Kunming isn’t really known for being a tourist hotspot.
But I was super-surprised when I visited for a couple of weeks during my Chinese summer break.
There are lots of cool things to see and do, and most of the attractions are outdoors.
And, if you do want to go further afield, the famous towns of Dali and Lijiang are just a few hours away by bullet train.
So, here are the best things to do in Kunming without the fluff or tour group sales pitch!
1. Climb your way through the Stone Forest
I often enter Chinese tourist attractions like a deer in the headlights, having done no research on what to expect.
This is on purpose so I can get that feeling of surprise or delight, or in some cases, “Man, this place is terrible, where’s the exit?”
But I really loved the Stone Forest. I can see why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Kunming’s most popular tourist destination.
First off, the Stone Forest is a really big area. It’s not just one mountain made of stone. There are literally hundreds of them.
The place is so big that – for an extra fee – you’re taken to the ‘forest’ and back by minibus. And when you’re done, there’s a whole plaza full of restaurants and shops to spend your money on.
Unfortunately, the forest is miles away from the Kunming city center. It will take anywhere between 60-90 minutes by taxi or DiDi (China’s Uber) to get there, depending on where you’re staying.
You could opt to take two trains and a bus, and then a taxi or DiDi, but the journey is unnecessarily long and not a whole lot cheaper.
I’d allow half a day for a trip to the Stone Forest, or a whole day if you want to explore every nook and cranny, as well as eat there.
Even though I loved this place, it was absolutely packed with domestic tour groups with the usual screaming and shouting. So, don’t expect a serene place where you can unwind.
I also arrived at 10am which is peak time (at any Chinese tourist attraction, really). Silly me.
Note to Mike: Start arriving at attractions later in the afternoon.
2. Chillax at Green Lake Park
Speaking of unwinding, this is a place where you could do it.
Green Lake Park is busy (hey, it’s China) but there are plenty of seats and some are in hidden spots by the water.
You can do a walking loop of the park and take photos of the pretty pagodas on each side. There are also lots of restaurants and places to eat around the perimeter of the park.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch some oldies singing or dancing, and if the weather is nice, you might just stay for a few hours.
I rented a pedal boat thinking it would be a leisurely activity, but let me tell you that it can be hard work!
Still, I enjoyed visiting Green Lake Park and I can see why the locals like it too.
You can get to the park via Subway Line 5. I recommend downloading Metro Man, which is an awesome app to use when traveling in China.
3. Admire the blooming glory that is Dounan Flower Market
Kunming is famous for the Dounan Flower Market. It’s China’s largest flower market.
Dounan is an enormous multi-level warehouse and outdoor area that sells – you guessed it – fresh flowers.
But there’s all sorts of other things you can buy there too, including dried flowers, souvenirs and gifts.
I’m not a big flower afficionado, so I was in and out of the market within 30 minutes. But it was still nice to wander around the area, admire the blooms and take lots of photos.
I was there on a hot day, so it was nice to finish up with a cup of cold milk tea while I watched the world go by. (By the way, you can read more about the different kinds of Chinese drinks here.)
The subway station is right next door, making it easy to get to Dounan Flower Market, even though it is quite a bit south of downtown Kunming.
4. Go temple hopping
Temples are one of the few places in China where you can enjoy some peace and quiet. And luckily, there are numerous pretty temples in Kunming.
Purely for efficiency (laziness?) reasons, I headed for the Confucian Temple. It’s practically opposite Qianwang Street, which I talk about further down.
Originally built in 1276, the Confucian Temple has been rebuilt and renovated since then. It’s free to go in, and you’ll find locals practising tai chi or looking after their grandkids.
But the city’s most famous temple is the Golden Temple.
It’s an active Taoist temple, and the largest copper temple in China, hence the ‘golden’ name.
Located 7 km (4 mi) northeast of the city on Mingfeng Hill, the Golden Tower grounds are huge and there are hundreds of steps to climb as you approach the temple via the Heavenly Gates.
Admittedly, I didn’t make it to the Golden Temple as I’m not a temple kind of guy, and I’ve seen countless temples across China (I sound so unappreciative, don’t I?).
But if you love your temples, there’s also the Bamboo Temple (12 km or 7 miles northwest of the city) and Yuantong Temple as well.
Yuantong is a Zen Buddhist temple and the largest Buddhist complex in Kunming. It’s been refurbished many times since originally being build 1,200 years ago.
Yuantong Temple is actually not that far from the Confucian Temple and Green Lake Park. So if you’re pressed for time and you want to stay in the heart of Kunming, this would be a good option.
You can visit this website for more info on Kunming’s temples and all the history.
5. Go shopping
Like all other big cities in China, there’s no shortage of shopping opportunities in the capital of Yunnan province.
You could head to Dongfeng West Road for loads of food options and all your big brands.
If you’ve got money to splash on Louis Vuitton and the like, there’s Spring City Mall which is a stone’s throw from Dongfeng West Road.
But I really liked Qianwang Street, near the Confucian Temple.
It’s a chilled out (though busy) pedestrian area with lovely buildings, restaurants and souvenir stalls.
There’s also a flea market where vendors display their wares on rugs on the ground. You’ll find typically Chinese things like jade jewelry and Mao Zedong memorabilia.
Most of the stuff isn’t authentic, and make sure you bargain hard from the starting price. I picked up an amazingly cool, retro-like Mao statue which looks great on a bookcase.
The vendor asked for 600 yuan (US$80) so I offered 200 yuan (US$27). Within a moment, he’d accepted my offer, so I knew I hadn’t gone hard enough. Oh well, I still love my Mao.
I also bought a few tubes of local Yunnan toothpaste, which I later decided may not be the best Chinese souvenir to give someone!
(I kept them for myself and I can report that my teeth are looking good.)
6. Explore Lucheng Scenic Area on the Dian Lake
Dian Lake, or Dan Chi, is an enormous lake to the southwest of the city center.
In fact, it’s the largest freshwater lake in Yunnan province.
There are towns and villages dotted around the perimeter of Dian Chi, and Lucheng Scenic Area is one of those.
The government classifies it as an AAAA tourist destination, which is just under the highest star award possible.
Lucheng has a relaxed resort feel to it, with a sandy beach and deck chairs you can rent for the day.
Mind you, when I was there the weather was overcast and it was spitting a little bit. I imagine the place is packed on sunny days!
There are lots of nice seafood restaurants to choose from if you’re up for a feed. But be warned – if you don’t like seeing fish taken out of tanks and whacked to death in front of your eyes, steer clear.
By the beach, there’s a nice little hike you can do up the mountain, which takes you to the temple at the top for stunning views of Lucheng and across the lake.
And if you’ve still got some energy, why not take one of boats out for some pedal-powered fun?
I got to Lucheng by car, as it’s quite far from Kunming and there are no viable public transport options.
It costs 15 yuan (US$2) to enter the area by foot, or more if the driver takes the car in.
7. Get a bird’s eye view of Kunming at Western Hills Park
This place is huge.
Like the Stone Forest, I didn’t know what to expect and I thought I might be able to hike up and down the park’s mountain within a couple of hours. Nope.
Luckily, I bought the all-inclusive ticket which includes a coach, a mini-bus, and even a chairlift (open-air cable car) to help get me higher up the mountain. And who doesn’t love a chairlift?
There are some old Taoist grottoes carved into the side of the mountain that everyone seems to get excited about.
It’s known as Dragon Gate or Longmen (龙门) in Chinese.
But some of the stairways that go past Dragon Gate are very narrow and there are stacks of people, so to be honest, I was glad to hurry past and explore other parts of the park.
If you’re unfit I wouldn’t recommend a trip to Western Mountains. Even with the all-inclusive ticket, you’ll still have to walk up a lot of steps (hundreds, if not thousands) to see anything of interest.
But I loved spending time here, because the views of Kunming are absolutely stunning and the place has a really nice, relaxed vibe to it with all the hillside temples and dense forests.
It’s also super-easy to get to – Western Hills Park is the last station on Metro Line 3.
8. Eat wild mushrooms
Chinese cuisine is bloody incredible, and every region has its own specialties.
Yunnan is known for its wild mushrooms (yěshēng mógu or 野生蘑菇 in Mandarin) and there are hundreds of varieties.
The fertile soil and perfect mix of sunshine and rainfall around Kunming and southwest China makes growing conditions ideal.
It makes sense then that there are countless restaurants dishing up things like mushroom soup and mushroom hotpot.
Many restaurants have open-display fridges where you can pick and choose your mushrooms too. The servers won’t be able to speak English, so get your translation app ready!
See also: Best apps for foreigners in China
The best time to enjoy Kunming’s wild mushrooms is in the middle of the year, and there are some places you can go to pick your own, or just sample eating the local ones.
I heard that at least a few locals die each year after picking and eating poisonous mushrooms. So make sure you know what you’re doing, or get the help of a local guide.
Not a fan of mushrooms?
Then try a bowl of cross-bridge rice noodles, which is basically rice noodle soup. This popular dish originated in Yunnan and usually contains meat.
You can find cross-bridge noodles all over town. Just look for out for the Chinese characters (过桥米线 pronounced guò qiáo mǐ xiàn) on the front of restaurants or on menus.
9. Learn about ethnic minorities (sort of) at Nationalities Park
If you’re only visiting Kunming for a day or two, you can quite safely give this one a miss.
But if you’re in Kunming for a couple of weeks like I was, then you might like to spend some time exploring the Nationalities Park.
It’s also referred to as Yunnan Nationalities Village and Yunnan Ethnic Village.
It’s hard to explain what this place actually is. I would say it’s a huge open-air park where you can wander through different ‘lands’ which showcase the different ethnic groups of Yunnan.
There are recreated houses to see how people used to live, performances to watch, and you can learn about the history of the many local peoples.
From my perspective, many of the workers in traditional dress just didn’t look like they wanted to be there. But can you blame them?
There’s not much English at the park, so you’ll probably need someone to help you make sense of what’s going on.
I found it difficult to understand what was what because my guide wasn’t actually from the park.
“This is an ancient bowl.” Ummm, OK, thanks.
Like most recreated attractions in China, Nationalities Park is super-touristy. If you want something more natural, head to Tiger Leaping Gorge (up next).
But if you like a bit of kitsch like I do, this park is a bit of harmless fun.
10. Take the train to Dali and Lijiang
Want to get out of Kunming for a day? Two days? More?
Potentially, you could leave early in the morning and take the high-speed train from Kunming or Kunming South Station to Dali for the day, and come back at night.
Dali City is about two hours away. And then it’s about a half-hour Didi or taxi ride to Dali Old Town. So, depending on what you want to do there, do the math and see if that’s enough time for you.
For me, it wasn’t, and I decided to spend four days there.
I also visited Lijiang, another cute tourist town (some might say tourist trap – me included) which is an additional hour away, i.e. three hours from Kunming.
There, you can wander through the maze of cobblestone alleyways, dress up in ancient Chinese costumes, and nibble on local rose-flavored cakes. I did all three.
You can also take a day trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I chose the former and – insane crowds aside – it is spectacular.
I had half a day there, including the hour-long car ride from Lijiang, but you can do long hikes along the river leading to the gorge and stay overnight in a quaint inn.
What else can you do in Kunming?
I would have liked to have visited Dongchuan Red Land.
It’s basically a swathe of colorful fields and terraces, where you can catch the sunrise and take amazing photos.
The area is at least three hours away from Kunming so you’ll need to take a tour or car, and spend the night at one of the undeveloped villages.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to get so far out of Kunming (I was sightseeing at the same time as learning Mandarin at Keats Chinese School).
Maybe next time.
And, if you’re a museum kind of person, you could visit Yunnan Provincial Museum, Yunnan Nationalities Museum (opposite Nationalities Park) or the rather niche Yunnan Railways Museum.
How’s that for choice?
In case you’re wondering why I didn’t drop into one of the museums, it’s because I have been to so many in China lately.
Could. Not. Visit. One. More.
Psst! A quick travel tip
If you want to use Wi-Fi while you’re in Kunming, or anywhere else in China for that matter, you won’t be able to survive without a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.
The Chinese internet is censored, and without a VPN all of your favorite apps (e.g. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, etc) are inaccessible, and the equivalent websites are banned too.
Just remember to download the VPN before you arrive as VPN sales are blocked in China.
So… what’s the best thing to do in Kunming?
If you’re only in the city for a day or two, I’d head to the Stone Forest. I think it’s the best place in Kunming.
Just brace yourself for the crowds. Get there when gates open, or later in the afternoon once the big tour groups have left.
Western Hills Park is a great place to go hiking and get the blood pumping, or you could take the lazy route like I did and use the coach/minibus/chairlift combo. There are grottoes and hillside temples at the park to satisfy your historical urges too.
Then there’s the lovely Qianwang Street to wander down, where you can shop for souvenirs and fill your belly with a bowl of local mushroom soup.
I hope you liked my article on things to do in Kunming. Next, check out the things to do in Yangshuo, a popular tourist town in Guangxi province, which is next door to Yunnan. And don’t forget your China VPN!
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
FAQ about things to do in Kunming
What is Kunming famous for?
The capital city of Yunnan province is known for its pleasant weather, natural beauty, rich cultural heritage (there are 26 ethnic minorities here), Stone Forest, Dian Chi Lake, as well as numerous temples.
Why is Kunming known as the City of Eternal Spring?
It’s because the weather is pleasant all year round, so it always feels like spring there. The mild climate attracts tourists from all over China, especially in the summer.
How many days do you need in Kunming?
I’d recommend at least two to three days to squeeze in all the top attractions, assuming you have a guide to whisk you around. I was there for two weeks while studying Mandarin at the same time, and managed to visit everything I wanted to see during weekends and on some afternoons.
Which places do most visitors to Kunming go to see?
The top things in and around the city are the Stone Forest, Green Lake Park, Golden Temple, Yuantong Temple, and West Hill Park which overlooks Lake Dianchi. The most popular destination is the Stone Forest. Also, a few hours away from Kunming (by bullet train) are the small cities of Dali and Lijiang. From Lijiang, you can visit stunning scenic spots like Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.