A Visitor's Guide to Touring Yunnan Province - Itineraries and Sights

Bougainvillea climbing up a hillside village in Xishuangbanna.
Bougainvillea climbing up a hillside village in Xishuangbanna.

Sara Naumann

Yunnan Province truly is a spectacular place. Visitors can travel from the tropical climates in the south to high-altitude peaks of the northwest. It is home to Shangri-La and a large Tibetan community as well as 24 other ethnic minorities that call Yunnan home. Yunnan is the birthplace of Chinese tea and visitors can go to Pu'er to see how ancient techniques are still used to create these famous brews that, in ancient times, were packed in bricks and stacked on horseback to make their way across to Lhasa on the Tea-Horse Road.

Detailed below are in-depth profiles of places to go and things to see in three major regions.

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Around Dali Ancient Town on Erhai Lake

The South Gate by night in the old town, is a remnant of the ancient walls that once protected the city, Dali, Yunnan.
Peter Stuckings / Getty Images

Dali is famous for the ancient part of the town and travelers will hear about "Dail Old Town" as soon as you start thinking about visiting Yunnan Province. But there's a lot more to see in the area besides Dali. While certainly worth a visit, don't be too quick to head off for other parts of the province before exploring the small towns near Dali where you'll have a possibly more authentic interaction with locals and local culture.

  • Booking your stay in the area of the small but lovely Linden Centre is a great choice. This boutique hotel offers a unique stay in a restored courtyard home as well as access to many cultural explorations. The Centre can help you explore local cooking and tea culture as well as arrange biking, hiking, horseback riding, and many other activities.
  • As the Linden Centre is located in a small town near Dali called Xizhou, many activities are based from there, like the Xizhou Walking Tour, Ethnic Bai Tea Ceremony, Picking Pu'er Tea, and the Xizhou Fruits and Vegetables Market.
  • You can divide your time between Xizhou and Dali Old Town or visit Dali from Xizhou. They are about 45 minutes apart.
  • Near Xizhou is another village called Zhoucheng that is famous for its local textiles. This is an interesting place to spend half a day exploring and bargaining for some hand-spun or hand-dyed textiles.
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From Lijiang to Shangri-La in Yunnan's Tibetan Northwest

Cobbled street in the Old Town of Shangri-La.
Lynn Gail / Getty Images

Lijiang and Shangri-La (Zhongdian) are worth individual trips but if you can, combining them makes a fabulous road trip through stunning scenery. Spending a few days in Lijiang to get accustomed to the higher altitude and the wonderful surroundings. You can then go on to hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge, or do what we did, head off to the idyllic village of Tacheng to see the endangered snub-nosed golden monkeys in their natural habitat. From Tacheng, another half day's drive gets you to the higher altitude famed village of Shangri-La where you can find Tibetan culture flourishing in the town and in the surrounding countryside. If you have time, book the entire route with Songtsam Lodges. They can arrange all your transportation as well as stays in their Tibetan, locally run boutique lodges.

Some things to see and do from Lijiang to Shangri-La are visiting Lijiang Ancient City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site or Tacheng, a sleepy village in the countryside, hiking up to see the snub-nosed golden monkeys, and exploring Shangri-La and the surrounding area.

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03 of 03

In and Around Tropical Xishuangbanna in Southern Yunnan

wangtianshu xishuangbanna tree canopy
Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.

The area called Xishuangbanna is utterly different from Dali and Shangri-La. Here the rice and barley fields give way to lush tropical forests and rubber plantations that have taken over the mountainsides (and much of the original forest). The climate is hot and humid and the flora is incredible.

Here are some of the attractions and things to do in Xishuangbanna:

  • Divide your stay between the lovely small villas of Yourantai Guesthouse that is built right along the Mekong River (called "Lancang" in Mandarin) and the Anantara Resort about 45 minutes away.
  • Do an easy hike to Nan Nuo Shan and visit Hani ethnic villages on the way. On this hike, you'll find pu'er tea trees that are hundreds of years old.
  • Head down to the border with Laos to find the last vestiges of the rain forest canopy left on the China side at the Wang Tian Shu sky trek.
  • Take your time and explore the Xishuangbanna Botanical Garden. Give yourself two days!