DALI draws swarms of tourists: Chinese package groups come seeking some colourful history, while foreign backpackers experience China-lite in a Westerner-friendly theme park of beer gardens, massage parlours and hippified cafés. It might sound like a blackspot, but so long as you avoid the over-commercialized central strip, the town is actually pretty, interesting and relaxed; if you had to choose between Dali and Lijiang, as plenty of foreign tourists do, Dali wins by a nose. Some, seduced by the lure of China's closest approximation to bohemia, and the local weed, forget to leave, and there are plenty of resident Westerners, some of whom run bars or cafés.
Dali is small enough to walk around in a morning, though you may find yourself slowed by the crowds of hawkers, farmers and shoppers who descend for the Friday market. The main street, Fuxing Lu, is overrun with tourists at all hours, making it the least attractive part of town; chilled-out Renmin Lu is much more pleasant, while the many narrow stone side streets are great for wandering. In the busy artisans' quarter below the South Gate, carpenters and masons turn out the heavy and uncomfortable-looking tables and chairs inlaid with streaky grey Dali marble that lurk in Chinese emporiums around the world. The marble is mined up in the hills, and smaller pieces of it are worked into all sorts of souvenirs – rolling pins, chopping boards, miniature pagodas – which you can buy from shops and stalls in town.
The town and surrounding villages are full of old houses, and hold an indigenous Bai population. To the east lies the great lake, Er Hai, while the invitingly green valleys and clouded peaks of the fifty-kilometre-long Cang Shan range rear up behind town, the perfect setting for a few days' walking or relaxation. The largely undiscovered Bai town of Shaxi is a good focus for a day trip.