There’s so much to see around Hangzhou’s West Lake area that it can be easy to overlook the rest of the city. But there are still plenty more things to do in Hangzhou, Marco Polo’s favorite town. From massive pagodas to the Grand Canal to the residence of the city’s own deity, it’s well worth adding a few extra days onto your itinerary to see it all. Conveniently, all of the places we’ll go over below are easily accessible from the city center by bus, subway or on foot.
1. Hike Up Wushan Hill to The City God Pavilion
Only about a kilometer or so east of West Lake, Wushan Hill is another one of those special places in central Hangzhou where you can find yourself completely surrounded by nature. Walking up and down the well-paved hiking trails, you’ll encounter a number of temples before reaching the main destination: The City God Pavilion.
The hike is fairly easy, especially when compared with somewhere like Baoshi Mountain, just to the north of West Lake. On the way to the top, you’ll pass by Taoist temples, memorials to historical figures, and ancient pavilions dating back nearly 1,000 years.
Dongyue Temple is a scenic Taoist temple dedicated to Dongyue, the deity of Mount Tai. Located in Shandong Province, the mountain is considered one of the holiest mountains in China. So significant, in fact, that its deity even has his own temples in faraway places like Beijing and here in Hangzhou! (Shandong also happens to be the birthplace of the Yellow Emperor.)
This temple was built all the way back during the Song Dynasty and then rebuilt again in the Ming Dynasty several hundred years ago. The complex is fairly large, with plenty of rooms and pavilions to explore. And best of all, you’ll likely encounter no more than a handful of other visitors during your visit.
The Youmei & Medicine God Pavilions
Elsewhere on Wushan Hill you’ll come across landmarks like the Youmei Pavilion, a Southern Song Dynasty construction where famous classical poetry was composed. And nearby is the Medicine God Pavilion, dedicated to Shanong, the god of medicine. It’s also a place to pay respects to pioneers of traditional Chinese medicine, a topic you can learn more about in the next item on this list.
The City God Pavilion
If you’ve already been to Leifing Pagoda, you’ve surely seen this building off in the distance and likely wondered what it was. As you could probably guess, the City God Pavilion also offers stunning views of the Hangzhou skyline and West Lake area. But what’s not obvious from a distance is just how tranquil this spot really is. It lacks the crowds of Leifing Pagoda and is a far cry from the bustling market area surrounding the City God Temple in nearby Shanghai. But just what is a City God Temple?
Not directly linked with either Buddhism or Taoism, the cult of the City Gods could be considered an aspect of Chinese folk religion or animism. Essentially, the City Gods are just as you would imagine – deities that watch over and protect their local municipalities. If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, the concept is akin to the City Pillar Shrines found throughout Thailand or Laos. But the difference here is that Chinese City Gods were once mortals who walked on earth.
Hangzhou’s acting City God is a man named Zhou Xin, a former administer of Zhejiang Province in the 15th century. Despite his trustworthiness and incorruptibility, he was betrayed, framed and executed by a rival politician. Following his death, Xin was declared as the City God of Hangzhou by none other than the Emperor.
Though the structure was originally built back in the 1100’s, the current building was largely rebuilt as recently as the 20th century. As it was built using traditional Ming and Qing era architecture, though, it blends in perfectly with the rest of Hangzhou. At the top of the structure, you can relax with a cup of tea as you look over at the entirety of West Lake. And if you’re lucky, you may even catch a musical performance taking place inside the main hall.
While the hike up the City God Pavilion is fairly straightforward, it can be confusing trying to figure out the best path down. Ideally, you want to end up near our next destination, Qinghefang Street.
2. Stroll Down Qinghefang Street
Qinghefang Street, located just east of West Lake, is the place to go for a brief trip back in time. Get an idea of the type of streets Marco Polo would’ve walked down, as the architecture and atmosphere have largely been kept intact since the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279).
You’ll find a myriad of shops, food stalls, and even a giant golden Maitreya Buddha statue. Kitschy? A little. Touristy? Absolutely. Nevertheless, the street is still fun for a stroll even if you’re just window shopping.
You can easily make a stop here in between Wushan Hill (1) and the Hangzhou Confucius Temple (3). And if you have the time, Qinghefang is also where you’ll find one of Hangzhou’s most overlooked landmarks: the Chinese Medicine Museum.
The Chinese Medicine Museum
Originally established as a pharmacy in 1874 by a man named Hu Xueyan, the structure was converted into a museum fairly recently in the 1980’s. The bilingual exhibits offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of Chinese traditional medicine, a healing system largely influenced by Taoism. Generally speaking, Chinese traditional medicine emphasizes examining one’s health holistically and bringing the body back into balance.
The museum details the prominent pioneers of Chinese medicine, such as Ge Hong and Sun Simiao. You’ll find a wide array of both healing herbs and minerals on display. What Western visitors may not be so comfortable with, however, is the tradition’s use of animal parts, especially those of exotic or endangered creatures.
In addition to the museum itself, the first floor of the large building actually still functions as a pharmacy. Furthermore, there are even hands-on pill making workshops available, though it’s unclear if there are any done in English.
Walking down Qinghefang Street, you’ll recognize it by the massive Chinese letters painted on the white wall. Even if you can’t read Chinese, you’ll still figure it out, as this was once the largest shop sign in all of China!
3. Visit the Hangzhou Confucius Temple
You may be wondering just what a Confucius Temple is really all about. After all, wasn’t Confucius just a philosopher? Yes – Confucius was a mortal man that lived some 2,500 years ago, and he did not found any temples during his lifetime.
While the concept of a Confucian religion may seem baffling at first, the tradition stems from Chinese culture’s reverence for spirits of the deceased. Ancestor worship, for instance, is still widely practiced to this day, while deceased humans are dedicated as ‘City Gods’ (see above). It shouldn’t come as too much as a shock, then, that many in China continue to make offerings to the spirit of Confucius, arguably the man with the single greatest influence on Chinese society. The tradition is said to date back to over two thousand years ago, when the Han dynasty emperor made animal sacrifices to the dead philosopher.
Aesthetically and atmospherically, the temple is reminiscent of a Chinese Taoist temple. Inside the main hall you’ll find offerings and incense laid out in from of large statues, while the temple grounds also feature a small garden area.
The main feature of the Hangzhou Confucius Temple is its large collection of stone tablets. They supposedly contain inscriptions of Confucius and some of his disciples’ teachings, as well as specific information pertaining to certain affairs of ancient Hangzhou.
The temple is an easy walk from the eastern side of West Like or from Qinghefang Street mentioned above. For a price of ¥0 RMB, it’s certainly worth at least a half hour or so of your time.
4. Ascend the Towering Liuhe Pagoda
Situated just beside the Qiantang River in the southern part of Hangzhou, the massive Six Harmonies Pagoda is over 1,000 years old. Also known as ‘Liuhe Pagoda,’ it once doubled as both a religious structure as well as a lighthouse to aid with navigation. Like many old buildings in Hangzhou, the pagoda was renovated and constructed over the years by China’s various ruling dynasties. The wooden structure we have today, though, can be dated back to 1899.
At around 60 meters high, Liuhe Pagoda makes for a moderately challenging climb with fantastic riverside views from the top. And compared with Leifing Pagoda just beside West Lake, Liuhe receives much fewer visitors. But there’s still a lot more to do and see in the area than just the pagoda itself.
Coming down from the pagoda, you’ll find a pond and a pavilion with an old bronze bell – fairly typical of old Chinese scenic spots. But what really makes this area unique is its large collection of other pagodas from all over China. Unfortunately, as my travel experience in China thus far is limited, I wasn’t able to recognize any of them. If you’ve been around the country, though, you should have a lot of fun here.
But that’s not all. Beyond the main pagoda and the replica park are a whole bunch of other hiking trails. In fact, hiking around here can take up your entire day if you wish. As I had a plane to catch later in the day, I made it as far as the tomb of a man named Gong Zhuiyu, a well-respected official from the Qing Dynasty, before heading back again. Should you choose to hike for longer, the paths are well-paved and you’ll periodically come across bilingual maps along the trail.
Though the Six Harmonies Pagoda looks far away on a map, you can easily take bus number 4 from central Hangzhou and reach the pagoda in around 30 minutes.
5. Walk Along the Grand Canal
Taking a walk around the Grand Canal at night, being surrounded by neon-lit bridges and towering skyscrapers, it can be hard to believe that you’re standing in front of one the ancient world’s most impressive marvels. But yes, the river before you was entirely man-made, dating back as far as nearly a couple thousand years ago.
Connecting the capital Beijing with Hangzhou, the 1776 km canal played a large role in the economic development of the cities through which it runs. Hangzhou merchants, for example, were reliant on the canal for East China’s bustling silk trade.
Nowadays, a visit to the Grand Canal is a great place for a stroll. It’s also a good opportunity to get away from the tourist crowds of the West Lake area and see local residents going for a jog or just hanging out. Unfortunately, I only had time to visit the area around Wulin Square Station, although one of the main highlights of the canal area is the old stone bridge known as Gongchen.
Previously, we already covered another awesome Hangzhou destination that’s also not along West Lake: the Lingyin Scenic Area. But it turns out there’s still even more to see and do than Lingyin Temple and the places listed above. Let’s briefly go over a few other things to do in Hangzhou:
- Xixi National Wetland Park: Covering an area of over 1,000 hectares in Western Hangzhou, this park is popular for birdwatching and historically known for its silk production
- Yellow Dragon Cave: Located north of the Qixan Ridge, the area is known for its scenic cave in addition to its manmade gardens outside
- Longjing Tea Village: Hangzhou is famous throughout China for its tea. Located west of the city and only accessible by car or taxi, the tea village is the perfect place to sip tea in a tea house surrounded by scenic tea plantations. And of course, there are plenty of places to buy tea should you want to bring some home with you
The closer you stay to West Lake, the better. There are lots of luxury hotels just across the street from the lake in various sections. There are also many hotels, from luxury to lower budget, in the busy area to the east of the lake.
I stayed at a place called Hangzhou Fresh House Hotel and the location couldn’t have been more ideal. I was right by the Longxiangqiao subway station, which meant I could easily get to the bullet train stations for day trips. There are also plenty of restaurants and shopping malls nearby.
Best of all, the hotel was only about a ten minute walk from the eastern edge of West Lake. It truly was the best of both worlds.
The downside of Fresh House Hotel would have to be the language barrier and customer service. Even when I was able to eventually get my point across using translation apps, some of the staff members were unwilling to help me out with simple matters (like reserving an early morning taxi to an obscure bus station I needed to get to).
Aside from the service, the location is probably the best you’re going to find in all of Hangzhou for those who can’t afford 5 star hotels.
Remember, hotels in China need special licenses to even service foreigners in the first place, making options limited.
Getting to Hangzhou is easier than you might think. The airport has direct flights to and from cities like LA, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
You can also take a direct bus to Hangzhou from Pudong Airport in Shanghai.
Hangzhou also has two bullet train stations and four bus stations, making it incredibly easy to travel to and from Hangzhou by train from pretty much anywhere else in China.
When most people travel to eastern China, they make Shanghai their base. This makes sense, as it’s the biggest and most famous city with a huge airport. From Shanghai, many visitors simply visit Hangzhou as a day trip and return in the evening. This is a shame, as there’s so much to see and do in Hangzhou that even a week isn’t enough to see it all. While I like Shanghai, I’d highly recommend choosing Hangzhou as your base instead.
The two cities are close enough (about an hour apart by bullet train) that they share many of the same day trips in common. For example, you can get to many of the region’s water towns or visit the gardens of Suzhou just as easily from Hangzhou as you can from Shanghai. Hangzhou is also closer to the stunning mountains of Huangshan.
Hangzhou has no shortage of places to see, yet is not nearly as exhausting or difficult to get around compared to Shanghai. It has all the basic amenities you’d expect from a big city, but without Shanghai’s insane crowds. If you’re going to be staying in East China for awhile, Hangzhou is much less stressful, nearly as convenient and contains more cultural sites than Shanghai does.
Compared to Shanghai, you might have a harder time finding direct international flights in and out of Hangzhou, but the airport does have direct flights to places like LA, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. And with two bullet train stations, it’s also incredibly easy to travel to and from Hangzhou by train from pretty much anywhere else in China.
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.