Must see attractions in Yunnan

  • Top ChoiceSights in Central Yunnan

    Bada Rice Terrace

    Bada is one of the finest rice terraces at Yuanyang to catch the sunset at. If you only have time for one terrace, this is it.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kunming

    Golden Temple

    The Golden Temple Scenic Area is equal parts religious space, forest park, botanical garden and open-air sculpture museum; it covers 118 hectares on the northwestern outskirts of the city. The obvious highlight is the namesake Qing dynasty shrine, the largest bronze temple in China, which shines magnificently under the bright Yunnan sun. Numerous buses from the centre stop out front, or take the metro to the North Bus Station and transfer to Bus 57.

  • Sights in Northwest Yunnan

    Mingyong Glacier

    Tumbling off the side of Kawa Karpo peak is the 12km-long Mingyong Glacier. At over 13 sq km, it is not only the lowest glacier in China (around 2200m) but also an oddity – a monsoon marine glacier, which basically translates as having an ecosystem that couldn’t possibly be more diverse: tundra, taiga, broadleaf forest and meadow. Sadly, this natural wonder is also retreating at an alarming – and increasing – rate. The mountain, representing the embodiment of the warrior god Kawa Karpo, has been a pilgrimage site for centuries and you’ll still meet a few Tibetan pilgrims, some of whom circumambulate the mountain over seven days in autumn. Surrounding villages are known as ‘heaven villages’ because of the dense fog that hangs about in spring and summer. The way to the glacier leads up from Mingyong’s central square. The visitor centre sells tickets (¥75 round-trip) for electric carts to shuttle you 3.6km up to the start of the walk; you can also follow the same road on foot. From the end of the cart road it's a steady uphill of 2.5km via a new staircase that rises nearly 500 vertical metres – the old horse path is visible below, but there are only a few spots where it's accessible. At the top is Lotus Temple (莲花庙, Liánhuā Miào), which offers incredible views of the glacier framed by prayer flags and chörten (Tibetan stupas). It's home to a single monk who lives here for a month at a stretch without leaving the mountain. Mingyong village consists of only a couple of hotels, restaurants and shops. You can overnight in the very basic Renqin Hotel. From Deqin, irregular private minibuses to Mingyong leave from the bridge near the market at the top end of town (¥20 per person), or you can hire your own for around ¥150. If you’re coming from Yubeng, you could also hike a high trail to Mingyong from Xidang in around three hours if you hoof it. The road from Deqin descends into the dramatic Mekong Gorge. Six kilometres before Mingyong the road crosses the Mekong River and branches off to Xidang. There is a checkpoint here where you will need to show your national park ticket or buy one if you haven't already.

  • Sights in Dali

    Three Pagodas

    Absolutely the symbol of the town and region, these pagodas, a 2km walk north of the north gate, are among the oldest standing structures in southwestern China. The tallest of the three, Qianxun Pagoda, has 16 tiers that reach a height of 70m. It was originally erected in the mid-9th century by engineers from Xi'an. It is flanked by two smaller 10-tiered pagodas, each of which are 42m high. Guided tours in English are available from ¥120. While the price is cheeky considering you can’t go inside the pagodas, Chongsheng Temple (崇圣寺, Chóngshèng Sì) behind them has been rebuilt to an incredible degree along the design of the destroyed Nanzhao-era original, and is well worth exploring. Just inside the main entrance, the Chong Sheng Vegetarian Buffet serves lunch (¥20, 11.30am to 1pm).

  • Sights in Kunming

    Bamboo Temple

    Tucked away atop a winding mountain road up the forested hills northwest of the city centre, this serene temple is definitely one to be visited by sculptors as much as by those interested in temple collecting. Raised during the Tang dynasty in 639 AD, it was refitted in the Qing Dynasty by master Sichuan sculptor Li Guangxiu and his apprentices, featuring 500 luóhàn (罗汉, arhats or noble ones) in a fascinating mishmash of superb realism and head-scratching exaggerated surrealism. Li and his mates pretty much went gonzo in their excruciating, seven-year attempt to perfectly represent human existence in statuary. Check out the 70-odd surfing Buddhas, riding the waves on a variety of mounts – blue dogs, giant crabs, shrimp and turtles. So lifelike are the sculptures that they were considered in bad taste by Li Guangxiu's contemporaries (some of whom no doubt appeared in caricature), and upon the project's completion he disappeared into thin air. The temple is about 12km northwest of Kunming. Take a bus to Huangtupo (黄土坡, Huángtǔpō; Bus 2 runs here from the Confucian Temple bus stop), from where minibus C61 (¥8 per person) runs to the Bamboo Temple. If you visit around midday the temple kitchen prepares a simple vegetarian lunch for ¥10 per person, and the all-day teahouse on-site makes a pleasant stop as well.

  • Sights in Erhai Lake

    Gantong Temple

    Originally constructed in the Tang dynasty, this was once the most important temple in the Dali area. Only one of the original 36 halls remains, but reconstruction continues apace and in its forested mountainside setting the atmosphere is magnificent. Most notable is the uppermost temple (just uphill for visitors arriving on the stone path descending from the Jade Belt Road) for the delicate, manicured gardens and wonderful teahouse (10.30am to 6pm) inside. Pay whatever you like for the tea, leave a ¥100 deposit for the glassware, and pick a spot to relax for a while.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Duoyishu Rice Terrace

    Located about 25km from Xinjie, this rice terrace has the most awesome sunrises. As it's walking distance from Pugaolao it's an easy choice for the morning.

  • Sights in Lijiang

    Black Dragon Pool Park

    On the northern edge of town is Black Dragon Pool Park; the view from here of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is an obligatory photo stop in southwestern China. The Dongba Cultural Institute is part of a renovated complex on the hillside inside, an interesting stop for Naxi cultural artefacts and scrolls featuring the unique Naxi pictograph script. Trails lead up Elephant Hill (象山, Xiàng Shān) to a dilapidated gazebo and then across a spiny ridge past a communications centre and back down the other side, making a nice morning hike (but bring your passport to register before you start the hike). The park is included in the all-encompassing Lijiang Old Town entrance ticket, but in practice this is the only place it seems to be checked.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Swallow's Cavern

    Set inside a small nature reserve, this large cave complex is split into two – one high and dry, the other low and wet. The natural quiet of the popular wet cave is diluted a bit by bright neon lighting and a small shopping complex, as well as the drone of free motorboats that ferry tourists back to the cave mouth, but the hundreds of thousands of swallows flying around in spring and summer are a delightful touch of wildlife.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Confucian Temple

    Jianshui’s most famous temple was modelled after the temple in Confucius’ hometown of Qufu (Shandong province) and finished in 1285; it covers 7.5 hectares and is the third-largest Confucian temple in China. The temple operated as a school for nearly 750 years – its academic credentials were such that more than half of all Yunnan’s successful candidates in imperial examinations during this period came from Jianshui.

  • Sights in Lijiang

    Lijiang Old Town

    The old town is centred on busy and touristy Old Market Square, with the Waterwheel defining the northern edge and the lively Zhongyi Market marking the southern limit (which is a good stop for a slice of old Lijiang's trading traditions or just some afternoon street food). The surrounding lanes are dissected by a web of artery-like canals that once brought the city’s drinking water from Yuquan Spring, on the far outskirts of what is now Black Dragon Pool Park. Several wells and pools are still in use around town (but hard to find), including White Horse Dragon Pool. Where there are three pools, these were designated into pools for drinking, washing clothes and washing vegetables. Much of the joy of the old town is to be had in wandering small twisting lanes that open into small courtyards, hidden teahouses or tiny temples like Puxian Temple. Don't stress too much about seeing it all – but do make sure to climb the flanks of Lion Hill at some point for sweeping views of the old town and mountains.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Shíbǎoshān

    Wandering anywhere along the forested trails and stone pathways throughout Shibao Mountain makes for a pleasant day trip out of Shaxi, but the real highlights of the area are the Tang-era temples and carvings. The Shizhongshan Grottoes (石钟山石窟, Shízhōngshān Shíkū) have the most impressive concentration, most dating to the Nanzhao Kingdom and depicting the state's political and religious life. Also worth a visit is Baoxiang Temple (宝相寺, Bǎoxiāng Sì) for fantastic views of the rolling mountains beyond Shaxi. No public transport runs here. Walk up any of the numerous trails from Shaxi in around two hours, or take a minivan to the access road turn-off 12km north of the village. You'll have to walk the last 2km to the entrance.

  • Sights in Kunming

    Yunnan Provincial Museum

    Originally built in 1951, this museum's relocation in 2015 gave it a thoroughly modern 60,000 square metres of exhibition space. Displays span the prehistoric to the present day; expect a broad overview of Yunnan's past through well-curated exhibitions, though English captions are at times frustratingly limited. Enter on the southeast side of the building, and visit the quality on-site cafe for a coffee or tea if you find your feet dragging. Free baggage storage is also available. From Metro Line 1's Erji Road station, catch Bus 169 and ride for six stops. You can also get here directly from the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, though Bus 165 covers the 20 intervening stations in an agonisingly slow hour of traffic.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Wēibǎo Shān

    Weibao Mountain, about 10km south of Weishan, has a relatively easy hike to its peak at around 2500m. During the Ming and Qing dynasties it was the zenith of China’s Taoism, and you’ll find some superb Taoist murals; the most significant are at Wenchang Palace (文昌宫, Wénchāng Gōng) and Changchun Cave (长春洞, Chángchún Dòng). Birders in particular love the mountain; the entire county is a node on an international birding flyway. There are no buses here. Head to the street running east of Gongchang Tower in Weishan to pick up a taxi to the mountain, or ask your hotel to arrange one. Expect to pay ¥100 to ¥150 for the round trip; you’ll need the driver to wait for you.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Twin Dragon Bridge

    This beautiful 30m bridge across the confluence of the Lu and Tachong Rivers features 17 arches, so many that it took two periods of the Qing dynasty to complete the project in 1839. It's 3km from the western side of town. Minivans (¥3, 7am to 6pm) run here from Jianshui's Hong Yun bus station, and will let travellers out at an intersection 300m from the bridge. Six kilometres further on from the bus stop is Huanglong Temple (黄龙寺, Huánglóng Sì), a 2015 reconstruction of a 1680 structure. It's of little historical note, but the atmosphere is peaceful and the handful of resident nuns are happy to show visitors around.

  • Sights in Xishuangbanna Region

    Tropical Botanical Garden

    Lovely tropical gardens – the largest botanic gardens in all China – with many rare plant species and decent English and Latin signage. Don't miss the Distinctive Plant Collection. In addition to the main manicured sections of the gardens, the much larger East Area is home to acres of mostly undisturbed tropical rainforest, great for quiet wandering away from the crowds. To get here, turn left out of the bus station and then take the second left. Follow the road downhill, cross the first intersection and the north entrance ticket office is 100m ahead, just before a footbridge across the Mekong.

  • Sights in Kunming

    Taihua Temple

    The courtyard of the Ming dynasty Taihua Temple houses a fine collection of flowering trees, including magnolias and camellias, and is a popular to place to relax on the way up or down the mountain. The road from Huating Temple winds 2km up to the turn-off for Taihua, but if you're travelling on foot look for the pleasant Taihua Ancient Road (太华古道, Tàihuá Gǔdào) that climbs above the bus road, on a 1.3km track of stone staircases and pathways.

  • Sights in Shangri-la

    Ganden Sumtseling Gompa

    This 300-year-old Tibetan monastery complex about 4km north of the old town is home to around 600 monks. Extensive rebuilding has robbed the monastery of some of its charm, but it remains the most important in southwest China and is definitely worth the visit. Bus 3 runs here from anywhere along Changzheng Lu (¥1). From the main gate where the tickets are sold you can catch a tourist bus (¥10 one-way) or walk the final 2km to the monastery.

  • Sights in Central Yunnan

    Zhu Family Garden

    This spacious 20,000-sq-metre complex, which includes 42 separate courtyards, is a fascinating example of Qing-era architecture. Comprising ancestral buildings, family homes, ponds and lovely gardens, it took 30 years to build. The Zhu family made its fortune through its mill and tavern, and went on to dabble in everything from tin in Gejiu to opium in Hong Kong, eventually falling victim to the political chaos following the 1911 revolution.

  • Sights in Kunming

    Green Lake Park

    Come here to people-watch, practise taichi or just hang with the locals and stroll through winding lines that meander through the 22 hectares of ponds and pavilions. The roads surrounding the park are lined with wannabe trendy cafes, teahouses and shops. In November, everyone in the city awaits the return of the local favourites: red-beaked seagulls. It’s a treat watching people, er, ‘flock’ to the park when the first one shows up.