A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011, Hangzhou’s premier tourist attraction, West Lake (Xī Hú, 西湖) and its surrounding gardens, hills, rockeries, temples, pagodas and parks have for centuries inspired poets, officials and tourists with their beauty. This beauty pulls an estimated 12 million domestic tourists and half a million foreign tourists annually making it—and, consequentially, Hangzhou—one of China’s most tourist-heavy locales.
The lake covers a sizeable area on the southwestern edge of the city and is dotted with a number of islands, most of which are reachable only by boat, which can be hired along the shore. The largest island, Solitary Island, was once an imperial getaway but is now connected to shore by the Xiling Bridge (Xilíng Qiáo, 西泠桥) and scenic Bai Causeway (Bái Dī, 白堤). Cutting through the western side of the lake, Su Causeway provides beautiful views of the lake, as does the Yanggong Causeway (Yánggōng Dī, 杨公堤) that runs along the western shore.
Bicycles are available to rent cheaply from the city of Hangzhou, provided that you have your passport and don’t mind dropping a little cash for a deposit. Cycling is a great way to tour the lake, following the roads along the perimeter and crossing the causeways. Some areas along the shore are accessible only by foot, luckily the bikes have built-in locks.
Once an inlet of the Qiantang River, it was written Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler of imperial China, moored his boat at what is today West Lake on his way to the sea. Build up of silt from river currents and tide cut off the inlet and created a lagoon around the 4th century. During the Tang Dynasty, the lake was twice its current size, and would fluctuate over the centuries as West Lake periodically filled up with sediment and mud and was dredged, drained and dyked.
Maintaining the lake and dealing with droughts were two goals that shaped the history of the lake. Attempting to control the water in the Tang Dynasty during the late eighth century, governor Li Mi built wells and conduits to send water from the lake into surrounding farmlands. Later, famed poet and governor Bai Juyi built dykes and dams and had the Bai Causeway, named after it’s creator, built between Broken Bridge (Duàn Qiáo, 断桥) and Solitary Island. Another major causeway named for its poet-governor creator, the Su Causeway, was built from mud gathered by a massive dredging of West Lake by Su Shi in the Song Dynasty during the late 11th century.
While West Lake languished in neglect during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, it regained attention during the Ming Dynasty. Dredging was used to lengthen the Su Causeway and build the Yanggong Causeway. The islands Xuxin Tang and Xiao Yingzhou (Xiǎo Yíngzhōu, 小瀛洲) were also created as were three small stupas sticking out above the surface of the lake known as the Three Ponds Reflecting the Moon (Sān Tán Yìn Yuè, 三潭印月), which appear on the back of RMB 1 bills, were built.
During their visits to West Lake, Qing Emperor Kangxi revised the traditional list of “Ten Scenic Spots at West Lake” and had pavilions housing stalae carved in the likeness of the imperial handwriting erected at each one, a practice repeated by his grandson, the Emperor Qianlong.
After the establishment of the Republic of China, renovation continued and resulted in the building of numerous parks around the lake. One such park, formerly the imperial hideaway Solitary Island, was opened to the public and populated with monuments like the Tomb of Qiu Jin (Qiū Jǐn Mù, 秋瑾墓).
West Lake is a great central location from which to explore Hangzhou’s attractions, not to mention a lovely place to come back to each night. A variety of West Lake accommodations can be found ranging from humble hostels to five-star affairs. Many hotels are located close to the eastern and northern shores of the lake, closer to bars and restaurants. Hotels to the south and west offer a bit of distance from the city and closer proximity to sites like Lingyan Temple, Liuhui Pagoda and Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies.