Dàlǐ (大理), the original backpacker hang-out in Yúnnán, was once the place to chill, with its stunning location sandwiched between mountains and Ěrhǎi Lake (Ěrhǎi Hú). Loafing here for a couple of weeks was an essential part of the Yúnnán experience. In recent years, domestic tourists have discovered Dàlǐ in a big way and the scene has changed accordingly.
The range of gorgeous peaks known as Cāng Shān (苍山) rises imposingly above Dàlǐ and offers the best legwork in the area. Most travellers head first for Zhōnghé Temple, on the side of Zhōnghé Shān. At the temple, be careful of imposter monks passing out incense and then demanding ¥200 for a blessing.
Time-warped Hēijǐng (黑井) has been known for salt production for centuries and is still an important producer of the ‘white gold', as well as home to a sizeable Hui Muslim community. Hēijǐng has retained much of its period architecture and is a great place to wander for a day or two, marvelling at the old gates, temples and shady narrow alleys.
Xiàguān (下关), on the southwest shore of Ěrhǎi Lake (Ěrhǎi Hú), is a transport hub for travellers headed to Dàlǐ, a few kilometres further up the highway. Confusingly, Xiàguān is sometimes referred to as Dàlǐ (大理) on tickets, maps and buses. There's no reason to stay in Xiàguān – you only need to come here to catch a bus or train (or to extend a visa).