Hangzhou casts an enchanting spell. Marco Polo marveled that it was "the most beautiful and elegant place in the world" and a popular Chinese saying boasts "above there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou." The serene loveliness of Hangzhou's West Lake and the surrounding hills remain spellbinding and in 2011 earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list, even if realities of modern life—such as massive crowds of camera-happy tourists—occasionally intrude. Millions of tourists visit every year to admire Hangzhou's graceful willows, tranquil waters and expansive gardens. If you can, shoot for a weekday visit to avoid the inevitable weekend crowds.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011, Hangzhou's premier tourist attraction, West Lake and its surrounding gardens, hills, rockeries, temples, pagodas and parks have for centuries inspired poets, officials and tourists with their beauty. This beauty pulls an estimated 12 million domestic tourists and half a million foreign tourists annually making it.
The lake covers a sizeable area on the southwestern edge of the city and is dotted with a number of islands, most of which are reachable only by boat. The largest island, Solitary Island, was once an imperial getaway but is now connected to shore by the Xiling Bridge and scenic Bai Causeway. Cutting through the western side of the lake, Su Causeway provides beautiful views of the lake, as does the Yanggong Causeway that runs along the western shore.
Hence, when you visit Hangzhou's West Lake, you should know that there are a semi-official Ten Views of West Lake (actually, they're rather official, each being marked by a stele inscribed with four characters written in the calligraphy of the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled Qing China from 1735-1796 and kept a holiday palace on the lake). The Su Causeway is at the very top of the list. If you're there in the right season and are enough of an early riser, you'll be able to view the Causeway Qianlong-style, following the inscription on the stele marking the spot: "Su Causeway Spring Dawn." which looks out at the causeway from West Lake's west bank.
Even if you can't make it for a spring dawn, the Su Causeway's worth a visit. At 2.8 km (1.6 mi) in length, it's the longest of the three causeways traversing the lake. Named after the Song Dynasty poet-governor who ordered it made, the causeway consists of six elegant bridges, with the embankments along the way lined with graceful willows and flowers. In the evening, the causeway is illuminated by green lights, making it a favorite spot for promenading couples.
The Lingyin Temple, which literally means "where the divine rest in seclusion," has long been considered one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in China. Established in 326 AD, Lingyin is located at Feilai Feng, making it one of Hangzhou's most significant and popular attractions.
Founded by a legendary Indian monk known as Huili, Lingyin is lined with various limestone sculptures and smaller shrines, including Ligong Pagoda, where Huili's ashes are buried, and the Hall of the Heavenly King. In its heyday, the temple featured nine towers, 18 pavilions, 72 halls and housed some 3,000 monks, although it has been destroyed and rebuilt 16 times and is now comprised of structures dating back to the Qing Dynasty.
Like all the most popular tourist attractions in China, there's a host of conflicting stories about how the towering Feilai Feng got its name. Translating as the "Peak Flown From Afar," it's certainly a rather special place today, and affords wonderful views over the surrounding countryside (if you can see past the hordes scrambling up there with you).
The Lingyin Temple, which is also set on the mountain was established by the same monk, a man named Huili, in the fourth century, and the surrounding hillside is dotted with grottoes and caves, filled with hundreds of Buddhist statues and symbolic rock carvings dating back over a thousand years, including one statue no less than 18-meters tall.
The Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty wrote the name of the peak in 1681, which was carved into the cliffside.
Longjing Tea Plantation
Hangzhou is famous for three things: its water, its fertile and picturesque countryside, and ancient tradition. All three combine in a perfectly brewed cup of Longjing tea.
Ideally made with water straight from the Dragon Well and leaves picked from the terraces of the Longjing Tea Plantation, a cup of this delicate green tea connects you with some two thousand years of history, going back to the second century AD when Dragon Well water was discovered and combined with green tea leaves, lightly fried to stop the oxidation process and preserve the best of their flavor and nutrients.
The spring water's mineral content and cold temperature make it heavier than rain water so that when rain falls, it sits on top of the spring water, creating swirling patterns reminiscent of the image of a traditional Chinese dragon. Tea aficionados swear by the precise mix of water and quality tea, combined at just the right temperature. The results are so pleasing that Hangzhou's Longjing tea was declared an imperial treasure by Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi.
China National Tea Museum
China National Tea Museum is a wonderful place to get to know more about tea's humble Middle Kingdom origins and exalted history.
Situated in the midst of the Longjing Tea Plantation, this free museum consists of a mix of exhibition halls, tea houses, gardens and pavilions covering some 3,500 sq m (4,185.96 sq yd). Spend a few hours roaming about, and you'll glean a fine overview of the story of tea's emergence from the primeval forest of present-day Sichuan and ascendence to a place of honor in imperial courts and in poets' verses.
The Tea Museum's main exhbition building features a Hall of Tea History, Hall of Tea Customs, the Hall of Tea Properties, and even the Tea Friendship Hall, with the Tea Categories Hall arftully displaying over 300 kinds of tea. Dioramas, interactive exhibits and displays of ancient tea wares combine with excellently rendered English explanations to impart just the right amount of information at just the right pace—you can see it all without experiencing Museum Fatigue (and even if you are a bit worn out by the end of it, there's plenty of vivifying tea on hand to set you right).
China National Silk Museum
Like the nearby China Tea Museum, the China National Silk Museum looks back on a tradition that has defined the country over the course of thousands of years. As it happens, both musueums also opened in the early '90s, and are the premier venues of their type nationwide.
In this case, the subject in question is, of course, silk, with over 5000 years of history spread across eight exhibition halls: the Weaving Hall, Dyeing Hall, Folk Customs Hall and Silkworm Hall among them. Of course, no such history would be complete without mention of the significance of silk to international trade, and indeed the various forms taken by the Silk Road (some went by land, some by sea, and there were many branches even on the same route) are represented in maps and models.
The highlight for many visitors will likely be the manufacturing demonstration, which takes in sericulture (that's the raising of worms for their silk) as well as the business end of the process, where you can watch silk being woven, dyed, and printed.
Tiger Running Dream Spring
Running Tiger Dream Spring is also referred to in English as Dreaming of the Tiger Spring, Tiger Running Spring, or Tiger Spring, each name attempting to properly translate its Chinese name which is literally "tiger run dream spring."
Seeping through quartzite, a rock very resistant to weathering, the water is considered to be very pure and thus held up alongside Dragon Well (Longjing) water as ideal water for making tea. While the source of the spring is protected to prevent contamination, the waters flow into a small stream through gardens where locals line up to fill jugs full of the pure, sweet water.
According to legend, during the Tang Dynasty Zen Buddhist master Xing Kong came to the area to teach the Dharma, but not finding any water source, he considered moving on. A deity spoke to him in a dream and told him two immortals that had changed into tigers would dig a spring from the mountain and so Running Tiger Temple was founded next to the spring.
Liuhe Ta , or "Six Harmonies Pagoda," stands south of West Lake, aside the Qiantang River. The 60 m (196 ft) tall pagoda was built during the Song Dynasty in part to gain the favor and assistance of Heaven in warding off floods and in moderating the Qiantang River's unique tidal bore, when a massive wall of water rushes upstream under optimal lunar conditions. The Qiantang's tidal bore is the world's largest, rising up to 9 meters (30 ft) and attaining speeds up to 40 km per hour (25 mph). If you happen to be in Hangzhou during the autumn equinox and Mid-Autumn Festival the temple is a popular spot from which to witness this rare phenomenon. Otherwise, the bore occurs twice monthly at the time of the highest tides. Divinely assisted flood control aside (or Dragon King control, as popular lore would have it), the pagoda has traditionally served as a lighthouse for sailors. Destroyed during fighting in 1121 AD, it was rebuilt in subsequent years.
Mausoleum of General Yue Fei
The Mausoleum of General Yue Feiis one of Hangzhou's most popular attractions among Chinese tourists, who view Yue as a patriotic hero. The historical Yue Fei lived in Southern Song Dynasty China during the 12th century AD, at a time when China was split between the ethnically Han Song and the rival Jin Dynasty, ruled by ethnic Jurchens from the north. The Jin had conquered the north of China, pushing the Song out of their capital Kaifeng and taking the Emperor Qinzong captive. Yue fought the Jin valiantly, but was betrayed by corrupt officials who had him imprisoned and executed as part of a plot to sign a peace treaty with the Jin that would prevent the return of the captured Qinzong, allowing the new Song emperor, Gaozong, to remain in power in the south.
Yue Fei certainly had many virtues and talents, but the fantastic tales of feats and abilities bordering on the supernatural make it impossible to clearly separate fact from myth. We do know that he was a brave, loyal and brilliant military leader, much loved by his men. After his death, his life was commemorated in poems, paintings and novels, starting with a biography written by his grandson, Yue Ke. In 1163, his body was placed in the Hangzhou mausoleum, and ever since he has been adulated as the paragon of patriotism and self-sacrifice.
Xiling Seal Society
The Xiling Seal Society is a charming institution dedicated to the study, preservation and creation of classical Chinese inscriptions, printmaking and painting. Located in West Lake on Solitary Hill island just opposite Zhongshan Park, the Society boasts a history of over 1,900 years.
On a rising slope, the Xilin Seal Society grounds are covered in beautiful gardens, rockeries, and sculpture and provide a great place to explore or just relax.The Society has produced numerous books on classical Chinese artforms. Today, you can see the writers and artists at work and visit a small shop selling examples of their efforts.
Impression West Lake
One of five grand-scale, outdoor folk musicals to be co-directed by acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou, known in the West for directing Hero and Raise the Red Lantern, Impression, West Lake is a spectacular sound, light, dance and acrobatic show.
As with Zhang's other Impression shows (the others are in Yangshuo, Lijiang, Hainan and on Wuyi Shan in Fujian), this one focuses on a local legend, the "Legend of the White Snake". The legend tells of a white snake demon who dreams of being a goddess. Spotting a young man by West Lake who she remembers saved her in a past life, she becomes a young woman but a monk who knows the woman's secret casts the demon down from Leifeng Pagoda.
First performed in late 2007 and backed by a RMB 100 million investment from the local government, the entire show takes place on the famed West Lake itself, with the performance stage submerged just below the surface of the water.