Hangzhou is just 2.5 hours from Shanghai by bus, and even faster by train, taking as little as 55 minutes to reach this tourist city famed for its natural landscapes owing in particular to the West Lake. This is a great place to get away from the busyness of the Shanghai metropolis and indulge yourself in some more peaceful escapes. Yet, a visit to Hangzhou does not have to destroy your wallet. Here are some of our favorite things to do for free in Hangzhou.
The West Lake
Ever since the beautiful sceneries and body of West Lake were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, the Chinese government promised that the destination will be free for all visitors to enjoy. But even before this, the West Lake was Hangzhou’s most popular highlight. Found in the western side of the city as its name suggests, there are various well known scenic locations such as Bai Causeway, Su Causeway, and the Broken Bridge.
The views from any of those spots are spectacular, offering sweeping panoramas of the large body of water and the forested mountains surrounding it. For an even more intimate experience with West Lake, tour around on foot or by bike rental, or even take a short boat ride. When you need a break, stop into one of the various tea houses nearby; be sure to try a cup of the famous longjing tea! The West Lake area is very large so be sure to block off minimum of half a day a day to enjoy it. Finally, there are 10 Scenes of the West Lake specifically to be visited, each of which offers a unique and breathtaking vantage of the lake; some sites charge an entrance fee.
The Grand Canal of China
You may have heard of the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Panama Canal in Panama, but what about the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal? This is the world’s longest manmade waterway! Stretching a total of 1,794 kilometers, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal joins Hangzhou with Beijing in the north as well as 5 of China’s largest rivers: Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe, Haihe, and Qiantang rivers. The section of the canal that passes Hangzhou makes for gorgeous scenery, lined with historic buildings, food courts, river settlements, ancient dwellings, stone bridges, and historical relics all the way. Feel free to walk around here for free, or take a boat or water-bus tour to get better acquainted with the canal, such as the one from Pujia Wharf to Gongchen Bridge Wharf. You can also learn more about the history of the canal and its significance at the Grand Jing-Hang Canal Museum found in Canal Cultural Square, where there are also events held from time to time.
• Getting there: Bus Lines K4 or 504
Jiuxi (Nine Streams or Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies)
Even if Hangzhou is already considered quite provincial by Shanghai standards, there are still ways to leave the heart of the city. About 20 minutes north of the Qiantang River, the Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies is a great (and free!) place to go for a stroll or bike ride. This area originates at Yangmei Hill and continues past Hangzhou’s west mountains until it reaches the Qiantang River. The various creeks are known for their clear waters, bubbling whisper, and cool temperature, perfect for cooling you down on a hot day. All around, there are hills with lush trees. Hidden farmhouses and properties dot the surroundings, some of which offer a welcome retreat with drinks and food available. Li'an Temple, also called Fayu Temple, is the main architectural highlight to see along the way whose entrance is also free. You can also enjoy a cup of tea and cheap vegetarian dishes at the temple, with the best time to visit being autumn when the sweet osmanthuses nearby are in full bloom. Soak in the images of picturesque paddies, tea terraces, farms, streams, small lagoons, and tea houses on your visit to Jiuxi. 3 or 4 hours is recommended in total.
• Address: Longjing Village, Xihu District
Hefang Ancient Street
If you tire of landscapes and want a more urban break, visit Hefang Ancient Street. This 1.8 kilometer long pedestrian street about a 15 minute walk from West Lake is a fine place in Hangzhou to go shopping or just window shop. It is more than 1,000 years old, hailing back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Here you will find interesting shops and restaurants in the style of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, not to mention stalls selling age old traditional snacks, art, and souvenirs. Some of the establishments truly date back into history such as Baohetang Pharmacy and Huqingyutang Pharmacy which still sell some rare medicines. Longquan Royal Kiln, Wang Xing Ji Fan Store, Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors, Taiji Teahouse, and Rongbaozhai Gallery are some other historical properties well worth stopping into. It is recommended to spend 1 to 2 hours visiting Hefang Ancient Street.
• Address: Hefang Street, Shangcheng District
• Hours: 9:00am to 10:00pm
• Getting there: Bus Lines 8, 60, K216 (night line), 25,35, K187, K404, Y8, or K850
Zhejiang Art Museum
The Zhejiang Art Museum is a wonderful destination for those who love art and landscapes. The museum is right next to West Lake and looming in front is Mount Yuhuang (Jade Emperor Mountain). It is quite a new establishment, opened only since 2009. Zhejiang Art Museum is even the largest art museum in all of China with 14 complete collection halls over 4 floors that showcase both Chinese and international art from throughout the ages. Take at least 3 hours to enjoy the museum.
• Address: 138 Nanshan Road, Shangcheng District
• Hours: 9:00am to 5:00pm
• Phone: 571 8707 8700
• Getting there: Bus Lines K4, 12, K102, 514, K808, 809, 822/K822, 809, or 12/K12
China Academy of Art, Xiangshan campus
Touring a college campus may not be an obvious thing to do in Hangzhou but that’s what makes thish excursion special. The Xiangshan campus of the China Academy of Art is found in the suburb Zhuantang Town and is the nation’s top academy of fine arts. Covering more than 500,000 square meters, the campus is beautiful and integrates the natural scenery such as forested mountains, ancient trees, and flowing streams into its overall ambiance. As well, the architecture is very unique, contemporary, experimental, and traditional in flavor. In fact, some of the buildings were constructed along the lines of the distant hills, fusing nature and manmade construction into one. Also, corridors and cloisters weave through the campus which is organically laid out. Wang Shu, the famed designer of the campus and Dean of Architecture, won the industry pinnacle honor the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his life’s work.
• Address: 352 Xiangshan, Zhuantang Town
• Phone: 571 8671 77077
• Getting there: Bus Lines K102, J9, Y9, Y6, 822/K822, 809, 12/K12, 514/K514, Y3, K808, or K4
Prince Bay Park
Hangzhou has no shortage of parks. Prince Bay Park is right next to West Lake and a fine place to gain an exterior perspective of the lake from above. The park is full of mountains that offer grand views from the top. In springtime between March and April, the tulips (imported from the Netherlands in 1992) and cherry blossoms go into full bloom, making for an even more romantic setting than usual for couples and weddings. The area is quite large spreading more than 197 acres, so be sure to take some time to explore.
• Address: Taiziwan Gate, Nanshan Road, Xihu District
• Phone: 571 8796 3701
• Hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm
• Getting there: Bus Lines K4 or 504; Tourist Lines 1, 2, 3, or 5
Meijiawu Tea Plantation
As you probably know by now, tea is an integral variable in Chinese culture and daily life. Meijiawu Tea Plantation is a great place to get your bearing straight regarding tea, especially the mellow flavored longjing tea, one of China’s most famous and popular. The teahouse is found close to West Lake to the southwest. On its grounds, you are free to tour the property, pick tea leaves from the plantation, learn about the various complexities and dimensions of tea, experience a traditional tea ceremony, or even explore the historic tea horse trails. It can get busier on the weekends so go on a weekday if you wish to have more tranquility. You can even try some local food for a price; often there is no menu, rather the owners or employees will recommend what is best.
• Address: Meiwujia Village, West Lake District
• Getting there: Bus Lines 324, K658, 4, or 5; Tourist Line 4 or 5
Xiling Seal Engraver's Society
Looking for insight into a very niche subject? Take a free visit to the Xiling Seal Engraver's Society where you can learn from the institution’s dedicated experts about the preservation and creation of classical Chinese inscriptions, printmaking, calligraphy, and painting. Found on Solitary Hill in West Lake, the Xiling Seal Engraver's Society is more than 1,900 years old. The property around it is also very pretty. Today you can watch the experts at work, discuss with them the art of their craft, and visit the small shop that showcases their works.
• Address: 31 Gushan Lu
• Hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm
• Phone: 571 8581 2993
The city of Hangzhou is a fine place to try your hand at biking in China and get around like a local. While the streets are still quite busy and traffic-filled by international standards, it is calm by Chinese measures! Almost all the major thruways have dedicated bike lanes; only the small side streets do not have this available. You will see the bright red public bikes available throughout Hangzhou, as well as the rental stations that dispense them at all main locations in the city. When renting, you will have 1 free hour, lock, and a free tourist map that shows all the stations where you can return the bicycle. To arrange for a rental, go to one of 5 Selling of Public Transport Coupon stations, present your value/IC card (also used for local buses), ID such as passport, and a deposit of 300 Yuan. If you ride more than 1 hour, it is 1 Yuan for the first 2 hours and 3 Yuan per hour for each hour after that. The amount of your accumulated fees will be deducted directly from your deposit. It is acceptable to ride for 1 hour, check in the bike, then rent another one right away without a fee.
• Hours: 6:00am to 9:00pm
China National Tea Museum
If you wish to learn more about tea and its rich history, stop by the China National Tea Museum in Hangzhou for free. It is the only museum of its type in the country. Longjing tea is the most popular and famous but here you will also get to try many other flavors and types. In addition to the exhibits, you will get to visit the teahouses, gardens, and pavilions. Most interesting is the history of the development of tea which reaches into the Middle Kingdom.
• Address: 88 Longjing Rd, Xihu
• Hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm
• Phone: 571 8796 4221
• Getting there: Bus Lines 27 or Y3; Tourist Line 3
China National Silk Museum
Very close to the China National Tea Museum and found at the southern edge of West Lake is the China National Silk Museum, also with free entrance. Similarly, the museum provides background on the long history and legacy of silk production and trade in China and is one of a kind in the country. There are a total of 8 exhibition halls with, for example, Preface Hall showing the 5,000 year history of Chinese silk culture. The China National Silk Museum also offers free guides, free audio guides, free pamphlets with further information about silk, and even free wheelchairs for the disabled. Nearby is Jade Emperor Hill.
• Address: 73-1 Yuhuangshan Rd, Xihu
• Hours: 8:30am to 4:30pm
• Phone: 571 8703 5150
• Getting there: Bus Lines 12, K12, 809, Y3; Tourist Line 3
Laodong Lu (Laodong Road)
Right behind the China Academy of Art is Laodong Road, an artist and art enthusiast’s dream of a destination. This is the main hub of Hangzhou’s art culture with handfuls of independent art galleries, calligraphy studios, and art supply stores. Laodong Road is an ideal place to relax in a café, have a drink, and people watch. Red Space is a particularly well loved bar/café with a fine reputation.