Home to 14.5 million people, the ancient port city of Guangzhou welcomed a new wave of energy in recent years — most of which is concentrated in the eastern district of Tianhe. Often associated with business travel, the area has evolved into a thriving lifestyle hub full of cosmopolitan restaurants, chic bars and casual cafés. Edwin Li, the owner of the indie Hay Coffee Company, takes us on a tour of the high-flying district.
11 AM: Admire Guangzhou’s avant-garde architecture
First impressions are important, so start your adventure at the Tianhe promenade, where you’ll find a wealth of futuristic architecture, including the late Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House and Rocco Yim-designed Guangdong Museum. “A lot of people think China is 20 years behind, but if you walk down this promenade, you’ll see Guangzhou as a modern, international city,” says Edwin. 1 Zhujiang W Rd
12 PM: Fill up on dim sum at Dian Dou De
You’re in the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine, a style of local cuisine that’s served at most overseas Chinese restaurants, so dedicate your first meal to a leisurely dim sum feast. Local hot spot Dian Dou De, which recently opened a new location in the center of Tianhe, is best visited on a weekday (to avoid long waiting times). “I might be biased, but I think Guangzhou has the best food in China and many public surveys have found that other Chinese residents usually agree,” says Edwin. “At Dian Dou De, I love the har gow (shrimp dumplings). This simple-looking dumpling is surprisingly difficult to master, making it the mark of a great Cantonese chef.” 2/F Universal Metro Plaza, Huacheng Ave cor Xiancun Rd
Read more: 3 classic spots to try dim sum in Guangzhou
3 PM: Shop for indie threads at K11 Art Mall
After you’ve had your fill of dim sum, head next door to K11 Art Mall, which opened in the summer. Housed inside the Guangzhou CTF Finance Center — the tallest building in the city at a height of 530 meters — the museum-slash-retail concept is known for its nature-inspired interiors and indie design clothing and lifestyle accessories. Browse collections by Bad Market (from Guangzhou), Rifle Paper, Freitag and more. “Bad Market is a great space that offers a mix of foreign and local brands — the owners are doing a great job of showcasing the Cantonese design spirit,” says Edwin. 6 Zhujiang E Rd; gz.k11.com.cn
5 PM: Try an ice-cold cheese tea at Hey Tea
Relax in the square outside of K11 at Hey Tea. Famous for its cheese-topped brews, this chain’s stores often see hour-long queues. “Tea is a big part of Chinese culture — it’s been very much a part of daily life for centuries — you’ll find that people might be more comfortable drinking tea than coffee,” says Edwin. “Hey Tea uses fresh fruit and they’re spick-and-span, so I can see the appeal. The owners have incorporated waterfall-inspired accents — including a wave-shaped table that reflects spaciousness.” 5 Xiancun Rd; heytea.com
7 PM: Dig into zesty seafood dishes at Slow Life Kitchen
Inside a plaza dedicated to food and gaming, Slow Life Kitchen stands apart with a lofty space, Scandinavian design accents and a Spanish-inspired menu. It’s chock-full of seasonal wholefoods and organic vegetables grown locally on the restaurant’s own farm. “The quality of food is great, and prices are reasonable,” says Edwin. “People also like it because of its organic style, which reflects the shifting mentalities of the city’s younger generation toward healthier lifestyles.” 1/F Gaozhi Bldg, 120 Huangpu W Ave
9 PM: Knock back a few drinks at Spin bar, the city’s newest speakeasy
Right around the corner from Slow Life Kitchen, Spin bar shakes up excellent cocktails in an edgy space — but first you have to find it. Wandering around the building, you’ll notice a braised meat specialist with a contemporary interior. Ask the staff for directions to Spin bar and you’ll be ushered through an unmarked door, into a mirrored hallway, up a flight of stairs and toward a red-hued cocktail bar, where leather seating and hip hop music sets the stage. “Speakeasies like this are popular in Shanghai, but this is the first one I’ve heard of in Guangzhou,” says Edwin. “I usually have a mocktail — and they do it quite well here. The cucumber and citrus flavors of their Polar Lights drink are refreshing.” There’s also their signature Good Morning Guangzhou cocktail, made with a refreshing mix of house-infused chamomile gin, Cointreau and lime juice. Highly recommended. Shop 106, Hejing Ruifeng, 12 Haile Rd
9 AM: Enjoy a peaceful stroll along the Pearl River
Running from east to west across the city, the Pearl River has long been one of the most scenic features of Guangzhou. Enjoy it on a morning stroll or an afternoon bike ride along the 23-kilometer-long “Scenery Corridor” — the riverside lane stretches past bridges, historic buildings, wharfs and the Zhujiang Party Pier, an entertainment island that’s brimming with restaurants and bars. “Although residents rarely have time to relax by the river, they still recognize it as a symbol of the city. It might be one of the best local experiences for wandering travelers,” says Edwin.
10 AM: Sit down for a refreshing acai bowl and green smoothie at So Acai
For breakfast with a healthy kick, there’s So Acai, hidden away in the back alleys of Tianhe North. You might spot kids on bikes, grannies doing laundry or friends playing table tennis under the shade of banyan trees. So Acai’s contemporary design stands stark against the traditional neighborhood — picture bottle-green interiors, black-and-white tiled floors, chic botanical wallpaper and glimmering bronze accents all around. The menu features nourishing bites like açai smoothie bowls, coconut chia seed pudding, fresh juices and more. “I first heard of So Acai from the owner, who has been a regular at Hay just down the street,” says Edwin. “I love the food and the interior touches. I think it’s the only place in the city where you can have açai smoothie bowls full of granola, berries and bananas — it’s so good, I’m here every other day.” 60 Huakang St; fb.com/soacaigz
Where to stay: Check in at Lavande Hotel — the rooms are spare but sleek and come with a work desk and free WiFi. It’s also a seven-minute walk to Zoo Station on the Guangzhou Metro metro. 26 Tianhe S Rd
Where to go: Guangzhou is nicknamed the “City of Flowers” thanks to its blooming terraces and enormous parks. The most scenic of them all is Yuexiu Park, located northwest of Tianhe, where you’ll find a 3.9ha orchid garden, pavilions, Ming dynasty-era city walls and the historic Five Rams sculpture, one of the city’s symbols.
Where to eat dessert: For a sweet after-dinner treat, go for the popular banoffee pie at the charming and cozy Social & Co. This wickedly addictive combination of a crispy crust, banana and dulce de leche (a pasty-textured, sweetened milk confection) is a slice of heaven in every bite. Shop 112–113, 6 Huajiu Rd; socialandco.com
Where to drink coffee: Starting to crash? Put a spring back in your step with a visit to Hay Coffee. Founded by Edwin in 2017, the café serves up locally roasted beans in a minimalist space that’s punctuated by street art and figurines by American artist and designer Brian Donnelly (better known as Kaws). 43 Qiaoyi 1st St; fb.com/haycoffeecompany
This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Smile magazine.