Prior to visiting Hangzhou in October, 2015 I thought of it as another large Chinese city – overcrowded, polluted, and chaotic – that happened to have a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world-famous West Lake. I was so pleased to learn that I was sorely mistaken. Hangzhou is a beautiful and clean city with a small town feel; as small as a city of 11 million plus can feel… Traffic was not an issue, the streets and parks were clean and each day we discovered new sites and points of interest. Every traveler visiting China should definitely include at least 2 nights in Hangzhou on their itinerary.

The group with which I traveled consisted of a mix of tour operators and press; it was the first visit to Hangzhou for all 16 of us (several, including myself, had been to China previously) and everyone was excited to see & experience the city and all it has to offer. Over 5 days we did just that!

Location/Access:

Hangzhou is the capital and largest city of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China. It is situated at the head of Hangzhou Bay on China’s south-eastern coast between Shanghai and Ningbo, on the northern part of Zhejiang province. It sits at the southern end of the Grand Canal of China, which runs to Beijing, in the south-central portion of the Yangtze River Delta. Hangzhou is the political, economic, cultural, educational, media centre of Zhejiang province and it has been one of the most renowned and prosperous cities in China for much of the last millennium, due in part to its beautiful natural scenery. It is said that “In heaven there is paradise and on earth there are Hangzhou and Suzhou”

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Most people use Shanghai as a gateway to get to Hangzhou; the city is about a 3 hour drive or 45 minutes aboard a high speed train from Shanghai. The high speed train station is located next to Hongqiao International Airport (SHA), NOT Pudong International Airport (PVG). Six carriers fly nonstop from the USA to PVG (Delta, United, US Air, Hainan, Air China, China Eastern) and you can fly from 8 US cities nonstop to Shanghai (LAX, SFO, SEA, ORD, DTW, EWR, JFK, HNL).
Passengers starting or ending their trip in Hangzhou can utilize the major airport (HGH) located just about a half hour from the city center. There are nonstop flights from Hangzhou to the following major hubs, allowing you to get to/from HGH with only one connection: Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Guangzhou, Seoul, Doha, Amsterdam.

Accommodation

There are many hotel options in Hangzhou. We stayed at the Zhejiang Grand Hotel which was well located in the city center. The rooms were comfortable and well designed and the breakfasts had lots on offer. When choosing a hotel for clients it is important to decide if they would rather stay in the city or at West Lake – it is not too difficult to get between the two and there are benefits to each, so it is more of a personal preference decision. If someone is not ‘comfortable’ staying with a Chinese hotel brand there are plenty of upmarket options for them as well, including Four Seasons, Intercontinental, Shangri-La, JW Marriott, Sofitel, and Banyan Tree.

Cuisine

As with any ‘FAM’ trip we were very overfed, but it was delicious so I’m certainly not complaining. Hangzhou is a culinary paradise with a large number of delicious dishes, and behind these dishes, there is always a beautiful story linked with a historic figure in Hangzhou. As a branch of Zhejiang Cuisine, one of the Eight Great Cuisines of China, Hang Bang Cai or Hangzhou Cuisine is characterized by freshness and sweetness. Most of the ingredients to prepare Hangzhou Cuisine are related with West Lake, like lotus root, West Lake water shield, fish, etc.
All of our meals were served family-style (or dim sum) as is the traditional way to dine in China. We sat around large round tables and big portions of several dishes were set on a lazy susan in the middle of the table and you dined till you could eat anymore. All meals included rice, different vegetable dishes, shrimp (prepared a number of ways) a fish dish (West Lake carp is the most famous), meat (usually pork – pork belly is very popular), poultry (beggar’s chicken is a delicacy), soup (most common was a delicious broth with mushrooms and greens), and then fresh fruit as dessert. I tried and enjoyed everything with one exception – duck head was served at one meal and I could not bring myself to try it…

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As with most Asian cities there were also street vendors cooking up anything you could imagine – fried rice, tofu, duck, chicken feet, and organs that I couldn’t even determine what they were. There are also late night food shops which cooked up the best thing I ate on my trip. For the more picky eaters there are also western style restaurants as well as cafes and plenty of fast food (I saw more KFCs in Hangzhou than I’ve seen anywhere in America!).

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What to do (tours & activities)

We kept very busy throughout our 5 days in Hangzhou, doing/seeing pretty much everything that the city has to offer. There really is something for everyone no matter where your interests lie. Here is a brief recap of ‘things to do’ in Hangzhou. Guests would have to pick and choose what to do in a 2 or 3 day visit to the city but they shouldn’t have any problem finding a number of interesting outings from the many available offerings.

WEST LAKE – the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the best known thing about Hangzhou and for good reason. The lake is surrounded by a beautiful park that is very well maintained and the setting is tranquil and stunning. There is much to do on and around West Lake – stroll through the park and enjoy the foliage, fish and architecture; take a boat cruise on the lake; enjoy Impression West Lake – a breathtaking one hour performance created and directed by Mr Zhang Yimou, who was in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The show takes place on the lake (the stage is built a few inches below the water) and is a MUST SEE; performances are daily and tickets range in price from US$45 – US$100.

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VISIT A LOCAL TEA GARDEN – Hangzhou is often referred to as the capital of Tea! Teahouses can be found on every block in the city and there are beautiful tea farms on the hills surrounding the city just a short drive from the city center. We were all amazed that a quick 10 – 15 minute drive puts you right in the middle of the tranquil tea farms. We met the owner of the tea farm, walked around the farm and learned so much about the process of tea farming and tea in general, the activity concludes with you being invited into the owners’ home for a traditional tea ceremony. I have been through many tea ceremonies in various cities and this was by far the best tea experience I’ve ever had!

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ARTS & CRAFTS – I am using this term very loosely b/c the activities that I will briefly explain here are way more involved and impressive than the term ‘arts & crafts’ implies. Here are the things that we did that involved creativity – both ours, and also appreciating creativity of others…

  • Visit to Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society – this is a renowned community of epigraphy, calligraphy and painting on ancient bronzes and stone tablets. We watched a master do calligraphy and then carving into stone. After watching we each made our own (with varying levels of success). This activity was the highlight of the trip for many!
  • Visit the Workmanship Demonstration Pavilion – this pavilion is a modern day workshop where visitors can appreciate the variety of skills that are needed to make a number of China’s traditional crafts including paper cutting, eggshell carving, silk knitting, west lake parasols, making chopsticks and more. You can also try your hand at some of these skills – we painted and designed our own umbrellas.
  • Visit the Wensli Silk Museum – this is the biggest private silk culture museum; it has an area of over 1,700 square meters. There is a collection of more than 1,000 cultural relics of modern and contemporary period. Among which 400 modern cultural relics contain embroidery cloths of Qing and Ming dynasty.
  • Visit the ZhenQiHui Art Center – the biggest private museum in China with 6,000 square meters of exhibit space and 5,000 show pieces. ZhenQiHui gives guests an opportunity to understand 5,000 years of Chinese culture, history, and art. The tour showcased ancient furniture, pottery, art, and more and we also learned calligraphy and had a tea ceremony during our visit.

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XIXI WETLAND PARK – the wetlands is a network of rivers and the first national wetland park in China; it’s a short drive from town and definitely worth checking out. The area covers 60 square kilometers divided into protected areas and leisure areas open to the public. The boat trip on the wetlands takes about half an hour and culminates in a stroll through a fishing village now converted to tea houses and shops and the Dragon Boat Exhibition Hall is also located here. This is a very peaceful and relaxing boat ride through a beautiful natural environment.

The Grand Canal – a UNESCO World heritage Site, this is the longest canal or artificial river in the world and a famous tourist destination. The canal begins in Beijing and runs all the way to Hangzhou (approx. 1100 miles)! The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC.
We took a one hour boat ride on the canal. The history and architectural significance of the Grand Canal is very interesting but I must confess that the boat ride is not very scenic – the banks of the canal are not really built up.

Temples & Pagodas – there are many historically and culturally significant temples in and around Hangzhou; one could build an entire multi-day itinerary solely focusing on this aspect of the city. We had the opportunity to visit two of the most popular sites and I highly recommend that all visitors to Hangzhou go see both.

  • Flying Peak & Lingyin Temple – one of the oldest and most significant ancient Buddhist temple of China, Lingyin is located in the mountains. It’s a large complex that features a number of halls and temples on the grounds. I thought the coolest part was Flying Peak at the front of the complex. Flying Peak features Buddhas and other figures carved in to the stone on the side of the mountain and in caves. There are over 300 figures that were hand carved – amazing. The other highlight of this site was the Hall of the 500 Arhants. As the name suggests there are 500 bronze statues, each displaying a different emotion and expression. There are many other halls to explore as well but this was my favorite.

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  • Leifing Pagoda – this 5 story octagonal pagoda sits on top of a hill overlooking West Lake. It offers great views of the lake and the city and carries significant historical value. Originally constructed in 975AD, it collapsed in 1924 but has since been rebuilt. Visitors have the option of walking up the tower (lots of steps) or there are escalators and elevators. Unfortunately it was very overcast and gray the day we visited so the views were not as spectacular as they could be on a sunny day.

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CONCLUSION

Hangzhou exceeded my expectations on every level. It is a large modern city but it’s full of history and culture and somehow retains a small town feel. It’s a very green city with natural beauty around every corner. West Lake is definitely the main draw but there are so many other attractions that warrant a visit to Hangzhou. The combination of the culinary experience, history, architecture, culture and nature makes Hangzhou a must visit for anyone going to China; I would recommend spending 3 nights to ensure you have ample time to see and do everything that you want.

 

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