If a visit to China takes you to the Yunnan province, you will most likely end up passing through Kunming, the region’s large and quite bustling metropolitan area. Here are six top things to do in Kunming on a stopover, whether you are traveling there to visit the city itself, or need a few days to acclimatize to jet travel or altitude (Don’t forget that Kunming is 6,200 feet elevation).
Any trip to a large Chinese city can be a bit overwhelming with cars, bikes, three-wheeled surreys, trucks, motorbikes, and people crisscrossing and pushing to get where they want to go. Kunming is no different – even at a mere 3.8 million population in the metro area, which doesn’t even put Kunming in the top 25 Chinese cities by population. Nevertheless, with good walking shoes and able legs, you can cover most of the city center and get to most of the top things to do in Kunming. Buses are also efficient and inexpensive, albeit crowded, and are worth exploring, too, as another option if your legs can’t take you as far as you may want.
Jinbi Square arches
Smack in the middle of Kunming, about three blocks south of the Nanping Shopping Street (closed to vehicular traffic) is Jinbi Square with its two large Chinese archways – the Golden Horse and Jade Rooster Memorial Archways (“Jinma Biji”). Before you get to the large square from Nanping, however, you first need to take your life into your hands and cross multiple roaring traffic lanes in both directions on Jinbi Road. That is itself an attraction. We in fact spent a bit of time just standing on the median between directions watching the speeding parade of two-, three- and four-wheeled motorized and non-motorized vehicles, not to mention hordes of pedestrians working their way across.
The archways, as one of several things to do in Kunming, were built in the Ming Dynasty, so they are about 400 years old. They are approximately 12 meters high (39 feet) and 18 meters wide (59 feet) with carved and painted pillars and beams.
Likely one of the most visited sights in Kunming, the Yuantong Temple is a sprawling Buddhist complex that draws many pilgrims with its complex history. More than 1,200 years old, the revered complex, built originally in the 8th and 9th centuries, has a pond surrounded by buildings and a smaller temple in the center of the pond accessible by arched bridges. This style of a hall surrounded by water is in fact unique to this temple in China, as too is its unusual construction of entering on higher ground then descending to the temple area. With buzzing traffic just outside, Yuantong remains completely serene inside, with the quiet only interrupted by prayers, drums and chanting. There is also a new hall behind the main area where, if you are lucky, you may see the monks tending their gardens in front.
A soaring rock cliff towers behind the newer hall in the back but access to its (as we hear) views and caves has been closed due to apparent erosion and rockfall. Still, don’t hesitate to gander up the stairs on the sides to get a closer look. P.S. The caves are said to house dragons, but we can’t say we saw any on our visit.
Green Lake Park (“Cuihu”)
Just down the street from the temple is Kunming’s largest city park, which is filled with a plethora of arched bridges and walkways that allow you walk around what are basically four smaller sub-lakes within its boundaries. The lake itself was originally a water reservoir for the city, as you can see by a small “museum” pump building in the park. Especially on weekends and in the mornings, you’ll see the park filled with groups practicing one kind of exercise or another, as is typical in Chinese parks in the mornings. It is another thing to do in Kunming that allows you to leave the city’s bustle for a while.
Kunming Old Town
Apparently the city and region has made some effort to shore up its historic town center along Guanghua Street. You can see markers in the streets, and large signs proclaiming the old town preservation effort, but only bits and pieces of work have been done. What you’ll see, however, is a tiny chunk of history with wooden buildings, some tilting at crazy angles, some propped up, some leaning against their neighboring buildings, some boarded up and in dire need of paint and TLC, and others with shops still functioning on ground floors. Traffic zips by, seemingly oblivious to this treasure that is slowly falling apart. Although not there on a weekend, we have heard the area attracts a lot of Chinese residents and tourists.
Really not on many tourist lists, but we would call it one of the top things to do in Kunming. We happened across this square just a few blocks south of Green Lake and found it nearly more captivating than Green Lake itself. It is small, but filled with dancers, exercisers, men playing chess under the trees on benches, and even folks flying kites if the wind is right. It is at the corner of Renmin Middle Road and Wuyi Road. In the park is also a statue to fallen soldiers.
Western Hills Park and Dragon Gate
Getting to the Western Hills Park and all of its winding walkways and temples will require either the adventure of taking Chinese buses or finding a taxi since it is on the southern outskirts of Kunming near Dianchi Lake. Either way you will be rewarded with what HI Travel Tales truly considers THE best destination among things to do in Kunming. Take the entire day. You will need it to get there and enjoy every temple on the mountain as well as the so-called Dragon Gate on the side of the cliff looming over the lake and Kunming.
Map of China
In the map below, pins mark the location of all the sites mentioned in our articles on China. Zoom in or out on the map using the controls. Switch easily from map to satellite view. Click on each pin to pull up a tooltip with the name and any additional information.