Located just to the south and west of Shanghai, Hangzhou makes sense as a first stop on your grand tour of China, especially given its natural beauty and tranquility, especially compared to the urban mass and chaos of the megacity you just departed from.
In fact, the visages present here are so significant, that when it is combined with the temples and tea cultivating and drinking culture that is present here, the West Lake area in Hangzhou has garnered UNESCO World Heritage status recently in 2011. Additionally, incredibly scenic mountains begin to rise on the doorstep of this city, granting many opportunities to get active after being prevented from jogging due to the often terrible smog that often plagues Shanghai.
While the big cities of this country possess much of what makes this rapidly growing nation impressive, the heart of China is in its countryside. And while Hangzhou isn’t exactly small at 8.5 million people, it serves as a gateway into the rural areas of Eastern China.
So enjoy the nature within the city that hints at the greater treasures that lie just beyond the city limits. After spending some time here, you’ll be ready to venture into the real China that lies a short distance beyond the urban areas of this great nation.
The most visited cultural attraction in Hangzhou is the Baochu Pagoda, which shoots up 45 metres into the sky like a slender sewing needle. With seven stories of stone and brick wrapped in a tight, thin formation, there is no inner staircase like some other pagodas in China. As for it origin, it was originally built in the 10th century by members of King Chu’s council after he had failed to return on time from a trip to see the emperor. This structure was used to say prayers for his safe return, which apparently worked as intended, as he did return to Hangzhou, going on to rule this portion of China until his death in 988.
Those looking for Chinese temples in Eastern China should make a point to see Baopu Taoist Temple, which is a truly remarkable structure in this region. Located in the verdant hills above gorgeous West Lake (more info on this place in Other Attractions), this striking yellow temple is your just reward for the vigorous hike it takes to get here. A Tao master called Ge Hong sought to create a youth elixir that could end aging forever. While he failed in his quest, the temple that he once called home will impress you with its design, periodic festivals, and the food at its on-site restaurant.
Sitting at the edge of a significant tea-growing region, there are many worthwhile tea houses that are a world away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Hangzhou. To the west and north of West Lake, the tea villages of Longjing, Manjuelong, and Meijiawu all host tea houses that not only serve fresh tea harvested from the leaves that were just recently plucked from the hills above, but also local food that will pair well with your drink.
If there is any place you don’t want to skip on a quick jaunt through Hangzhou, West Lake is one such place. Featured on the back of the ¥1 note, and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the breathtaking natural beauty here will make you forget, if only temporarily, that you are in the midst of another Asian metropolis.
With different aspects of beauty dependant on the seasons (snow on Broken Bridge is one highlighted sight by the tourism board, and cherry blossoms in the Spring are also a top draw for many travelers), any time of year is a great time to visit West Lake. Numerous museums and galleries also line the shores of this popular public gathering point, but if you have limited time, a boat ride across the surface of the lake will provide vantage points that will certainly take your breath away!
One attraction near the lakeshore that you should also make time for is Guo’s Villa, widely considered to be one of the best private gardens in Hangzhou. With many sublime design elements in the traditional Chinese structures, ponds, trees, and flowers here, you have the ideal place on West Lake to enjoy a spot of tea and enjoy a moment of Zen, while the touristic madness swirls outside the grounds of this peaceful place.
With steep mountains rising from the edge of Hangzhou, going for a hike is an excellent way to get physically active after consuming too many calories indulging in the decadent cuisine that is readily available in China. With many hidden temples, shrines, streams and waterfalls in the hills behind this city, it will serve as the ultimate getaway from the frenetic pace that prevails in much of this country.