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72 Hours in Hangzhou

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa exemption policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang Province, in southeast China. Located on the southern banks of the Qiantang River, at the southern end of the ancient Grand Canal and a part of the Yangtze Delta, as well as less than 120 miles from Shanghai (just 45 minutes by train), Hangzhou is ideally placed as an economic, political, and cultural center – not to mention a beautiful scenic area. Marco Polo, the legendary 13th century explorer, even described Hangzhou as “The City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world.” Today Hangzhou is a booming business hub, with the e-commerce giant Alibaba headquartered there, as well as other growing companies. Business and leisure travelers making an international transfer via Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan Airport can tour the city visa-free, taking in the famous West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the city’s most renowned landmark, and its other attractions. Hangzhou’s culture, history, and beauty make it a must-see destination for savvy travelers. Now that you can visit Hangzhou for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to see and do while there. Here are some of the top sites and activities in Hangzhou to make the most of your 72-hour trip:

West Lake

In the southwestern section of downtown Hangzhou, in the city’s historic center, you’ll find the beautifully tranquil West Lake. At approximately 2 ½ square miles, visitors can easily spend a full day exploring the “Ten Scenes of West Lake” (see below for more information on these sights), bicycling, walking, boating or enjoying the “Impression West Lake” live outdoor show at night. The lake is surrounded by the city of Hangzhou on one side and hills on the other three sides, making for an inspiring tableau. Its serene scenery has served as the inspiration for poets, artists and scholars since the 9th century. Over the centuries, numerous temples, pagodas, gardens, pavilions and even man-made islands have been constructed around the lake, each offering another piece to the area’s idyllic beauty.

West Lake Boat
Yanggong Causeway
West lake Trees
Lotus Garden
West Lake in Fall
West Lake in Fall (1)
Bridge in Snow

During the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century, 10 scenic places and occurrences around West Lake were deemed perfect natural sights. These “Ten Scenes of West Lake” are as follows:

  1. Spring Dawn at Su Causeway
  2. Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard
  3. Autumn Moon over Calm Lake
  4. Melting Snow on Broken Bridge
  5. Listening to Orioles Singing in the Willows
  6. Viewing Fish and Lotus Fronds at Flower Pond
  7. Sunset Glow over Leifeng Pagoda
  8. Twin Peaks Piercing the Clouds
  9. Evening Bell Ringing at Nanping Mountain
  10. Three Pools Mirroring the Moon

Read on to learn more about these sights of Hangzhou.

Hangzhou and West Lake have four true seasons, so no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll experience something different and unforgettable.

When to visit:

Spring is a prime season in Hangzhou, with plants and trees blooming all around the West Lake region from March to May. Gentle breezes waft through weeping willows and peach blossoms, which drape elegantly over the Su Causeway, while koi and goldfish swim among the lotus; “Viewing Fish and Lotus Fronds on Flower Pond” (located at the southern end of Su Causeway) is one of the iconic 10 scenes of West Lake. “Spring Dawn at Su Causeway” is another.

Summer on the lake is the season of lotus flowers. On the western side of the lake is the Crooked Courtyard (Quyuan Fenghe), where Jinsha Stream – the largest natural water source for the lake – flows into West Lake near Hongchun Bridge. A multitude of lotus grow here and in summer; the breeze carries the lotus flowers’ scent, creating the sensation of “Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard.”

Fall brings cool air and a calm lake. There is little rain at this time of year, and the moon often shines brightly in the clear night skies. “Autumn Moon over Calm Lake” is another of the 10 scenes. The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place during the fall, on the 15th day of the 8th month, which usually falls in September. Revelers celebrate by admiring the full moon, eating moon cakes, and enjoying with family and friends. During the festival, the full moon is best seen over West Lake, and “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon” is perhaps the most famous location to do so. On that night, a candle is lit inside each of the three mini stone pagodas on the water, with the candlelight and moonlight reflecting on the water harmoniously. An image of this iconic experience is even printed on the one-yuan bank note.

Winter can be cold and wet or snowy, but is still an excellent time to visit West Lake, which is less crowded and even more peaceful at this time of year. Under a soft snowy blanket, the bridges and pagodas around West Lake take on an other-worldly look and “Melting Snow on Broken Bridge” is one of the 10 must-see sights of West Lake. If you’re in Hangzhou during the new year, look out for the swimmers taking a chilly dip in the lake on New Year’s Day.

Leifeng Pagoda

Originally built in 975 AD, this five-story, eight-sided tower was built just south of West Lake (outside the West Gate of Hangzhou) to celebrate the birth of the King’s son. The pagoda’s brick and wood structure was ransacked during the Ming Dynasty by Japanese pirates, who burned the wood, leaving only the brick skeleton. Many people also stole bricks from the tower (since there was a myth that its bricks could repel illness) and the structure eventually collapsed in 1924. In 2001 the mausoleum that sat below the tower was excavated and many ancient Buddhist relics were found. The pagoda was then rebuilt and officially reopened in 2002. The new structure is composed of steel and copper, and now has four sightseeing elevators and full modern amenities, while maintaining the original base of the pagoda and the overall architectural style of the early Leifeng Pagoda. “Sunset Glow over Leifeng Pagoda” is one of the 10 Scenes of West Lake; watching the sun dip down over West Lake and behind the pagoda’s iconic structure is truly a memorable moment.

Leifeng Pagoda 01
Leifeng Pagoda 02
Leifeng Pagoda Sunset

Six Harmonies Pagoda 

Head south along West Lake, just over two miles, to reach the Six Harmonies Pagoda, also known as Liuhe Pagoda. Located on Yuelen Hill, the pagoda stands at almost 200 feet tall, and sharp-eyed visitors will notice that while there are 13 stories visible on the outside, there are only seven stories inside. A spiral staircase connects the floors, which visitors can climb for views of the Qiantang River below. The Qiantang has the world’s largest tidal bore, with a record of 30-foot tidal waves. The pagoda was originally built in 970 AD, and the six harmonies of Buddhism were invoked to dispel the tidal bores, but today they are safely viewable from above. The original structure of the pagoda was destroyed during a battle in 1121 and rebuilt in subsequent years. Once inside, guests will notice the intricate carvings and paintings of animals, flowers and other characters on the ceilings of each story. The top of the pagoda has lights to guide ships sailing the Qiantang River at night. The views from the pagoda include the river below, with its surging tides, as well as the Qiantang River Great Bridge, which is the largest double-decker bridge in China. The Ancient Chinese Pagoda Exhibit Garden is also on Yuelen Hill, right near the Six Harmonies Pagoda, where visitors can see scaled-down versions of intricately sculpted ancient architecture.

pagoda six harmonies
Liuhe Pagoda

Lingyin Temple

Also known as “Temple of Soul’s Retreat,” the Lingyin Temple is one of the largest and most-visited Buddhist temples in all of China. It sits in a narrow valley between North Peak, which is just northwest of West Lake, and “Peak Flown from Afar” or Feilai Feng. The surrounding area is often referred to as the Lingyin-Feilai Feng Scenic Area. Visitors to the area first enter Feilai Feng, where they can explore the stone carvings, and then continue on to Lingyin Temple.

The sanctuary contains numerous pagodas, grottoes, massive statues and important historic relics. The monastery there was founded in 328 AD by a monk from India named Hui Li. Over time it grew to include multiple buildings, 18 pavilions, 72 halls, more than 1,300 dormitory rooms, and was home to more than 3,000 monks at its height. There are also a multitude of Buddhist carvings in the caves and mountains surrounding the temple, including in the famous Feilai Feng grottoes. Today, the main buildings of Lingyin Temple are in the traditional Song Dynasty-era five-hall structure as follows:

The Hall of the Heavenly Kings has 60-foot-high double eaves and the ceiling is painted with intricate dragons and phoenixes. Large statues of the Four Heavenly Kings and a laughing Buddha are also on display. There is also another Buddha statue in this hall, the Skanda Buddha (or “Weituo” in Chinese), which is more than 800 years old – one of the oldest and most significant at Lingyin Temple.

The Grand Hall of the Great Sage (or the Hall of the Great Hero) can be reached through a courtyard connecting it with the Hall of the Heavenly Kings. This hall has a soaring roof that tops out at 110 feet, one of the highest single-story buildings in China. It is here that you can see the Sakyamuni, the largest sitting Sakyamuni Buddha statue, as well as the largest wooden statue in China. On either side of the Buddha there are statues of saints, 20 in total, who are said to be protectors of justice, and12 disciples who serve as guards.

The Hall of the Medicine Buddha (or the Pharmaceutical Master Hall), the Great Mercy Hall, Cool Spring Pavilion, Sutra Library, Huayan Hall, and Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats are other important areas, with the latter three being added in modern times. At the center of the Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats is a bronze canopy and four statues representing the four cardinal directions; it is the tallest solid bronze structure in the world.

Lingyin Temple houses an important collection of Buddhist literature, ancient art, scriptures and cultural relics. There is also a nearby vegetarian restaurant that serves dishes regarded in Buddhist culture as “food for the gods” – a great place to get a bite to eat during your day exploring Lingyin Temple.

Feilai Feng (also sometimes called the Peak Flown from Afar Scenic Area) has a 45 yuan entrance fee; Lingyin Temple has a 30 yuan entrance fee.

Lingyin Temple
temple 02
Lingyin Temple (3)
Lingyin Temple (2)
Fei Lai Feng
Fei Lai Feng – Lingyin Temple

Grand Canal

The Grand Canal is a vast waterway system first constructed in the 5th century that still runs to this day. Spanning from Beijing to Hangzhou, it is the world’s longest artificial waterway and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original canal system was put into place by Emperor Yang, who sought to move rice from the resource-rich Yangtze delta up north for his court and armies. An estimated million workers built the original portions of the canal in just six years and over time it transformed from a rice route to a ground-breaking, 1,100-mile Chinese innovation. Running through eight provinces and municipalities and 35 cities, the canal served as an important means of transportation, trade, and communication in the early centuries, linking five of China’s main river basins. This impressive civil engineering project helped to connect north and south China, and to ensure China’s economic stability; despite its 1,400-year history, it still serves as a major transportation route today. The Hangzhou portion of the Grand Canal is called Jinghang. Take a boat tour to experience the Grand Canal first-hand, seeing freighters and other boats, typical waterside villages, and ancient bridges and buildings along the waterway. A public transport boat costs only 3 yuan, but group sightseeing trips and private tours are available as well. To see the Grand Canal by land, be sure to check out the Gongchen Bridge, a three-arched stone bridge in Hangzhou’s Gongshu district, either on foot or by bicycle. Near the bridge is the Grand Canal Museum, as well as the Chinese Fan Museum and Chinese Umbrella Museum, all of which are free of charge.

Canal 02
Canal 03
Canal 04
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Canal 01
Canal 05
Canal – Ancient city wall 01

Xixi National Wetland Park

This 2,800 acre national wetland park is located in the western part of Hangzhou and is a dense area of various waterways (ponds, lakes, swamps). Thus it makes sense that its name means “west waterway.” The wetlands there have a history dating back more than 1,800 years: Xixi is the original site of the Chinese South Opera and it is home to traditional dragon boat contests. It was named China’s first national wetland park and opened to the public in 2008. Visitors can reach Xixi National Wetland Park by car or cab, then buy a ticket to get into the park; the park entrance fee includes a 20-minute electric boat ride that provides views of the waterways, thick reeds, and often waterfowl and other wildlife. Inside the park, visitors can explore traditional villages (including silkworm farms and silk production, as well as book engraving) and a modern museum describing the local fishermen and farmers’ lives. A dragon boat festival takes place in June and attracts competitors from all over China. Dining is Xixi is especially fun, with meals available aboard a boat or dockside and the lovely water views as your backdrop. There are also overnight accommodations available.

Xixi Wetland
Xixi Wetland (3)
Xixi Wetland (2)
Xixi Wetland (5)
Xixi Wetland (4)
Xixi Wetland (6)
Xixi Wetland (7)

Learn about Tea, Silk, and Chinese Medicine

With history and culture as deep-seated as China’s, there is always something fascinating to see, do or learn while there. In Hangzhou especially, visitors can delve into the intriguing topics of tea, silk, and even traditional Chinese medicine. Here are just a few places to do so while in Hangzhou:

Meijiawu Tea Village

Just 30 minutes outside of Hangzhou is the Meijiawu Tea Village, one of the most famous sites for Longjing tea. “Longjing” translates to Dragon Well, and it’s one of the most prized and expensive teas in China. Longjing tea leaves are carefully grown, harvested, roasted and processed, all mostly be hand, and the process is considered an art form. Perhaps that’s why Dragon Well green tea is known as one of the finest tea varieties in the world. Visitors to Meijiawu Village will be able to tour tea farms and the surrounding village, learning about the growing and production process, as well as about the rich tea culture. The village has traditional tea ceremonies at the 100+ tea houses there, dining at farm-style restaurants, a Buddhist temple, bamboo forest, and many “soil trails” and stone paths that lead up the hillsides. These paths are especially popular with bicyclists, but can also be walked, and offer picturesque views of the village and fields below. For travelers without their own car, there are tea village group tours or private tours, as well as taxis and buses that run to the tea villages.

China Tea Museum

The National Tea Museum opened in the Dragon Well Village in 1991 and specializes in tea, from its history to the culture surrounding tea in China. The museum serves as a hub for tea education, research, entertainment, and more. The museum’s exterior walls are covered in vegetation, giving the sense that it’s a living tea structure; the surrounding ponds and gardens add to the serene feel. Inside, the modern museum includes six exhibition halls that display a variety of exhibits on tea. The Museum also has a training program to qualify tea masters, as well as abbreviated classes for tourists to learn about a wide variety of topics from tea’s health benefits to tea-making to traditional tea serving. Admission to the museum is free; visitors should note that the museum is closed on Mondays.

China National Silk Museum

This museum opened in 1992 and is the largest silk museum in the world. Admission is free, and visitors can explore its exhibitions on Chinese silk craftsmanship, see historic textiles, learn about the famous Silk Road, and more. The museum’s eight exhibition halls include the Preface Hall, Relics Hall, Folk-Custom Hall, Dyeing and Weaving Hall, and the Modern Achievements Hall, wherein visitors can learn about the 5,000-year history of silk-making in China, from past to present. The museum offers free audio guides and accessibility options; there is also a teahouse and museum shop. After visiting the museum and being armed with knowledge of silk, tourists may want to venture to Hangzhou’s outdoor silk market, where clothes, home goods and accessories all made of silk are offered. This pedestrian market is in Hangzhou city on Xinhua Lu near Jiankang Lu.

Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine

For visitors interested in Traditional Chinese Medicine, this museum provides the opportunity to learn about ancient practices, trace its development over the centuries, view books and relics, and even meet with practitioners in the Chinese Health Care Clinic located there. The Restaurant of Medicinal Diet in the museum also sells supplements, herbs and medicine from across China. The Museum sits at the foot of Wu Hill in Hangzhou, in the restored historic Hu Qing Yu Tang pharmacy building, which was considered the paramount location for medicinal practices in the late 1800s. Tourists visiting this museum will be fascinated by not only the practices and methodologies of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but also the interesting architecture of the building and stories of the pharmacy that once operated there.

Meijiawu Tea Plantation
longjing tea 01
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longjing tea 03
longjing tea 02
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Chinese medecine 02

Qinghefang Pedestrian Street

Both locals and tourists congregate at this ancient street to shop, dine and browse the many curios available. Qinghefang Street’s history dates back many centuries, when the area was the business center of Hangzhou. Today this stretch of the city remains well preserved, with Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings lining the street and still selling wares. Century-old stores offer traditional goods, mixed in with some shops more geared toward tourists; either way, Qinghefang is an ideal place to pick up souvenirs for your friends and family back at home. One of the most notable shops is the Zhang Xiaoquan Scissor shop, which has been operating since 1663. Traditional pharmacies, fan stores and restaurants line the area as well, selling time-tested goods. Street food stands also offer popular Hangzhou snacks such as “dragon mustache candy” and duck heads. Nighttime on Qinghefang is lively, with street entertainers and crowds checking out the shops and sights. Qinghefang is also close to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum, so it’s worth a stroll on the way back.

walking street 01
walking street 02

Impression West Lake Show

The Impression West Lake Show takes place at night on Yuehu Lake, a smaller portion of West Lake. Hundreds of actors, dancers and musicians perform on a stage that is 3cm below the water, giving the impression that they are walking on water. The show’s five acts follow the folk story of the famous Hangzhou “Legend of the White Snake.” The show was created by film director Zhang Yimou, who also developed the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The combination of the skilled performers, engrossing story, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, and the natural beauty of the West Lake make the Impression West Lake Show a spectacle to be seen. Performances run nightly from March through December, with a second show on weekends and certain days depending on demand.

Impression West Lake
Impression West Lake (6)
Impression West Lake (5)
Impression West Lake (4)
Impression West Lake (2)

Bicycling in Hangzhou

Exploring Hangzhou by bike is easy, accessible, and fun. The Hangzhou Public Bicycle system launched in 2008 with 3,000 stations and almost 70,000 bikes for rent. By 2020 it is projected to have 175,000 bikes, and will be the biggest bike-share network in the world. Pedaling around Hangzhou and West Lake is one of the best ways to see the area, as it’s inexpensive, avoids city car traffic, and lets you get closer to nature while seeing the sights. And with Hangzhou’s commitment to green policies, more and more bike trails are being developed, including through the tea farms nearby, and other measures such a lantern-lit paths are being put in place to accommodate bicyclists. Popular bike sight-seeing routes around Hangzhou include the path from Broken Bridge to the Su Causeway, the north-bound path on Shuguang Lu, the route from Quqyuan Fenghe bike station to Lingyin Temple (taking a detour to the Hangzhou Botanical Park along the way), the way from Six Harmonies Pagoda to the Qiantang Bridge, and riding along the Grand Canal.  There are of course a multitude of sights to see along the way on all these routes, as well as ample sip and snack spots for refreshments or a rest.