The Old Town of Lijiang, China has a reputation for disorienting tourists. It deserves this reputation. And despite the cliche that getting lost is the best way to explore a city, the maze-like streets and alleys of Lijiang, combined with the weaknesses of navigation apps in China and the language barriers facing foreign tourists, can make it hard to do anything but get lost. After extensive and deliberate exploration, here’s my foreigner’s guide to navigating the Lijiang Old Town without getting lost. Sometimes you just want to find what you’re looking for.
In this article, I’m going to go over the challenges you will face as a foreigner exploring the Lijiang Old Town, the tools you will want to have in your belt before you get there, the layout of the streets and landmarks, and general tips for which areas are worth visiting, which places you can skip, and how to make discoveries of your own. Plus, I’ll share some pretty pictures.
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How to Navigate the Lijiang Old Town (Without Getting Lost)
Dannie and I were in Lijiang for 10 days, and every day during Lisa’s nap, I would go out with my phone and my camera to scout out locations for fun and photography. The first couple of days I struggled a lot to find my way around the Old Town, but gradually I figured it out. I walked the entire perimeter of the Old Town, along with all of the major roads. I also went to all of the most popular landmarks and figured out the best ways to connect them. Let’s go over what I learned so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel when you get there.
Here’s a table of contents so you can skip ahead if you need to:
- Before Your Trip
- Arriving in the Lijiang, China Old Town
- Navigating the Lijiang Old Town
- Areas of the Lijiang Old Town
- Other Tips
Before Your Trip to Lijiang
It always helps to be prepared. In this section, we’ll go over what you can do before arriving in Lijiang in order to make the transition easier. The less time you spend figuring things out on the ground, the more time you’ll have for “getting lost” the fun way.
Set Your Priorities
It helps to know some of the attractions in the area before you show up. I remember the first time we visited Lijiang – back in 2013 – “The Old Town” was one of the attractions we wanted to visit. That’s all well and good, but the Old Town is huge, and contained within are a number of attractions that are worth an entire morning or afternoon on their own. I’d recommend doing a little bit of Googling about the Lijiang Old Town, just be aware that on Yunnan tourism sites, they have a tendency to include locations that are tens, even hundreds of miles away from the Old Town, because those sites are mostly looking to corral you into expensive bus tours.
This is also true of TripAdvisor, which I will not link to because I do not like it.
Here at Jake and Dannie, we hate to toot our own horns, but we are building a pretty good collection of tips about Lijiang, China, and how to explore it without making yourself dependent on a self serving tour guide.
Make Your Reservations
It’s possible to wait until you are inside the Old Town and then look around for a place to stay, but if you are nervous enough to be reading this article – especially if you don’t speak Chinese – you will definitely want to make a reservation online before you show up. Look at your list of attractions you want to see, and use your reservation site’s (I like booking.com) map to find accommodations that are central to what you like.
I would highly recommend that you read our other article Where to Stay in Lijiang and Shuhe: Tips and Hotel Reviews. Because in addition to sharing where our family stayed, I provide tips on how to make reservations online or in person, and how to pick which area of town is best for the kind of visit you have planned. But just in case you are too lazy to read it, I will just say this: make arrangements with your hotel or guesthouse to be picked up at the airport, train, or bus station. So that you don’t have the same problem we did on the first night when we arrive. Here’s that same article in a new tab so you can read it later.
Download the Right Apps
We’ve already published a list of Must Have Apps for Living in China, but if you just want what you’ll need for getting around the Lijiang, China Old Town, here are the basics.
You’re probably already aware that a lot of websites and online services are blocked while you are in China. Before you get there, make sure you download a reliable VPN. We’ve been using ExpressVPN since we left the United States in January 2017, and we have found it quite functional. You can read our review of ExpressVPN for travel, but in reality, you should be using one for security purposes anytime you are using public wifi no matter where you are.
Once you have a VPN active on your devices, you will be able to use all Google products (including Gmail, Google Maps, Translate, Docs, etc) and western social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) that would otherwise be unable to load in China.
If you’ve read my photography guides to cities all over the world you know that I love me some Google Maps (even in China). In most places on Earth it is the most accurate and reliable navigation app, whether you are driving, walking or taking multiple forms of public transportation. But for whatever reason, Google Maps is almost useless in the Lijiang Old Town. If you look at the Lijiang Old Town on Google Maps, you will see that only a small fraction of the streets are visible, maybe 5%. Likewise, only a few random businesses show up.
Baidu Maps works much better, but with a serious flaw: It is only available in Chinese! Still, you can make good use of it. You don’t really need to know Chinese to look at a map, as long as it shows you where you are, where you are going, and the roads in between. Download the Baidu Maps app. Later on I’ll explain how to make the best use of it in the Lijiang Old Town, even if you don’t speak Chinese.
As soon as you find someone who speaks Chinese and English who has the free time to help you (your hotel concierge is a good bet), get them to help you create a Baidu account. If you have a desktop or laptop available, you might be able to translate the page using your browser. Baidu Maps will work without a Baidu account, but you won’t be able to save locations, which can come in handy. I didn’t have a Baidu account and I was able to get by, but Dannie has one and that made life a little easier for her.
WeChat is the most popular social network in China. Everyone is on WeChat. You don’t really need to socialize with it, though. You are going to want WeChat for communicating with your guesthouse host or hotel concierge. Unlike Baidu Maps, WeChat does have an English version, and it works well.
WeChat has two very useful functions. One is the ability to share your location with others, and for them to do the same. With this function, you and your hotel can share locations, and they can send you messages as you follow the map display toward them. The second useful function is WeChat Pay. It’s now possible to set up WeChat Pay with international credit cards, which means you’ll be able to pay for things in places that don’t take them (all of Lijiang, basically). Almost every vendor, takes WeChat Pay. You can use it for hotels, vending machines or whatever. Even little produce stands. It’s amazing. Download the WeChat App.
To share your location with someone, find them in your contacts list and start a chat with them. Then tap the little plus symbol. Then tap the location icon. Once they accept, you will both be able to see where the other is.
The uses for this are obvious. If you don’t want to use a VPN, just make sure you download the Chinese Lexicon before you get to China so you can translate offline. Download the Google Translate App.
Arriving in the Lijiang, China Old Town
Go to Your Hotel or Guesthouse
Once you get to the Lijiang Airport, Bus Station or Train Station, just locate the driver your hotel has sent for you. They will take you to the entrance of the Old Town and help you carry your bags to the hotel and right into your room. Piece of cake.
Oh, what’s that? You didn’t follow my advice and arrange for pickup? That sucks. That’s what we did too. We saved like $10, but spent several frustrating hours wandering around in the dark. Don’t panic though, you’ll get through this. Go to whichever platform you used to book your lodging, find the contact information for your hotel, and ask them to share their location with you on WeChat. DO NOT USE THEIR STREET ADDRESS. The street addresses in the Old Town often do not work well. Navigation apps showed our first hotel in the Old Town as being outside the Old Town.
Either the WeChat location sharing function or Baidu Maps will show you where you and your host are, and they will show you where you are going. Now read on, because we are about to get to the part about navigating the Old Town without getting lost.
Navigating the Lijiang Old Town (Without Getting Lost)
Now let’s get to the good stuff. In this section we’ll go over how you can actually get from one location to another through the ridiculous maze of the Lijiang Old Town, in which every shop looks the same and every street seems to end where it started. The Lijiang Old Town is pedestrian only, so all these directions are meant to be followed on foot. Wear comfortable shoes because those cobblestones are bumpy.
My advice is to let Square Street be your base camp in the Lijiang Old Town. It’s not really a street so much as a town square. There’s not actually a whole lot to do right on Square Street – there are a few souvenir shops and restaurants, and a few times a day you can catch some women in traditional Naxi clothing dancing to music – but it is centrally located, and four of the major roads in town pass through it. From Square Street it is much easier to get to anywhere else you need to go.
To get to Square Street from the North Gate, find your way to the big water wheel (you can’t miss it). Go to the left of the wheel and past a canopy of wishing bells with wooden paddles. From there, just head south down a wide street lined with willow trees. Once the willow trees end, the road will make a couple little twists, and then empty out into the square.
The roads that lead out of Square Street will take you to most of the places you might want to go.
The road that goes south from the southwest corner of Square Street will take you toward Lion Hill and Wangu Tower. This path goes uphill, and you need to be ready to climb some stairs. It will fork frequently, but all the forks come to a dead end very quickly except the road you will follow.
The Road that goes north from the northwest corner will take you back to the North Gate by a route that is a bit bumpier than the one you just took to get to the square. As you come to the end of this road, you will have a great view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We came here one morning to take some pictures.
The eastern end of the square comes to a point and splits into two roads. One goes to the southeast, but will eventually turn southwest and take you in the right direction to visit Mufu Palace (you’ll need to go keep an eye on the map because it isn’t on the main road) and White Horse Dragon Pond Temple if you follow it long enough.
The other road goes to the northwest from the east end of the square. Going this way, you will quickly come to a river with a foot bridge going over it. The paths up and down the sides of this river are very picturesque, especially if you happen to visit during the Fall Flower Festival, like we did, in which this area is particularly decked out.
Going much farther to the northwest than this river isn’t really necessary as that part of the Old Town is kind of boring.
Navigating With Baidu Map in Lijiang
Like I said, Google Maps is basically useless, but Baidu Map can be your friend if you use it right. The first thing you should do when you arrive at your hotel is open up Baidu Map and save your location. If you have an account, you can do this using the little star icon. If you don’t have an account, then you can either have someone at the hotel who speaks Chinese set one up for you with your email address and Chinese cell phone number. Or, you can get by without one in the same way I did.
Instead of saving your location, you can zoom way in and find something right next to you on the map. Select it and copy and paste the Chinese characters of it’s name (not something generic like a public toilet) into your favorite note keeping app. Whenever you need to find your way back, you can copy and paste them back into the search bar of Baidu Maps.
Copy and pasting the Chinese Characters of a location into Baidu Maps is probably the best way for you to find where something is in the Lijiang Old Town. Here’s a list of some of the most popular locations in the Old Town and their Chinese Names. The Chinese Characters can also be useful if you need to ask someone for directions or hire a taxi (by pointing at your phone). If you use Didi (see our must have Chinese apps) then you can use the English version.
- The Big Water Wheel – 大水车
- Square Street – 四方路
- Mufu Palace -木府
- Lion Hill and Wangu Tower – 狮子山万古楼景区
- White Horse Dragon Pond Temple – 白马龙潭寺
- Public Toilet – 公厕
- Gucheng Zhongyi Market – 古城忠义市场
- Black Dragon Pool – 黑龙潭公园
- Main Bus Station – 云旅高快丽江客运站
- Train Station – 丽江站
- Lijiang International Airport – 丽江三义国际机场
Once you have your destination entered, you could activate the walking directions, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The Baidu Maps app has accurate roads and GPS, but the pathfinding software gets buggy when it’s time to make a turn. Sometimes it also becomes convinced that you are on the wrong side of a river and tries to send on an impossible route. You are much better off just looking at the map, keeping in mind which way it says you are facing, and looking ahead to see which path will work best.
The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Because the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is almost exactly north of the Lijiang Old Town, you can use it to navigate the same way the ancient mariners used the North Star. It is a very tall mountain, and it is often visible over the rooftops as long as you aren’t in a narrow alley. This reminds me of how we used to use the Eiffel Tower to navigate while we were in Paris, except that the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is even better because it’s distance means it will always be in the same direction.
Asking for Help
If you do get lost in the Lijiang Old Town, you could always try asking for help. It’s unlikely that anyone will know where your hotel is – there are so many of them – but there’s a good chance that someone can point you in the direction of a popular landmark. If you must ask for help in English, try to find a young adult, since they are the ones most likely to understand you.
You will also see people wearing bright colors standing around at some of the busier intersections with signs or shirts that say “volunteer” or “tourist assistance” or something like that. They are good people to ask for directions as well, though I’m not sure what their English level will be.
If you need more serious help, like if you have an emergency, you can always look for a police officer. There are officers positioned throughout he Old Town for security, and they are generally helpful as long as you can communicate with them. This is where a translation app could be helpful. One reason I like Google Translate is that it can translate audio back and forth.
Areas of the Lijiang Old Town
In this section I’m going to divide up the Lijiang Old Town into sections so that I can talk about what you’ll find where.
The North Gate
This is where the vast majority of tourists enter the Lijiang Old Town. It’s the location of the iconic Water Wheel, and it’s where you go for interacting with the outside world. If you need an ATM that will work with your international bank card, you should go to the North Gate. If you can’t go another day without American fast food or coffee, you should go to the North Gate. If you are meeting a driver to take you on a tour of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (don’t) they will want to meet you at the North Gate.
This is also where you will go to walk to the Black Dragon Pool, or if you need to track down a store outside the Old Town to buy diapers, hygiene supplies or other necessities.
The center of the Old Town is where you’ll find Square Street, which makes a good hub for exploration. If you want to take some Instagram photos, the alleys around Square street have hanging umbrellas over them as decoration. In this area there are also a lot of food halls – they are like open air cafeterias with lots of varieties of food that you can order – but the food inside is really bad. Actually, we didn’t care much for most of the food in Lijiang, generally. If you want a good meal, you are better off in the nearby Shuhe Old Town (10 minute drive)
There is one major road that goes to the far southwest corner of the Old Town, and it actually starts out pointing southeast from Square Street. That road then forks. The path to the right goes toward the Southwest Gate and the path to the right goes toward the Southeast Gate.
If you follow that road almost all the way to its end you will find the White Horse Dragon Pond Buddhist temple. This is a really beautiful and quiet spot that tourists don’t usually go to because it is so far out of the way. It’s not as big as the Buddhist temple inside Mufu Palace, but it is much more tranquil and authentic. You will probably see monks and other worshipers there, but as long as you don’t interfere with them or shove a camera in their faces, they won’t mind you taking a look around. There is a big koi pond with a statue in the center, some beautiful stairways and architecture, and a shrine at the top of the hill.
Before you get to White Horse Dragon Pond Temple, there is another big fancy looking building, but I think it’s a school because I could hear a lot of children inside. You can’t get into that one, even though it looks cool.
The Southeast gate doesn’t really have anything interesting, but if you follow the road from the southeast corner of Square Street and keep right at the big fork, that’s where it will eventually take you. I recommend that when you get to the fork, instead of following either path, you could try splitting the difference and going through alleys to make your way due south. This area is very quiet, but the buildings are beautiful and the streets are empty of tourists. If you speak Chinese and you want to try to find cheap lodging in person, this might be a good place to look.
The Northwest of the Lijiang Old Town is mostly just a hillside that you can’t go on. There is a road where government vehicles can drive to get to the top of Lion Hill, but if you are on foot all you can really do there is get a decent view of the more modern portions of the city of Lijiang. There’s not much to do to the northwest.
Unlike the Northwest, the Northeast is at least walkable. The shops there are much like the ones you’ll find throughout the rest of the Old Town, it’s a bit more run down. The only interesting thing I found here was an old Christian church, which now appears to be more of a museum. I also saw the old residence of a famous Chinese historian. Seeing the inside was free, but everything was in Chinese.
Just to the east of Square Street, a river flows to the Southeast. I recommend taking the road that goes northeast out of the square and following it for about a hundred meters where you’ll find a small bridge that crosses over the water. Following the river, either upstream or downstream, is a great way to “get lost” in the fun way. The guesthouses and restaurants along the sides of the river are beautifully decorated, and you’ll see plenty of places to have lunch or just hang around looking at the flowers.
As you walk along the sides of the river, you will have to cross back and forth frequently on bridges that are sometimes made of stone, and sometimes are no more than some thick boards that have been laid down. Sometimes, to continue on your way you will have to walk right through the patio of a restaurant, but no one seems to mind.
Note that some rivers do not show up on the maps, but you can try to follow those as well. Just remember the tips for navigating so you can find your way back.
The Center South
If you are one of those people who can’t stand how “inauthentic” Chinese Old Towns are, then this is the area for you. The tourists don’t come down here because there isn’t an obvious path to follow. To get here, you basically just have to point yourself south and wind your way through alleys. This is where you’ll find more local residences and less touristy shops.
It’s also the portal by which the businesses of the Old Town get their supplies. You’ll see wholesalers that distribute the knickknacks and colorful clothing you see throughout the city, and there is a huge outdoor market called Gucheng Zhongyi Market. The market is loaded with produce, meats, dried goods and all kinds of things you find in Chinese marketplaces. This is off the beaten path, but it’s not so far geographically from the Old Town center. Well worth a visit for foreigners looking for a more authentic experience.
Lion Hill Park
Lion Hill was my favorite site inside the Lijiang Old Town. It’s the highest point in town, it’s nice and quiet, and it has great views. There are two ways to get inside. The main entrance is up the stairs from Square Street, but you can also get in from Mufu Palace (though if you do, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee for both attractions). At the top of the park is the beautiful Wangu Tower, where you get a great view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Black Dragon Pool
Black Dragon Pool is a big park about one kilometer north of the Old Town. It’s a great place to visit with kids as there is plenty of fun scenery and the you can feed the fish. There are also temples, a big pavilion, and some stone bridges, and it also has one of Lijiang’s most famous views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Shuhe Old Town
The Shuhe Old Town is about a 10 minute ride north of the Lijiang Old Town. It’s much smaller and quieter than Lijiang, and it is just a generally more enjoyable place, even if it isn’t impressive in the same way. It has one very well preserved district where you can take amazing photos, there are lots of horses around, and there is at least one good vegetarian restaurant. We stayed in Shuhe for three nights at the end of our trip, and it was one of our favorite parts.
The Streets of Lijiang are not smooth. If you are staying right at the North Gate, then you might be able to get a rolling suitcase or a stroller through, but otherwise, forget it. We’d been there before, so we just left our travel stroller in our apartment in Dali, China.
Get a Physical Map
Even though getting from one place to another is usually easier when you have GPS on your side, it’s good to have a physical map just in case the batteries run out on your phone. There are tourist information booths scattered throughout the Old Town, so just keep an eye out for one and grab a free paper map when you see one.
Lot’s of store owners and restaurant hosts will be waving you into their establishments. Unless you have already decided that you want to go in, don’t let anyone pressure you into anything. Don’t feel bad, they are used to being ignored and their feelings won’t be hurt if you just keep walking.
Bringing the right gear with you will make things a lot easier when you are out and about in the Lijiang Old Town.
- Comfortable Shoes – You’ll be doing a lot of walking, and the streets aren’t exactly smooth. I was wearing my hiking boots and I could still feel every cobblestone through the soles. You aren’t likely to see anyone wearing heels while you are there.
- Sunblock – It’s not impossible to find shade in Lijiang, but sunblock is still a good idea. High in the mountains of Yunnan Province, the air is a little thinner and more of the sunlight can get through to your skin. Protect yourself and your family with a good baby safe sunblock, at least SPF 50.
- Umbrella – It didn’t rain during our stay, but October isn’t the rainy season. Check the forecast to see if you are likely to need rain gear.
- Camera – We always carry our photography gear with us. In Lijiang we made good use of our Nikon D810, our 24-70mm lens and our 70-200mm lens. (Read my tips on using a zoom lens for creative travel photography.) We also packed a GoPro and Karma Stick to make some videos.
- Baby Carrier – We decided to make Lisa walk on this trip because she was finally getting old enough to try (3 years and 2 months). If your little one is still a bit young, make sure you pack a carrier because strollers won’t work. Our carrier is an ErgoBaby Omni 360 (read our in depth ErgoBaby review).
- Backpack – Like I said earlier, nothing with wheels. Pack your stuff in a big backpack instead of a suitcase.
- Cell Phone and Battery Backup – A phone is good for finding your way, calling for help, paying for food, and reading about new attractions. Either bring an unlocked phone and buy a Chinese SIM card, or just buy a cheap phone when you get there. Also, consider bringing a battery pack so your phone never goes dead at the worst possible moment. And remember to download a VPN before you leave home so you can stay in touch with your family through social media.
That should just about do it. Using the methods here, we were able to navigate the Lijiang Old Town pretty well. We only got lost when we wanted to, and we were always able to find our way back to our guesthouse within 30 minutes or so. If you have any questions about any of this, or if you have additional tips to add, please head down to the comments section. I’d really love to get a conversation going down there, because this is just the kind of subject where travelers can help each other out.
If you found this article useful, you might also enjoy some of our other posts about Lijiang, China, or the nearby city of Dali, where we have been staying for some time now. If you are traveling to other places, check our destinations page to see if we’ve already been there. And finally, if you’d like to support our family and our travels, please visit our shop or our resource page while you are getting ready for your next big adventure.
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