Marco Polo declared Hangzhou to be the ‘City of Heaven’; travellers visiting today may be brought back down to earth by the high-rises and traffic. Yet, around the famed West Lake, you can still find vestiges of the city’s imperial past as capital of the Southern Song Dynasty.
With its surrounding willows and backdrop of gentle hills in the distance, the 6.5 square kilometre West Lake
, at the heart of the city, seems straight out of a Chinese watercolour; indeed, it has inspired many. Stroll or bike along the causeways that jut through the lake, or, for maximum scenic impact, hire one of the canopied sixperson wooden boats that line the shore (around 45RMB per person).
Be warned: on weekends, the crowds can overwhelm. If it gets too much, head to Gu Hill, on an island in the middle of the lake. Most don’t make it to the top, which means you can enjoy its charming open-air tea house and lush surrounds in peace. Alternatively, witness the nighttime, open-air musical extravaganza Impression West Lake (82 Beishan Lu; tickets from 260RMB). The more kitsch moments of director Zhang Yimou’s spectacle are compensated by breathtaking choreography and the dramatic backdrop of the lake.
Hangzhou’s temples are among its crowning glories. Seven of the most famed are found in the Lingyin Feilai Feng Scenic Area
. Among the finest is Lingyin Si (Lingyin Lu; 65RMB), or Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, founded in 326AD. Over centuries of upheaval, it has been rebuilt 16 times.
The latest incarnation is a restoration of the Qing-era building; if you’re after the genuinely old, don’t miss the Buddhist carvings
in the grottoes lining the walk up to the temple – these date between the 10th and 14th centuries. For a quieter temple, visit Yongfu Si (45RMB), set amid lush greenery and up a mountain path just west of Lingyin Si.
From Lingyin Si, you can hike up to Hangzhou’s highest summit, the North Peak Mountain
, or take the cable car (30RMB up; 40RMB down). A breathtaking view of the West Lake below and a look around the 1,600- year-old Lingshun Si (Temple of Wealth) is an enticing reward.
Shoppers and idlers should head to the pedestrianised Qinghefang Street
, a revamped part of the old town that combines gaudy architecture and shops with some historical gems. Dip away from the main tourist artery and down the sidestreets to discover some impressive buildings and quaint shops.
Don’t miss the two-storey courtyard Ye Zhong De Tang
. This TCM store, founded in 1808, is packed with staff in white overalls bustling around wooden drawers of medicine.
Take a trip out to the Longjing Tea Fields for cleansing country air and a cup of Dragon Well cha
. March to May is picking season, a perfect time to witness the harvest of the emerald tea terraces. Many factories run tours that explain production and offer tastings, as well as fresh tea to buy.
For a sophisticated bar with nightly jazz, try the JZ Club
(6 Liuying Lu, near Nanshan Lu), the Hangzhou branch of the Shanghai jazz-bar institution. Expect soulful music, a good selection of wine, beer and cocktails, and tasteful decor.
Inside Lingyin Feilai Feng Scenic Area, you will find Fayun Village. A one-time hamlet of local tea-pickers, this collection of stone buildings has since been restored and taken over by Aman Resorts to become the Amanfayun (see ‘Where to stay’). Here, the village’s cobblestone main street and a number of restaurants are open to the public.
Among them is The Steam House
, so-called because of the open kitchen, which bellows out steam and allows you to watch the chefs at work. Meals cost around 400RMB for two, and include such delicacies as sweet pumpkin baozi and rice wine chicken in lotus leaves.
Elsewhere in the city, the ramshackle Green Tea
(83 Longjing Time Out’s Lu) restaurant serves traditional snacks and local dishes, including steamed fish and homemade tofu. Green Tea’s chief draw is the old pine building that accommodates it amid the tea fields, opposite the China Tea Museum
(73-1 Yuhuangshan Lu; free).
For a Western hit, pop into French restaurant L’amour
(87 Shuguang Lu), which provides reasonably priced set menus.
The Amanfayun resort
is heavenly, encircled by forests and tea fields, and adjacent to the seven famous temples. Guests sleep in restored village houses (doubles from 4,093RMB), and, for the ultimate indulgence, can sample Chinese tea in Fayan Place, the resort’s hub that consists of two linked grand courtyard houses.
For budget accommodation, try the West Lake Youth Hostel
(62-63 Nanshan Lu; doubles from 180-200RMB), just east of Jingci Temple, a clean and friendly option surrounded by trees.
And if you are looking for a special package, Tui Travel
offers a four-night Hangzhou trip (from 9,200RMB per person, including accommodation, transport, entrance fees and an English-speaking guide; see www.tui.cn/en
). The package include hikes, cycle tours, visits to the tea fields, as well as wildlife spotting at the nearby Xixi National Wetland Park, plus both TCM and tai chi experts lending some of their ancient knowledge.
High-speed trains from Beijing South to Hangzhou take around six-and-a-half hours and cost from 631RMB one-way.