397km (246 miles) S of Shenyang

Dalian is the supermodel of Chinese cities. Thoroughly modern, sartorially savvy, and unabashedly narcissistic, it is also the largest and busiest port in northern China. Dalian's straightforward beauty can be refreshing in a region where most towns are of the interesting-but-homely type, and indeed, there are few more enjoyable activities after a week in the Dongbei gloom than a sunlit stroll along the city's supremely walkable streets. The mere fact that the city has a definable downtown, unlike other cities in China, is to be lauded.

Like Shanghai and Hong Kong, the cities to which it is most often compared, Dalian isn't really Chinese. Located just north of the Lushun naval base at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, it was conceived by Russia's czarist government as an ice-free alternative to Vladivostok. Construction of the port, originally called Dalny, got off to a quick start after Russia secured a lease on the peninsula in 1898; however, it lost the city and Lushun to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Dalian (in Japanese: Dairen) soon grew into the pleasantly sophisticated port Russia had imagined.

Communist-era industrial development swamped Dalian in thick clouds of factory smoke, but it was miraculously resurrected in the mid-1990s by Mayor Bo Xilai, who tried to model the new Dalian on cities he had seen in Europe. This led him to introduce several revolutionary measures -- including a hefty fine for public spitting -- that have become a model for urban renewal projects throughout China. Today, Dalian is considered a vision of China's future both by optimists, who laud its beauty and modernity, and by more cynical observers, who point wryly to the same silver skyscrapers and note how many are empty. Striking as the modern buildings are, it is the old colonial architecture, remnants of Japanese and Russian rule contrasting pleasantly with the newness around them, that is the city's most interesting attraction.

Fashion designers and consumers from China, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong descend on Dalian in mid-September for the 2-week Dalian International Fashion Festival (Dalian Guoji Fuzhuang Jie). The festival isn't as important or glamorous as the city claims, but it's worth seeing if you're in the area.