Hangzhou is big city with a permanent vacation vibe. This 6.3 million metropolis has a proper downtown but the heart of the city is at its lake, Xi Hu. As an ancient city at the end of China’s Grand Canal, it’s been a prosperous town and cultural center for over 1,000 years. Pagodas, pavilions, monuments, amphitheaters, and open-air art galleries all circle around and float above Xi Hu (West Lake) with droves of people coming daily to adore it. The weather was a bit stormy when we visited this new UNESCO heritage site, but with a place this pretty, it seemed no one even felt the rain.
Adding to its charms, Hangzhou is a biking town. There are 66,500 communal bicycles available across 2,700 stations (basically every couple blocks) and they are free for the first hour or if you want to keep it longer, just swap bikes to start your time clock again. We biked all around the lake and city this way with tons of bike paths and lanes in all directions.
Since the lake is monstrous, these lovely manicured causeways cut across diagonally in two spots. More like parks over the water than roadways, they are a great place to watch local fisherman, cute couples, and the passing boats.
As you’d imagine, boat rides are very popular on West Lake but this jumbo dragon restaurant boat was an option we didn’t see coming.
Little parks like this would appear tucked into the woods around the lake. Sculpture, rock scrolls and pagodas were typical to find with the occasional English caption non-nonchalantly saying 23 AD or Han dynasty’s first stele. With 1000 years of art history in this town, I guess it all can’t fit in a museum.
After a full day of biking, we were starving. The options around the lake seemed to be tofu on a stick or five-course meals. Searching down side streets we ultimately found this gem of a hole-in-the wall. We don’t know what it’s called (Chinese speakers, anyone?) but if you walk down the left hand side of Xueshi Street and look out for this mess of red and white characters, you’ll find the best BBQ and soup buffet in town! We loved the grilled eggplant so much we came back the next day just to satisfy the craving.
You’d think the hoards of people at the lake would thin out once the sun went down, but no, it’s bumpin at all times. In addition to the posh restaurant scene, the parks fill up with musicians, local line dancers (have we mentioned this Chinese phenomenon?), and kissy couples. We spent the night strolling the system of bridges and water walkways taking it all in.
Walking along the water we noticed a few rows of chairs lined up in front of the lake and people hovering around. Without a stage, microphone, or any signs of a performance we had no idea what the commotion was about but then the most spectacular light show began. Set to classical music, hundreds of water spouts danced with such precision and grace it looked choreographed by the Joffrey Ballet. Watch out Bellagio Las Vegas, Hangzhou Parks and Recreation is gunning for you.
The next morning we went back out on the bikes to take on the rest of the lake. Turning down little lanes and climbing stone stairways draped with bamboo turned out to be as lovely as the premier lakeside attractions.
Tucked in a remote cove, we found this pagoda floating in a harbor of lilies, so we decided to rest there for a bit and soak in the Xi Hu serenity.
Due to bad weather and our love for the lake, we admittedly spent most of our time in Hangzhou on West Lake; however, during a failed attempt to checkout a surrounding neighborhood we had perhaps our best encounter. We asked a man at the bus stop how to get to XYZ place and we were hitting a language barrier (over 15 minutes at this point) but he was determined to help us find our route. When bus 35 showed up he emphatically motioned for us to follow him and get on. Twenty minutes later when we all hopped off together, we realized he was not heading in our direction at all–he only joined us to make sure we got to our destination safely. We so wish we had a photo of him but instead this smiley photo of us is in his honor and the lovely people of Hangzhou.