Thanks to its wide, accessible port, Shantou was once one of most economically important cities in China, doing brisk business with traders from across the world. In the 19th century, Shantou was a bustling, cosmopolitan port town with a large foreign community.
Over the course of the following turbulent centuries, Shantou fell behind other ports such as its nearby neighbor Shenzhen, but it retains some of the style of that 19th-century city – if hidden behind a layer of grit. The city can yield great rewards – beautiful island beaches, unique food and theater – to those willing to peel away that tough outer layer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Shantou:
1. Nan’ao Island
Nan’ao is one of China’s best island destinations – not to mention one of its best-kept secrets.
The beaches are of course beautiful, some of the most pristine in Guangdong Province, but Nan’ao offers much more than sand and surf.
It’s home to an active fishing community and an oyster farm, so you can guarantee that everything the seafood restaurants serve is fresh and delicious.
There are also wide protected areas for scenic hiking and cycling.
You can get here by a short ferry ride or by a bus along the recently-constructed bridge from the mainland.
2. Zhongshan Park
Shantou’s Zhongshan Park is one of the Four Famous Man-Made Gardens that were established in the 1920s to demonstrate China’s millennia of gardening expertise to the world.
Most of the other gardens have fallen into disrepair, but Zhongshan maintains its original grandeur.
Guests enter through a towering, six-pillar red gate bedecked with red lanterns and the Sun Yat Sen quote “Tian Xia Wei Gong,” or “The Whole World is One Community.” It’s a fitting motto for the many foreign visitors who come to admire the park’s gardens, promenades, and placid pond.
There is also a small zoo on the grounds.
3. Queshi Scenic Area
This green, pretty park is separated from downtown Shantou by a thin strip of the Shantou Harbor, just enough distance to allow the park to seem like a faraway world.
The imposing Chinese gate at the entrance to the scenic area completes the illusion.
Once you pass through this gate, you can spend your time wandering through the several ornate temples that dot the area or hiking to the tops of the granite peaks, where you can get a bird’s eye view of the city proper.
If the weather is right, there are even a few sandy beaches where you can dip your toes into the harbor water.
4. Lotus Mountain Hot Springs Resort
Though hot springs and saunas aren’t quite as popular in humid Guangdong Province than they are in the frigid northern regions, resorts still manage to spring up around every geothermal pool that comes out of the ground in China.
Case in point: Lotus Mountain Hot Springs Resort, a that is as opulent as the tastes of the average Chinese businessman demand.
Here, you can bathe in a pool decorated with a tower, fake granite formation, a Dutch-style watermill, or fairy lights strung in the shape of a heart.
The resort also offers reasonable hotel rooms and a decent Chinese restaurant.
5. Longquan (Dragon Rock) Temple
Longquan Temple is set against the smooth, gray rock hills that dominate the backdrop of Shantou.
The hills themselves are so foreboding-looking that it’s no wonder local legend says that dragons live within their caves.
The temple features an appropriately fearsome plaster replica of the legendary dragon, poised as though ready to breathe fire right on his guests.
Most visitors to the temple come here to pray, but the paths and trails around the temple also attract many people looking for a scenic hike.
There is a pond with an attached drinking tap that supposedly cures all manner of ills, but we wouldn’t suggest taking the risk.
6. Chen Cihong Mansion
This opulent complex once belonged to the Shantou-born, 19th-century business magnate Chen Cihong, who is something of a local legend in his home city.
He amassed his fortune in the busier towns of Hong Kong and Bangkok, but came back to Shantou to build mansions for all of his family and to inject some much-needed stimulus into the local economy.
The biggest of these mansions, his own home base, is looking a little worse for wear, but it still offers an interesting peek into an older way of life.
The rooms are outfitted with authentic period furniture and informational placards about Chen Cihong’s life.
7. Mazhou Palace
This little temple is dedicated to Mazhou, the local iteration of the protective mother goddess that can be seen in almost every religion in the world, from the bodhisattva Guanyin to the Catholic Virgin Mary.
Like Mary, Mazhou is often referred to as the “Star of the Sea” and is said to watch over fishermen – an especially important role in this coastal city.
Locals also stop by this temple to pray before they have to take any journey, by boat or otherwise.
It’s a nice, relatively peaceful place to stop while you’re exploring the surrounding attractions in Shantou’s Old Town.
8. Haimen Lotus Mountain
Lotus Mountain is one of the best spots near Shantou to get some fresh air.
With a peak elevation of 500 meters, a hike to the top of the mountain offers nice views of the city and the ocean beyond.
If you’d prefer to stay closer to sea level, Haimen Lotus Mountain Park also includes a surprisingly clean beach where few locals swim but plenty take their morning and evening walks.
Some of the rocks set among the waves are carved with quotations from the poetry of the scholar-general Wen Tianxiang, which adds a level of literariness to your beach outing.
9. Tian Tan Garden
Tian Tan Garden is nice little park in Shantou. The park is surrounded by mountains and has some amazing views.
There’s also a small temple on site.
10. Shantou Museum
Though the architectural style of this provincial museum is vaguely Art Deco, it opened in the 21st century, making it one of the newest and freshest-looking buildings in the historic but often decrepit Old Town district.
The interior of the building is equally clean and modern, with over ten thousand pieces of artwork displayed in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled environment.
Some of the pieces on display could fairly be considered national treasures, including the scroll painting “Wild Geese and Magpies Flying in Reeds” by the famous Cantonese artist Lin Liang.
There are even some far older pieces dating to the Stone Ages.
11. Cultural Revolution Museum
Arguably the city’s most famous and most controversial museum, the Cultural Revolution Museum attracts journalists and curious tourists who would otherwise overlook provincial Shantou.
The museum was originally intended as a memorial for those who died during this turbulent period of China’s history.
However, local party officials disliked the museum’s anti-Communist message and ordered a thorough cover-up.
The monuments carved with the names of the dead are plastered over with blank gray, while “Socialist Core Values” tarpaulin banners stretch across the facade of the exhibition hall.
Naturally, the hall no longer accepts visitors, but the grounds are open.
12. Fantawild Adventure
China is home to countless Disneyland replicas of widely differing levels of quality and copyright infringement.
Some of the higher-quality iterations of this theme are operated by the Chongging-based chain Fantawild, one of the branches of which is set right in Shantou.
The Shantou park includes 15 themed areas, ranging from The Mysterious West to Dino Rampage, the latter of which is supposedly the largest dinosaur-themed area in China.
Each area features its own set of rides, sights, and live performances.
It’s a great place to take kids and is equally popular with young couples, who throng to the park in date attire every Sunday.
13. Shantou Xitang Landscape Garden
Xitang Landscape Garden is one of the best places in Shantou to glimpse what life in the city might have been like centuries ago.
The garden is set along a narrow canal built off the Beixi river, where covered boats trundle past just as they did when canals were the main mode of travel in Shantou.
You can take a ride in one of these boats to admire the old whitewashed homes that hang along it.
Several of these old houses contain shops and restaurants that sell local Shantou specialties and souvenirs.
14. Beishanwan Beach
Beishanwan is one of the most popular beaches in Shantou and is frequently packed with cheerful crowds picnicking on the sand.
Unfortunately, many of those picnickers leave behind their wrappers and leftovers, leading to some unsightly piles of trash.
Nevertheless, the beach offers lovely views of the blue South China Sea, especially at purple-tinged sunrise.
The area is especially popular for watersports such as parasailing, jetskiing, or puttering about in single-person sailboats.
You can hire someone to shuttle you around or try your hand at sailing yourself by renting equipment from one of the nearby shops on the shore.
15. Shantou Old Town
The heart of Shantou is its bustling Old Town, where many of its grandest buildings are concentrated.
Most of these buildings were constructed in the nineteenth century, when the port of Shantou was packed with cargo ships from around the world and the city played a more important role in China’s global trade.
In keeping with that cosmopolitan era, Old Town’s architectural style is an eclectic blend of European and traditional Chinese styles.
Today, most of the buildings are slowly decaying and grown over with trees, but to the right eye that just makes it more aesthetic.
16. Tropic of Cancer Monument
Shantou is located smack dab on the Tropic of Cancer, the circle of latitude that separates the tropics – where the sun can be directly overhead – with the cooler temperate regions.
Few towns that fall along this line miss the opportunity to build some kind of monument marking it, and Shantou is no exception.
The city’s own Tropic of Cancer monument – named, with typical Chinese grandeur, the Symbolic Tower of the Topic of Cancer – is located a few kilometers from downtown Shantou near the university.
English-speaking students are often in the area, most of which will be happy to guide you to the globe-shaped monument atop a tall flight of stairs.
17. People’s Square
Most cities in China feature a wide, precisely-landscaped square perfect for strolling and catching some fresh air.
Shantou’s square has an advantage over the others because of its location right along the harbor, with the rolling hills of Queshi Scenic Area in the distance.
The centerpiece of the park is the massive Musical Fountain, which comes to life with colored lights and mechanized water spouts that wave in time to a musical soundtrack.
For a more traditional kind of musical performance, stop by the square around sunset, when elderly people often practice their erhus against the backdrop of the reddening sky.
18. Lion Head Goose at Chun Mei Stewed Goose
One of the most famous specialties of Teochew cuisine, of which Shantou is an epicenter, is goose stewed in a long list of fragrant ingredients, including ginger, citronella, cinnamon, anise, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and wine.
Shantou in particular is famous for making this dish with so-called lion head goose, an especially large variety that has been raised in the suburbs of Shantou for centuries.
One of the best places to get it in Shantou’s Old Town is Chun Mei, a simple stall that almost always has a line.
For a more refined experience, you can get the same dish at Jianye Restaurant in the Henghui Mansion.
19. Lao Ma Gong Zongzi
Another specialty of Shantou Teochew cuisine is zongzi, glutinous rice stuffed with all different kinds of fillings and steamed in bamboo leaves.
The widely-accepted best place to get zongzi in Shantou is Lao Ma Gong Zongzi, which has been serving up these pocket-sized morsels since 1920. Lao Ma Gong stuffs their zongzi with almost everything under the sun, from pig intestines and pickled stomach to sweet red beans and peanuts.
The restaurant’s name derives from an alternate title for the goddess Mazhou (of Mazhou temple), whose protective powers may be why they’ve been able to keep up their quality and clientele for so long.
20. Mazhou Island
This tiny island situated in the middle of the Shantou Bay is dedicated to the protective goddess/bodhisattva Mazhou, who in a Western analogy might be called the patron saint of Shantou.
While the island is located at the center of the Shantou Bay Bridge, the best way to get there is a fast ferry from the mainland.
The temple is especially bustling on holidays such as Chinese New Year, when devotees come from far and wide to pay their respects to the goddess.
Feel free to admire the statues of Mazhou and other gods, but don’t pull out your camera; as at many active temples, photos are discouraged.
21. Chao Opera at Xie Huiru Art Center
Shantou is the epicenter of the traditional southern Chinese theater known as Chao or Teochew Opera in English.
Unlike the better-known Beijing/Peking opera, Chao opera is sung in a natural voice, which makes it more accessible for Western ears.
Shantou is home to one of the premier training schools for Chao opera, the Shantou Arts and Traditional Opera School, as well as a state-of-the-art performance hall specifically dedicated to hosting Chao operas by performers from Shantou and elsewhere.
Naturally, the performances are in archaic Chinese, but thanks to the universal language of archetypes and broad emotional gestures, even non-Chinese speakers will get the gist.
22. Gongfu Tea Ceremony at Hengshan Lin Tea House
Gongfu tea, also known delightfully as “kung fu tea” – literally, “making tea with skill” – is a special kind of tea ceremony that originated right here in eastern Guangdong Province.
It involves elevating every stage of tea preparation to its highest form, from warming the pot to pouring it out.
While you’re in Shantou, you should take some time out of your busy schedule to enjoy the original gongfu tea ceremony in the place of its birth.
Most of the longstanding tea houses in town perform gongfu tea ceremony, including Hengshan Lin in the Longhu District and Chaocha Tea House in the Shenping District.
23. Shantou Agricultural Science Park
This park is an anomaly in the concrete jungle of Shantou: suddenly, among busy roads and graying apartment blocks, there’s a green, thriving model farm.
Visitors can wander through the wide, outdoor fields of crops such as sunflowers and soybeans as well as the greenhouses growing fruits and vegetables all year round.
Placards in Chinese explain modern agricultural techniques and praise the ingenuity of Guangdong farmers.
In addition to the farm exhibits, there is a rowdy playground with rides for kids.
The park is a popular place both for families with children and for students holding picnic barbecues with their friends.
24. Shantou History Museum
Shantou’s history museum, located in the heart of the Old Town, pays homage to the city’s past life as a bustling port town.
The museum is housed in a stately colonial building, somewhat better preserved than the similar, crumbling structures that surround it.
The first floor features informational placards and photographs about Shantou’s history, while the second is full of glass cases displaying artifacts that offer a window into how Shantou residents lived their daily lives.
There is an emphasis on artifacts from the 19th century, when the city had a more cosmopolitan air and a thriving community of foreigners.
25. Dahao Ancient City
The Ancient City is a section of Dahao, an affluent suburb of Shantou, that has been designated as an official Cultural Relic by the provincial government.
The stone gates and intricately-decorated buildings in this section date back to the Qing dynasty; the Japanese invaders liked them enough to use them as headquarters during World War II. Though some of the buildings are reconstructions from the 1950s, the area is an evocative, immersive reminder of an earlier time in China’s history.
While you’re in town, make sure to try Dahao fish ball soup, a speciality of the neighborhood.