The Pearl River Delta (or PRD; Chinese: 珠三角, Zhūsānjiǎo) is in Guangdong province, China. It is a bustling region with massive manufacturing and trade; most of it is heavily built up and densely populated.
Economically and linguistically, the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau — located on opposite sides of the mouth of the Pearl — are very much part of the PRD. However, they are administratively and politically quite different. This article therefore does not include them.
This is among the most prosperous and developed regions of China, and all of the Delta cities are connected to China's high-speed rail system.
The region has eight prefecture-level cities:
- 1 Guangzhou (广州) (or Canton) - is the provincial capital and the economic and cultural center of the region. It is a few hours up the Pearl River, is thousands of years old and has been a trading city since the days of the Maritime Silk Road.
- 2 Dongguan (东莞) - center for the garment trade, between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, including the manufacturing town of Houjie.
- 3 Foshan (佛山) - industrial city near Guangzhou to the southwest that includes the culinary destination of Shunde, which is also famous for its many criss-crossing waterways.
- 4 Huizhou (惠州) - a pretty and rapidly-developing town on the Northeast edge of the region, popular for its nature and beaches.
- 5 Jiangmen (江门) - port city that includes the county-level cities of Kaiping, Enping, Heshan and Taishan, the ancestral homelands of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians.
- 6 Shenzhen (深圳) - is on the mainland next to Hong Kong. It was basically a group of fishing villages until the late 1970s. Then it was made a Special Economic Zone and developed incredibly rapidly; today it is a boom town, close to 20 million and still growing, and the main hub of China's tech industry.
- 7 Zhongshan (中山) - home of Sun Yat-Sen and center for furniture trade, just inland of Zhuhai.
- 8 Zhuhai (珠海) - is on the mainland next to Macau, also a fishing village turned SEZ, 1.56 million in 2010, and is somewhat less rich and less brash than Shenzhen, but has better preserved its traditional dialects and culture. Stroll along the seaside or explore the well-preserved early 20th-century Doumen Old Street.
Shenzhen and Zhuhai are Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where various government programs encourage investment. Both get many business visitors, plus large numbers of tourists from Hong Kong and Macau who come mainly because shopping, services and entertainment are all cheaper on the mainland.
This region has always been one of China's major centers for foreign trade, from the days of the Maritime Silk Road through the era of tea clippers and into recent times.
Guangdong province produces about a third of China's total exports; most of these are from the Delta. The region is often referred to as "the world's workshop." The largest product groups are clothing and electronics but the industrial base is extremely diverse and the range of products manufactured is enormous.
In 1978, a small processing workshop making handbags for export to Hong Kong opened in Dongguan. This was the first export processing business in China. From then on, as Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening up" policies went into effect the Delta underwent absolutely frenzied development, partly fueled by heavy Hong Kong, Taiwanese and foreign investment. There was also significant investment and massive migration from other parts of China.
During these decades, GDP growth in industrialized countries was generally 0 to 4% a year. China managed 8 or 9% overall national growth every year for decades. The Delta was the fastest-growing region at around 15% a year! That is, GDP doubled every five years from sometime in the 80s until 2008. Shenzhen, the showcase city of the Pearl River Delta, likes to brag it is "the fastest growing city in the fastest growing region of the fastest growing province of the fastest growing country in the world."
Part of the "opening up" was creating Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to encourage investment. Two of these — Shenzhen and Zhuhai — are in the Delta. Both have undergone phenomenal growth, from fishing villages in the 70s to bustling modern cities today. Shenzhen is now well over 10 million people, Zhuhai about two million.
The traveler on a really tight budget should get out of this area altogether and seek the real bargains in China's hinterland.
The cost-is-no-object traveler can stay in Hong Kong, or go to up-market places in other cities, and have a wonderful time either way.
Residents of Hong Kong or Macau routinely cross to Shenzhen or Zhuhai for cheaper shopping, services and entertainment; travellers can do the same. Meanwhile, mainland residents in the PRD cross over to Hong Kong or Macau for high-end shopping and entertainment, lured by lower taxes on name-brand goods and by attractions like Macau's casinos and Hong Kong Disneyland. Nowadays Guangzhou and Shenzhen have lots of luxury shopping and activities as well, though cheaper options still exist on side streets and in the suburbs.
The main language of the region is Cantonese, which it shares with neighbouring Hong Kong and Macau. However Mandarin has been the language of education and government throughout mainland China for decades, so it is also very widely spoken. In Shenzhen, Mandarin predominates because of massive migration from other regions. Some parts of the region have dialects that are closely related to Cantonese but have low mutual intelligibility such as Taishanese, though speakers of these dialects usually speak standard Cantonese as well. Hakka is spoken by a significant minority in the region, but most speakers of that can also speak Cantonese, Mandarin or both.
English is more commonly spoken here than in most regions of China, due partly to the influence of Hong Kong and partly to the extensive foreign trade connections in the region. However, it is still not all that widespread; you can expect reasonable English from staff in many higher-end hotels and tourist shops, but generally not from a taxi driver or the waitress in a local restaurant.
Other foreign languages — anything from Swedish to Swahili — are sometimes heard since this is a very cosmopolitan region, but none are widespread or generally useful for travellers. However, a few of the higher-end hotels specialise in visitors from particular countries; these can provide services in Japanese, Korean, Russian or the major Western European languages.
Guangzhou and Hong Kong both have major international airports, and Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Macau also have large airports; all these airports are modern and efficient, having been built or greatly expanded since about 1990. Zhuhai serves only domestic flights, as do the smaller airports in Foshan and Huizhou. Some of the international low-cost carriers fly to Macau or Shenzhen because their landing fees are lower than Hong Kong and Guangzhou. On Wikipedia's list of the busiest world airports by passenger volume Hong Kong ranked 8th (3rd for international flights), Guangzhou 13th, and Shenzhen 32nd as of 2018.
Hong Kong airport has direct ferry connections to several cities in the PRD. To catch the ferry from the airport, go directly to the ticket counter without passing through Hong Kong immigration or customs; see Hong Kong International Airport#By ferry for details. Macau and Shenzhen airports also have ferry connections to much of the PRD.
The region is well connected to the rest of China by road and rail. The backbone of China's high-speed rail system is the line from Guangzhou to Beijing via Wuhan and Nanjing at 300+ km/h (near 200 mph) all the way. This passes through many cities, various lines branch off it to others, and another 300+ line goes north from Beijing to Harbin. Another fast line, though only 250 km/h, runs along the coast from Shenzhen to Shanghai via Xiamen and Hangzhou.
The area includes three separate visa regimes: Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. Citizens of most countries can enter Hong Kong visa-free and Macau visa-free or with a visa on arrival, but will need to get a Chinese tourist visa in advance.
You can get a Chinese visa from a Chinese embassy or consulate in your own country. For most passports, visas can also be obtained at the government office in Hong Kong or Macau; the Macau office has shorter lines. Many travel agents in either city can also arrange a visa for a small fee. The government-owned CITS (China International Travel Service) has an office in Hong Kong airport which can arrange both visas and flights.
There are special visas which allow you into Shenzhen or Zhuhai but not out into the rest of China. They are sometimes obtainable at the border, but the rules are different by passport and change over time. Check the Shenzhen entry for details.
By bridges and tunnel
The 50-km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau link, a bridge and tunnel opened in October 2018, makes it possible to travel quickly across the Pearl River Delta without taking the ferry. Driving your own car is a pain—there are significant restrictions, and drivers must apply for three separate permits (one from each of the Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland governments) to drive across the bridge between Hong Kong and Macau. However, frequent shuttle buses are available.
The entire region is well connected by highways and any city or town in the region is easily reached by bus. Driving yourself is not recommended; see Driving in China.
Guangzhou is a major rail hub with connections to anywhere in China. There are fast bullet train links to Shenzhen and Zhuhai which put you right at the border for Hong Kong or Macau respectively. Chinese high-speed trains also serve Hong Kong directly through West Kowloon XRL (Express Rail Link) station. Many other rail connections also crisscross the region, with more under construction.
There is a good system of passenger ferries, mostly fast hydroplanes, connecting the main cities on the Pearl River estuary — Hong Kong and Shenzhen on the East side, Macau and Zhuhai on the West. Some ferries also go to Dongguan and Zhongshan. There are also some helicopter links, fast and convenient but very expensive. See the "Get in" sections of city articles for details.
All the cities have good local bus systems (but watch for pickpockets) and plentiful taxis. Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong also have extensive metro systems, and Foshan and Dongguan have limited metro systems. All five of these systems are actively being expanded. See the "Get around" sections of city articles for details.
Transportation infrastructure around the PRD is being expanded so fast it's hard for anyone to keep up, so don't expect any guide, including this one, to be fully up to date.
The traditional architecture of the region is known as Lingnan architecture. It features buildings that are primarily built with stone, which stands in contrast to those in northern China that are traditionally built primarily with wood. Buildings, in particular temples, also typically incorporate a large number of relief carvings and sculptures for decorative purposes, which stand in contrast to the traditional buildings of northern China.
Check the articles on individual cities for various things worth seeing, in particular Guangzhou for many historic buildings and many museums, and Shenzhen for a large collection of theme parks and more museums.
Kaiping has many diaolou (watchtowers) built by overseas Chinese, mainly in the early 20th century. These buildings combine features of Western, Chinese and sometimes Middle Eastern architecture and are often quite large. They are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
If you are interested in Chinese history in the era of tea clippers, then the Opium War Museum in Dongguan is definitely worth a visit.
The Canton Fair, held twice a year in Guangzhou, is China's most important trade fair. In the era of tea clippers, the Emperor allowed foreigners to trade only at Canton (now called Guangzhou). In Mao's era, the Canton Fair was almost the only place where Chinese and other businessfolk could meet to make deals. Those eras are long gone, and there are now many other channels for trade, but the Fair remains huge and important.
The area's newfound prosperity means plenty of high-class entertainment. The main playgrounds for the wealthy are Hong Kong and Macau, no doubt about it, but the mainland cities have no shortage either. Think high-class shopping, massage centers whose hourly rates exceed some locals' weekly salaries, golf courses all over the place, amusement parks (mainly in Shenzhen), and various novelties like bungee jumping at Baiyun Mountain and views from half a kilometer up in downtown Shenzhen.
But if you're on a budget, never fear—the cities also have a huge working-class population who make use of free and low-cost activities. Many museums, parks, and hiking trails are free, including all of Shenzhen's best parks.
The region is known for industry and urban development, and true outdoor enthusiasts should look elsewhere—hikers can head to northern Guangdong or further into China's interior, and beachgoers usually head southwest to Hainan. That said, if you're here anyway, the PRD does have surprisingly beautiful mountains and decent beaches. If you like mountains, try Shenzhen or Huizhou, and if you want to relax on the beach go to Huizhou or Zhuhai. Neighbouring Hong Kong also has surprisingly good hiking trails and breathtaking scenery.
The Cantonese style of food is the basis of "Chinese food" the world over, because Guangdong provided most of the Chinese emigrants. It is not heavily spiced like Sichuan or Hunan food.
Dim sum — small items mostly served in the bamboo steamers used to prepare them — is a Cantonese specialty available mainly for breakfast or lunch. Some dim sum is sold by street stalls and some can be found on menus in some restaurants, but in many restaurants the staff push carts around between the tables for you to choose. Almost any dim sum place will at least a dozen choices and some have over a hundred.
The larger cities have a good range of restaurants offering various sorts of non-Cantonese food. Cuisine from other parts of China can be found, often catering to workers who moved to the region from other provinces. In both large and small cities, Sichuan restaurants are common and there are some Hunan places; both are seriously spicy. West-of-China noodles and kebabs are also fairly common and often quite moderately priced; look for restaurants whose staff are in Muslim dress.
In terms of international cuisine, Japanese, Indian and Italian seem to be most common. There are also stores with foreign groceries; the German-based Metro chain is most popular with Western expatriates. Some Western fast food chains like McDonald's and KFC are already widespread, others are expanding and several Chinese companies are also in that market.
The Filipino brand San Miguel has breweries in Hong Kong and Foshan. Their beer is quite popular with expats and travellers in Guangdong.
See China#Drink for more general information; everything there applies in the PRD with only minor local variations.
See Zhuhai#Lotus_Road for a more-or-less unique drinking experience, a collection of tiny open-air bars on a pedestrians-only street.
There are several nearby areas that are well worth visiting.
Two that are linguistically, culturally and economically part of the PRD but politically different, so not covered here:
- Hong Kong is a former British colony on the east side of the river mouth. It was founded in 1841, Britain's prize after one of the Opium Wars, and soon eclipsed Macau as the center of the China trade. In 1997 it became a Special Administrative Region of China, retaining much of its laissez-faire capitalist energy under the slogan "one country, two systems".
- Macau is a former Portuguese colony on the West side of the river mouth. It was the first European enclave in East Asia, and a major trading port from its founding in the 1500s. Today its main attractions are casinos, European food and wine, and old colonial buildings. In 1999 it became a Special Administrative Region of China.
- Guilin and Yangshuo for famous mountain and river scenery
- Hainan for tropical beaches.
- Yunnan, home to many of China's minority ethnic groups and a very popular tourist destination.
- Vietnam via any of the above or Laos via Yunnan
Going Northeast into Fujian province:
- Wu Yi Mountain for history and scenery
- the lively modern city Xiamen
- Yongding County, with the huge Fujian Tulou earth houses of the Hakka people