A trip to Yunnan isn’t necessarily the first place you’d include in a China tour itinerary. However, with a deeper understanding of this beautiful China destination, you may want to rethink that.
Yunnan province, located in China’s south-west, interweaves naturally beautiful landscapes, ancient history, and religious and ethnic cultures in ways other parts of China don’t. Unique and picturesque, a trip to Yunnan is worth considering if an enriching China tour is what you want.
Planning a trip to Yunnan
Earning itself the nickname, “South of the Clouds”, Yunnan offers rich diversity in its landscapes too. Characterized by altitude extremes – more than 6000 meters at its highest – the natural vistas are extreme and changeable. A clear day will reveal expansive views across snow-capped peaks, seemingly endless grasslands, steep gorges, and lush forests.
Locals speak many different languages and dialects. This makes travel with a local guide, who lives in a particular China destination, the ideal solution for western travelers who want to plan a trip to Yunnan.
Looking for more tips to plan your Yunnan tour? Read on.
Climate and the best time to plan a trip to Yunnan
Across Yunnan province, the climate is as changeable as the landscape. With its distinctive dry and rainy seasons, it pays to know the best time to plan a trip to Yunnan. The wet season runs from May to October (mainly in June to August), while the dry season extends from November to April.
Although Yunnan is characterized by a subtropical monsoon climate, a surprising fact is many destinations, including Lijiang and Dali experience snow during winter months. The rain is also known for bringing cooler weather, so if a Yunnan tour is on your travel itinerary, come prepared.
Yunnan’s hottest month is July. Average temperatures range between 19 – 22°C (66.2 to 71.6 ℉). Love the cold? Then schedule your trip to Yunnan during the coldest month, January. With its lows of 6 – 8°C (42.8 to 46.4℉).
Our local guides tell us the ideal time to take in all the best Yunnan has to offer is March to June and September to November. If the Yuanyang Terraced Fields are on your bucket list, aim for a November arrival, but keep in mind most parts of Yunnan experience mild weather fluctuations year round.
As with anywhere in China, avoid traveling in Yunnan during national holidays. China’s domestic tourism market is booming and you’ll find it hard making your way around during the Spring Festival holiday ( late January to early February), May Day holiday (May 1–3), and the China National Day holiday (October 1–7).
Best highlights to visit in Yunnan
Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang are a must-see for travelers planning a first trip to Yunnan. Considered the classic destinations, look for tours incorporating highlights from these places. And our big Yunnan tip? Add a visit Shangri-La. It’s bucket list material.
A private China tour usually conjures up big city sights, but operators wanting to give western travelers an experience of real China, get up close and personal with more off-the-beaten-track destinations.
Trekking enthusiasts will love Yunnan hiking trails, considered some of the best in the world. Included in the rich choice are the Northwest Yunnan trekking trail from Lijiang to Meili Snow Mountain, Yubeng Village, Shangri-La, and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Witness breathtaking nature, hidden villages and sacred Buddhist sites on a truly memorable intrepid journey.
What’s to see in Kunming
Situated in the temperate monsoon climate zone, Yunnan Province’s capital, Kunming enjoys the reputation as The Spring City. Why? Kunming’s year-round pleasant climate boasts warm and comfortable weather and a temperature of 15 degrees.
On a visit to Kunming during your trip to Yunnan, immerse yourself in the fragrance of flowers at the Bird-Flower Market, discover the peculiar glamor of the Paleozoic karst landform in Stone Forest, and admire the unique garden-style layout at Yuantong Temple.
Glorious views of Dongchuan Red Earth Scenic Area can be had too, making it a great location for photography buffs. One thing to remember drawing on the wisdom of an ancient proverb, “the city turns to winter in a second when it rains”. Pack a coat or sweater if you’re traveling in the rainy season.
Spend a day or two in Dali ancient town
Dali, the autonomous prefecture of the Bai minority in Yunnan. Ideal for a visit in March and April, Dali weather is pleasant and many Bai minority festivals and events are in full swing in spring.
Stroll through Bai’s historical Xizhou Town, soak in the enchanting landscape of Erhai Lake cloistered by the Cangshan Mountain, or marvel at the magnificence of the Three Pagodas in Chongsheng Temple. It’s all part of daily local life in Dali ancient town.
Located in the borderland of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Lijiang is the to the Naxi Minority, where captivating landscapes, ethnic customs, religious beliefs, and modern entertainment intersect.
From the stunning scenery of holy Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the rugged beauty of roaring Tiger Leaping Gorge, unique V-shape turn of the First Bend of Yangtze River, to vivid figures of Baisha Murals and best-preserved traditional architectures in Lijiang Ancient Town, Lijiang is an ideal destination that appeals to travelers with a real taste of China’s immense history and culture.
With the moderate weather and idyllic natural landscapes famously written about in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, Shangri-La is a special place to visit on a trip to Yunnan.
While charming in spring and summer, Autumn is when Shangri-la appears most beautiful. An amazing spectacle of color changes with leaves ablaze with seasonal hues, Shangri-La is at its most enchanting this time of year.
Shangri-La possesses a majesty rarely seen in China’s big cities. Nature is a highlight. Think preserved natural wonders, snow-capped mountains, endless grasslands, mysterious lamaseries, and timeless Tibetan customs. Visit the Songzanlin Monastery, Old Town of Shangri-La, and Pudacuo National Park, and discover yourself why Shangri-La is synonymous with ‘Heaven on Earth’.
Jianshui Ancient Town: the Museum of Buildings
Yet another of Yunnan’s historically and culturally significant towns, Jianshui has been established approximately 1200 years. It retains an abundant cultural heritage and enjoys a reputation as the ‘Museum of Ancient Buildings’, attracting domestic and international travelers.
Notable sights abound in Jianshui: Swallow Cave, Jianshui Confucius Temple (erected in 1285 and remains China’s second largest Confucius Temple), Zhang Family Garden in Tuanshan Village, Double Dragon Bridge and the National Examination Site in Xuezheng, from the Ming and Qing Dynasties
Book your trip to Yunnan to arrive in Jianshui from April to October and make the most of what this town has to offer.
The town of Old Yuanyang is a Hani minority settlement located on a ridge of the Ailao mountain range.
Old Yuanyang is a sought after destination for photographers. The terraced rice paddies, cultivated for over 1300 years by the Hani people, are the drawcard as they make for idyllic landscape scenes.
Holding great appeal to western travelers visiting Old Yuanyang, the vast majority of ethnic minority women still wear traditional garments as their daily attire. The main ethnic group is the Hani who share the region with several other minorities, such as the Yi and Miao.
Market days in the villages tend to be very colorful when the different minority groups in the vicinity, each in their own traditional costume, come together to trade and socialize. In our opinion, Old Yuanyang is a must inclusion when planning a trip to Yunnan.
Yunnan boasts endlessly fascinating cultures with the largest variety of ethnic minorities in China – a grand total of 52. The Yi people have the largest population with more than 400 million people, while the Dulong people have the least with only 5,500 people.
Many locals haven’t walked out of their mountains or villages in their lifetime, though they are very friendly to visitors. Traditions, customs, and languages of the regions ethnic groups are a closely held treasure.
The ideal time to visit is during festivals. That’s when you’ll find local people dressed in beautiful traditional garb, filling the streets with song and dance. Hosting dozens of ethnic festivals in Yunnan throughout the year, our favorites include the Torch Festival, Water-splashing Festival, and March Street Festival.
A long history of multi-ethnic cohabitation has enriched Yunnan with an exotic charm reflected in the distinct dwellings, costumes, customs and festivals loyal to the century-old traditions.
Where to stay in Yunnan
Thanks to China’s highly developed tourism industry, Yunnan offers visitors a full range of accommodation for tourists. Catering to different budget constraints and tastes, be sure to explore the options. Whether you’re looking for premium hotels designed with international standards to more rustic bed-and-breakfasts based on the traditional dwellings of the local people, it’s available. And if you need help identifying the perfect option, speak to a travel consultant who knows the best available options.
Keep in mind when planning your trip to Yunnan, Jianshui and Yuanyang accommodation choices are more humble than that of Dali, Kunming, Lijiang, and Shangri-la.
Traveling in Yunnan: How to get in and around in comfort
Yunnan is unique in China for possessing more airports than railways, because the area has some of the world’s most inaccessible terrain.
There are 14 airports operating in Yunnan, six railway systems, and three high-speed rail systems. This well-developed transit network is constantly extended to connect all tourist attractions in Yunnan. The longest of its kind in West China, the rail network connects 238,000 kilometers to some of China’s finest destinations.
A bite and beverage in Yunnan
Love sampling local cuisines? You’ll find plenty to choose from in Yunnan. With the diversity in culture, it literally is a melting pot of flavors.
In each Yunnan destination, local people make full use of the fresh produce, including flowers, fruits, mushrooms, edible wild herbs, highland river fish and shrimp, and meats.
Locals still adhere to traditional ingredients and cooking methods. Yunnan cuisine (also Dian cuisine) is an amazing mix of Han and Chinese minority cuisines. Incorporating a heavy and spicy flavor to all sorts of delicacies, try favorites like: steam pot chicken, casserole fish, pickled beef tendon, lemongrass chicken, fish boiled with sour bamboo shoots.
After something a little more exotic?
Make sure your trip to Yunnan includes sampling the famous Insect Dish! For those with a more adventurous palate, the variations on Insect Dish are virtually unlimited. Locusts, spiders, dragonflies, bee chrysalis, silkworm chrysalis, ant eggs and well, just about anything. Salted and fried to create a simple crisp taste, this morsel will leave you with an aftertaste (and interesting travel memory) from Yunnan.
Beverages: What to drink in Yunnan
No trip to Yunnan would be complete without taking tea like or with a local.
Although tea in China has a rich, enduring history, there are few places with the tea ‘pedigree’ you’ll find in Yunnan. For more than 1,700 years, tea has been an integral part of the social and commercial fabric of Yunnan. When 92 percent of the counties still growing tea, it’s easy to see how.
Among the numerous tea varieties of teas, Pu’er tea is the most famous and has the longest history. Other popular teas include Dian black tea and Tuo tea.
If you’re after a brew that’s slightly stronger, you may be brave enough to partake of the mainly home-brewed wines produced by the local minorities. Dai rice wine, Kunming rose wine and saffron wine are available in plentiful supply, but sample in moderation. With deceptively high alcohol content, you’ll definitely feel the effects.
Recommended ChinaTours.com itineraries
A first time trip to Yunnan might be a challenge to book and arrange without a China tours specialist. The good news is ChinaTours.com can help.
Having created custom tours for western travelers wanting a real experience of Yunnan, we recommend, five to ten days is ideal.
Explore our Yunnan tour options to book online, or have a tour tailored just for you, seeing what you want when you want.
Quick travel tips for Yunnan
- A thin jacket is always needed for day-and-night temperature variation prevalent in most areas of Yunnan.
- Sunsafe products such as sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, folding umbrella are strongly recommended for the intense sunlight on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau.
- Have a good rest and drink enough water to prevent altitude sickness when you are in Shangri-La and other high altitude localities within Yunnan.
- Respect the religious and living environments of local ethnic minorities.
ChinaTours.com employs a team of experienced local travel consultants and guides who provide step-by-step guidance on how to plan a trip to Yunnan or any other destination in China such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin or Suzhou – you can even start your China tour with us in Hong Kong…