Seven centuries ago, Marco Polo pronounced Hangzhou "the finest, most splendid city in the world . . . where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies oneself to be in Paradise." Hangzhou's claim to paradise has always been centered on its famous West Lake (Xi Hu), surrounded on three sides by verdant hills. The islets and temples, pavilions and gardens, causeways and arched bridges of this small lake (about 5km/3 miles across and 14km/8 3/4 miles around) have constituted the supreme example of lakeside beauty in China ever since the Tang Dynasty, when Hangzhou came into its own with the completion of the Grand Canal (Da Yunhe) in A.D. 609. Hangzhou reached its zenith during the Southern Song Dynasty (A.D. 1127-1279), when it served as China's capital.

In 2003, much to the horror of purists, Xi Hu was enlarged in the western section with an additional causeway along its new western shoreline. New sights, shops, and restaurants were added to the eastern and southern shores. But the news is not all bad. Away from the commercial eastern edges of the lake, and especially in the surrounding hills and countryside, it's still possible to find pockets of peace and quiet. In the last few years, the Hangzhou government has also been positioning the city as a resort destination worthy of a visit in its own right. While this has meant more hotels being built and inevitably more traffic jams, there are also a few more worthwhile attractions for visitors, including a National Wetland Park. An overnight visit will allow you to appreciate more fully Hangzhou's fabled beauty.