If you have the chance to travel to China, consider making a stop in beautiful Yunnan, one of China’s southwestern provinces filled with ethnic and geographic diversity. One of Yunnan’s best travel destinations is the ancient city of Dali, located south and west of Erhai Lake in the center of the province.
A fertile plateau with the Cangshan mountains to the west and Erhai Lake to its east, Dali is known as a place with perfect Feng Shui. It is home to Bai and Yi minorities, and is a popular stop over with foreign backpackers and Chinese tourists alike.
In addition to its natural beauty, Dali also has a rich history. In 738, the kingdom of Nanzhao, which covered a large part of present-day Yunnan and northern Burma, was established with Dali as its capital. In 937, Duan Siping successfully gained control of the region and established the territory as a Buddhist Bai kingdom. It survived, controlled by the Duans until a Mongol overthrow in the 12th century. Dali was thus the capital of the Nanzhao/Dali kingdom during the Tang and Song dynasties.
The ancient city of Dali was built in 1382 and was formerly the center of culture, politics, and economics in Yunnan. The remains of Ming city walls still stand (and can be visited) today. As an important gateway of cultural exchange and trade with Southeast Asian countries and a former stop on the Silk Road of the South, Dali remains rich in natural scenery, cultural relics, ethnic customs, and tourism today. Dali is also famous for marble, known in China as “Dali stone.”
I have traveled to Dali more than a dozen times now, and would gladly keep going back. Whether you are in the mood for adventure or a lazy vacation with a book and some delicious food, there is truly something for everyone, and for every mood.
Take advantage of these adventurous activities below.
If you are interested in Dali’s religious history and significance, then the Three Pagodas are a must-see. You can reach this location pretty easily from Dali Old Town by bike or on foot.
One of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China, the central pagoda is almost 1200 years old. Though the complex of temples behind the pagodas was destroyed in a 1920s earthquake and again during China’s Cultural Revolution, they have since been rebuilt.
With many different halls that extend far back into the mountains, you can explore this area for hours and will discover how it is a temple among the clouds. Tickets cost 121 RMB, or half that price if you have a student ID.
Biking By Erhai Lake
Easily accessible by bike from Dali old town, Erhai Lake is a beautiful place to spend a couple of hours looking around. Renting your wheels from a shop in Dali Old Town will cost anywhere from 25 to 50 RMB for a full day, or 10 RMB per hour.
Head east to Erhai and zip downhill easily. Once you reach Erhai’s lakefront, you may need to chain your bike up while you walk or walk it with you. Early morning and sunset are perfect times to enjoy Erhai’s natural beauty and beat the afternoon heat.
Cangshan Cable Cars
If you have the time and the energy, you might consider taking a hike up the Cangshan Mountains, which lie just to Dali’s west.
If you are short on time, cable cars that run up the side of the mountain are a great option and allow you to enjoy the scenery in a whole new way. The Gantong Cable Car is open year-round.
Though my friend and I attempted to bike our way up to Gantong, it’s probably better to find a ride to the cable cars in advance since the road is very steep and windy as you go up. A round trip cable car ticket will set you back 70 RMB, but for the sparkling blue waterfall, cooler temperature, and life-sized chess board you get to experience at the top, it’s more than worth it.
After you’ve done some exploring, you are going to need to refuel. Dali has so many options that you’ll quickly realize you don’t have enough time (or a big enough stomach) to try them all.
You will find no shortage of delicious eats in Dali. As a backpacker mecca and permanent home to many expats, there are numerous foreign-owned and run establishments worth checking out. Below are some of the shining stars.
Bakery 88, 52 Yang Ren Jie (Foreigner Street), Center, facing Bo’ai Lu, Dali Old Town
A German bakery with amazing homemade bread, jam, imported cheese, a plethora of tasty pastries and baked goods, delicious sandwiches, wines, and pastas, you can’t go wrong eating anytime of the day at Bakery 88. It’s an especially great place to hang out for a lazy morning and a big breakfast. The set breakfasts, which include bread with butter and jam, eggs any style, bacon, fruit, and coffee or tea, are a fantastic deal at under 30 RMB. Or after a long day of biking or hiking, come back to 88 for a cup of chai and a pastry. With possibly the best bread and baked goods in all of China, you won’t regret it.
Bad Monkey, 59 Renmin Lu (People’s Road)
If you are looking to start the night with a burger and fries for dinner and end it with delicious home-brewed beer and live music, look no further than the Bad Monkey. Open since 2003, it is the oldest foreign-owned bar in Dali. You will find a variety of drinks on the menu, but go straight for the home-brewed stout, amber beer, or pale ale. Any of the three is the perfect complement to a big pizza topped with cheese, bacon, mushrooms and onions, or the smokehouse burger, made with red union barbeque sauce, bacon and cheese. Their Sunday Dinner special is also delicious, and the perfect choice if you want a big, fun meal out with family or friends. Finally, if you hang around until 10 or 11pm (which you’ll want to do, once you taste the beer), you can often catch a live band that’ll give the place a second wind and kick-start some dancing after the dinner crowd clears out. A hub for expats and locals alike, this one can’t be missed.
Goodfella’s Pizza, 20 Renmin Lu (People’s Road)
A relatively new addition to the Dali cuisine scene, Goodfella’s makes arguably the best pizza pie in town. The four-cheese pizza is especially decadent and delicious. If you want something lighter, try the hummus. For a side of adventure with your dinner, take a stab at the climbing wall while you wait for your order to arrive. After a long day out exploring in the chilly winter, my friend and I stopped in for pizza and also loved the pomelo and ginger tea. It was comfort in a cup as we took refuge from the cold. Goodfella’s can also lead you to bigger climbing adventures; check out Climb Dali at the same location as the restaurant for rock-climbing treks.
The Sweet Tooth, 52 Bo’ai Road
This American-style bakery is 88’s main rival and serves a mostly foreign clientele. Its hot coffee, blueberry pancakes, and chocolate chip cookies are good enough to speak for themselves. Opened by expats to provide employment to Dali’s deaf population, the service is friendly and efficient. Come to Sweet Tooth for either breakfast or dessert and you won’t be disappointed. The Oreo cheesecake is highly recommended!
Known for its Bai specialties, Dali boasts a smattering of local eats to rival its foreign spread. Street snacks include “dairy fans,” which are yoghurt and milk mixed together and fried, often folded or rolled into the shape of a fan. Er kuai, or ground white rice that is turned into thick, sticky noodles, is a favorite local dish. It is usually stir-fried with any combination of meat and vegetables. Finally, baba is a pancake made from wheat flour that comes in savory and sweet versions. It is the ever-popular local fast-food version of a crêpe.
For a bigger meal, you can’t go wrong with any of the family-owned places serving local Yunnanese food along Renmin Lu (People’s Road), the tourist center in Dali old town. There you’ll also find Hui Zu (Muslim minority) restaurants with delicious beef dishes. Here are some specific suggestions:
Li Ji Jiang Xiang Bing (李记酱香饼)
You can stop at this place for a quick snack and taste the local version of French fries. It serves delicious fried potatoes (you zha tu dou) and potato cakes (tu dou bing).
Zhuo Zhuo Feng Wei (卓卓风味)
A local favorite for a simple bowl of noodles, you will find mostly rice noodles (mixian) here. Typical toppings for rice noodles include chopped scallions, cilantro, hot pepper, sesame seed oil, minced garlic, and your choice of meat (chicken, pork, or beef).
Du Yi Chu Fan Zhuang (独一处饭庄)
An alternative to Yunnan specialties, this restaurant serves really good northeastern style food, including steamed or boiled dumplings and pork ribs. It’s delicious, classic Chinese fare that is sure to delight the palate.
*About the author: Angie Picardo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance site that helps young travelers face tough financial decisions, including when to pay off debt and when to save. All photos in this post are taken and owned by the author.