Last Updated on January 10, 2022 by Nellie Huang
A trip to Xi’an is akin to traveling back in time. Explore Xi’an’s ancient treasures with this list of things to do in Xi’an, China.
Xi’an is an essential stop on everyone’s China itinerary, thanks to the Terracotta Army. But few people realize how much Xi’an has to offer in terms of historical treasures and interesting sights. Xi’an is rich with peaceful temples and and holy mosques, hutongs that rival those in Beijing, and intact walls and fortifications that date back to the seventh century.
Once the ancient capital of China, Xi’an was known as Chang’an, meaning Eternal Peace. Its history dates back to prehistoric times, much further back than the current capital Beijing. Serving as the eastern end of the Silk Road, Xi’an was once the largest city in the world. Join me on a journey into China’s most historical city.
Table of Contents
- China Travel Restrictions
- Things to Do in Xi’an, China
- 1. Day Trip to Terracotta Army
- 2.Do the Thrilling Hua Shan Plank Walk
- 3. Walk on the City Walls
- 4. Visit the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
- 5. See the Drum and Bell Towers
- 6. Explore the Muslim Quarter
- 7. Admire the Great Mosque of Xi’an
- 8. Admire the Temple of the Eight Immortals
- 9. Visit the Shaanxi History Museum
- 10. Feast on a Dumpling Banquet at De Fa Chang
- 11. Relax in the Xi’an Lianhu Park (Lotus Lake Park)
- 12. See the Fountains of Dayan Pagoda Northern Square
- Xi’an Travel Guide
- How to Get to Xi’an
- How to Get around Xi’an
- Where to Stay in Xi’an
- Staying Connected in Xi’an
- Language in China
- Plan Your Trip to China
China Travel Restrictions
As of 27 August 2020, China has opened its borders to 36 European countries and 13 Asian countries. A proof of a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid test result and the Health and Travel Record Declaration Form are required for visa application — unless you have been vaccinated. Click to learn how to apply for the China visa.
Currently, everyone traveling to China will be screened and quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. The expenses during the quarantine period are about CNY400–600 (USD62-90) per day and at your own cost.
Things to Do in Xi’an, China
1. Day Trip to Terracotta Army
The main thing that brings everyone to Xi’an was the Terracotta Army (Bingmayong), one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. The ancient army dates back to 210-209 BC. They were built to accompany the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, as an afterlife guard.
The sheer magnitude of the army is impressive and the experience of seeing life-sized figures of warriors from over 2000 years ago is surreal. There are three pits containing the Terracotta Army, with a total of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 520 horses.
To get there, take Tourism Bus 306 from Xi’an Railway Station (journey takes around 1.5 hours). Alternatively, book a guided tour to dig deeper into the history behind it. I was glad I visited the site with a knowledgable guide as his stories made it all come alive.
2.Do the Thrilling Hua Shan Plank Walk
If you’re an adventure seeker, I definitely recommend taking a day trip to Hua Shan, known to locals as one of the five sacred mountains in the country. Mount Hua has become famous with young and intrepid travelers thanks to social media.
To get there, take a high-speed train from Xi’an train station to Huashan North Station. The journey takes only 30 minutes. There are 1-3 services every hour. From there, take a bus or taxi to the Huashan Visitor Centre. Alternatively, book a guided day trip to Huashan.
Huashan has five peaks, only two are equipped with a cable car service. The easiest way is to start at the West Peak using its cable car and then hike to the South Peak and onwards.
The South Peak is where the infamous Hua Shan plank walk is located. This is where you’ll strap yourself into a harness and walk along a narrow plank perched high up into the side of a cliff.
Warning: you’ll be walking on three planks of wood with nothing but a harness and 2000+m between you and the ground. It’s not for the faint-hearted. I could barely finish as I was trembling so hard!
3. Walk on the City Walls
Even though the Terracotta Army was the reason why we came to Xi’an, the city definitely took us by surprise with its collection of ancient architecture.
One of the best things to do in Xi’an is definitely walkING on the ancient city walls of Xi’an. As the largest and best-preserved ancient city walls in China, the walls were erected in the 14th century Ming Dynasty, under the regime of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.
The walls are complete with four gates, towers, and even a draw bridge over the moat. The best part is that you can walk or cycle on top of the wall. It takes around two hours of cycling to do a full loop.
4. Visit the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Xi’an’s most famous landmark, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, dominates the surrounding modern buildings. One of China’s best examples of a Tang-style pagoda (squarish rather than round), it was completed in AD 652 to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang. His travels inspired one of the best-known works of Chinese literature, Journey to the West.
You can climb the pagoda for views over town from within a glassed-in enclosure. To the south of the pagoda is an open-air mall of shops, galleries, restaurants and public art.
5. See the Drum and Bell Towers
The Drum Tower and Bell Tower are the symbols of Xi’an. Both of them were built in the Yuan Dynasty to signal the running of time. You can visit the top of both towers (Entrance is 30CNY each).
I recommend visiting the Bell Tower over the Drum Tower. It is right in the middle of a roundabout and gives you straight line views of North and South gate of the wall. The Bell Tower is magnificently illuminated at night, making it one of the city’s best photo-ops come evening.
Musical performances are held inside both towers from 9am to 11.30am and 2.30pm to 5.30pm. Close by, a covered market sells all manner of haggle-worthy goods for souvenirs and gift-giving, leading to the magnificent Great Mosque.
6. Explore the Muslim Quarter
One of my favorite things to do in Xi’an is wandering through the Muslim Quarter, a vibrant area with exotic and delicious street food. This area is home to 20,000 Muslim Chinese and the narrow lanes are brimming with street food stands, smaller mosques hidden behind enormous wooden doors, men in white skullcaps and women with their heads covered in colored scarves.
The food here definitely reminded me of food in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan etc): from barbecued lamb skewers, oven-baked flatbread. One of the Chinese Muslim dishes you have to try here is the yangrou paomo, which involves crumbed flatbread soaked in a flavorful mutton gravy. If you’re a food lover, I recommend booking a food tour here with an expert!
7. Admire the Great Mosque of Xi’an
Within the Muslim quarters, you’ll find the Great Mosque, which showcases a beautiful blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture. First built in 742, the mosque was later restored during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
8. Admire the Temple of the Eight Immortals
Xi’an’s largest Taoist temple dates from the Song dynasty and is still an active place of worship. Supposedly built on the site of an ancient wine shop, it was constructed to protect against subterranean divine thunder.
Scenes from Taoist mythology are painted around the courtyard. Empress Cixi, the mother of the last emperor, stayed here in 1901 after fleeing Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion. The small antique market opposite is busiest on Sunday and Wednesday.
9. Visit the Shaanxi History Museum
If you can only visit one museum in Xi’an, make it the Shaanxi History Museum. This museum is a treasure trove of ancient Chinese artefacts and gives a miniature overview of the thousands of years of Chinese history.
It sprawls across a massive area of 65,000 square meters (16 acres) with 370,000 exhibits on display. The museum showcases the history of over a million years from prehistoric times (1,150,000 years ago) to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
10. Feast on a Dumpling Banquet at De Fa Chang
Xi’an was the place where the art of creating dumplings was refined, and dumpling banquets are definitely one of the best things to do in Xi’an for food lovers. We had the most delectable dumpling banquet at De Fa Chang Restaurant, one of the most popular restaurants in town with several branches in Xi’an.
The banquet includes over 8 courses, with each course serving dumplings of different shapes, sizes and fillings. The most impressive dumplings are intricately shaped like swans and ducks.
11. Relax in the Xi’an Lianhu Park (Lotus Lake Park)
After a busy day of sightseeing, we really enjoyed kicking back and soaking up the lush greenery of the Lotus Lake Park. This park was built as a royal garden by the second son of Zhuyuanzhang (the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644). In the summer days, when the lotus flowers are in bloom, the park is absolutely stunning.
12. See the Fountains of Dayan Pagoda Northern Square
In the evening, head over to the Dayan Pagoda Northern Square — the largest fountain square in Asia. There are lots of clay sculptures and shadow puppets erected around the square, which reflect the life during the Tang Dynasty.
The most attractive one is the music fountain show. The 22 water shows, together with the changing lights and ancient music, are pretty entertaining especially at night.
Xi’an Travel Guide
How to Get to Xi’an
There are direct flights from Singapore, Taipei and Bangkok to Xian. If you are traveling to Xi’an from Beijing, the best way to get there is on a domestic flight. The flight from Beijing to Xi’an costs around US$55 each way and the journey is only 2 hours.
Alternatively, you can take a 4.5 hour high-speed train or an overnight economical train. A one-way train ticket on a high-speed train from Beijing to Xi’an costs around $240 for a business class seat and $76 for a second class seat. To save money, opt for the normal trains which usually cost one quarter of the price of the high-speed train. Here’s detailed info on train schedule and prices.
How to Get around Xi’an
The easiest way to get around Xi’an is by taxi, though not many drivers speak English. Another option is to use Uber, which works really well in Xi’an and saves you time and energy of having to flag down taxis and try to communicate with the driver. You just need to get a local SIM card (scroll down to learn more).
Taking the bus is the cheapest way to get around the city. Change is not given onboard public buses, so it is important to carry exact change. Express buses are available connecting the major tourist spots such as the Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum, the Huaqing Hot Spring, and the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum.
Where to Stay in Xi’an
The city center is a great place to stay since most of the sights are nearby. If you’re looking for better value, I recommend staying in Yanta, just south of the city center.
Budget: YiJia Inn
This family-run guesthouse offers great value for money, with modern rooms that have a touch of tradition. It has an excellent location, with the Muslim Quarters and Drum Tower just a 5-minute walk away. Check the latest rates.
Midrange: PuSu Jade Boutique Hotel
This unique nature-themed hotel is set just beside Xi’an City Wall. Tastefully designed with wooden furnishing, the boutique hotel gives the sensation of rural China. Check the latest rates.
Luxury: Grand Park Xi’an
Ideally located in the heart of historical Xi’an, the Grand Park Xi’an is the best hotel in the city with luxurious rooms and spectacular city views. It’s around a 5-minute stroll from the ancient city wall. Check the latest rates.
Staying Connected in Xi’an
If you’re looking to stay connected in Xi’an, I recommend getting a prepaid SIM card at the airport or in any telco shop. China Unicom has the best 3G/4G connections nationwide. You can order your SIM on their website but it needs to be delivered to an address in China. I got my China Unicom SIM card for around US$25 with 1GB of data.
The internet is heavily controlled in China and many sites and social media platforms (like Facebook) cannot be accessed there. One way to get around this censorship is using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). It’s easy and cheap to subscribe to a VPN service before you leave home.
Language in China
The official language of China is Mandarin. Traveling in China is challenging for some (luckily I speak Mandarin), as it can be difficult to find someone who speaks English. It can be overwhelming, so make sure you take your time to adjust to the culture shock.
Roads and buses only have Chinese signs and it is difficult to find your way around without knowing some Mandarin. Get the Google Translator app and download the Chinese language translation file to access it offline.
It’s definitely useful to learn some basics like “xiexie” (thank you), “nihao!” (hello) and “zaijian” (goodbye).
Plan Your Trip to China
Most people only spend two or three days in Xi’an. But with so many things to do in Xi’an, you could easily stay busy for a week.
If you’re planning to travel all over China, here are some other articles I’ve written that you might find helpful.
- My 2-Week China Itinerary
- Three Days in Beijing
- World’s Tallest Buddha Statue: Leshan, China
- A Story on Rice Planting in Yangshuo, China
- Photos of Guilin, China
- Floating Above the Clouds in Mount Emei
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