As one of the few towns in China comprising virtually only traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings, Pingyao is certainly worth a visit. Though many people only stop off here for the day in transit between Taiyuan and Xi'an, the town's charismatic hotels – set in old courtyard mansions, with wooden window screens, traditional furniture and beds raised up on platforms – plus a couple of very fine rural temples and some impressive fortified clan villages in the area, all call out for a longer stay.
Pingyao reached its zenith in the Ming dynasty, when it was a prosperous banking centre, one of the first in China, and its wealthy residents constructed luxurious mansions, adding city walls to defend them. In the course of the twentieth century, however, the town slid rapidly into provincial obscurity, which kept it largely unmodernized. Inside the town walls, Pingyao's narrow streets, lined with elegant Qing architecture – no neon, no white tile, no cars – are a revelation, harking back to the nineteenth-century heyday. Few buildings are higher than two storeys; most are small shops much more interesting for their appearance than their wares, with ornate wood and painted glass lanterns hanging outside, and intricate wooden latticework holding paper rather than glass across the windows.