A few hundred years ago, Dunhuang was an important outpost on the Silk Road.

These days, most people haven’t even heard of this city. But those who have, and who take their time to travel this far west in China, are rewarded with Buddha caves and sand dunes.

Plus, it’s a great opportunity to escape the crowds that you’ll encounter in famous cities like Shanghai and Beijing. It’s not as remote as cities like Kashgar or Turpan, but it still gives you the opportunity to explore some of China’s hidden gems.

We loved our visit to Dunhuang and believe the city has enough to offer that you can easily occupy yourself for two or three days. But see for yourself:


Are you short on time and still need to book your trip? Then check out those resources which you will find helpful.

Book a hotel for your stay in Dunhuang:

Check out this useful railway map to see train connections to Dunhuang.

At a glance, these are the highlights of Dunhuang:

  • Mogao Caves
  • Crescent Lake
  • Dunhuang Museum
  • Night Market
  • Platform Park

Top things to do in Dunhuang

#1 Admire Buddhist art in the Mogao Caves

Recostruction of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang Museum

The Mogao Caves house some of the finest Buddhist art in the world.

They also go by the name of “Thousand Buddha Grottoes”, and the network of caves contains around 500 temples.

The oldest caves date back to the 4th century BC. The digging of masterly decorated caves continued for more than a thousand years. With Dunhuang being an outpost on the Silk Road, this is where local merchants prayed before undertaking the gruelling desert crossing.

The Mogao Grottoes are a popular tourist attraction, which is why the government has limited the number of visitors. Chinese citizens can book their tickets online, but as a foreign independent traveller, this option isn’t available to you.

That’s why we recommend arriving at the Mogao Caves Digital Exhibition Centre early in the morning. Each day, you can buy one of the few tickets reserved for foreign visitors. Remember to bring your passport, as you might need it for the purchase.

From the Digital Exhibition Centre, you then take a shuttle to go to the caves themselves. Your guide will unlock several caves for you, giving you a good example of the different styles of art.

After your tour, make sure to go into the two caves that house the lying Buddha and the giant standing Buddha. Daniel and I also hung around a little bit longer to take pictures of the large pagoda in front of the caves, before then returning to the Digital Exhibition Centre.


#2 Have fun at Crescent Lake

Daniel riding a camel in the desert at Crescent Lake near Dunhuang, China

Crescent Lake is an oasis in the middle of the desert. Located in between sand dunes, the lake has the shape of a crescent moon. Next to it, you will find a beautiful pagoda. The site is best viewed from the top of a sand dune. Climb the ladders in the sand to make it to the top, enjoy the view and then run and jump back down again.

Crescent Lake also gives you the opportunity to participate in several fun activities. Is it a tourist trap? Yes, definitely. You’ll be lining up with hundreds of other tourists. But it is also lots of fun!

We rode camels, which was a bit strange because we rode in a long line of camels. Still, we enjoyed it.

In the evening, we also decided to fly in the motorised gliders that had been soaring above our heads all afternoon. We managed to time it right for sunset and had an amazing view from up there.

4h (or more, depending on the activities you do)

#3 Have dinner at Dunhuang’s night market

Photo of people walking the Dunhuang Night Market during the evening

If you’re looking to buy a souvenir, go out to the night market. You will find a huge selection of art and souvenirs.

This is also where we recommend you go for dinner. Located inside a giant hall, tiny restaurants fight for your attention. While many of them offer the same dishes, it pays off to look around before choosing one. Some menus vary, and some are more popular with locals.

We had some delicious noodles towards the back of the market, but there are also lots of other dishes to discover.


#4 Learn about Dunhuang’s past in the Dunhuang Museum

Mural from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, China

The Dunhuang Museum houses great exhibits teaching you about Dunhuang’s past as an important Silk Road city. This is also where you will find more information on the Mogao Caves.

Since you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the real cave, the one they reconstructed in the museum is your chance to snap a photograph of this outstanding Buddhist art. The photo above that we used for the Mogao Grottoes? That’s a reconstruction of Cave No. 45 from the museum.

Entrance is free, but you must bring your passport to get inside.


#5 Hop around Platform Park

Photo of Ilona on top of stepping stones on the water of Platform Park in Dunhuang

Platform Park is located in the middle of the Danghe River that flows through Dunhuang. It consists of several bridges and platforms connecting both sides of the river. We discovered this place by chance while walking around, as it’s not really listed in any guidebooks.

That’s why we want to share this little hidden gem with you!

The easier pathways are narrow bridges across the river, while the more advanced ones consist of stepping stones. Be careful not to fall into the water!

Is it a bit scary to hop around to cross the river? Yes, of course. But it’s also fun, and you get an unusual perspective of the city.


Practical information

How to get to Dunhuang

View of the main pagoda at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang

You have three options for getting to Dunhuang.

By plane, you can fly to Dunhuang Mogao Airport, which has connections to multiple Chinese cities.

You can also take a train to get to Dunhuang. I love this map of China’s rail network, as it can help you plan your connection. From the train station, you can get to the city centre either by taxi or by bus, which runs every 30 minutes.

Last, you can also arrive by bus. We don’t recommend this method if you’re coming from further away, as you’ll be travelling long distances, but it’s a good way of getting around the area.

How to get around Dunhuang

View of the buildings near Dunhuang Platform Park

The easiest way to get around Dunhuang is by taxi. It’s more costly than taking public transportation, but if you don’t speak Chinese, you’ll likely find it the easiest and most comfortable option.

As an alternative, you can use buses to get around. Your best option is to ask your hotel to find out which connections you need.

Always carry your hotel’s business card with you. In case you want to go back, you can show it to a taxi driver, and they will take you there.

Best time to visit Dunhuang

View of the main buildings and the crescent moon shaped lake at Crescent Lake in Dunhuang

The best time to visit Dunhuang is during the shoulder season, in June and September. The weather will already be nice, and you don’t have to worry about crowds of local tourists.

July and September can get pretty hot and are also quite busy. It’s not as hot as Turpan, which is one of the hottest places on earth we’ve ever been to, but if you’re sensitive to heat, you might prefer the shoulder seasons.

Winter in Dunhuang gets freezing cold, quite literally. Temperatures will drop below zero, and while you can enjoy the city and the caves even in winter, make sure to pack warm clothes!

We hope you now have a good idea of the best things to do in Dunhuang. We loved this desert city, and we’re sure you’re also going to enjoy your visit here.

If you’ve been, leave us a comment below and let us know what was your favourite part.

Also, check out our other articles about Central and Western China, which will help you plan your trip:

Until your next adventure!

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Ilona is a world traveller passionate about sharing her experiences and giving advice to fellow travellers. Having visited over 70 countries, she is always excited about her next trip.

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