Wedged between the Yellow and Bohai Seas on the southern cusp of the Liaodong Peninsula, Dalian enjoys five-star status as one of China's premiere cities. The "Hong Kong of the North," became one of China's few "open door cities" in 1984, allowing foreign investment long before other areas of China were accessible. As a result, Dalian glows with a cosmopolitan swagger full of vacation-happy charisma. Trendy dance clubs, ultramodern shopping centers, refurbished four-star hotels and internationally acclaimed restaurants are the norm rather than the exception. The surrounding geography is a wealth of beaches and mountains, all with just-minutes-from-downtown-accessibility, lending this cosmopolitan center plenty of outdoor attractions. Since the 1980s, Dalian's cultivation of its tourism industry has helped elevate it to "Must Visit" status, ranking it with Shanghai and Beijing on travel destination itineraries.
As China's lone northern ice-free harbor, Dalian has been a perpetual source of foreign government envy. From 1895 to 1955, Russia and Japan alternated as Dalian's landlord four separate times. During this flux, both nations used it as a major shipping port to other parts of the world. Consequently, by the time China finally reclaimed it back into the fold, the city, much like Hong Kong, was infused with Russian, Japanese, and European architectural influences. These former "symbols" of foreign repression are now fully embraced as part of Dalian's worldly charm.
Dalian is comprised of six districts. Though diverse in both economic and geographic identity, all are linked by the common bond of progress and development.
Xigang District Ranked as one of China's "Top 50 Districts," Xigang serves as Dalian's centerpiece. Its central, downtown location makes it the main muscle of the area for both business and government. As a result, it is a hot spot for foreign investors and tourists. Within its streets lie Rennin Square (People's Square) and Olympic Square , which features a large screen TV for watching soccer games. The Dalian Art Exhibition Hall also resides here. Shopping is internationally diverse. And there are also numerous dining options ranging from traditional regional Chinese fare to Western ventures along Russian Street . The imported architectural styles make this district unique.
Zhongshan District Located in the southeast part of town, Zhongshan houses many of Dalian's financial institutions in colonial era Gothic structures, slightly reminiscent of Shanghai's Bund. It also harbors some of the area's most popular attractions, including Shengli Square . Tiger Beach is immensely popular. Besides beaches, it also offers enough attractions to satisfy no less than three rolls of film. Underwater World , China's largest aquarium, the Naval Ships Exhibition Center , and a kid-happy amusement park all add to its appeal.
Lushun District Blessed with geographic wonder, this district serves as Dalian's outdoor recreation hub. Boats taken from here provide convenient access to some of the 705 islands that sprinkle the peninsula's coast, including She Dao (Isle of the Snake) , the remote island home of more than 13,000 snakes. Baiyu Hill , with its pine jammed slopes, is perfect for hiking and camping. During Russian colonial times, this area was the militarized Port Aurthur. Now, museums, gardens and university extension campuses replace army barracks. The spectacular views remain.
Ganjingzi District Located on the Liadong Peninsula's southern tip, over the last 20 years this district has experienced a major growth boom. The Dalian Xijiao Resort enjoys major attraction status. Highlighting 13 ethnic minority traditions, this resort glows with culture. Recreation options abound too, including the hiking-happy Jinlongsi Forest Park and the championship caliber Xiali Golf Course .
Shanhekou District Brimming with 600,000 people on Dalian's western edge, this district bustles with industry, yet still has enough shopping centers and outdoor parks to satisfy a vacationer's itinerary. The He Ping Commercial Plaza bursts with dining and shopping options including clothing and electronics. Jinshi Yuan Park and the Dalian Stone Collection Hall are the kind of geological awe areas that make visitors openly mutter "stupendous" and "astounding" in the same sentence. China's largest public square, Xinghai Square is the central location for Dalian's major events, including Fashion Week and the International Beer Festival and well as the fireworks display at Spring Festival.
Jinzhou District The most foreign of Dalian's six districts, it is best known as the area's main economic site. Yet, despite its briefcase-toting image, it still blossoms with places worth visiting. The Dalian Yingchengzi Folk Customs Museum and the Xiang Shui Temple are rich in Chinese history. Moreover, the Daheishan Mountain Forestry Park , which features the peninsula's highest peak at 633 meters above sea level, is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts. Golden Pebble Beach , provides swimming, boating, fishing and more just outside of town.
Until 20 years ago, Dalian's restaurants were bereft of culinary variety. Seafood dominated every menu as if mandated by a local food czar heavily invested in fishing net stocks. Tourism has since done wonderful things for Dalian's restaurant selections. Today diners can choose from a sweeping scope of international tastes ranging from Italian to Russian. This new-found food diversity is matched by new-found price diversity, wandering from five-star splendor to street food nirvana. The most diverse eating options are located in Zhongshan.
China's northeast (dongbei) cuisine is distinctive for its hearty portions and liberal use of oil. The northern climes encourage more wheat cultivation than rice, so dishes revolve around hand pulled noodles (lamian), wheat pancakes (you bing), dumplings (jiaozi) and steamed or roasted buns (baozi). The food tends to be less flavorful and diverse than southern Sichuanese or Cantonese. Traditional Dalian dishes make the most of the town's proximity to the sea, using the ocean's harvest in place of the interior northeast's use of lamb and beef. Be aware that Chinese "seafood" can include not only fish and shrimp but also sea cucumber (hai can), abalone (baoyu) and healthy doses of seaweed (hai cai), textures that may be politely called an acquired taste. While many Chinese dishes revere rare ingredients such as sharks fin (yu chi), diners may want to take into consideration overfishing and pollution issues before indulging in such delicacies. All restaurants that offer sharks fin will also offer more sustainable entrees, but patrons may have to be insistent on finding them.
Dalian also boasts a more diverse drinking selection than most Chinese cities its size. In competition with Qingdao, Dalian has an oddly wide variety of brew houses, such as Greenery and Hans Pub , that are worth sampling. Some even get beyond the watery light reputation of Chinese beer. There are also a few coffee roasters eager to offer patrons a cup and a pleasant place to sit. Tor.ZZ is one such example, where the only item missing from its old Shanghai flavor is a phonograph. Tea houses range from the traditional to the unique, including the earthy and entertaining Yi Le Pottery Bar where patrons can sip tea or try their hand at the pottery wheel to make their own tea bowl.
The highest form of dining Dalian-style is found at Shuang Sheng Yuan . The Mingzhu Revolving Restaurant also enjoys local legend status thanks to its award winning chef. The restaurant slowly rotates, affording diners stunning panoramic views of downtown and the harbor. Pencil in Tian Tian Yu Gang as a dinner possibility, all ten locations that pepper the area serve fresh fish at extremely reasonable prices to the accompaniment of beer that is brewed on location.
Dongbei and Dalian cuisines are not the only Chinese fare worth sampling in town. If the belly beckons for traditional Chinese fare, reserve a table at the Dalian Harbor View Restaurant . Sauteed prawns, sweet and sour chicken and a bounty of other regional dishes are on offer. Every table enjoys lighthouse-type views of the city and the surrounding waterfront, including Tiger Beach. Both breakfast and dinner are highlighted by reasonably priced buffets. Taipei Liu's Dumplings hovers as the area's dumpling king. Beef, mutton, pork, oyster and vegetarian are a few samplings of its dumpling lineup. Zhuang Jia Yuan Restaurant answers the call for organic, low-calorie dishes. To ensure quality, it harvests grains and vegetables from its very own farm. Similarly, Zhongshan Fu Farmer's Restaurant not only presents fresh, organic dishes, but its country decor provides a welcomed respite from the Zhongshan District's city whirl. Many of its offerings, including the bean curd, are homemade. Spicy and addictive, Sichuan hotpot can be found in the antique-decorated Chengdu Lao Tan Zi . F2 Bar in the Shangri-La is an all-in-one night spot, with a high quality kitchen, disco and club atmosphere.
Foreign fare options are numerous. Plenty of Korean and Japanese restaurants take advantage of Dalian's cosmopolitan interest in authentic international cuisine by importing chefs. The Sorabel Korean Restaurant crowns Dalian's Korean choices. If what you really crave is a bit of comfort food, Pizza King at Friendship Square is greasy and cheesy and overall quite satisfying.
Best eating bet in this neighborhood is to walk through the streets around meal times and choose the restaurant with the most enthusiastic patrons. There are many small family owned restaurants in the area. While the menu may not be in English, pointing out dishes on other tables is an acceptable way to order if your Mandarin is limited. Russian Street is full of western choices, including some authentic Russian restaurants. One of the bigger dining draws in Xigang is the Lu Yuan , which not only has a top notch kitchen but also a night club.
While a bit removed from the diverse selections of Zhongshan, worthy of notice here is the Pujiang Cantonese restaurant, especially known for their dimsum, and the Tan Yu Tuo Sichuanese hotpot restaurant.
Many places cater to Japanese business travelers, but if you do not enjoy karaoke and overpriced drinks (or beautiful women with suspicious intentions regarding your wallet), dining and drinking options are expanding. Han Zhong is a home-style Korean restaurant with lovely details down to the roasted corn tea and home made kimchi. Yue or Cantonese cuisine does not disappoint at upscale Yu Zhu Lou . Hao Wang Jiao serves up typical Western dishes and makes a very good sirloin steak. Albatross has a selection of both Western and Japanese cuisine. The baby grand piano in the dining room adds an air of elegance.