Looking to escape the mayhem of the city for a little well-deserved R&R? Then this guide to nearby weekend getaways is for you!
1. Kaiping Diaolou and Villages
Located 130 kilometers southwest of Guangzhou, the Kaiping Diaolou and Villages are presently the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Guangdong Province.
The diaolou – fortified, multi-story residences made of concrete – came into being as a remedy to several societal ills. Kaiping was in times past the victim of floods, rampant banditry and the devastating Punti-Hakka Clan Wars (an enduring conflict occurring at the end of Qing dynasty between the Cantonese-speaking natives and the migrant Hakka people that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths).
Combating these issues, diaolou served as watchtowers, shelters from flood and blockhouses against raiders.
The diaolou are one-of-a-kind structures, dispersed among paddy fields and flaunting a melange of Chinese, Western and, in some cases, Islamic architecture. From their exteriors you can detect Roman domes, Greek porticos and Gothic windows, while most of the interior design retains southern Chinese flair.
As scattered as they are, there are four major clusters of watchtowers: Zili, Jinjiangli, Sanmenli and Jianglong. Chikan, Kaiping’s previous downtown, is also a must-go destination. It preserves some of the most classic, stylish buildings constructed during the Republic of China and, as a result, serves as a popular film set.
How to get there:
Take the coach from Guangzhou Railway Bus Terminal or Tianhe Coach Terminal to Kaiping (RMB60), then take a local bus to one of the diaolou clusters (remember to tell the bus driver your destination). Tickets to the villages range from RMB50-80.
Diaomin Buluo Inn (碉民部落客栈), a popular hostel in Chikan situated across the river from the film set, is highly recommended. Hosting quaint, clean rooms spread over two buildings, this hotel boasts friendly staff, as well as a small bar and restaurant.
2. Shaoshan, the Childhood Abode of Mao Zedong
For anybody interested in Mao and the history of communism in China, a visit to old Shaoshan is informative and eye-opening – not least because it provides a window into how the PRC wants people to perceive its founder.
Old Shaoshan is a pretty little hamlet with Mao’s childhood home at its heart. This bungalow, made from earth and wood, is easily identified by the long queue of people stretching back from its doors, waiting patiently to trudge through the bare rooms that once enclosed the communist hero.
Millions flock here every year to see where the Great Helmsman spent his early life. Most of these visitors are Chinese, though the surprisingly accurate English, French and Russian translations that greet visitors at the vehicle drop-off point attest to the government initiatives afoot to encourage foreign travelers.
If you stay the evening, you can also get tickets to a grand production that celebrates Mao’s life several times an evening, or visit a local restaurant to gorge on Mao’s favorite food: hongshao rou (braised pork in sauce).
How to get there:
High-speed trains go from Guangzhou South and Shenzhen North to Shaoshan South Station. From there, tell anybody you see that you want to go to 毛泽东同志纪念馆 (Mao Zedong Tongzhi Jinian Guan) and they will direct you to the correct local bus or shuttle.
Ideally located within walking distance of Mao Zedong's former home and Statue Square, the Hualong Hotel Shaoshan offers comfortable, clean rooms at prices that generally fall below RMB500 (although that may not be the case during holidays). The hotel is a good option for a weekend getaway due to its close proximity to tourist sights and scenic areas, as well ‘downtown’ Shaoshan and the train station.
3. Conghua Hot Springs Town
No daytrip quite compares to the relaxation derived from bathing in a natural hot spring, and Conghua Hot Spring Town even saw former US President Richard Nixon himself visit for a bit of steamy R&R in 1976.
Literally called ‘Hot Springs Town’ or ‘Wenquan Zhen,’ it is located in the northern part of Conghua, which is now a district of Guangzhou’s ever-expanding megalopolis. There’s absolutely nothing to do in Hot Springs Town except, you guessed it, lounge in revitalizing mineral water, so hibernating in your hotel room all weekend won’t bring pangs of guilt.
How to get there:
Take a cab or metro to any major bus terminal in the city (Tianhe Coach Terminal, Guangzhou Railway Station, etc.) and ride a bus two hours to Conghua station (从化汽车站). Take a 30-minute cab to Guangdong Hot Spring Hotel (广东温泉宾馆). From there, you can easily walk to other hot spring resorts.
Dozens of resorts compete along the river, but the one at the very end of the road – Guangdong Hot Spring Hotel – has our vote as the oldest and most scenic lodge that housed not only Nixon but Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaopin, Jiang Zemin and countless other heads of state back in the day.
You can book the suite where they stayed for about USD5,000 a night, or opt for a room with a private patio spa that seats four to six for around RMB1,000. Simpler rooms (RMB300) still let you fill your indoor bathtub with hot spring water, but if you want to squeeze in more than one person at a time you’ll have to venture outside to the public pools.
Aside from a few historic plaques and two lengthy outdoor corridors that were clearly intended for leaders to pace back and forth while mulling over world problems, there’s nothing political about the hotel, which, although built in 1955, is still refreshingly well-designed by China standards.
4. Lamma Island
One of Hong Kong’s smaller surrounding islands, Lamma Island is probably the closest you can get to vacation mood without dropping the big bucks on a plane ticket. It also sports one of the cleanest beaches in Hong Kong and affordable vacation rental prices – quite unusual for the pricey former British colony.
Yung Shue Wan is the very heart of Lamma Island. A small village mixing restaurants, residential properties and small shops in a bright, delightful mosaic, hotels and smaller private properties are abundant – and the deals get better as you venture further away from touristy spots.
The island is full of Mediterranean flavors – and not just in the abundant fresh seafood. Sea views, quaint little houses, cozy sandy beaches and a laid-back pace are all the right ingredients for a complete recharge.
Lamma is also one of those rare places where the journey is actually quite a pleasant process in itself. Think about it: a half an hour ferry from Hong Kong is way more relaxing than a bumpy ride on a cramped bus. You can spend the commute admiring the calming sea paysage or creating some artful photos for your Instagram report – whichever strikes your fancy.
How to get there:
Take either metro or bus to Central. Lamma is served by ferries from Central Pier 4 on Hong Kong Island and from Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island. There are separate services to both of the main villages on the island, Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan. The journey time is 27 minutes to Yung Shue Wan and 30-40 minutes to Sok Kwu Wan. Vessels are monohull and some of the boats have a small outside canopy-covered area at the rear of the upper deck.
Possibly most notable on the island for both value and comfort is the Concerto Inn. This quiet beachside hotel comes with rooms equipped with AC, a flat-screen TV and a mini bar. Select rooms also boast a balcony.
Located a 20-minute walk from the Lamma Island pier, Concerto Inn has an outdoor area for barbeques and parties, as well as a restaurant that offers a la carte breakfast and a must-try hamburger.
Located a short train ride from Guangzhou, Qingyuan is undoubtedly one of our favorite weekend getaways. Guangdong’s largest prefecture by land area, the region boasts scenic mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, offering no shortage of outdoor activities, from hiking, rafting and fishing to rock climbing and cave exploration.
The area is perhaps most famous for its relaxing natural hot springs, which, we can attest from experience, are spectacular.
If drinking a cold pint in hot mineral water isn’t really your thing, then maybe a walk along Qingyuan’s 60-meter-long glass bridge is what you’re looking for. The custom-made glass walkway is almost 100 meters above the ground and travels between Qingyuan’s karst caves.
For PRD-based foodies, a trip here is essential to sample the area’s renowned ‘Qingyuan chicken,’ locally farmed, free-range birds that are said to offer a superior taste to those raised in Guangzhou.
How to get there:
High-speed trains go from Guangzhou South and take approximately 20 minutes, while trains to Qingyuan from Guangzhou Railway Station, in Yuexiu, take roughly 45 minutes.
Sheraton Qingyuan Lion Lake Resort is in itself a destination, boasting beautiful Arabian-style décor, lake views, three restaurants, both indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness center and tennis court and access to the Lion Lake Golf Club.
While the resort’s Italian restaurant, Bene Italian Kitchen, and buffet eatery, Feast Signature Restaurant, both offer great variety, quality and value, Yue Chinese Restaurant is a must visit. Yue focuses on traditional Cantonese edibles that date back to the 60s, as well as contemporary Chinese fusion dishes, and the Qingyuan chicken is a must-try.
Sheraton Qingyuan Lion Lake Resort is also perfect for families, with childcare services offered, in addition to a games room and kids’ club.
6. Nansha Wetland Park and Tin Hau Palace
Chosen as one of the ‘Eight Sights of Guangzhou’ in 2011, Nansha Wetland Park is located about a two-hour transit journey from the city center – although the commute does have its rewards. At Nansha Wetland Park, the chaotic sounds of the city are replaced with a symphony of bird calls and, on my visit, the rustling of leaves in the autumn wind.
Of China’s 271 wetland bird species, 140 of them can be found in this man-made eco-destination, depending on the season (many of the birds in the park are migratory), including the oriental white stork – a first-class national protected species. According to one of the many bilingual signs that dot the Nansha Wetland Park, up to 100,000 migratory birds spend the winter in the park each year.
Visitors must pay RMB50 to enter and have three main options for exploring: on foot, via shared-bike or by boat. The latter option offers curious daytrippers a unique view of the park’s numerous waterways, albeit for the kinda-steep price of RMB150.
Also in Nansha District: the Tin Hau Palace. While downtown Guangzhou certainly doesn’t boast any temples or buildings that can compete with Beijing’s Summer Palace, in outlying Nansha District there is a similar-style attraction that demands a visit from those living in, or visiting, the PRD.
Staring proudly upon the Lingding Ocean, at the mouth of the Pearl River, the Nansha Tin Hau Palace boasts a 50-foot-tall statue of Mazu, a deity often referred to as ‘Goddess of the Sea,’ and panoramic views that are a welcome respite from skyscrapers and office blocks.
Originally built in the Ming Dynasty, the structure was renovated during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, in the Qing Dynasty, but was later ruined, leading to a 1994 restoration that was completed in 1996.
How to get to Nansha Wetland Park:
Take Guangzhou Metro Line 4 to Jiaomen Station and then catch the No. 2 bus, which you will ride for 31 stops to Si San Chong. From there, catch either the No. 11 bus or the No. 25 bus, which you will ride for four stops to Nansha Wetland Park.
How to get to Nansha Tin Hau Palace:
Take Guangzhou Metro Line 4 to Jinzhou Station and then take Nansha bus No. 4 to the east gate of Tin Hau Palace. Alternatively, hop on the back of a moto-scooter at Jinzhou Station and ride to the temple in style! (Cost for a scooter from the metro to the temple should average around RMB20).
If venturing by bus around Nansha sounds like a tiring endeavor, you may want to consider spending the night. We can recommend the Sheraton Guangzhou Nansha Hotel, which is located a 15-minute walk from Guangzhou Metro Line 4’s Jinzhou Station and boasts a fantastic Chinese restaurant, Yue, honored as 'Outstanding New Chinese Restaurant’ in our 2017 That’s PRD Food & Drink Awards.
7. Tai O, the Village on Stilts
If you're up for doing something different in Hong Kong that involves going a bit further out of the city center and spending a bit less, here's a side of the city you haven’t met before: natural, pristine and, most surprisingly, slow-paced.
Tai O is a small fishing village on the island of Lantau, right next to Hong Kong International Airport. However, unlike its neighbor, Tai O is not as frequented or easy to find.
Instead of arrogant, towering skyscrapers, you're greeted by modest yet friendly houses, rising out of the water on shapely wooden legs. Miniature rickety buildings stretch along the waterfront – residences, restaurants, coffee shops and even hotels. Locals quietly sit by the harbor, chatting and playing Mahjong.
Things seem to slow down in Tai O, even when it comes to getting around. Cars and buses are few and far between, as most residents cover distances on foot, by bicycle or by boat.
Besides indulging in a freshly-caught fish dinner and enjoying the great views, a HKD25 boat ride may provide tourists with a glimpse of endangered pink dolphins known to inhabit the surrounding waters.
How to get there:
Once in Hong Kong, take the MTR Tung Chung Line to Tung Chung Station, then walk to the bus station (Exit B). Take bus 11 (HKD11.8) to Tai O. Tai O, Lantau Island, Hong Kong 香港大屿山岛大澳渔村.
This close to both the airport and Disneyland it's hard to find modestly priced accomodations, but YHA Ngong Ping SG Davis Youth Hostel fits the bill with decent facilities and even an outdoor camping space. It's a short bus ride away from Tai O, and also conveniently located for hikers.
[With files from Jocelyn Richards, Tom Lee, Tristin Zhang, Matthew Bossons, Ziyi Yuan]
This article was originally published in August 2017. It has been updated and republished on March 30, 2018.
For more local travel ideas, check out our Daytripper series.