I lived in Hangzhou for ten months. While many people have lived here much longer than I have, I’d like to think I got to know the city quite well. So much so that I’ve put together this Hangzhou travel guide. I hope you enjoy visiting as much as I enjoyed living there.
While I can’t offer lots of history about places, nor suggest places to stay, I can recommend places to see, where to eat/drink, and how to get around the city. Hopefully, all these things will help if you’re planning on travelling to Hangzhou.
Why should I travel to Hangzhou?
There are so many places to see in China, so why should Hangzhou make your list of places to visit? The city blends natural beauty with city life, creating a diverse range of activities and things to see. Smaller than Shanghai, you can easily spend 4-5 days here and really see most of the great things the city has to offer. What’s more, this month Hangzhou hosted the G20 summit. It’s now on the global map and, as such, development and construction are bigger and more frequent than ever. The local government have worked hard to make the city as clean and pristine as possible to welcome world leaders from around the globe.
When should I travel to Hangzhou?
The summer is HOT. With temperatures reaching nearly 40 degrees, you can melt just walking around the lake. Spring and autumn are short-lived seasons; it seems to jump from summer to winter fairly quickly. However, going in these seasons is advisable. October and April/May are the best weather-wise. It can get very cold in winter so be prepared with suitable clothes.
Basic Information About Visiting Hangzhou
China uses RMB. The current exchange rate is approximately 10RMB to £1 which makes conversation easy (for British people at least). There are multiple ATMs around the city which all accept international cards. Bank of China is a good place to exchange money.
The pollution in Hangzhou can get bad. You’ll be able to see it, but downloading an air pollution monitor on your phone or laptop is also a useful way to see what it’s like. Global Air Quality is a good one. For many of the things within the city, you’ll want a clear day. Giving yourself a few days to visit will be beneficial. Pick the clearest to visit the pagodas and viewpoints.
You can get by in Shanghai, Beijing, and some other places with no mandarin speaking skills. Hangzhou, however, isn’t quite so big or touristy, and so learning some basic mandarin or getting a book with phrases in will prove very useful, especially if you plan on visiting a few other places in China. Food and directions are a good place to start. I recommend downloading the app Pleco. It works like a dictionary and can be very useful when you need to look up an odd word. If you plan on staying in Hangzhou and China for a bit longer, I’d also recommend the Chinese Skills app for learning some basic (but vital!) Mandarin.
Travelling During Public Holidays
Being English teachers meant that Mitch and I only really got to travel during the holidays. As you can imagine, this means everywhere is twice as busy, mainly with Chinese tourists. I would say avoid massively touristy areas during these holidays. The China Highlights website can update you year on year when the holidays are. During any public holiday, you’ll find that there are a lot of tourists in Hangzhou. Some from villages who may have never seen people from outside of China before, so be prepared for some photos to be taken of you.
Hangzhou’s Top Attractions in The Central/Downtown Area
The West Lake (FREE!)
The crowning jewel of Hangzhou attracts flocks of tourists to the city: the West Lake. One TripAdvisor review from an Australian say of Hangzhou’s pride and joy that “a lake is a lake”. This is very true, however, Hangzhou’s lake is expansive, has a backdrop of stunning natural and ubran scenery, and has some pagodas and temples to explore nearby. Some parts offer tree-lined pathways, with locals singing, dancing, and general entertaining themselves in this gorgeous area.
It took us three afternoons to walk around the entirety of the lake. Could you do it in one day? Perhaps. However, I don’t think the lake should be rushed around. Plus, with all the tourists, walking fast isn’t always an option. Spending two or three days exploring the different areas of the lake is advisable. There also two causeways around the lake: Su Causeway and Bai Causeway. They can take a while to walk along (especially if it’s busy!), but both offer great backdrops. You can jump on buggies for a certain price which will cart you around. Good on a hot day and if you’re short on time.
This pagoda overlooks the West Lake and so it boasts a great location. However, walking up there means you also get stunning panoramic view across the whole city. On a clear day, it’s beautiful, and in my opinion, shows off the real beauty of Hangzhou.
South of the West Lake lies this gorgeous pagoda overlooking the lake and surrounding city and countryside. Going on a clear day is advisable, not that you can control the pollution! We went when the sun was going down on a polluted day, and the sunset was still nice through the smog.
Qīnghéfāng Old Street
Old buildings and an array of shops with a multitude of different products to buy. You’ll find a few odd bits of westernisation, with a McDonalds and a Costa Coffee operating in some lovely looking buildings, but grab some street food and wander around.
Six Harmonies Pagoda
Another gorgeous view awaits at the top of this pagoda. Unlike Leifeng Pagoda, you’ll need to hike up some steps to get to the top, but it’s totally worth it. I prefer this pagoda to Leifeng. If I was only in Hangzhou for a short time, I’d go here. But, ideally, I think you should go to both.
West Lake Cultural Square
This modern area of Hangzhou is a great open space with cafes, restaurants, shops, and a cinema nearby. There is also a good English bookshop. You can overlook the canal and chill out under some trees. It shows off Hangzhou as a modern city, a contrast to all the pagodas.
Hangzhou’s Top Attractions Outside The Central Area
Going outside of the city centre you can find some other gems to visit in Hangzhou. They aren’t within walking distance but I’ll offer some advice on travelling around the city later.
Gongchen Bridge and Grand Canal (FREE)
Gongchen Bridge lies to the north of the city and we lived about 15 minutes away from this impressive bridge. It runs across the Grand Canal, which is a UNESCO heritage site.
The area around the bridge is wonderful to visit. The Grand Canal museum and the Fan museum (I learnt a lot about the history and diversity of fans) are both free. Tea houses, cafés, restaurants, ice-cream stands, and street food stall give you plenty of opportunities for indulgence and to look over the historic bridge.
If you happen to be around the area in the evening, you will see a real transformation. The large local hotel and bridge light up, and the music starts as the dancing aunties do their evening exercise/dance routine.
I’d recommend getting there by boat (see transport section).
The whole area around the temple is worth a visit, so give yourself a whole morning or a whole afternoon.
Firstly, there are the Buddha’s carved into the wall. The intricate details and descriptions of the different Buddhas are great. Secondly, is the magnificent Lingyin Temple itself. It’s an impressive temple with a strong smell of incense as you walk in. Walk around slowly and take it all in.
Lastly, you can get a cable car (they are bright colours and very OLD, but do the job), where you can get views across the city. Fingers crossed for a smog-free day though (which we did not get, as you can see from our photo).
Xixi Wetlands (Partly FREE)
Head West of the centre and you’ll come to the Xixi Wetlands. The area is huge and there’s a lot to see. Some of which you have to pay for, and some not – depending on your budget and how much you would like to see. The free area is worth a visit as there is lots of green spaces, wet areas, nature conversations, and a museum. There is also an observation deck which was closed when we visited, unfortunately.
Food in Hangzhou
In a city of 8 million people, there is no shortage of places to eat. But, where on earth do you start? If you don’t know Mandarin but want local food, pointing will get you a long way. Though be prepared for things not to look quite as they do in photos from time to time. But hey, take the plunge; you might like it (you also might accidently ordering cold chicken feet, as my friend and I did once). Here are some food recommendations for you to start. Both with the type of food and restaurants to try.
A note about eating out in China: When Chinese people go out to out, most groups order lots of dishes and share everything. The notion of one meal per person, when there are more than two of you, is strange to Chinese people. Even if there is just two of you, order three of four dishes and share them. It’s an ideal way to try new foods and eat locally. You’ll also need to get used to eating with chopsticks.
Baozi (various locations)
You’ll walk down the street and see lots of little open windowed shops with wooden steamed buns in, right? These places sell baozi. This is effectively thick steamed bread with something inside: meat, vegetables, tofu, red bean sauce, custard… pretty much anything. The average price for one is 1.5 RMB (15p). The bigger ones can cost 2 RMB. Most commonly eaten for breakfast, baozi are ideal for a snack or a light lunch.
Grandma’s (various locations, most famous one being: 3 Hubin Road, Shangcheng)
The illuminated green light and crowds of people outside will tell you that you’re in the right place. Grandma’s started in the 90s in Hanzghou with one branch. It has now sprawled across the city and there are even some beyond the borders of Zhejiang province (such as in Shanghai and Beijing). The expansion has not taken away any of the appeal or taste of the place (not that I was there when it first opened of course).
The menu is diverse with many local Hangzhou specialities. My favourites dishes include tea infused chicken, fried potatoes, and sweet and sour pork. If possible, go with a group and order lots of dishes Try them all and be delightfully full when you finish. Be prepared to take your ticket for the queue and to be waiting a while. It’ll be totally worth it, though.
Top Tip: Try and go when it just opens for dinner around 4.30pm, or later, around 8pm.
Xin Bai Lu (56 Longyou Road, Xiacheng)
This is another place where you should order lots of dishes and try a bit of everything. Xin Bai Lu has lots of local food and is popular with locals and tourists alike. Note that there are two of these restaurants. We went to the one near West Lake Cultural square and there is no English menu. Luckily our limited Chinese got us some dishes. There is another more central location (address above) and, apparently, this does have an English menu.
Muslim Restaurants (Various locations)
I know that’s a really broad title but just trust me here. You’ll notice if a place is Muslim owned because there will often a Halal sign in the window, or some Arabic, or (like the place near where we live), a small picture of a mosque on a menu. These places don’t serve pork which is a nice break from the pork you will get everywhere else. The food is generally very delicious and fresh. For a mere 15 RMB (£1.50) you can get a hearty bowl of beef noodles and a small soup of cooking broth.
Shengli River Food Street (Off Shantang Road)
Located north of the city, this small street runs along a canal and is full of restaurants. A place popular with locals and (Chinese) tourists, it’s buzzing with atmosphere and the restaurants are always busy on the evenings. Don’t expect an English menu like in the city centre, pointing and using some mandarin will be needed here. Old Folk’s Restaurant is popular and serves up some great dishes. Near the top end of the street is a BBQ style place. You’ll find BBQ food on skewers inside a fridge. Give it to them to cook and they’ll bring it out to you.
Bakeries (Lots… everywhere)
You’ll notice a lot of bakeries around the city. They are as delicious as they are popular. The cakes are divine and, if you like cream, then I’d recommend a honey puff (note, it’s not actually honey flavoured, it’s just cream). You’ll notice that these bakeries look like they have some savoury food, yet somehow, it ends up being sweet.
I once bought a baguette of garlic bread at one bakery and it had some kind of sweet glaze over it. That bakery in particular is glorious and it is called Tous Les Jours. It’s part of a South Korean chain but the Hangzhou outlet near the West Lake is great. If you want to treat yourself to some baked goods and a tea or coffee, I would recommend here, rather than going to Starbucks or Costa. Sep Café, there are several of these around the city, also do a really cheap black Americano (mei shi kaféi) for about £1.
Western Food Cravings in Hangzhou?
As much as I love Hangzhou and enjoy Chinese cuisine, sometimes, you want a little bit of home. There are a few Western places to eat in the city, but of course, expect to be paying a little bit more for imported food.
Wades (3F, 163 Wu Lin Road)
They offer a variety of food, and every day they have an offer on certain dishes. Happy Hour runs from 7-9pm as well. Located in the city, it’s easy to find and has a variety of western options. The chicken parma is especially good and is BIG.
Slims (202 Nanshan Road)
Want a burger? Go here. Originally set up by American, this place specialises in burgers but also does some great other dishes too. Good atmosphere and well-priced for hearty burgers that come with chips.
Bernini (206 Nanshan Road)
Serves up some great pizza, big enough to share, or eat by yourself if you’re REALLY hungry! You can also get a decent bottle of prosecco here if it’s a celebration (or Saturday afternoon…).
Angelo’s (Number 6, Lane 2, Baoshishanxia, Baoshu Road, Xihu District)
A pretty authentic Italian restaurant serving what I believe to be the best pizza in Hangzhou (although it’s a toss between here and Bernini). The chef even came to chat to us afterwards to see if we enjoyed the meal, which we very much did. The street that it is on is pretty cool so you can find some good local food nearby as well.
Charcoal (515 Yuhangtang Road)
To the west of the city, this place offers a diverse range of western dishes in a chilled atmosphere. You can also find some live music here and sports (usually American). The mac n’ cheese is close to perfection.
Top Tip: It’s not customary to tip in China, so don’t worry about this when eating out. However, some western restaurants may add a service charge.
Places to Drink in Hangzhou
The most famous Chinese beer (pijiu) is Tingstao (pronounced “chingdao”) but there are also other Chinese brands such as Harbin and Snow. You’ll notice when you buy these in local restaurants that these beers are 2.5% alcohol, a very low percentage. Some places will have it the stronger, 4% Tsingtao. However, if you wind up with the weak stuff, you may need to drink a few of them to feel the desired effect (if that’s what you are after). If you eat somewhere local with a beer you can get it for about 5 RMB. In a bar, Chinese beer is usually on draft for 20RMB with imported beer costing more. Here are a few options for drinking and evening entertainment in Hangzhou.
KTV (These are KTV’s everywhere around the city)
For an authentic Chinese experience, head to KTV. If you’re travelling around China, you will most definitely have seen these before. KTV is a karaoke bar chain, but not like the ones you may be used to. You and a group of friends can rent out a room for a certain amount of time (a private and soundproofed room), order drinks and food to the room, and sing to your heart’s content all night. You’ll find a lot of young Chinese people here in the evenings and it is a lot of fun. Both English and Chinese songs are on offer so, if you go with a Chinese friend, you can hear their hits and you can introduce them to yours. Lots of fun.
John’s Bar (221 Zhongshan North Road)
Want a beer or two? Head to John’s Bar. Don’t expect a big, fancy bar. Expect Tsingtao beer (and only Tsingtao beer!) on tap and a smoky atmosphere. This bar deserves credit on this list because the barman (John) changed the name of his bar to John’s Bar because my friends and I went there so often! If you’re hungry, grab some food elsewhere, take it into John’s (this is a perfectly normal thing to do in China), and have a few beers. Chat to John too. He’s a great guy and even hosted a Christmas party for us all.
Eudora (173 Nanshan Road)
A lively band take over Eudora at 9.30pm most nights. So, if that’s your thing, then Eudora is the place to be. Happy Hour runs from 6-8pm (though their Happy Hour ticket system can be very frustrating), and in the summer there is a rooftop bar and plenty of outdoor seating. You can find imported beer here and a range of drinks to suit whatever taste you want. There is also some western style food if you are hungry.
Ellen’s (58 Xueyuan Road – Near Huanggushan Road)
Written by Mitch (AKA The Ambling Bristolian)
Ellen’s is literally the most ethnically diverse bar I’ve ever seen and this diversity is precisely what makes Ellens so great and so terrible. The bar is popular drinking spot for Westerners, Africans, Indians, and local Chinese. No one group dominates, which makes meeting strangers in Ellen’s a real delight.
The downside to all this diversity is that Ellen’s doesn’t really know what it is. Is it a shisha den? Is a cafe? Is it a restaurant? Is it a pub? Is it a bar? Or is it a nightclub? The correct answer, of course, is “all of the above”. That’s why Ellen’s is the kind of place you can go to at 2am to order pizza, jiaozi, shisha, a coffee, and a cocktail. What’s more, you can do all of that at a reasonable price and without people thinking you’re crazy.
9 Bar/Club (2/F, South Tower, Wantang Hui, 262 Wantang Road)
A bar and a club in one makes 9 an ideal spot, whatever your mood. Pool table, table football, and even some retro arcade games make it a good place to have some drinks and catch up with friends. 9 also host a lot of different club nights so it’s a good place for music and dancing too. It’s often open until 5am so, if you fancy a drinking night, it’s a good place to be. They have a huge selection of imported beers and some good (strong) cocktails.
Amigo’s (8 Yugu Road)
Despite the name, it’s not really Mexican. But they do a decent Happy Hour between 6pm-8pm on selected drinks and have a wide variety of beers, cocktails, and wine. It’s a bit outta town but it has a good space to sit outside (which drinking holes often lack in Hangzhou) and the food is good too.
Beer Professor (471 Jianguo North Road)
We only went to this spot once for a friend’s birthday, but a it’s great place to try lots of different beers. You can even buy a 1-litre beer (my weak arms could hardly pick it up). I’m not a big beer drinker but I was told there was a good variety. I stuck to having a couple of bottled beers from the fridge, which were good value despite being imported.
Getting Around Hangzhou
There are a variety of travelling options for getting around Hangzhou, all of which are good value for money.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t use the metro much because it doesn’t run to the north, where we lived. However, from the few times I have been on it, it’s as clean and easy to navigate (as are most of the metro systems in China). As mentioned, it doesn’t head very far north but, if you’re staying in the South or across the river, it stretches far and is a quick, efficient, and cheap way to travel. At the time this is being written, the metro is still under a lot of development, with new lines being built more towards the north of the city.
The bus system in Hangzhou is great. The only problem is that if you can’t speak or read mandarin, which as a tourist, you probably won’t be able to, then it can be quite hard to use. However, if you know what bus you need to get, then travelling by bus is ideal (apart from the traffic, from which you can never escape). For a mere 2 RMB (20p), you can hop on any bus around the city. There are even more electric buses now as well due to the G20.
The taxi system is very good. Flagging them down is simple, but be bold and wave your hand vigorously. Taxi’s run on the meter starting at 11RMB. Most taxi drivers are honest but, if you see them not turn the meter on, give them a gentle reminder. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English, so make sure you have your destination written down in Mandarin on your phone or have it to hand easily. Even if you can say the name of the road well enough for them to understand, a lot of the roads are long with numbers going up to nearly 1000. Written numbers are pretty universal though, so they can understand that no problem if you write the number down.
You’ll notice dotted around the city there are bikes you can rent (similar to Boris Bikes). You need to get a card to rent them. Ask where you’re staying how to obtain one. Mitch got given one by a teacher at his school. The concept is simple: take a bike out, cycle it, and then leave it at another location around the city. If you use the bike for less than 2 hours it’s FREE. Anything over that, you get charged on your card, but I can’t imagine it’s much.
We unfortunately only heard about this great form of transport system near the end of our time living in Hangzhou. The taxi boat runs from Gongchen Bridge down to West Lake Cultural Square. For a mere 3RMB (30p), you can get from one sight to the other. On weekends, you may have to queue, and they only run until about 6pm, but it’s such a relaxing way to travel. If you’re staying in the city, it’s probably the easiest way to reach Gongchen Bridge, rather than getting a taxi or taking a bus, as the boat stops right by the bridge giving you a chance to explore the surrounding areas.
Getting To Hangzhou
There is a Central Train Station and the very new, Snazzy East Train station. Hangzhou boasts great proximity to Shanghai; the bullet train can get you there in approximately one hour. A second class ticket (even one purchased on the day) is less than 80RMB (£8). With comfortable seats and lots of legroom, it makes getting to Hangzhou really easy. You can also get trains to many other places in the country for reasonable prices and at reasonable times. A train to Beijing is only 7-8 hours which is remarkable given the distance between Hangzhou and Beijing. I will always recommend getting the train in China as they are always on time, clean, and efficient. You can buy tickets at the train station, but tickets sell out fast so don’t expect to arrive and be on a train within an hour. You can pre-book tickets on Ctrip, a user-friendly and efficient site. Pick your tickets up at the train station with your reference code and passport and it’ll be breezy.
Hangzhou airport serves National and domestic flights. There are lots of domestic flights to elsewhere in China. I would recommend the train over flying for two reasons. Firstly, taking lots of domestic flights does have a damaging effect on the environment. Secondly, the trains 99% run on time; the flights do not. We’ve had a few delayed flights and friends have experienced cancelled flights. If you’re travelling, the trains may actually work out more time-efficient. There are lots of international flights to Hong Kong from Hangzhou, which is a good transport hub if you’re going to another country.
There are a few bus stations throughout the city with various buses to other cities. Due to the efficient trains, we only used the bus once, and that was to Tunxi near mount Huangshan. As with the trains, the buses are cheap and fairly efficient.
If you have any further questions about visiting Hangzhou, then please do not hesitate to contact me. If you have any expert advice or information to add, please contact me and I can add it to my Hangzhou Travel Guide.
Many thanks to Mitch for his help and for the many great photos which accompany the article.