Between temples, river cruises, historic architecture and delicious dim sum, there’s no shortage of things to do during a layover in Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong Province in southern China. Thanks to its location on the Pearl River, Guangzhou has been an important trading port since the days of Marco Polo. Still today, the city feels steeped in culture and history, dotted with graceful teahouses, Chinese temples, and traditional shophouses.
A layover here is easy, too. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) is the main hub for China Southern Airlines, the largest carrier in China, which has connections to all major destinations in Asia.
- VISA REQUIRED: Only for stays 72 hours or longer
- MINIMUM INTERNATIONAL TO DOMESTIC CONNECTION TIME: 2 hrs
- MINIMUM INTERNATIONAL TO INTERNATIONAL CONNECTION TIME: 2 hrs
- MINIMUM TIME TO LEAVE THE AIRPORT: 8 hrs
For a short layover of 72 hours or less, no visa is required for US citizens. However, if you plan to stay longer, it’s essential to secure a 10-year multiple-entry visa before arrival.
Minimum layover times
To make an international to domestic connection: 2 hours
CAN has two terminals, T1 and T2, which are connected via 24-hour free shuttle buses or the metro. Terminal 2 opened in 2018 and serves as the main hub for China Southern Airlines, so you will likely be in Terminal 2 if that’s your carrier. Whether your flight lands in T1 or T2, the process is the same: follow the “transfer” signs (which are clearly marked in English) to make your way through the process.
First, you must undergo a medical and health check before proceeding through customs, immigration, and security. If your airline has checked your luggage through to the final destination there is no need to pick it up and re-check it. The whole process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours, so plan accordingly. We’d recommend a layover of at least 2 hours, just to be safe.
To make an international to international connection: 2 hours
At least 2 hours should also be enough for international terminals, as the process is very streamlined. Just like domestic transfers, you will need to undergo a health check and pass through customs and security before proceeding to your gate.
To leave the airport and explore for part of the day: 8 hours
CAN is about 20 miles north of downtown Guangzhou and you’ll need anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half to transit between the two. If you want at least three hours to explore, that means you’ll need at least eight hours between flights. A layover of 10-12 hours provides a more leisurely experience.
- 45 mins-1 hour to deplane and go through immigration and customs
- 40 mins-1.5 hours mins to transit to downtown
- 3 hours to explore
- 40 mins-1.5 hours to return to airport
- 2 hours to go back through security, get to your gate, and board the plane
Getting from the airport to the city center
- METRO: 40 mins
- TAXI: 45-90 mins
- BUS: 2 hrs
Getting to the city from the airport can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours by taxi, depending on traffic.
The Guangzhou Metro is a little faster—around 40 minutes—via Line 3. Head to the Airport South station at Terminal 1 or Airport North station at Terminal 2. The trains run every 7 minutes from 6am to midnight, and cost 30 cents to $1.50 depending on where you hop off in the city. By comparison, a taxi ride will cost $14 to $30, but you run the risk of hitting traffic.
An Airport Express Bus is another option, however, the journey can be up to two hours one-way so we wouldn’t recommend this option for short layovers.
How to spend a short layover at the airport
Guangzhou Airport is modern and comfortable, but it’s not particularly exciting for a layover. Your best bet is to buy a day pass for one of the many lounges. There’s also a movie theater in Terminal 1, a beauty salon for nails and massages, plus five hours of free Wi-Fi.
In terms of dining, expect several local Chinese dumplings and noodle outfits, as well as the usual suspects like McDonald’s and KFC. Once you’ve had your fill, gravitate to the duty-free outlets to shop for perfumes, gadgets, makeup, and more.
There’s also a collection of high-tech art throughout the airport, from innovative Time-Space and Sea-to-Sky tunnels to the dangling Sky Stage installations, created with hundreds of lightbulbs.
How to spend a short layover outside the airport
Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture enthusiast or a foodie, Guangzhou has it all. First things first, you're in the birthplace of Cantonese Cuisine, so head to a local mainstay like Dian Dou De or Guangzhou Restaurant for a dim sum feast.
Next, head to the Liwan District—one of Guangzhou’s oldest—to explore Shamian Island, an enclave created as a base for British and French merchants during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the island is home to leafy pedestrian streets, beautiful European architecture and a few alfresco cafes to choose from.
Nearby, stop by the Qingping herbal medicine market before moving onto Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street, a popular corridor lined with noodle shops, jade vendors and tea sellers. The whole area is a maze of century-old qilous—three- to four-story traditional shophouses and residences—that feel plucked in another era.
If time allows, head east to modern, glitzy Zhujiang New Town, where you’ll find towering skyscrapers, Zaha Hadid’s sinuous Guangzhou Opera House, and creative design and fashion hubs such as K11 Art Mall. Wander around the Pearl River Promenade, just a few minutes south, then take a riverboat cruise to cap off the afternoon.
How to spend an overnight layover in Guangzhou
For those who prefer to sleep close to the airport, there are a few options around CAN—the closest is the Pullman Guangzhou Baiyun Hotel. If you rather head downtown, the top neighborhood choices are Yuexiu, Xiguan and Tianhe.
Yuexiu is the oldest part of the city, rich in history and with lots of museums and landmarks to explore—perfect if you have a day to spend. Xiguan is popular with backpackers and budget travelers. Here, too, there are lots of traditional shophouses, ancient temples, and an entire area dedicated to jade, Hualin Jade Street. Or if you’re more interested in luxury hotels and trendy restaurants, Tianhe is the best place to experience modern Guangzhou.
As far as cities go, it’s pretty quiet after dark. However, you can still have a great night out: book a Pearl River Night Cruise, sip whiskey at Loft Bar, enjoy creative cocktails at Hope & Sesame speakeasy, or down beers at the Happy Monk pub. Most tourism sites close around 7pm, while subway stations close around 11pm.
Layover tours and free hotels
China Southern offers complimentary accommodations to passengers on international flights who have a layover between eight and 48 hours, including code-shares. And if you’re on a domestic flight with an overnight transfer, you can take advantage of the program, too.
Choose from nearly 30 different hotels, including the Pullman, the Holiday Inn Guangzhou Airport Zone, and the Guangzhou Hao Yin Gloria Plaza Hotel—all of which have earned solid reviews on booking sites.
Need to Know
- CURRENCY: Chinese Yuan
- LANGUAGES: Mandarin and Cantonese
- SAFETY: B
- COST: $$ (out of $$$$$)
- BEST TIME TO GO: Spring and Fall
Renminbi, or Chinese yuan. You can exchange at the airport or get cash from any ATM around the city.
Guangzhou is relatively inexpensive compared with other major cities. Expect to pay roughly $50 per night for a three-star hotel, while luxury beds will set you back closer to $250-300.
Weather & Best Time to Go
The best time to visit is fall or spring, when the sun’s out but the humidity has yet to peak. Whereas summers are sweaty, scorching and often rainy. Winter tends to be temperate and refreshing, though a little gray.
Like much of China, Guangzhou is fairly safe. Though unlikely, pickpocketing is possible so take the usual precautions, just like you would in any big city—don't carry valuables, zip everything up, keep an eye on your bag, and so on.
The subway is the cleanest, cheapest and fastest way to get around. You can buy a day pass at any station for 20 yuan ($2.85) for unlimited use of the metro for the next 24 hours.
Food & Drink
Guangzhou is famous for its dim sum—small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. If you only have time to do one thing in Guangzhou, spend it eating.
Don’t know where to start? Order siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings), char siu bao (barbecue pork-filled bun), har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings), turnip cake and ho yau gai lan (Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce) to kick things off. The most traditional places have old-school trolleys piled high with steamer baskets, so all you have to do is wait your turn then point. Alternatively, some restaurants will give you a picture menu and a paper sheet, where you’ll need to check the box next to each dish in order to order.
From fancy white-tablecloth establishments inside luxury hotels to hole-in-the-wall neighborhood spots and family-run restaurants, there are countless places in Guangzhou to get your dim sum fix. We’d recommend Guangzhou Restaurant, Dian Dou De or Tao Tao Ju—all three are time-honored eateries, pumping freshly steamed dumplings out of the kitchens. Bingsheng Zen Tea House is great for vegetarians, while those looking to splurge should head straight to Yu Yue Heen, the Four Seasons Hotel Guangzhou’s one-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Cantonese and Mandarin are the most commonly spoken languages in Guangzhou, and very few people speak English outside of hotels. We’d recommend downloading a translation app to make it easier to get around.
Wandering along the waterfront. Taking a walk or ride a bike alongside the Pearl River to get a glimpse of the city’s ever-changing skyline and stalwart historical sites.
You might see advertisements for Chimelong Tourist Resort all over the place, but we would strongly recommend steering clear. This massive address—consisting of a theme park, circus, two zoos, a waterpark, and three hotels—is overwhelming, tacky and constantly overflowing with people.