Insider’s guide to Hangzhou West Lake

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The perfect itinerary at the stunning World Heritage Site includes iconic views and small secrets
By Eddy Chin (text), Davey Warren (photo)

The most renowned attraction in Hangzhou, West Lake (西湖) draws tourists from all corners of China and the world.

Surrounded by mountains and stunning foliage, and one of the newest UNESCO World Heritage Sites (it received the designation in 2011), the lake grounds are speckled with temples, pagodas and gardens renowned throughout the world.

But while the big features hog all the glory — Broken Bridge is justly featured in a few zillion photo albums — the real charm of West Lake is found in its neglected nooks and crannies.

By following this itinerary, you’ll catch the best attractions, as well as other worthwhile discoveries that many guides and most visitors miss.

1. Leifeng Pagoda 雷峰塔

The five-story pagoda offers sweeping views of the West Lake.

First stop is the five-story, octagonal emblem of West Lake. Built in 975 of brick and wood, Leifeng Pagoda is known throughout China as the location of the folk tale “The Legend of the White Snake,” a love story about a snake who is transformed into a woman and then locked up beneath Leifeng Pagoda by a monk.

Inside the pagoda is a recently excavated mausoleum, with treasures including Buddhist silk scriptures, hand-carved, wooden dioramas of an epic West Lake myth, and, of course, sweeping views of the lake.

You can climb to the top or take an elevator.

15 Nanshan Lu, near corner of Nanshan Lu and Yuanquanshan Lu 南山路15号, 近南山路和玉泉山路路口, +86 571 8798 2111, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tickets: RMB 40,

2. Temple of General Yue Fei 岳王庙

Yue Fei, a renowned Song military commander, is buried at this temple.

After lingering around the Leifeng grounds, head east on Beishan Lu to the Temple of General Yue Fei. The expertly manicured grounds were built for the renowned Song military commander. Betrayed and executed, he was posthumously pardoned and reburied at this site in the mid 12th century.

In front of his tomb lie bronze statues of his betrayers, whom pilgrims and tourists have been vindictively spitting upon for hundreds of years.

80 Beishan Lu, west of Shangri-La Hotel, 北山路80号, 香格里拉大酒店以西, +86 571 8798 6653, 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Tickets: RMB 25

3. Baochu Pagoda 保俶塔

The current Baochu Pagoda was rebuilt in 1933.

From the Temple of General Yue Fei, head east on Beishan Lu past the opulent Shangri-La Hotel.

The thousand-year-old Baochu Pagoda will tower above you.

The marvel of this site lies in the lush ascent to the top of Precious Stone Hill.

On the way up are secluded teahouses and odd rock formations. The hilltop affords spectacular panoramas of the entire city and West Lake.

Climb to top of Precious Stone (Baoshi) Hill at any of the staircase paths along Beishan Lu, 从北山路旁的任何一条楼梯道爬至宝石山山顶, Free admission

4. Broken Bridge (Bai Di) 断桥(白堤)

"The Tale of the White Snake" makes this a heartbroken bridge, not a broken bridge.

Upon descending the hill back onto Beishan Lu, the most famous bridge in Hangzhou is literally right in front of you.

No, it’s not really broken. It just appears that way when covered in snow, with its humped arches sticking up from the lake.

Though you may bump shoulders with the visiting crowds, the walk toward the largest island in the lake is pretty and relaxing. Here you’ll find several museums, parks, nature trails, Louwailou (the illustrious Hangzhou-style eatery) and, of course, a Costa Coffee, housed in a Qing-era-style villa.

Beishan Lu and Baidi, 北山路和白堤, Free admission

5. Hubin Lu shopping street 湖滨路

If there's no shopping, it ain't China.

After getting your fill of the quaint, the ancient and the must-see, move onto modern-day fun — food, nightlife and shopping.

Head southeast along the lake to reach the bustling Hubin Lu shopping district.

Here you’ll find everything from Thai, Italian, Japanese and hotpot restaurants, to Gucci, DKNY, Armani and Hermès buys, to five-star hotels, noisy nightclubs, crazy KTVs (Chinese karaoke) and a seizure-inducing light-and-water show.

The show is presented across from the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou every 30 minutes from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. on weekdays, and 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m. on weekends. Additional shows may be added during holidays.

If you can’t find something to do here, you might be more comfortable in a Buddhist convent.

Hubin Lu, east side of West Lake, between Qingchun Lu and Jiefang Lu, 湖滨路, 西湖以东, 庆春路和解放路中间

6. Jundu gay bar 君度酒吧

Get to the gay bars while they're still considered risqué and taboo.

Cheap beer, drag shows, gender-bending, pole-dancing and live snake swallowing.

With your evening not even nearly at its end, head back toward Broken Bridge to find these and other eye-opening attractions at Jundu gay bar.

Catch a glimpse of a fast-evolving subculture that’s exploding around the country — from “underground” or even banned, gay bars have become more accepted in recent years. The scene changes fast, so catch this hot spot while it’s still sizzling.

2 Baochu Lu, on Shaoqingsili Jie, first right turn off Baochu Lu heading north from West Lake 保俶路2号京华科影大厦内,在绍庆寺里街上(近西湖), +86 571 8511 9130, 8 p.m.-late

7. Night swimming in West Lake 西湖“夜游”

CNNGo does not condone illegal activity -- but will distract authorities if you need us to.

Officially, swimming in West Lake is illegal and does not exist. Nor do bicycle thieves and pollution.

But taking a night swim in West Lake is rumored to be a local pastimes among more daring types.

Shrouded in urban myth, these cool dips supposedly take place in some secret, secret location on the west end of the lake off Yanggongdi. Others say the spot is near Qingbo Jie, between Nanshan Lu’s two sumptuous Indian restaurants.

But night swimming does not exist. Nor do we condone such random acts of roguery. Never, ever.

Undisclosed location, 地点保密, Police fine: RMB 500 (unconfirmed)