Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in 1290 and was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Xi Hu, or West Lake, that he transcribed, and thus popularized, a famous Chinese saying Shang you tiantang, xia you Suhang, which means in heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Su[zhou] and Hang[zhou]. I am visiting Hangzhou in November of 2016 and I cannot but marvel at the splendor of natural beauty and the carefully integrated townships. It’s no wonder that Chinese now like to call Hangzhou “Paradise on Earth”. A lofty nickname that represent a loveliness, peace and tranquil lifestyle.
Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province. An hour and 30 minutes flight from Shenzhen and two hours by car, to the southwest of Shanghai. It’s home to about 6.6 million, and is one of China’s smaller cities more or less feeling like a big town despite a population twice that of Chicago.
Today Hangzhou is booming again. Not only is it a major tourist destination for its famous West Lake, it’s also home to some of China’s biggest innovative businesses like Alibaba.
But Hangzhou is also an ancient city with a history of over 2,000 years. Here the history of Hangzhou in brief.
Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)
The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, famous for the building of an incredible mausoleum to himself, known today as the Terracotta Warriors Museum, got all the way to Hangzhou and declares the region a part of his empire.
Sui Dynasty (581-618)
The Grand Canal, originating in Beijing, is extended to Hangzhou, thus linking the city to the most profitable trading route in China. Hangzhou becomes increasingly powerful and prosperous.
Tang Dynasty (618-907)
Hangzhou’s population increases as well as its regional power, serves as the capital for the Wuyue kingdom in the late tenth century.
Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)
These years saw Hangzhou’s golden age of prosperity as it became the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty.
Local industry flourished and worship of Taoism and Buddhism peaked. Many of the temples that you can visit today were built during this period.
Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368)
Mongols rule China and Marco Polo visits Hangzhou in 1290. It is said that he was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Xi Hu, or West Lake, that he transcribed, and thus popularized, a famous Chinese saying Shang you tiantang, xia you Suhang. This saying means “in heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Su[zhou] and Hang[zhou]”.
Chinese now like to call Hangzhou a “Paradise on Earth”.
Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1644, 1616-1911)
Hangzhou continued to grow and prosper from its local industries, especially silk weaving, and became the center for silk production in all of China.
After the Qing Dynasty crumbled and the republic was established, Hangzhou lost economic status to Shanghai with its foreign stakes in the 1920s. Internal warfare cost Hangzhou hundreds of thousands of people and whole sections of the city were destroyed.
Since the opening of China in the 20th century, Hangzhou has been on the rebound. Increasing foreign investment and a cluster of some of China’s most successful private enterprises, like New York Stock Exchange listed Alibaba, have made Hangzhou, once again, one of the most prosperous cities in China.
How to Visit Historical Hangzhou
Visiting historical Hangzhou is slightly easier than in other large cities that have been developing at light-speed. The West Lake itself is a nice way to ground yourself in the history of the city with its beautiful views and scenic walks. Take to the hills and visit some of the historical pagodas and temples. Or take a walk down Qinghefang Historic Street. If you can weave through the vendors, you can get a sense of what the city looked like in ancient times.
Features in Hangzhou:
* Xi Hu or West Lake: Hangzhou’s tourist destinations are dominated by the West Lake. It is, by far, Hangzhou’s most prominent feature. The large lake sits in the middle of the city and is surrounded by ancient temples and gardens. Within the lake itself, there are multiple islands to visit, a causeway that is lovely for walks or cycling tours and many grand views.
* Long Jing Tea Fields: China is famous for tea and the most famous tea in China comes from the hills around Hangzhou. Long Jing or Dragon Well tea is China’s most celebrated green tea. It is worth a short drive out into the countryside to visit the villages that grow tea and sip some in one of the many open-air tea houses that line the roadway.
* Temples & Pagodas: Taoism and Buddhism prospered in Hangzhou and serene Ling Yin Temple was saved from Cultural Revolution destruction at Zhou Enlai’s behest. Walking through the serene gardens and temples of Hangzhou’s religious sites is a walk through time.
* Air: Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan International Airport is 17 miles (27km) outside of the city center. However, most international visitors come by rail, car or bus from Shanghai.
* Car: It is possible to negotiate a Shanghai taxi to take you to Hangzhou and vice versa. The fare may run around 800rmb (US$ 100) one-way. The trip will take approximately 2 hours if there is little traffic on the roadway.
* Bus: Tourist buses run back and forth between Shanghai and Hangzhou. There is a shuttle bus from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport to Hangzhou’s Yellow Dragon tour bus center that has six departure times throughout the day. The ticket is 100rmb (US$12) and the trip takes about 3.5 hours. There are also many tourist buses departing from other bus terminals in both cities. Check with your hotel to book tickets.
* Rail: Railway is by far the most efficient means of getting between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Both cities have two stations with multiple trains departing throughout the day. The trip takes under an hour by high-speed train or between 1.5 to 2 hours on the regular line and is inexpensive. Hangzhou is connected to other major destinations such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Xi’An and Guilin as well.
* Weather: Hangzhou’s climate is comparative to Shanghai’s. The average annual temperature is 16.2C and the annual average number of rainy days is 155. Rainy season falls in mid-June. Spring is March-May and autumn is September-November.
* Recommended time for visit: 2 days/2 nights.
* Best time of year to visit: Spring and autumn. Summer is very hot and humid and can make site-seeing uncomfortable. Winter might be too cold to enjoy the many outdoor scenic spots.
* Travel Guide Hangzhou: The Hangzhou Tourism Commission publishes a comprehensive brochure pocket travel guide. The guide includes fold-out maps, information on transportation, major sites, hotels, dining and shopping. It’s available in most hotels and restaurants.
* Hangzhou: This book is a rather larger travel guide by Monique Van Dijk and Alexandra Moss, two expats based in China who have spent a lot of time in Hangzhou. It gives a good overview of all there is to see in Hangzhou and probably gives more info on tourist spots than you need. It also includes less-helpful location maps and information on a few hotels and restaurants. ISBN 7-5022-3648-1
Photo Credit: Andy Brandl/Moment/Getty Images
Adapted from Sara Naumann article, China Travel Expert