“How fortuitous” exclaims driver and interpreter extraordinaire Jerry Zhou when he meets visitors from Boston, a sister city of his hometown of Hangzhou, China. The self-titled “grassroots ambassador” of this metropolis of 7 million was chosen with his family to represent China on a 2015 cultural exchange tour that brought him to some European capitals as well as New York and Boston, but he says the last was his favorite.
Zhou’s cheerful tours start from the top, beginning with a bird’s-eye view of Hangzhou from the high point of Jade Emperor Hill. In contrast to much of the country, there’s minimal smog and urban sprawl, and the remarkable panorama juxtaposes a cosmopolitan skyline with a Taoist crop octagon. Below is a bustling city that’s exploded thanks to tech giant Alibaba, but on the hill the quiet is broken only by the sound of people shuffling mahjong tiles nearby and the clop of donkey hoofs carrying supplies to a temple at the top.
Want to experience Hangzhou’s answer to Boston Public Garden? Zhou’s tour includes a drive along the city’s pride and joy, West Lake, a glittering jewel with a winding wooden promenade and lush pathways that make for a green and serene landscape in the heart of downtown. With poetic names like “Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake” and “Orioles Singing in the Willows,” the myriad temples, pagodas and gardens have been the muses of artists for centuries, earning Hangzhou the dreamy city slogan of “Living Poetry.” Romance and lotus blossoms welcome throngs of nationals honeymooning here.
Zhou recommends one of the many lake cruises on traditional crafts before recalling his moment of glory as the guest driver of a Duck Boat in Boston, an adventure capped off by a lobster feast. Seafood is also a staple in Hangzhou, especially when covered with light, sweet vinegary sauce and accompanied by fresh vegetables. One of the best places to get a taste is at the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum, an exhibition and dining space that details this region’s food history. The food is fresh and flavorful, and lazy Susans swing freely even when teeming with steamed buns, crunchy ginseng, savory lotus root and kiwi dessert dumplings garnished with local tea leaves.
You can also try your hand at catching your own lunch—and enjoy a scenic boat ride of another variety—on a tour of Xixi National Wetland Park, featuring 4.4 square miles designated as a conservation area in 2003. Sit back and admire the lily pads while a fisherman paddles your boat and another casts a net. Using traditional methods, they also get some help from cormorants who catch fish that are then wrestled from the birds’ grip. The whole fillet is then artfully prepared with red peppers for your table at the on-site restaurant.
Another fun culinary experience is a tea tasting at the National Tea Museum, dedicated to a source of fierce local pride: Longjing, also known as Dragonwell. Want to know how to get more pep in your step? Detoxify? Reduce blood pressure? The health benefits, best brewing temperatures and the art of pouring a traditional tea service are all detailed and sampled here. Don’t miss the view of the misty surrounding tea plantations and West Lake from the top of the mountain.
For true relaxation, check into the Midtown Shangri-La, the city’s second hotel in this luxury chain and its newest at just four months old. A Horizon Club room not only offers complimentary breakfast, beverages and an evening cocktail service with a snack spread, but as its name implies, a lovely lake view from the top floor of a city with relatively few skyscrapers. After a day’s explorations, unwind in the CHI spa or raise a glass at Midtown Brewery on the first floor, where brewmaster Josh Staines is contributing to the meteoric growth of craft beer in China with eight excellent signature varieties named for local landmarks.
Those landmarks are all subject to change in the coming months as a litany of construction projects wrap up in preparation for Hangzhou to host the G20 Summit this September. The gathered leaders will be focusing on our financial future in a city where one of the most popular attractions, Songcheng Theme Park, looks to the past, with period costumes, foods, handcraft markets and workshops meant to evoke the Song Dynasty. It’s an admittedly cheesy but uniquely endearing way to glimpse a way of life that inspired explorer Marco Polo to call Hangzhou the “City of Heaven.” Nearly eight centuries later, this sister city still feels like an undiscovered gem.
-Hainan Airlines flies directly from Boston to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, and in July, United Airlines will open the first direct route from the U.S. to Hangzhou. A 3-hour shuttle bus is available from Pudong to Hangzhou, and a high-speed hourlong train runs frequently from Shanghai’s Hongqiao train station.
-Though many signs are written well in English, it’s not common to find someone in Hangzhou who’s fluent. Hire an interpreter through CITS USA at citsusa.com, or contact Jerry Zhou for a custom private tour at hangzhoutaxi.com. Three hours is typically 300 Chinese Yuan or $50 U.S.
Midtown Shangri-La shangri-la.com