Guangzhou is China’s third most populous city, a buzzing metropolis of traffic, skyscrapers and smog that is is China’s richest city and its industrial workhorse. $100,000 cars share the streets with Mao-era bicycles and at times the city can be overwhelming, even for veteran travelers. It’s no surprise then that visitors to Guangzhou often find themselves in need of a respite from the craziness of the city. Thankfully Guangzhou has one neighborhood up to the task, Shamian Island.
Known as Canton by the Europeans, Guangzhou was one of the first ports in China to begin trading with the west and by the outbreak of the Opium Wars it was one of the greatest cities in the world. After the Opium Wars the European presence in the city became even more prominent, with the Western powers being granted concessions—entire neighborhoods reserved for their expatriates and trading missions, which were often closed to Chinese visitors.
While Guangzhou’s other concessions have long been reclaimed by the growing city, its French Concession, Shamian Island, is still well preserved, in no small part because of its island location. Situated on a small island in the Pearl River, Shamian is a beautiful neighborhood of leafy lanes, colonial-era mansions, riverside restaurants and sidewalk cafes. While there aren’t many Europeans left, it still has the distinct feel of a European quarter and is far removed from the smog and traffic of Guangzhou.
There are several hotels on the island, which makes it a good base for travelers intent on exploring Guangzhou. It doesn’t take long to walk around the island, but exploring its many small streets will provide hours of entertainment. The nighttime views of Guangzhou from Shamian’s riverside promenade make it worth sticking around after sunset, and, fortunately, the neighborhood is one of the safest in the city.
Because Shamian is only separated from Guangzhou by a small causeway, it is still well connected to the city at large. Taxis enter the island and there are several pedestrian bridges that make it possible to walk to the nearby Huangsha Station on the Guangzhou Metro. There is also a ferry that runs across the Pearl River and connects Shamian to Fangcun Pier in southern Guangzhou.