f there is one place in China that never lacks great word-of-mouth marketing, it must be Kunming. The capital of Yunnan Province, Kunming is blessed with all the pleasant and attractive titles: The Most Livable City in China, the City of Eternal Spring, Flower City and more. It got me at spring and flowers since Kunming has mild weather all year round. Who would not want to spend a few days strolling in the place where it’s always the best season of the year?
Kunming attracts travelers for a plethora of reasons. Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse province in China and anyone looking to take a peek into the fascinating natural collection of local traditions, costumes and food can get their fill in and around Kunming. That also means a melting pot of dialects, spices and beliefs, which somewhat magically transforms Kunming, not into a chaotic no-rules land (there is some part of the chaos in every city, otherwise they are no fun), but into a relatively calm and relaxed slow-flowing place. It must be all the greenery!
Kunming charmed me with its walkability, especially if you are staying in the city center. Not only is exploring green areas a soothing activity, but every good traveler must possess a few blisters on their feet after the first days of exploring. That is simply how the rules go.
Kunming is surrounded by mountains that also call for hiking, so having come here only as a few-day stopover before exploring the rest of Yunnan, I found it to be an awfully short period to get outside of the city itself. And that is only because the city of Kunming can lure you in with subtle jungle vibes and fragrant food, and make you stay with its pleasant weather and relaxed pace of life. So it’s best to come with a flexible schedule that will allow you to stay a few days extra if the wave of Kunming charm takes hold.
The starting point of any city exploration must be food, but besides that, the natural flow of the city might just take you to the centrally located Green Lake Park. It is definitely a “check-in” place for many local and international travelers, so expect plenty of ladies taking pictures with blooming lotuses or against the lake backdrop. However, the park offers a pleasant stroll to get the general feel of the city, with cafes and restaurants lining the streets if you are looking to soak in the views for longer.
Just a stone’s throw from the lake lies Yuantong Temple. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Kunming and one of the most important in the whole province. Unlike many others, the unusual layout of Yuantong Temple leads visitors to enter from a higher point and descend when strolling further into the complex. There are plenty of ponds and greenery around the temple and the sacral art has been very well kept-up thanks to the national and international funded restorations of the temple. You can easily combine Green Lake Park and Yuantong Temple for the first-day dip into the Kunming waters.
While there are plenty of majestic temples just outside the city to satisfy your architectural cravings, I wandered into Yunnan University on one of my strolls around. Truth be told, universities around China rarely get acknowledgment for their architectural structures-unless it is Tsinghua or Peking University of course-and are rarely an attraction for outsiders who have no academic connection with the institution. However, the Yunnan university complex caught my eye with a slightly mysterious looking entrance with lush trees and climbers running amok the upward-leading stairway. Since I was visiting Yunnan when school was out, the lack of students on campus and green moss sneaking onto the large stone fountain dividing the wide stairway in half added to the mysterious feeling.
Yunnan University hardly looks like the majority of other higher education institutions in China. Established in 1922, the campus comes as a glorious mix of styles, where halls of traditional Chinese architecture mix with grand classicist symmetry and columns while green foliage gentle shades all of the complex.
Yunnanese food has taste notes of the zesty and spicy food of Southeast Asia and will deliver a less oily but flavor-bursting alternative. Probably the most exciting sounding dish is crossing-the-bridge noodles. It is also listed as a cultural heritage of Kunming, so you will find it almost around every corner. The boiling broth and dry ingredients are served separately, so once it arrives at your table, plop in the vegetables and lightly cooked meat into the broth and give it a minute to soak in the flavors. While the eating process is quite exciting by itself, the name is no less curious. The legend says a scholar was studying for his imperial exams on the island and his wife would bring him lunch every day. However, she found that the prepared noodles would get soggy and the soup lukewarm once she brought the meal over the bridge. She decided to seal the broth with a layer of oil to keep it warm and store the dry ingredients in a separate bowl before reaching her husband. Love and creativity! That’s what makes culinary heritage.
Even with the exciting name and legend behind it, I did not find the taste of noodles mind-blowing. However, being in Kunming that was the least of my problems, since the abundance of food is simply overwhelming. As a long-time vegetarian, my go-to treat was pan-fried goat cheese, popular among Bai and Sani ethnic minorities, paired with a solid portion of pineapple rice or Yunnan mashed potatoes. Yunnanese food is generally quite vegetarian-friendly and the plethora of wild mushroom dishes only make dining more exciting.
Whenever you end up going to Kunming, the breezy air will be a pleasant welcoming element and the green spaces offer a well-deserved change for urbanites. One note for travelers, leave a fair share of space in your suitcase or backpack to fit all the dried mushrooms and pickles you will inevitably pick up on your walks around the city.