Dalian, which dominates the Liaodong peninsula in China’s northeast, is a rough and tumble version of Qingdao. Equally distant from Beijing and Pyongyang, it guards over the Bohai Sea while serving as gateway to China’s northeast.
It’s the largest port in north China and feels every inch of it. Combined with rampant summer time holidaymaking, it adds up to gritty, China version of Coney Island.
Like many of China’s port cities, it has an uneasy colonial past—Russians, British and Japanese have all come and gone. You’ll see plenty of heritage architecture buildings here and there plus tons of traffic roundabouts reminsicent of European capitals. The city is organized around “squares,” with Xinghai Square, down by the ocean being one of the biggest in the world.
Zhongshan Square and Qiqi Street are the best places to see the foreign architecture. The square is lined by impressive old structures which once served as banks. Qiqi is the main artery of a wonderful neighborhood of leafy trees and old residences dating back to the Japanese presence—perfect for an evening stroll.
Dalian feels far from the sea, mainly because the city proper is cut off from the ocean by rolling green forested hills. Municipally protected and largely free from development, they are quite decent for biking or long walks on the wooden boardwalks. Don’t get your hopes up for the beaches, though—they are pebbled, not sandy. But that doesn’t stop a monstrous amount of Chinese and Russian tourists from setting up camp all summer long. The best beach is Ganjingzi—it boasts imported sand—but it’s far away. Your best bet is to head to the beach at Bangchuidao (棒棰岛) and then hike away from the burnt-flesh masses.
Xinghai Beach is where things get interesting. It’s always packed, very commercial and has views of nothing but huge docks and jetties and massive cargo ships. But it’s also where you’ll find a large amusement park which has a bunch of fun rides right on the water. It’s a blast.
Dalian’s got two aquariums, and Polar World at Tiger Beach is the better of the two. Your ticket gets you in to see the beluga whale and dolphin show, plus you get to wow out over the massive tiger sharks and even bigger whale shark which endlessly circle the huge central aquarium. Sunasia is the other aquarium (at Xinghai Square) and is more on the traditional end of things. The other cool local thing to do is watch the female horse-mounted police parade in Renmin Square every morning at 10am.
Dalian’s got plenty of good food. Go local at Lao Cai Guan (68-86 老菜馆), then ramp up to a full Manchu style feast at Zhao Ji Lao Pu (赵记老铺). Seafood season is actually October. For hotels, the Intercontinental Dalian is the best bet. It’s housed in a skyscraper near Zhongshan Square and is a major landmark in the city—you can see it from everywhere. Beside truly stunning views from the Club Lounge, they have the best breakfast in town.
September and October are nice times to avoid the crowds. And the Dalian International Beer festival in early August every year is a huge, raucous party that has to be experienced to be believed.