Though China can seem like it's a world away from the U.S., my direct flight to Guangzhou from San Francisco was surprisingly painless.
From a stress-free experience at China Southern Airlines' Business Class VIP check-in counter to my preflight complimentary tea and light bites at its VIP lounge to priority boarding access, complete with a private shuttle to the plane, the decision to opt for an upgraded ticket with this airline was well worth the extra cost.
China's third-largest city and the capital of Guangdong province, Guangzhou is a bustling area with a long history as a strategic trade port. Situated on the Pearl River, in relatively close proximity to Hong Kong, Guangzhou is not only a well-connected city in China but also a convenient hub for all of Southeast Asia.
Western architecture dominates Shamian Island, a former base for colonial powers seeking to trade and gain influence with China. Photo Credit: Anne Majumdar
If you have a couple of days to explore the city, here's what to do:
• Xiaozhou Village: Guangzhou's past and present collide in this centuries-old village. Connected by canals and narrow alleyways, most of Xiaozhou Village exudes an artsy, laid-back vibe. It's home to countless boutiques, art galleries, artisan shops, cafes and small eateries. However, it's also a place that still has ancient oyster-shell houses, villagers chopping sugar cane canalside, wishing trees and temples. With red paper lanterns scattered throughout the village and quaint bridges and gardens waiting to be discovered, an afternoon in Xiaozhou Village is a must.
• Chen Clan Ancestral Hall: Originally a place to offer sacrifices and to study, today the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall functions as the Guangdong Folk Arts Museum. Simply roaming through the open-air corridors, which connect three main buildings separated by ornate courtyards, is a great way to admire the incredibly intricate artwork that has been carved into the very structure of this stunning complex. The roof features 11 ceramic ridge crests each in the shape of a dragon, while the rest of the temple's structure offers colorful carvings depicting nature and celebratory scenes of Guangdong's history. In the main hall resides a carved folding screen that is particularly demonstrative of skilled woodcarving.
• Canton Tower: This impressively tall (1,982 feet) tower is the landmark of Guangzhou. Located in the center of the city's new urban center, Canton Tower completes the metropolitan skyline and holds the title of world's highest rotating restaurant. Head to the top of the tower to the observation deck for a spectacular view of the city and beyond. At night, the entire tower glows and emits light in a variety of patterns, including rainbow.
• Shamian Island: For an entirely different feel, pop over to colonial Shamian Island. Walking along a manicured tree-lined street with well-preserved period architecture to the left and right of you is a refreshing break from the metropolitan bustle of downtown Guangzhou. Congestion and crowds don't exist here. Though the island itself is charming, its history is tumultuous. This island is a former base for colonial powers. The European influence is found throughout the island's architecture, in particular in its Victorian homes and the French Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel.
• Yuexiu Park: For some fresh air, make a stop at Yuexiu Park, the largest park in downtown Guangzhou. With three artificial lakes and the seven hills of Yuexiu Mountain, it offers some of the city's most famous sculptures. One is the Five Rams Sculpture, which is commonly referred to as the emblem for Guangzhou. Fun fact: Guangzhou is also called the City of Rams.
For information on China Southern Airlines' direct flights from the U.S., visit http://global.csair.com/US/GB/home.