Dali Old Town is known for its cultural heritage, natural landscape, and ancient fortification walls. Small enough, walk through the narrow cobblestoned streets, passing by tea shops, small restaurants, street vendors selling cheese on a stick or local vegetables. A section of the Old Dali is rather popular with Chinese travelers but wander away and you will see traditions still strong. The minority cultures of the Bai, Yi, and Hui, are still very much present, as you cross ladies wearing traditional hats and dresses.
Dali Old Town
The town was named Jumie in the medieval time, the capital of the Bai kingdom in the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Kingdom of Dali in the 10th to 13th centuries. The current town layout comes from the 14th century under the Ming Dynasty but the powerful 1925 earthquake destroyed most of it. Many of the new structures still follow the design and materials of traditional Chinese, featuring tiled roofs and white-washed walls.
Dali still follows the pattern of a walled city, with four gates as the main entrances.The most popular sites are the South, the North, and the East Gates, though the South Gate is by far the most visited and touristy.These gates are good reference points to locate yourself as you stroll through the old town.
Most of the streets are pedestrian only, which make the visit rather enjoyable. Here and there you will see a few scooters, a few mini-trucks carrying people and merchandise alike.
Dali Ancient City South Gate
The best time to see the South Gate is in the late afternoon when the sun illuminates the monument. These hours are however also the busy time, so you might have to wait a bit to take a photo. A better way to appreciate the area is to go up the fortified walls and enjoy the city from higher up.
The pagoda hosts a small museum which you can visit providing a small fee.
Once at the top of the ancient walls, take in the Cang Mountain from the west and Er Hai lake from the east. Given the beauty of the area, many brides and grooms can be spotted for wedding photo shoots. These walls are the only remaining ones in Dali Old Town and are worth a visit.
Photos around South Gate
Dali East Gate
The East Gate (Er Haimen in Chinese, for the name of the Er Hai Lake it’s facing) sees a small flea market on one side, and fruits and snacks on the other. The area has a lot of restaurants and small shops to choose from, including ice parlors.
Throughout the old town of Dali, you can see traditional Bai houses. The architecture of the minority ethnic gives a unique style to the city. Some are still in use today, some abandoned, other integrated into new constructions.
East Gate Photos
Dali Old Town North Gate
The North Gate features shops similar to the South Gate, but the gate itself is much newer. The pagoda is relatively new and highly colorful. Head to the top of the stairs for a better view of the town. You can even get inside the pagoda, where the second floor lets you admire the town and views reaching down to the Er Hai Lake.
North Gate Photos
Dali West Gate
Named Cangshanmen in Chinese (facing the mountains of the same name Cangshan), the West Gate is the closest to the famous Foreigner’s Street Central Square. This gate is the least touristy of the four, with a few shops nearby.
West Gate Photos
Local Life in the Northwestern Quarter
This part of town has a more local feel, with modest food stalls, a large food market where locals shop for cured meat, fresh chicken, and a broad choice of vegetables and fruits. Appliances stores, clothes, flowers, egg and local walnuts from the nearby mountains are available as well. This area also features one of the Catholic Church.
Daily Life in Dali Old Town
The northeast section of Dali is also less busy with tourists but is more residential with several hotels. Walking there let you see kids playing, women washing clothes in the water canals.
Shopping & Nightlife in the Southwestern Quarter
Souvenir shops, potteries, Western restaurants, live music, all line up the streets. These areas are usually alive at night, and good for a cold beer and a slice of pizza.
The Southeast part is also touristy but less than the Western side. A good section appears to be a park but is actually a military compound, but is set within high stone walls. You need to know it’s military but is very well integrated in the urban settings.
The small Yu’er Park nearby is nice for people watching. Elders playing mahjong or go. Kids playing. Dancers repeating their choreography. A great way to witness the daily life of the local Dali residents.
During the weekends, many seniors come to practice Taichi, or sing traditional songs – some with more or less accurate tons! You might see caged birds hanging in trees. It seems to be custom for people to bring their pet birds to the park, maybe to enjoy the fresh air.
Photos of Yu’er Park
What to Do in Dali Old Town
Simply walking the cobblestoned streets for a feel of the town. Or check city sightseeing options for a better understanding of Dali and its residents.
With a wide choice of restaurants, cafés, bars, you can spend eating your day through. Note that many keep their doors open even in the deep of winter, with no heater. Make sure to bring warm clothes. A few places have blankets for their customers.
Spas and massages are also on offer throughout the city if you feel like going for a treat.
Many festivals take place during the year, from the March festival, the Dali Bai Raosanling in April, Torch Festival in June, to the Caicun Village Erhai Music Festival in September.
Where to Stay in Dali
Dali offers a wide array of accommodations, from budget hostels to luxury spa resorts.
We initially stayed at the Lily Pad Inn, which we appreciated the cleanliness and staff attention. However, since we have extended our stay while we nurtured Bruno’s injuries, we needed a kitchen and a bigger room. We found what we were looking for at the Hotel Dalifornia. The hotel also offers regular rooms. It is in an ideal location in the Old Town. The corner street is between the quiet local streets lined up with budget restaurants, and the busy touristy area offering Western food and espressos. Click here for the latest deals on Dali lodging.
Looking for more China travel adventures? Read our posts on Turpan, Xinjiang Province, and the Garzê Tibetan Festival in Sichuan. Or find out more about the Jade Dragon Mountain, the Tianmen Mountain, or how to choose your next backpacking China route.
Stay tuned for new blog posts on China, Yunnan, from the Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, or top things to do in Dali. Sign-up to our newsletter to get our posts from our world trip adventures directly in your inbox. Or follow us on our trip and adventure travel via Facebook, Instagram, YouTube.
This post contains affiliate links, which means we receive a percentage if you make a purchase using these links – at no cost to you. Our opinions are our own and are not impacted by these partnerships.