It's Hángzhōu, the handsome capital city, that lands Zhèjiāng (浙江) on many a traveller's itinerary. Home to picture-perfect landscapes of classical Chinese beauty (and just a short train ride from Shànghǎi), Hángzhōu is the obvious highlight. Yet the province offers so much more. There are water towns with spiderweb networks of canals and restored Ming and Qing dynasty merchants' homes (Wūzhèn and Nánxún), also in easy striking distance. Among the thousands of islands dotting a ragged and fragmented shoreline is the island of Pǔtuóshān, one of China's four most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites. More intrepid travellers can head west, where ancient villages retain their traditional architecture and bucolic charms. Meanwhile travellers looking for the opposite of intrepid can hole up in one of the stylish resorts nestled among the hillside bamboo groves and tea fields of naturally cool Mògànshān.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Zhejiang.
The very definition of classical beauty in China, West Lake is utterly mesmerising: pagoda-topped hills rise over willow-lined waters as boats drift slowly through a idyll of leisurely charm. Walkways, perfectly positioned benches, parks and gardens around the banks of the lake offer a thousand and one vantage points for visitors to admire the faultless scenery.
Hangzhou’s most famous Buddhist temple, Lingyin Temple was originally built in AD 326, but has been destroyed and rebuilt no fewer than 16 times. During the Five Dynasties period (907–960) about 3000 monks lived here. The Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings is astonishing, with its four vast guardians and an ornate cabinet housing Milefo (the future Buddha). The Great Hall contains a magnificent 20m-high statue of Siddhartha Gautama (Sakyamuni), sculpted from 24 blocks of camphor wood in 1956 and based on a Tang dynasty original.
The lush, green scenery around this tea village up in the hills southwest of West Lake makes for a wonderful break from the bustle of Hangzhou. Visitors can wander through the village and up into the tea plantations themselves. During the spring, which is the best time to visit, straw-hatted workers can be seen picking the tea leaves by hand in the fields, and baskets of the fresh leaves are left out to dry in the sun back in the village.
Oddly overlooked by most visitors, this 400m stretch of 100 (or so) wooden row houses, flanking a narrow canal, is Nanxun's most charming spot. The buildings here have distinctive blue-black tiles and white walls, creating striking views. Most houses are still lived in by descendants of workers from Nanxun's Ming dynasty (1368–1644) merchant days when goods would arrive from Suzhou along these waters. Today residents run small tea shops on their waterfront patios (try the local water-chestnut cakes).
The serene yet monastically active Chan (Zen) Jingci Temple was built in AD 954 and has been fully restored. The splendid first hall contains the massive, foreboding Heavenly Kings and an elaborate red and gold case encapsulating Milefo (the future Buddha) and Weituo (protector of the Buddhist temples and teachings). The main hall – known as the Great Treasure Hall – contains a vast seated effigy of Sakyamuni (Buddha).
Jinhua Architecture Park is made up of 16 pavilions, designed by international and domestic architects, strung over 2km along the Yìwū River. It was conceived and curated by the artist Ai Wei Wei, to honour his father, poet and native son Ai Qing. Though the buildings – intended to be coffee shops, libraries, wi-fi–enabled work spaces and the like – are shuttered, it is still a fascinating sight, a modern meditation on memorial architecture.
The 60m-high octagonal Six Harmonies Pagoda, dating from AD 1165 in its current form but first built in AD 960, is a stout pagoda that once served as a lighthouse, and was said to possess magical powers to halt the 6.5m-high tidal bore that thunders up Qiantang River. You can climb the tight stairs of the pagoda. Behind it stretches a charming walk through terraces dotted with sculptures, bells (¥10 buys you six chimes and a lucky bracelet), shrines and inscriptions.
Opened in 2015, the imposing white slabs of this gallery couldn't be more in contrast to the black timber houses of the surrounding Xizha scenic area of Wuzhen, showing off modern mastery over the water while being a homage to the multilayered life on an artist. Inside are the collected art pieces by Mu Xin (木心; 1927–2011), a Wuzhen writer and painter who had many of his works destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and was exiled to New York in 1982.
Fronted by large ponds and overlooked by towering camphor trees and luohan pines, this restored Chan (Zen) temple stands by the main square and dates from at least the 17th century. Beyond chubby Milefo sitting in a red, gold and green burnished cabinet in the Hall of Heavenly Kings, throngs of worshippers stand with flaming incense in front of the colossal main hall. Note the seated 1000-arm effigy of Guanyin in the Pumen Hall (普门殿, Pǔmén Diàn).