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Top Things to Do in Yunnan

Top Things to Do in Yunnan

Written by Sunny XieUpdated Sep. 26, 2023

Yunnan Province, covering an area of 394,000 square kilometers (about the size of California or Germany), combines unique ethnic cultures, magnificent alpine scenery, rainforest, rice terraces, tea plantations, authentic ancient towns, and delicious food.

Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La are always on the bucket list to those who haven't been to Yunnan before. Then there are some in-depth themed visit options: hiking, ethnic culture discovery, photography, etc. for those to want to further discover certain parts of colorful Yunnan.

Bai Minority

With the opening of the 'Nujiang Beautiful Road' (part of China's National Highway G219) on December 30, 2019, people are rushing to northwest Yunnan to discover the stunning Nujiang Valley and unveil "the last mystery of Yunnan".

Scroll down to read the top things to do in Yunnan and find out the most suitable places for your upcoming tour of Yunnan. Or take a look at our Yunnan tours for more inspiration.

Kunming Top Things to Do for First-Time Yunnan Travelers

1. Explore the Towering Karst Pillars — the Stone Forest

The Stone Forest is praised as the "Stone Forest Museum" as you'll find countless awesome stone formations displayed like large-scale geological exhibits. The Stone Forest area is also the home of the Sani and Yi people. You can enjoy their folk customs and performances at the Stone Forest.

Stone Forest

2. Enjoy Panoramic Views from Dragon Gate

Xishan (Western Hills Park) lies along the bank of Dianchi Lake. On the top of one of the hillls lies Dragon Gate, where you will not only enjoy panoramic views of Dianchi Lake and Kunming City, but will also have the chance to appreciate the grottoes, sculptures, corridors, and pavilions that were cut into the cliffs.

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Dali Top Things to Do for First-Time Travelers

1. Wander in Leisurely Dali Ancient Town

Dali Ancient Town has clear springs and houses the unsophisticated native Bai people. The local people have a custom of growing flowers in their gardens with clear streams of water running by. Their finely-decorated traditional houses make this town well worth visiting.

2. Admire the Long-Lasting Three Pagodas

The Three Pagodas were built over 1,000 years ago. Arranged in the shape of a triangle, they have become a must-take iconic picture for all visitors. In addition, for those who are interested in Buddhism or history, you will be impressed by their size, beauty, antiquity, and intact preservation.

Three Pagodas

3. Bike along Charming Erhai Lake

Erhai Lake covers an area of about 250 square kilometers (100 sq mi). Its unusually clear water and Cangshan mountain backdrop make the scenery extremely beautiful. The best way to enjoy the breathtaking views would be to take a bike ride along the lakeshore. Read more on Erhai Biking.

More on Top Things to Do in Dali and How Long to Spend in Yunnan

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Lijiang Top Things to Do for First-Time Visitors

1. Stroll in Magical Lijiang Ancient Town

Lijiang Ancient Town is the most popular ancient town among domestic and foreign travelers. It is characterized by old Naxi architecture and an ingenious ancient network of waterways. The cobbled streets, ancient bridges, and traditional houses add to the charming picture of this ancient town.

Lijiang Old Town

2. Appreciate the Vivid Murals in Baisha Village

The Baisha Murals depicts stories of Taoism, Han Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism and embody artistic features of the Naxi, Tibetan, Han, and Bai ethnic groups.

3. Admire the Holy 'Jade Dragon Snow Mountain'

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain has 13 peaks that stretch 35 kilometers (22 miles) from north to south. It looks like a dragon from distance, hence its name. The main peak Shanzidou (扇子陡), reaching an altitude of 5,596 meters (18,360 feet), can be seen from Lijiang Ancient Town.

4. Listen to the Roaring of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge, located between Lijiang and Shangri-La, is one of the world's deepest gorges. With Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as the backdrop, the scenery there is just amazing and is considered by many as China's best hike.

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Shangri-La Top Things to Do for First-Timers

1. Experience Tibetan Culture at Songzanlin Lamasery

Songzanlin Lamasery is praised as "the Little Potala Palace", it is the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple complex in Yunnan Province. China Highlights can specially arrange a visit to a lama's dormitory and study room so that you can discover more about the monks' lifestyle, religious beliefs, and discipline. Contact us for a special and unique experience.

Songzanlin Lamasery

2. Enjoy Highland Views at Pudacuo National Park

Pudacuo National Park has an average altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) and retains a well-preserved ecosystem within its virgin forests. The must-see scenery in this park is Lake Shudu, which is one of the largest freshwater lakes on the Diqing plateau and is home to lots of wild animals such as bears, golden cats, deer, and pheasants.

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Top Things to Do for an In-depth Yunnan Tour

1. Photograph Picturesque Landscapes

The Yuanyang Rice Terraces are an ideal place for photography. The sunrise scenery of Duoyishu must not be missed and Bada is the best place to see the sunset scenery.

Exploring the Hani people's villages is another highlight of Yuanyang. The Yuanyang Rice Terraces were crafted by the Hani people 1,000 years ago.

The site has since been extended by more than 100 square kilometers (40 square miles) and was acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Cultural and Natural Heritage Site in 2013. The massive tiers upon tiers of rice terraces attract numerous photographers every year.

Dongchuan Red Land is a new, rising destination loved by photographers. Praised as "God's palette", it is believed to be the world's most imposing red-colored land.

The Meili Snow Mountains in Deqin County are a holy land of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists. The sunrise over the snowy mountains, perennial glaciers, and the panoramic views of the thirteen peaks are the main elements that Chinese and international photographers pursue.

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Yuanyang Rice Fields

2. Experience Minority Cultures — Bai, Dai, Naxi, Lisu…

Yunnan is home to 25 ethnic minorities including the Bai, Yi, Dai, Naxi, Hani, Miao, Tibetan, Lisu, and Yao. All these minorities have quite splendid cultures, especially the Naxi minority. There are more than 400 ethnic festivals celebrated throughout the year, which still maintain unique folk traditions and customs.

In Yunnan Ethnic Village in Kunming, you can not only enjoy a variety of architectural arts, clothing, and remarkable customs, but also live presentations of cultural songs and dances.

Shuhe Ancient Town near Lijiang was the earliest settlement area for the Naxi's ancestors, and it is where you can best appreciate their unsophisticated Naxi customs and architectures.

Zhoucheng Village near Dali, regarded as the "living fossil" of Bai minority culture, is the biggest Bai minority village.

In Shangri-La, you can see numerous ancient Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and experience Tibetan culture. Many travelers go there to experience Tibet without having to apply for a permit for the difficult-to-enter province.

Xishuangbanna is a paradise for Dai people, plants, and animals. You will experience both Chinese culture and Southeast Asian culture there.

If you are interested in Yunnan festivals, please check the dates before planning a tour.

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Bai minority people

3. Discover Less-Traveled Roads in Northwest Yunnan

Yunnan province not only has famous Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La. In the northwest corner of Yunnan, there is a piece of land enjoying the reputation of being "the paradise where God and humans live together". The Nu Jiang (Salween River) flows between the mountains and mysterious ethnic minorities enjoy their lives in the magnificent gorges.

The best season to discover Northwest Yunnan is from December to March. Go there before it is "more-explored", and enjoy an adventure holiday along the long, deep, and mysterious Nujiang Grand Canyon while experiencing the unique Christian culture in the colorful Lisu minority villages.

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Nujiang Grand Canyon

Special Recommendations for Hiking and Mountaineering in Yunnan

Yunnan has several great destinations for hiking and mountaineering. Most of these destinations have lofty snow-capped mountains, and the sunrises and sunsets there are quite magnificent. We have chosen some hiking/mountaineering routes for different levels to help you to choose the best for you, easiest first…

1. Hiking for Nature Enthusiasts: The Cangshan Mountains

  • Difficulty: ★
  • Scenery: ★★★★
  • Time needed: 2-3 hours
  • Best season: May to November

The Cangshan Mountains are located near Dali City and are full of natural and cultural surprises. The mountain massif is known for its clouds, snow, moon, peaks, and streams. In addition, the views of Erhai Lake and Dali City from the mountainside are stunning.

You may combine both cable cars and hiking to best use your time and immerse yourself in mountain nature.

Cangshan Mountain

2. Peacefully Hike to Qiunatong Village

  • Difficulty: ★★
  • Scenery: ★★★★
  • Time needed: 1 day
  • Best season: May to November

Qiunatong Village is located in northwest Yunnan and was once an important town during the Ancient Tea Horse Road period. Imagine you are a horse caravan and have a moderate hike to this beautiful village.

Though the hiking takes no more than a full day, you can enjoy a seemingly unlimited amount of amazing scenery when passing through the Nu River gorge. One of the highlights is walking the original Tea Horse Road carved into the cliffs.

Qiunatong Tea Horse Road

3. First Choice for Amateur Mountaineers: Haba Snow Mountain

  • Difficulty: ★★★
  • Scenery: ★★★★
  • Time needed: 3 days
  • Best season: November to February

Haba Snow Mountain is near Lijiang, facing Jade Dragon Snow Mountain across Tiger Leaping Gorge.

With an altitude of 5,396 meters (17,703 feet) above sea level, Haba Snow Mountain is always the first choice for amateur mountaineers in Yunnan. The mountain is rich in wildlife and plants and has been eulogized as "Gardens of the World" and "Natural Zoo" by biologists.

To reach the summit, it is better to choose dates between November and February when it is drier.

Haba Snow Mountain

4. Holy Mountain of the Naxi: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

  • Difficulty: ★★★★
  • Scenery: ★★★★
  • Time needed: 1 day
  • Best season: November to next May

"I want to die among those beautiful mountains rather than in a bleak hospital bed all alone."

America explorer Joseph Rock said this in a letter to his friend to express his endless love for the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range.

Follow Rock's footsteps in the embrace of his favorite mountain. Feel Jade Dragon Snow Mountain beneath your feet and see its beauty up close with you own eyes.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountains

5. Celebrated Classic Hiking Trail: Tiger Leaping Gorge

  • Difficulty: ★★★★
  • Scenery: ★★★★★
  • Time needed: 2–3 days
  • Best Season: May to November

Tiger Leaping Gorge lies in between the Haba Snow Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain ranges. Known for its throbbing roar and ecological wealth of unusual plants and animal species, it is praised as "the most beautiful gorge in China" and "one of the deepest gorges in the world".

The lengthy gorge is divided into three parts: Upper Gorge, Middle Gorge, and Lower Gorge. All parts are all well-lined with hostels and restaurants due to its popularity among local backpackers. You may choose to hike the three parts or choose one or two according to your physical condition.

Hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge

6. Paradise for Hikers: Yubeng Village

  • Difficulty: ★★★★
  • Scenery: ★★★★★
  • Time needed: 4–5 days
  • Best season: September to November

Yubeng Village is in Deqin County, north of Shangri-La. It is an ancient Tibetan village hidden under Mentsmu Peak of the Meili Snow Mountains. Historically, it was blocked off from traffic and isolated from the world, just like a miniature version of the legendary Shangri-La.

Sacred waterfalls, holy lakes, luxuriant forests, and deep gorges can be seen during the hike and you will pass the Sino-Japanese Base Camp for Kawagarbo (the un-summited highest Meili Mountain peak).

Yubeng Village

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Touring Yunnan with China Highlights

We have prepared several tours to offer you a true experience of colorful Yunnan. These are the most popular:

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