The city of Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province in the east of China, 180 kilometers (112 mi) southwest of Shanghai. Nicknamed “Paradise on Earth,” it is known for the scenic beauty of West Lake, around which many of the city’s attractions are located.
The modern city is a vibrant metropolis with nearly nine million inhabitants and is one of the richest regions of China. The central business district and surrounding suburbs are situated on the north and eastern shores of the lake, leaving an unimpeded view of the rolling hills on three sides.
Hangzhou was the capital of China during the Southern Song Dynasty that began in 1123. Called Lin’an in those days, it remained the center of power until the Mongols invaded and set up the Yuan Dynasty in 1276. Since the start of the 10th century, Hangzhou had been a center for art and culture in the south of China, along with Nanjing and Chengdu.
The city was officially established during the Qin Dynasty as Qiantang County and named Hangzhou in A.D. 589 (meaning river-ferry district). The city wall was built in A.D. 591 and steady economic growth made it one of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China. Its prosperity began with the completion of the Grand Canal in A.D. 609; Hangzhou was the southern terminus, receiving goods sent down from Beijing.
There has been settlement in the area since the Neolithic age. There is evidence of a people called the Liangzhu who lived around 5,000 years ago. Their jade carvings are some of the oldest to be discovered.
Much of your time in Hangzhou will be spent around West Lake (Nanshan Rd.). Aside from a couple of nightlife and leisure districts on the north and east shores, most of the city’s important sites are located around the lake. Xi Hu, as it is known in Mandarin, covers 5.6 square kilometers (2.1 sq. mi) to the west of downtown Hangzhou. It has a circumference of 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) and three causeways, constructed from silt dredged from the lakebed, cross it.
Ten thousand years ago, West Lake was a lagoon, but silt deposits blocked the Qiantang River that led to the sea, causing a vast body of water to form. Nowadays, the causeways and shores are lined with willow trees, creating the sort of scenery that looks great even when it’s raining.
West Lake is split into five distinct sections, the largest being Outer West Lake. Solitary Hill (Gushan) sits between the Outer Lake and North Inner Lake and the causeways (Sudi, Baidi, and Yanggong Di). For ¥45, you receive three tickets to use for boat trips to the evocatively named Fairy Islet, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, and the Mid-lake Pavilion. A full trip takes around three hours. There are piers at Yue Fei Temple, north of Su Di; Huagang, south of Su Di; opposite the Tomb of King Qian on Nanshan Road in front of the Academy of Art; and at Lakeside Park, near Hubin Road. If you don’t fancy a boat trip, a walk around the lakeshore offers equally attractive and photogenic views.
Far less glitzy than Shanghai’s Xintiandi, Hangzhou’s Xihu Tiandi (147 Nanshan Rd., Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-2 p.m.) is a pleasant complex of cafés, restaurants, and shops jutting out into the lake from Nanshan Road. It sits close to the scenic spot known as Orioles Singing in the Willows and was built in 2003 by Shui On Group—the company behind Xintiandi. The area is based around Yong Jin Lou, a heritage site from the Zhenghe era of Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). It used to be a place where court officials celebrated the passing of exams and receiving of awards. These days, you can patronize Western cafés and Chinese restaurants inside beautiful white buildings with upturned, blue-tiled eaves. Xihu Tiandi is a good spot to start your explorations of West Lake; whether you head north or south, you’ll come across sites of interest almost immediately.
The ancient Six Harmonies Pagoda (Liuhe Ta, Yuelun Hill, daily 6 a.m.-6:30 p.m., ¥20, plus ¥10 to climb pagoda) peeks out from the surrounding pine forest on Yuelun Hill in the south of Hangzhou and is one of the city’s most iconic sites. Overlooking the Qiantang River that flows into West Lake, the view from the top of the pagoda is photo-friendly to say the least.
Occupying a special position in Chinese history, the Six Harmonies Pagoda was built in A.D. 970 during the Northern Song Dynasty. It was destroyed in a battle in 1121 and renovated in the Middle Ages, when extra decorations and eaves were added. A Buddhist artifact, the harmonies that give the pagoda its name are the precepts of heaven and earth, plus north, east, south, and west. A spiral staircase links the seven floors of the pagoda. Each of the ceilings is carved with intricate bird and flower designs. An exhibition hall on-site offers insight into pagoda architecture.
One of China’s most important ancient Buddhist temples, Lingyin Temple (Lingyin Si, 1 Fayun Alley, Lingyin Rd., daily 7 a.m.-6:15 p.m., ¥30, ¥45 to enter Feilai Feng) is a place of active worship for members of the Chan sect. Tucked between two forest-covered hills just west of the lake, it was built in the Jin Dynasty of the 4th century A.D. when an Indian monk visited the area. He proclaimed West Lake to be the “home of the Immortals” and established a temple here. A flourishing of Buddhism in the 10th century swelled Lingyin Temple’s size and population; it had 1,300 rooms when the Cultural Revolution began in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, the Red Guards did their worst and many of the chambers and halls were destroyed. The temple seen today is the result of a renovation project in the 1970s. Highlights of the temple include the double-eaved Hall of the Heavenly Kings with its Laughing Buddha, the Grand Hall of the Great Sage that contains a gilded Sakyamuni, the Sutra Library, and the Feilai Feng grottoes.
Try authentic Zhejiang cuisine at Lou Wai Lou (30 Gushan Rd., Solitary Island, West Lake, 571/8796-9023, www.louwailou.com.cm , daily 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-8:30 p.m.), such as Dongpo pork and beggar’s chicken. It will taste extra-special thanks to the gorgeous lake views from the windows. Lou Wai Lou was established in 1843, making it one of Hangzhou’s oldest surviving restaurants. It is constructed so that it looks (and feels) as if it’s floating on the lake. In fact, there is a boat on-site to take guests out onto the water after their meal. With a series of private rooms and a sumptuously decorated main dining area, it offers luxury and great food at a surprisingly reasonable price. Of course, you’ll pay more here than at a street-side restaurant downtown, but you’re paying for the view as much as for the food. Signature Zhejiang specialties include Sister Song’s fish soup, freshwater carp with vinegar sauce, and shrimp with green tea. Lou Wai Lou gets busy, so reservations are recommended.
A Subcontinental feast awaits at Haveli (77 Nanshan Rd., 571/8707-9677, daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-2 a.m.), widely claimed to be Hangzhou’s best Indian restaurant. It looks kind of wacky from the outside, with elaborate purple drapes and some eye-catching neon signage, but inside it’s authentic all the way. Dark carved wood adds an exotic atmosphere and the smell of cooking curry hits you as you walk in. There’s indoor and outdoor seating available, so ask for a seat on the terrace if you want an unimpeded view of the lake. An English-language menu lays out the options, with curry classics, naan bread, lassis, and the like. Belly dancers take to the stage most evenings at 7:30 p.m., so plan your visit either to correspond or to avoid, depending on your preference. Smoking is forbidden until after 9 p.m.
See a different side of Hangzhou at Angelo’s (No. 6, Lane 2, Baoshi Hill, Baochu Rd., 571/8521-2100, www.angelos-restaurant.com , daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m.), a self-styled “slice of Italy” at the northeast corner of the lake (you can’t miss the bright orange sign). Long term expatriates congregate here for a taste of the West, from Philly cheese steak to Caesar salad, pizza, pasta, and snacks. It’s a medium-size modern Italian bistro with the sophistication of New York and is popular with the foreign crowd, especially on weekends. Check out the inventive pizza menu and try the Beijing duck variety if you dare. There are also conventional toppings like Margarita and Quattro Stagione, as well as beef and truffle, and curry chicken if you want to go off piste. The drink list is among the best in Hangzhou, with wines by the bottle for well under ¥500. Though the kitchen closes at 11 p.m., Angelo’s is open until 2 a.m.
Kui Yuan Guan (154 Jiefang Rd., 571/8702-8626, Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-2 p.m.) is famous for its noodles and the legend that inspired the restaurant’s popularity. A businessman from neighboring Anhui Province opened Kui Yuan in 1867. When it first opened, business was slow. One day, a nervous-looking student came in who was heading to his imperial examinations. The restaurant owner decided to add three eggs to the student’s noodles to symbolize the exams he was about to take. When the student aced his tests, he went back to the humble noodle restaurant with friends who were yet to take their exams. Soon, people were coming from all over the region to taste Kui Yuan’s magic lucky noodles. The house specialty is a style of dish called pian er chuan that contains noodles in a spicy soup with lean minced pork and bamboo shoots. Another favorite is xia bao shan mian (eel and shrimp noodles).
Hangzhou’s branch of the Shanghai-based JZ Club (6 Liuying Rd., 517/8702-8298, www.jzclub.cc , daily 6:30 p.m.-2:30 a.m.) is the go-to for live jazz in the city. It’s located in an attractive villa by the lake in a stretch of bars and restaurants and is a great place to start (or finish) a night on the town. Covering three floors, the stage is overlooked by balconies on the upper levels. Red velvet drapes and cozy corners give an intimate vibe that’s ideal for smokey jazz, although smoking is not permitted on the ground floor. As well as a great wine list and a good collection of single malt whiskies, there’s a food menu of quality Western-style meals and snacks.
Make Maya Bar (94 Baishaquan, Shuguang Rd., 571/8799-7628, daily noon-2 a.m.) your entry point into the Shuguang bar scene. Situated north of West Lake in a largely residential area, it’s the drinking spot of choice for locals and expats alike. Maya appeals to fans of good beer; there’s Tiger on tap and Budvar, Guinness, and Old Speckled hen by the bottle. Maya is great both as a café in the afternoon (thanks to a wall of books and magazines) and a bar in the evening. The menu of simple Mexican staples endears it to the Westerners who live nearby. There’s a friendly vibe and the place gets busy most evenings and weekends with live music and enthusiastic revelry fueled by jugs of strong cocktails.
The Shangri-La Hangzhou (78 Beishan Rd., 571/8797-795, www.shangri-la.com , ¥1,400) mixes luxury with thoughtful design, as you might expect from a Shangri-La property. On the north shore of West Lake overlooking Solitary Island and Xiling Bridge, the Shangri-La Hangzhou has 382 guest rooms across two wings and three villas. The building channels traditional architecture with upturned roof corners and carved wooden verandahs; it’s a low-rise so it doesn’t look out of place on the lakeside. The lobbies and communal areas are decked out with Chinese artworks, bonsai trees, and marble floors and the subtle but opulent decor continues into the guest rooms. On-site are a health club, business center, lounge, and swimming pool, along with Chinese and Western dining options. Guests can ride bikes in the 40-acre hotel grounds and beyond.
Hangzhou has a handful of excellent hostels, but the Wushanyi Hostel (17 Neidatong Ave., 22 Zhongshan Middle Rd., 571/8533-3969, ¥40-160) gets my vote for its peaceful location, great staff, and clean, comfortable rooms. Set back off the main lakeside drag and tucked up on a hill at the foot of Wu Mountain, Wushanyi sits behind a traditional moon gate (a circle cut into a wall). It’s just one kilometer (0.6 mi) away from the lake and is within easy walking distance of Qihefang Street and the lakeshore nightlife. You can choose between a bed in a dorm or a private room. There’s a common room with a TV, a restaurant that’s separated from the main building by a stone path across a lawn, and a convivial breakfast room complete with a cat and dog. Plus, there are the regular hostel amenities like bike rentals, laundry, and free Wi-Fi.
By Train: Hangzhou is only an hour away from Shanghai thanks to the fast bullet train that began running in 2011. Trains leave Shanghai’s Hongqiao Station every 30 minutes and arrive 45-60 minutes later at Hangzhou South, reaching speeds of 350 kilometers per hour (217 mph). A one-way ticket costs around ¥80 and is available from the station or from ticket booths around Shanghai. Trains arrive at either Hangzhou Railway Station or Hangzhou South. Regular trains to Hangzhou take 1.5-2 hours from Shanghai South Railway Station and Shanghai Railway Station.
By Bus: The bus route between Hangzhou and Shanghai is well developed and the trip takes 2-3 hours. Shuttle buses leave Pudong Airport for Hangzhou Dragon Sport center at 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 7 p.m., as well as from various points around town including the Railway Station. A one-way ticket costs around ¥50.