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Surrounded by the Yellow Sea, Dalian (大连, Dàlián) is one of China's most cosmopolitan cities. Its temperate climate, clean air and early-20th-century architecture alone attract the attention of international travelers from the region. But the second-tier city's tree-lined streets and impressive, swimmable seaside beaches, flanked by an undulating walkway, combine to create a seductive effect on China-hardened travelers and first-time visitors on three-day visa-free stopovers.

With a decent bar and seafood scene – and status as a Special Economic Zone to attract foreign investment – Dalian is a fine place to soak up a few days. But after lazing on the beaches and strolling along the southwest coastline, pay a visit to the historic port town of Lushun. The old battlefields and cemeteries offer a rare first-hand glimpse into some of the north’s most turbulent days.