Nowhere in China can one exhibit the country’s rapid transformation like in Shenzhen. Sandwiched between Guangzhou and Hong Kong on the flatlands of the Pearl River Delta, this mega-city has grown from a clutch of centuries’ old villages into a booming metropolis of nearly 13 million inhabitants in little more than three decades. While most visitors come to Shenzhen to do business with the city’s hi-tech companies, there is much more to this up and coming destination that initially meets the eye. From hipster start-ups to Song Dynasty era temples and some of China’s best contemporary art, this travel guide to Shenzhen will show you the city’s alternative side.
Grab a drip coffee and soak up contemporary art at OCT-LOFT
Housed in a new street art clad complex of former communist factory buildings, OCT-LOFT is at the forefront of China’s hipster revolution. With a selection of start-ups that encompass everything from chic youth hostels to a mouth-watering array of coffee bars, this is the best and undoubtedly the coolest place to hang out in Shenzhen if not China. For an authentically hip experience, grab a cold brew at the über-minimalist GEE Coffee Roasters before making your way to one of the complex’s many contemporary art galleries, the best of which is OCAT, which recently opened sister galleries in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Here, you are bound to catch a show by up and coming Chinese talent or an internationally renowned master and, if you visit during May, you will get to explore the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale.
Explore the future of design at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning and the Design Museum
One of Shenzhen’s most remarkable features is that for a city that barely existed less than two generations ago it now has more cutting edge art and design than anywhere else in China. Cementing the city’s reputation as the country’s capital of all things cool was the recent opening of two blockbuster galleries – the Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning (2016) and the Design Museum (2017). The former, housed in a futuristic chrome-clad structure, has made waves since opening thanks to its breathtaking architecture and temporary exhibitions that have been attracted from world-class institutions, such as London’s Tate Modern and New York’s MoMA. The latter, which sits on the Shekou Shore, has also attracted much media fanfare – mainly thanks to its partnership with London’s V&A Museum. Guided tours of both museums are available.
Witness world-famous attractions at Window of the World
If gaudy kitsch not minimalist cool is more your thing then make sure to check out Window of the World, which houses a jaw-dropping assortment of miniature versions of famous tourist attractions from across the globe. In one fell swoop, you will be able to take in the Paris’ Eiffel Tower, London’s Houses of Parliament and Cairo’s Great Pyramids alongside many more. The park also contains a number of other attractions, including thrilling roller coaster rides, white water rapids, an indoor ski slope and cable cars that offers a bird’s eye view of the entire complex.
Splendid China Folk Village
While you are in Shenzhen for business, and yet want to experience more of China’s diverse cultures then there is no better place to go than Splendid China Folk Village. This park is divided in two, with the first section containing scale models of famous landmarks throughout China, including the iconic Great Wall and Tibet’s towering Potala Palace. The second area of the park, however, is by the far the most rewarding as it contains mock full-size villages of various ethnic minorities. For the best experience take a guided tour that will tell you more about the country’s diverse traditions, including those of Yunnan Province’s Dai people, Inner Mongolia’s nomadic Mongol herders and Xinjiang’s Muslim Uyghur people.
Stroll through China’s ancient history at Tien Hou Temple
While much of Shenzhen is unrelentingly modern and fast-paced, the tranquil Tien Hou Temple complex provides respite from the city’s non-stop attitude. Located in the attractive seaside town of Chiwan just beyond Shenzhen proper, the temple was founded in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty and has since been destroyed and rebuilt many times. It is built to be a site of worship for Tien Hou, a goddess specifically revered in the Pearl River Delta. The temple and surrounding gardens are infused with the exotic smell of burning incense and visitors are free to explore a variety of traditional pagoda-roofed buildings, including the Drum Tower, and the picturesque gardens that have been immaculately landscaped for the last millennia.
Relax in the hipster paradise of Nanhai E-Cool
Escape the Western chain stores and crowds of Shenzhen’s Sea World district to check out the nearby Nanhai E-Cool, a hipster’s paradise in the middle of the city. This cultural quarter is, much like OCT-LOFT, formed of former communist factory blocks that have been transformed into artists’ studios, galleries and start-up businesses, including a number of cutting-edge coffee roasteries and bars with expert mixologists. The streets that surround Nanhai E-Cool, like Haicheng Street, are packed with street food stalls, selling everything from Sichuanese hotpots to Beijing duck, all in all, a great place to sample more traditional Chinese cuisine.
Marvel at Ming Dynasty architecture at Dapeng Fortress
The sprawling fortress complex at Dapeng was built in the 14th century to defend the important trading posts on the Pearl River from the Japanese pirates who marauded settlements up and down the coast. While today it is relatively far removed from the city centre, the imposing architecture, including towering defence walls and ornate city gates, stands as a testament to the important role the fortress played in the history of the Pearl River. A Fortress tour will let you explore the rabbit warren of narrow alleyways packed with traditional Chinese shops, restaurants and taverns that lie within the gigantic walls.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has areal passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Oct Loft: https://flic.kr/p/rnGJNj (Forgemind ArchiMedia, CC BY 2.0), Design Museum: https://images.app.goo.gl/DEk1mkLFBEvhKvTZA (DAEBO rPIOM, CC BY-SA 4.0), Window of the World: https://flic.kr/p/sv8tiB (Bernard Spragg. NZ, Public Domain), Splendid China Folk Village: https://flic.kr/p/6hnNAM (Xiquinhosilva, CC BY-NC 2.0), Tien Hou Temple: https://flic.kr/p/5XhxaY (Jason Chan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Dapeng Fortress: https://flic.kr/p/49tWvt (Simon Law, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)