This sprawling southern port city on the Pearl River doesn’t shy away from architectural grandeur. It is home to avantgarde architecture such as Zaha Hadid’s pebble-like Guangzhou Opera House; the carved boxshaped Guangdong Museum; the 600-metre-tall Canton TV Tower, resembling a thin hourglass; and the world’s highest circular building, which looks like a traditional copper coin.
There are obvious day trip destinations nearby, Hong Kong, Macau, and Shenzhen among them. But if you need a break from high-rises and neon, there are other architectural alternatives on your doorstep.
Driving southwest from Guangzhou for 140 kilometers, you’ll start to notice you’re being watched. Spread over four villages in Kaiping County are a staggering collection of 1,800 watchtowers, or diaolou, some dating back to the 16th century, others built more recently in the 1900s, funded by money sent from overseas emigrants from the region. These fortified, multistoried structures show off a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structur- al and decorative forms, with baroque, classical, and gothic influences. Four villages have been given World Heritage status for their well-preserved buildings.
While it was famous for its ceramics during the Ming dynasty, Foshan’s main drawcard today is as the ancestral home of martial arts master Bruce Lee. Just 35 kilometers southwest of Guangzhou, the city was the birthplace of Ip Man, Lee’s teacher, who developed the Wing Chun style of kung fu. You can visit the home where Lee’s father was born, on the outskirts of town in Shang village, and tour a museum dedicated to the star, showcasing more than 1,000 items from his career, including photos and costumes. You can also admire the largest statue of Lee anywhere in the world, standing proud at 18.8 meters tall.
China’s other scenic West Lake can be found in Huizhou— it’s only 120 kilometers east of Guangzhou, but it’s a tropical world away from the sprawling metropolis. The lake aside, there are wetlands with migratory birds, expansive parks, mountains dotted with Taoist temples, and a surprising number of beaches. And 190 kilometers north (a 50-minute bullettrain ride), you’ll find Shaoguan, home to the mummified remains of the sixth Zen Buddhist patriarch Huineng, not to mention some rather phallic rock formations (be sure to take an obligatory shot of Mount Danxia). Shaoguan also attracts weary city workers with its hot springs, and there are a number of public and private places to soak in mineral water around town—the perfect end to a day away.
An installation of kung fu statues in Foshan. Below, from left: Mount Danxia; a diaolou tower in Kaiping.