Kunming, China is a big city, and one day isn’t really enough to explore it. But we do what we can with the time we have. Between flights, we had a little over a day to explore, and we did our best to make the most of our time without wearing ourselves out. As always, we were traveling with our two-year-old daughter, Lisa, and we knew that setting the right pace for our stay would be critical. We needed family friendly activities, and we needed to preserve our energy for the rest of our trip. We aren’t the type for whirlwind trips. We stayed at the Ibis Styles Kunming Nanping Hotel.
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We were in Kunming for a layover on our way to Bangkok, Thailand. We have been staying long term in Dali, China, a smaller city about 400km from Kunming. Dali has an airport and a train station, but pretty much any trip overseas is going to stop in Kunming. We arrived by speed rail from Dali in the early afternoon on July 17th, and we had a flight to catch at 2 in the morning on the 19th (so we’ll call that “late-night on the 18th”). Incidentally, we do not recommend taking a flight that late – it was miserable, and our screwed up schedule was not worth the money we saved.
But anyway, here’s how we spent our time in Kunming…
What We Did With Our Layover in Kunming, China
Our first afternoon was spent exploring the area near our hotel (The Ibis Styles Kunming Nanping Hotel – keep scrolling), and on our second day we slept in and then spent a few hours enjoying a popular local attraction. We then had dinner, played with Lisa, picked up our suitcases and flew off to our next destination.
Exploring the Kunming Old Street (Wenming Street Historical District)
There are two kinds of “old street” in China. Some like the old town in Dali lie outside the downtown area and are destinations in and of themselves. Others, like the old street in Shanghai are something you could just stumble upon while exploring the city and see in an hour or so before moving on. The Wenming Street is the latter. By the way, don’t confuse the Wenming Street Historical District with the Kunming Old Town, which is in another part of the city. This is a much smaller and quieter area that happens to feature some well preserved and renovated old architecture.
Near the Nanping Pedestrian Street (see below), the Wenming Historical District is encompassed by Wenming Street (Google Maps) and Qian Wang Street (Google Maps). This area is pedestrian friendly, and businesses you’ll find here range from souvenir shops to cafes, teahouses and restaurants. The buildings here are preserved/renovated to give a glimpse into what it once looked like, and it’s a good place to check out some authentic old Yunnan architecture.
Note: In order to use the google maps links above while in China, you will need to use a VPN on your device because all google products, including search and Gmail, along with many social media sites, are blocked in China. You can read our review of ExpressVPN here.
This is not the only historical district in Kunming, and it’s certainly not the largest, but it has the advantage of not being mobbed with tourists or noisy salespeople.
Shopping on Nanping Pedestrian Street
The Nanping Pedestrian Street is a large car-free area lined with stores, malls and restaurants. It’s a popular shopping area for locals and tourists alike. The streets are blocked off with gates that are narrow enough to keep out bicycles and scooters. This means that it is relatively safe for children to walk around, as long as you keep an eye on them. Unfortunately, it also means that you will ave to hoist your stroller over a barricade to get in (even our Babyzen Yoyo travel stroller, which is small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of a plane – read our review – couldn’t squeeze through).
There are lots of places here to buy things like clothing, jewelry, accessories and gizmos. Inside the malls there are restaurants to eat at, assuming you don’t fill up at the food stalls that are pretty much ubiquitous in Chinese cities. The pedestrian area is wide, and there are lots of ATMs at various banks that will accept international debit cards – good options are Bank of China, the Agricultural Bank of China, the Bank of Communications, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). If the only logo appearing above an ATM is UnionPay, then it won’t take your card.
We were planning to do a little shopping once we got to Bangkok, but we still set out on foot to take a look at the stores. There was one item we just couldn’t put off shopping for; diapers. Obviously, we learned nothing from the last year and a half of full time travel, so we had to spend part of our layover looking for basic necessities that we should have packed plenty of. Unfortunately, while there are plenty of things for adults to shop for on the Nanping Pedestrian Street, we saw nary a diaper.
Eventually, we went back to our hotel room and ordered diapers – and some vegetarian food – on Meituan, a delivery app that is popular in China (see our list of must have Chinese apps). There are many streets that branch off of Nanping Street, some of which are pedestrian and some of which allow cars, but there is a lot to see and do here.
The Yunnan Ethnic Village
We took a Didi (think Chinese Uber – see our list of Chinese Apps) to the Yunnan Ethnic Village (Google Maps), which is also often translated to the “Yunnan Nationalities Village”, or the less PC (in the West) “Yunnan Minorities Village”. This Kunming attraction is actually a huge park composed of 26 small “villages.” Each village is a mock-up of the traditional housing and culture of one of the minority Chinese (ie, not Han) ethnicities that inhabit Yunnan Province.
The Ethnic Village would take an entire day to explore in it’s entirety, especially if you intend to take in some of the shows. Each village has its own performance that you can watch if you show up at the right time (Lisa loved the song and dance at the Bai village), and you can try traditional foods (vegetarians beware!) and even dress up in traditional clothing if you are so inclined.
There are a number of packages you can purchase at the entrance depending on what shows you want to see and whether you want to rent transportation of any kind. We’re going to write a more in-depth post about this attraction soon, but for now I’ll just give these tips.
- The main song and dance show is good, and worth the price.
- The park is walkable and stroller friendly, so don’t bother with cart rentals unless you have trouble walking. Consider bringing umbrellas for shade.
- The elephant show is an old school circus-like performance that we walked out of because the trainers were harmfully riding on the animals backs, allowing tourists to do the same, and pulling on the elephants’ ears to get them to do tricks. Before the show started, Lisa did enjoy feeding bananas to the elephants, but even that wasn’t worth knowing that we’d paid extra to support animal cruelty.
- The Tibetan village has vegetarian food.
Update: We have now published a full comprehensive guide to the Yunnan Ethnic Village. It has information on getting there, what to do, and what not to do during your visit.
The Ibis Styles Kunming Nanping Hotel
We chose this hotel because it was close to the train station (Google Maps) where we arrived, close to the Nationalities Village, and reasonably priced. It didn’t hurt that we recognized the brand from previous trips, and knew that unlike some Chinese hotels, the quality would be good enough and they were allowed to accept foreigners.
The Ibis Styles Kunming Nanping Hotel was located near a mall complex and next to various shopping streets. The lobby was on the sixth floor of the building, and the staff was friendly. The employees at the front desk did not speak English (at least not once they found out that Dannie spoke Chinese), but we had made our reservations online though Booking.com, which makes things easier when when it’s time to check in. I saw another guest there who only spoke English, so I guess he didn’t have any trouble either.
On the same floor as the lobby there was a padded area for children to play, featuring books, balls and bean bag chairs. Lisa liked this room a lot and wanted to go there constantly. Nearby there was a billiard table and exercise machines for adults. On the other side of the lobby there was a dining area where we had a breakfast buffet in the morning. There were a lot of asian options, but surprisingly there was also western fare, including eggs, toast and precious coffee.
Our room was comfortable and quiet, though the layout was unusual. The bedroom was large, and had a big counter that we used for eating takeout. There was a big tv that we used to occupy Lisa while Dannie and I relaxed. The toilet and shower were both in individual stalls, which looked a little strange but didn’t really interfere with their use. The toilet had a bidet, which is very uncommon in China. Everything was very clean.
The reason we use sites like Booking.com (there are others, of course) is that the listings in China will tell you right in the first sentence if they are not legally allowed to accept foreigners. We got screwed too many times in the past.
We left a lot of the city unexplored, but we know we’ll be back again. After all, we have to do a visa run every two months, and Kunming is on our way out of the country. We were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to enjoy Kunming with our daughter, at least in the parts that we visited.
We hope that you found this post useful. If you did, you might want to check out some of the other destinations we’ve visited and explored more thoroughly in Europe, China, and Asia more generally on our destinations page. If you are in the process of planning your trip, don’t forget to visit our resources page for travel tools and products that we think you’ll find useful. Enjoy your trip! And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter.