West Lake
Historial buildings near Hefang street
Hefang Street
Street food
A saxaphonist by a canal
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A practical and delicious introduction to China’s most scenic city

Living amidst the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, it sometimes feels necessary to escape on a cheap weekend getaway. When my family got the itch for a trip, we decided the most economical way to be adventurous was to wait for a good airline seat sale. Just as we began to despair that any such deal would cross our path, we lucked upon tickets to a Chinese city we had never visited before – Hangzhou. After the tickets were purchased, I was tasked with the responsibility of uncovering secret treasures hidden within this city.

A quick search online will tell you that Hangzhou is a city renowned for its luxurious scenery. Located on the east coast of China, it is only 170 kilometres from Shanghai. Transportation to Hangzhou is quite expedient – only a 45-minute bullet train away from Shanghai or a two-hour plane ride from Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to us, Hangzhou is a very popular tourist destination, drawing in visitors and pilgrims from all over China. The main draw for many tourists is the famous West Lake, immortalized in writing since the ninth century by poets from all over China. More broadly, Hangzhou is known for its lush green surroundings and widely accessible sale of silk, tea, and other handmade goods, drawing in crowds far and wide.

A city with such a rich cultural heritage as Hangzhou is best understood through the lens of history. Established some 2,000 years ago during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC), Hangzhou slowly grew to become a hub for silk, tea and paper making. Guided by wise leaders, Hangzhou stayed relatively peaceful during the Warring years (475 BC – 221 BC) of the Zhou dynasty, fostering continual economic and cultural growth. By the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279) Hangzhou had reached its zenith and remained the capital for the next 152 years.

Amidst this historical backdrop, a crucial part of Hangzhou’s economic prosperity lies in completing the Grand Canal. Built in sections since the fifth century, it was finally completed in the Sui dynasty (561 – 618), forming the longest man-made waterway in Chinese history. The Grand Canal stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou at its southernmost point. Completing the Grand Canal created a reliable means of transport for food and goods and, most importantly, for administrative and defence purposes. Its completion allowed Hangzhou to flourish into a dynamic and prosperous city that attracted the likes of Marco Polo.

Beyond its history, Hangzhou itself is a surprisingly easy city to navigate with an impressive array of culinary surprises. That being said, traffic and driving in Hangzhou is unique and requires a specialized version of driving that would get me ticketed elsewhere in the world. So I would highly recommend finding lodging close to the attractions you wish to see. In our case, it was the West Lake, and so we chose a hotel within walking distance.

Despite the frightening road traffic, Hangzhou has a sophisticated bike lending infrastructure that is widely popular among locals. With over 3,300 service spots and 84,000 bicycles available, riding to your next destination is a viable and cheap option at only one yuan per hour. Furthermore, if you are worried about sharing the road with vehicles, Hangzhou has built extensive bike lanes with barricades to separate traffic. However, walking along the canal as it winds through the city can be just as enjoyable.

Text Charlotte Wray / Photos Charlotte Wray & Cammy Yiu