Denise Keller's Travel Black Book

Romantic, picturesque Hangzhou

Who: Denise Keller, 33, TV host, producer and yoga instructor, is married to Robert Gaxiola, 46, co-founder and creative director of Mangham Gaxiola mcgarrybowen marketing and advertising agency.

Favourite destination: Hangzhou, China

Why: Of all the ancient Chinese capitals, Hangzhou stands out for its romance and culture. Located among lakes, mountains and tea plantations, and 180km south-west of Shanghai, Hangzhou was the capital of the Southern Song dynasty from 1127 until 1279. It is here that you discover the finesse of Chinese culture, from tea ceremonies to gorgeous gardens.

The city is perhaps best known for West Lake in its historic centre, a freshwater lake surrounded by gardens, temples and pagodas. It is said to be one of the most beautiful sights in China and the inspiration for many poets, painters and garden designers.

Favourite hotel

If you are a tea lover like I am, stay at the Fuchun Resort (www.fuchunresort.com). Its 110 rooms, suites and villas are surrounded by lakes, mountains and tea plantations. Many of my Shanghainese friends escape from the urban jungle to this gorgeous hotel for golf, yoga, taiji and tea-picking. Rooms start at 1,750 yuan (S$380) a night.

If money is no limit, spend it at the Amanfayun (www.aman.com/resorts/amanfayun). Each of the luxury hotel's 42 rooms, suites and villas are in the buildings of a former tea-planting village. Rooms start from 5,865 yuan a night.

Surrounded by bamboo forests, it is one of the most stunning properties in China and has a track record of fantastic service. I recommend going there for a cup of tea in the library. Favourite restaurant

I don't have a favourite restaurant per se, but I have many favourite small restaurants with no names.

The Hangzhou tradition is to never judge a book by its cover. The smaller restaurants produce quality by the volume and are often among the cheapest options where one can get a meal for 40 yuan a person.

One of my favourite dishes to order is the smoked beancurd fried with pork and smoked duck.

Must try

My friends gave me a mandatory list of things to eat in Hangzhou: Xi Hu Cu Yu (West Lake fish in vinegar gravy), Dong Po Rou (soya sauce-braised pork belly) and Song Sao Yu Geng (Madame Song's fish soup).

All these yummy traditional Hangzhou dishes can be found at Lou Wai Lou Restaurant (www.louwailou.com.cn), one of the city's most famous restaurants located on the banks of West Lake.

Gui hua jiang, a sweet osmanthus- flavoured jam, is Hangzhou's pride and joy. You can easily find this in a local market or tourist shop.

Favourite museum

China National Tea Museum (www.teamuseum.cn) is not to be missed. Its four groups of buildings surrounded by gardens show the history and development of tea in China.

If you know nothing about Chinese tea, this is a good start as it conducts mini workshops and courses to give the 101 on Chinese tea culture. Tea scholars and experts are full of tea anecdotes, from its history to its science.

The Zhejiang Museum (www.zhejiangmuseum.com) is my other favourite for all things Song dynasty. I'm a big fan of the era and I'm fascinated by Song Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

There is something about the paintings from that era that draws me in. The strokes and colours used are romantic and extremely poetic.

The museum has more than 100,000 relics from Zhejiang province, housed in buildings that showcase local architecture. Favourite tourist site

I enjoy Yun Qi Zhu Jing, which translates to "bamboo path where clouds dwell". It is a bamboo forest on a hillside on the south-west side of West Lake.

It is best to go early in the morning before the crowds come. You can enjoy a real Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon experience: Here, you have all the elements at play - the mountains, bamboo forest, creeks and so on.

Best bookstore

I like Xiaofeng Book House (529 Tiyuchang Road; tel: +86-0571- 8511-6671), which sells thousands of books on Chinese culture, history and arts, among other subjects.

It holds cultural lectures and readings as well.

There are multiple branches around the city. Its Tiyuchang Road store is its main outlet.

Best place to watch the sunset

Long Bridge Park with the clas- sical Leifeng Pagoda in the background makes for a perfect selfie.

Best hidden find

The Southern Song dynasty's Imperial Palace at the foot of Fenghuang Mountain is the only imperial palace in China built on a hillside and offers a full day of

little discoveries and a great workout as you walk around the hillside.

It is a must if you are a Song fan.

Event to bookmark

The West Lake International Expo held every autumn highlights the best of the city's art, culture, history and technological developments.

Traveller's tips

I never fix any plans in China because I never know what I want to see or do till I get there.

I've learnt that forcing a to-do list is silly in China because you are always being invited to, or told about, so many things by the hospitable locals, who constantly want to show foreigners their culture.

What is more, you should not pack your schedule in any Chinese city because traffic can really slow you down and be incredibly stressful, especially if you do not know your way around.

I personally love the old ways of getting around on bicycle. There are enough safe roads to get around Hangzhou by bicycle and it is the best way to see the city.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Romantic, picturesque Hangzhou'. Print Edition | Subscribe