajiu and Beijing Road, in the old part of the city, are where locals shop and tourists haggle.

Where to stay

Most of the city's five-star hotels are in the financial and commercial district of Tianhe, about a 45-minute taxi ride from the international airport. At the newish 500-room Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich there are nice French touches, such as the tasteful furnishings and obligatory "Bonjour" for guests; the food we had there was exceptional; and the pool and gym were excellent.

But at the end of a somewhat taxing day, a super-comfortable bed in relaxed surrounds is seriously all you crave. Tick!

The writer travelled courtesy of Accor and SkyTeam.

Three things to know

1 With China's biggest airline, China Southern, promoting Guangzhou as a stopover on the "Canton route" to Europe, the city certainly offers a less touristy alternative to nearby Hong Kong. But don't forget to factor in the compulsory visa Australians require for China. It costs about $100, depending on the time frame in which you need it issued.

2 A vast expansion of Guangzhou's metro system is under way, so those on a longer stay might want to explore this alternative to the city's choking traffic. Make sure you buy a "Ram" smartcard, similar to Hong Kong's Octopus and London's Oyster card. You can use it for the city's public transport system as well as a few retailers.

3 Jasmine, our knowledgeable Chinese guide, conducts tailored tours. If you're planning a trip to Guangzhou, best bet is to email her on zoelin1211@gmail.com.

Trip notes

Getting there

China Southern, a SkyTeam alliance member, flies twice daily to Guangzhou from Sydney, with return economy fares from $1028. It has 10 direct flights a week from Melbourne, with return economy fares from $925 (prices valid until September 30). The airline flies to London, Amsterdam and Paris.

Staying there

Rooms at Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich start from $130 a night.

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