Few visitors expect a slice of old war Europe when they visit Guangzhou but that's exactly what you'll find at Shamian Island. Formerly known as Shameen Island or Shamin Island, from its Cantonese pronunciation, Shamian Island is a sandbank island located smack bang in the middle of the Peal River. Home to grand buildings, swanky hotels, restaurants and river-side bars, it's little wonder that you'll probably spend a lot of time in Shamian Island when you visit Guangzhou.
A hive of activity ever since the island was the base from where Britain, France and other colonial powers set up base to trade and sell opium, these days Shamian Island's atmosphere is little different (aside from the opium of-course). Easily explorable on foot, a large part of the island's attraction is wandering the peaceful streets and admiring the colonial architecture that has remained largely in good shape since the 19th century.
There are about 150 buildings on the island with many of them displaying various architectural styles including but not limited to Baroque, Gothic and Neoclassical. Many of the most impressive buildings are the former consulates which are marked out my plaques, but some sites in particular to seek out include The French Catholic Church of our Lady of Lourdes and it's British counterpart, Christ Church, built at the other end of the island.
Though not related to colonialism, the White Swan Hotel is another historic building thanks to it being the only hotel in town open to foreigners during the strictly communist regime. Don't worry about booking a room, just step inside and you can take a glimpse at its lobby which has been transplanted into a tropical garden complete with palm trees and a waterfall.
Another thing worth visiting is the park in the centre of the island. With shady pathways, the park is a great place to people watch and on any day you'll see locals walking around with their caged birds, practicing tai chi or catching up with friends. If your Cantonese is up to scratch you might just become one of them.