Lijiang City is a stunner -- a lovely, old town with winding cobblestone lanes; babbling canals; and well-preserved, mud-brick, and wooden buildings. Close by, a lofty, snow-capped mountain range rises up more than three thousand meters above the Lijiang valley. And more often than not, the skies are deep blue –- and at night you can see the stars.
This city is extremely popular, which, for some visitors, is a problem -- you may hear Kunming residents or foreign backpackers say to stay away from Lijiang because it is too crowded, touristy, and commercial. However, Lijiang is rated one of the top places for Chinese nationals -- ninety-five percent of visitors are Chinese. Tell any Chinese person you are going to Lijiang, and they will either share their dream of visiting the "Venice of the Orient" or fondly recall their time in the area bounded by the Yangtze river and the foothills of the Himalayas. In the good old days when China first opened up for tourism, it was only hardy souls who made it to Lijiang, braving a day's treacherous bus journey from the backpacker haven of Dali (things have changed now, with Dali looking enviously at Lijiang's growth).
If you visit Lijiang in the summer or during Spring Festival/Chinese New Year, you will encounter packed crowds; try to visit outside the peak times (mid-October through mid-April). Whenever you make it to Lijiang, get up at the crack of dawn and it will just be you, some old grannies doing errands, and residents heading to market (and maybe a few photographers stalking locals down alleyways).
Now, there are an estimated two thousand establishments, including Lijiang City hostels, where you can sleep in the old town. Many of the old courtyard houses have been renovated and transformed into new guesthouses, bars, and cafes.