Lap up some lakeside serenity in Marco Polo’s ‘Heaven on Earth’
A classical Chinese watercolour of mist-shrouded hills, willow-lined banks, and pagoda-sprinkled forests, Hangzhou has remained relatively unchanged since the Venetian explorer sang the city of poetry’s praises in the late 13th century – despite only being a 40-minute bullet train from the big city buzz of Shanghai. Traditional sampan wooden boats glide across the shimmering waters of the West Lake beneath ornate bridges, and locals sip Longjing green tea amid the lily ponds. A special kind of stillness reigns here, which lulls visitors into exploring the city’s ancient sites and natural beauty at a slower pace.
A short round-up of Hangzhou’s must-see sights…
West Lake (Xi Hu): Hangzhou’s star attraction. Unwind in the shade of willow trees lining the lakeshore, or island hop with a lake cruise, on anything from a colourful dragon boat to a luxury yacht. The city is also home to China’s original and most successful bike-share scheme, if you’d rather pedal than paddle.
Lingyin Temple: An elaborate Buddhist temple built in the 4th century with famous stone carvings set amongst the temple-dotted landscape of the Wulin Mountains.
The Grand Canal: This UNESCO World Heritage Site runs all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou, and is the oldest and longest man-made waterway in the world.
The China National Tea Museum: Browse beautifully presented exhibits dedicated to China’s most beloved brew, learn how the leaves are grown and picked from the surrounding plantations, and take part in a traditional tea ceremony overlooking gardens and rolling farmland.
Leifeng Pagoda: This octagonal five-storey tall tower which presides over Sunset Hill has become a household name thanks to its role in the ‘Legend of the White Snake’.
Hefang Street: An impressively preserved ancient cobbled street which celebrates the very best of Hangzhou’s architecture, history, and cuisine where you can pick up authentic street food and locally made wares.
…and a longer look at Hangzhou’s lesser-known spots
Meijiawu Tea Village
As a renowned Dragon Well Tea production site, the tea leaves from Meijiawu are impossibly green in colour, wonderfully fragrant and rich in flavour. The village has over 160 tea houses run by local families with beautifully decorated reception halls where visitors are immersed in the history of Meijiawu tea – from the picking and stir-frying of tea leaves, to the various functions of tea. Plan your visit in spring to join the locals during the tea harvest, when you can pick and gather fresh tea leaves in woven kitararu baskets.
Xixi Wetland Park
Back-to-nature travellers should head for this wildly beautiful wetland, which rambles along the western side of Hangzhou. A long line of artists and literary greats have fallen for the rural simplicity of its plum blossom and bamboo-filled waterways – today, you can pour over ancient poems and calligraphy in the Xixi Water Pavilion’s library. Take a moment to simply soak up the sounds of nature from Bo Hut, a thatched cottage made from tufted reeds which floats like a fairy island above the emerald waters.
If you’re planning a day trip, the ancient water town of Wuzhen is just over an hour away from Hangzhou. Delve into a maze of historic Chinese buildings, criss-crossed with canals and pretty bridges. Visit the bustling water market, where traders sell their goods straight from their boats, or learn about ancient customs at folk museums and traditional crafts workshops.
What – and where – to eat in Hangzhou
For Longjing Shrimp…
This popular Hangzhou dish is a crunchy combination of jade-white river shrimp stir-fried in Longjing tea, and can be found in most authentic eateries throughout the city.
For dim sum…
These bite-sized bundles of joy are a Cantonese staple, and are best enjoyed on sharing plates with friends and family. Hang restaurant Zhi Wei Guan has been serving up delicate dim sum since 1913, with a generous helping of lake views.
Hop aboard a water bus to Dadou Lu Food Street, a lantern-lit cluster of ancient riverside buildings, mostly filled with home-style restaurants serving sweet, mellow specialities from beggar’s chicken wrapped in lotus to short ribs in pickled tofu sauce.
Tucked away in the Yanshui garden-style buildings of Xixi Wetland Park, the Yanshui Fish Shop serves every kind of local fish dish imaginable to a gentle soundtrack of lapping water and river music.
Temples of tranquillity: where to stay in Hangzhou
Vallie Hotel…Once a collection of homes for local tea farmers, the hotel’s dreamy beds and yoga pods blend beautifully into the tree-filled landscape, with temple-style roofs and golden light that filters through the branches come nightfall where you can sink into private pools naturally filled by the Hupao Spring.
Qiushui Villa…A beautifully restored century-old villa with central courtyard inspired by ancient Jiangnan architecture, mirage-like infinity pool, and handpicked antique furniture throughout the suites which all come with West Lake views.
Muh Shoou Xixi Hotel…Flowing lines, pools of water and open-sided structures bring a sense of the outdoors in where glass walls and open spaces frame views of the wetlands. Row in a traditional Chinese sculling boat from the Muh Shoou private jetty for a back-in-time way to get back to nature.