Kunming: City of Eternal Spring & Melting Pot of Culture

By Sophie Steiner, June 16, 2023

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Sometimes overlooked by travelers as merely a jumping off point to Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-la, or a gateway to the Silk Road, Kunming – capital and largest city of Yunnan Province – warrants much more than that.

A melting pot of minority culture, coupled with the best year-round weather in the country – earning it the nickname, the City of Eternal Spring – makes Kunming a veritable travel destination. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Kunming can trace its roots back centuries, with relics of civilization around the Dianchi Lake. The city was a key commerce center, one that facilitated trade between Tibet, Sichuan, Myanmar, India and beyond from as far back as 2,400 years ago.

Today, Kunming retains the economic importance derived from its location, and serves as an important passage between Southwest China and Southeast Asia. Just last year saw the opening of a transnational highspeed railway to the public connecting Kunming to Vientiane, Laos. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The city’s population of 8 million people – roughly 5.6 million of which live in the urban center – is of a diverse makeup, home to 26 different ethnic minorities.

With representation from the Yi, Bai, Miao, Dai, and Naxi people – to name but a few – Kunming exemplifies a concentrated depiction of the varied minority groups scattered around the province, showcasing the country’s multiplicity beyond Han Chinese. 

Image courtesy of GoKunming

Situated 1,900 meters above sea level at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer, Kunming‘s climate allows for abundant plant life, constant blossoms, and year-round lush vegetation, as well as bestowing it with the honorary distinction of one of China’s top five provincial capitals for least air pollution. 

Image courtesy of GoKunming

The city’s abundant natural parks are interspersed with historical temples, clear lakes, museums and historical old towns next to modern shopping streets.

This foments a city that boasts a relaxed ambiance, an affordable price point and a comfortable setting, ideal for families, couples and travelers of all ages. 

Green Lake 翠湖公园

Kunming’s most beloved urban park, Green Lake, consists of four lotus leaf-filled sub-lakes (hence the name) connected via traditional Chinese bridges.

A popular hangout, visitors can observe dancing ayis in the morning to strolling lovestruck young couples in the evening, making it a common Kunming pastime to partake in Green Lake’s leisurely atmosphere.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The park is filled with flowering gardens, traditional pavilions, a bamboo forest, and a palm islet replete with subtropical plants.

It is also ringed by teahouses, restaurants, and coffee shops – ones that represent the burgeoning coffee culture across the city.

On Sundays, Kunming dwellers don traditional costumes and gather at the park to dance, sing and enjoy the city’s gorgeous weather. 

Image courtesy of GoKunming

We highly suggest a morning coffee at Yunn Roasters, with a sun-soaked patio overlooking the lake. 

Serving up high quality Yunnan beans, the shop has everything from the conventional – cold brews and cappuccinos – to the avant-garde – osmanthus and fermented glutinous rice americanos and cheese foam-capped lattes. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Just a short jaunt away, visitors can wander along Wenlin Jie, a street humming with energy from the nearby universities.

It’s a hotspot for international food choices – like Salvador’s Coffee House – plus Yunnan cuisine, known as diancai (滇菜) – found at Heavenly Manna and Huixinang Xilou, among others. 

Western Hills 西山

The Western Hills Forest Park is more than just Dianchi Lake and sprawling panoramic views across the entire city – although the vista is spectacular.

There are also 900-year-old Taoist temples, grottoes, a tranquil forest with towering deciduous and coniferous trees, and winding hiking trails that can keep guests busy for a full day. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Visitors can choose to enjoy the park with an aerial view by taking the ski lift-style ropeway – a 25-minute ride above the trees to the top of the hills for just RMB25 per person. 

The various peaks that make up the Western Hills stretch 35 kilometers from north to south, reaching up to 2,050 meters above sea level.

From afar, the undulating mounts resemble a prostrating Buddha, hence the nickname “Sleeping Buddha Mountain.” 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The main sights include Huating Temple, Taihu Temple, Sanqing Pavilion and – the pride and joy of the mountain – the Dragon Gate Grottoes.

The stone-carved edifice and surrounding grottoes were carved out of the steep cliffs during the Qing Dynasty, more than 200 years ago.

Naigu Stone Forest 乃古石林 

Famed for its remarkable karst formations, Kunming’s Stone Forest provides visitors with the ability to walk through an otherworldly natural phenomenon of spiky limestone cliffs jutting towards the sky.

Formed more than 270 million years ago from a combination of sedimentation, pressure and erosion, Kunming’s Stone Forest is one of the only of its kind on the planet. 

Image courtesy of GoKunming

One 10-square-kilometer bewitching section of the Stone Forest stands out above the rest for its noticeably onyx hue, one that is the result of dolomitic limestone (a mix of calcium and magnesium), whereas the rest of the stone forest is a paler gray due to the lack of magnesium in the calcium.  

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Meaning “black” in the Yi minority language, the “Naigu” Stone Forest is part of a northern subset of the full Stone Forest area.

One that also happens to be noticeably less crowded, allowing visitors to engage with nature as they wander through naturally-formed caverns, peek through one-of-a-kind crevices and climb towards viewing platforms to witness the spectacle from a bird’s-eye-view. 

Plan to visit the park for 2-4 hours between 8.30am-6pm daily, for RMB130 per person.

Daguan Zhuanxin Farmer’s Market 大观篆新农贸市场 

One of Kunming’s busiest local wet markets, the Daguan Zhuanxin Farmer’s Market is a foodie’s paradise and a photographer’s dream.

Off the usual tourist track, visitors can meander their way up and down the alleys, observing the everyday life of Kunming residents as they go about their daily shopping. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Plan to arrive with absolutely no plan, and instead pick your way through the extensive spread of seasonal fruits and vegetables, a multitude of mushrooms, bountiful baked goods and – most interestingly – smattering of minority specialty dishes. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Not only is the market a great place for inhabitants to pick up their groceries, it’s also ideal for tasting everything from the customary Kunming street snacks – grilled rolls of rose jam-slathered goat’s milk cheese known as rushan, plush corn flour steamed buns, sweet red bean stuffed pastries, and so much more...

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

... to the regional minority plates – Dai-style mashed grilled eggplant and zippy yellow chicken lemon cold salad, just to name a few. 

Image courtesy of GoKunming

The best time to visit is early in the morning for grocery shopping, or around lunch time for snacking, as the market closes by about 6pm.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Pro Tip: If it’s flowers you’re after, Kunming is also home to the Dou Nan Flower Market (斗南花市) – the largest wholesale flower market in all of Asia, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, just south of the city center. 

Jiaozi Snow Mountain 轿子雪山

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Situated 150 kilometers north of Kunming, Jiaozi Snow Mountain is a 4A tourist site and year-round destination, rewarding the adventurous with expansive views from 4,223 meters above sea level. 

Resembling something out of a Swiss Alps postcard, the terrain here encompasses mountain lakes, sky-high pine trees, and rolling meadows, with blooming azalea flower fields in spring and a picturesque dusting of snow in winter. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image courtesy of GoKunming

There are multiple tiers of cable cars and hop-on-hop-off bus routes for those who want to hike only specific portions of the peak, as well as numerous trails with continuous views.

Visitors can also enjoy a rustic, homestyle cooked meals mid-hike in Hejia Cun (何家村) or choose to spend the night to spread the hiking across two days. 

Dai Minority Cuisine 傣菜

Kunming is known for its Dai population, a minority group that cooks with hot and sour flavors, sharing similarities with those found in northern Laos and Thailand. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

From lemongrass roasted fish to Dai ghost chicken salad, from grilled pork belly to sticky pineapple rice, from Dai dried beef and herb salad to stir-fried banana flowers; it’s hard not to fall head over heels for this colorful cuisine. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

While many restaurants around the city sport an all-encompassing roster of Dai dishes, we suggest Dai Family Courtyard (傣家小院) for their overflowing shouzhuafan sets.

Baba 粑粑

Baba is Yunnan’s version of bing – a round, flat bread or pancake of sorts, eaten for breakfast or an afternoon snack.

Each city around the province has their own version – baked, fried, steamed; made with rice flour, corn flour, or wheat flour; stuffed or unstuffed; savory or sweet.

The options are endless, begging visitors to sample them all. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

While the Kunming version is customarily wheat-based and baked – filled with all manner of ingredients of your choosing – one can easily find the Xizhou-style baba – thicker and dense, with folded buttery layers encasing anything from scallion and egg to brown sugar rose jam – or fluffy rice and egg-based baba around the city at all hours of the day. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Other equally carb-forward street snacks span erkuai – the grilled rice cake sister “wrap” of the jianbing – and mixan – slippery rice noodles topped with ground pork, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, swimming in a rich, warming broth.

Where to Stay

Getting to Kunming is a breeze, as its home to the largest airport and train station in Yunnan, with regular direct flights to all major Chinese cities.

But the real question is where to situate yourself within the city for the most prime jumping off point to begin and end your day with a bang. 

Image courtesy of GoKunming

The venue that checks all the boxes – location, comfort, value for money, and culture – is the architecturally appealing Moon and Chalice Boutique Hotel, positioned smack dab in Kunming’s old town center.

Flanked by local food shops, parks and historical buildings, it is also within walking distance of many of Kunming’s tourist attractions and public transportation hubs. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

This historical building is one of the city’s most iconic structures, prized for its distinct arced shape to mimic the curvature of its surroundings.

Image courtesy of GoKunming

It was converted into a boutique hotel in the 1940s, offering guests a taste of the city’s glorious past, paired with modern luxuries – comfy bedding and high-pressure showers in rooms that each have their own distinct layout, a rotating selection of complimentary room-delivered freshly-brewed tea, fast internet, original artwork, high-end service, and lounge-worthy common spaces.


Image courtesy of GoKunming

[Cover image courtesy of GoKunming]

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