Xian, located in central China, is a city with a rich history and cultural heritage. As one of the oldest cities in China, it is home to many historic landmarks and ancient relics. In this article, you’ll discover some of the best things to do in Xian.
I lived in nearby Luoyang for five years and would often take a trip to Xian for a weekend getaway. It’s one of my favourite cities in China thanks to its rich history and there are so many wonderful Xian attractions that it’s impossible to get bored.
From the Bell and Drum Towers, and ancient City Walls to the world-famous Terracotta Army of Warriors and Horses there are so many top things to do in Xian.
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Best Things to do in Xian
Below you’ll find a list of fun things to do in Xian from cycling around the city walls to sampling the city’s famous foods in the Muslim Quarter and a lot more besides.
1. Cycle Around the City Walls
The centre of the old city is surrounded by 14km of 12-metre-high walls. Punctuated by grand gates at the north and south ends, this is one of the Xian attractions that is not to be missed!
Cycling along the world’s largest city wall is one of the best things to do in Xian and an excellent way to pass a couple of hours and I’ve done this many times with friends who visited me while in China.
Entrance to the wall is ¥54 ($8.50) and bike hire starts at ¥45 ($7.10) for two hours. A ¥200 ($31.70) deposit is required for bicycle rental.
If you are looking for a more relaxed way to take in the walls then you can take a circular ride around in a battery car for ¥80 ($12.70). Unless you have a particular desire to do so, the wall is too long to walk, especially in summer.
2. The Bell Tower
The Xian Bell Tower is located in the geographic centre of the city. The typical Chinese layered design with its protruding eaves and bright red columns now houses a small museum and photography exhibit of the city’s history.
The Bell Tower was built in 1384 and is one of the best examples of Chinese architecture in the city. The views from this central part of the city are excellent ad you can see for miles at each point of the compass.
Entrance to the tower costs ¥30 ($4.60) and it can be reached by the underpass/entrance to Bell Tower Metro Station (Zhonglou).
3. The Drum Tower
Xian’s Drum Tower was first built in 1380 and served as an ancient clock with the beat of the drum marking the passage of time. The drum was also used to sound a warning of any impending invasion of the city.
The drum tower is home to the largest drum in China and there are hourly drum performances between 09:30 and 16:30 each day.
Entrance to the tower costs ¥30 ($5.60).
4. The Muslim Quarter
The city’s Muslim Quarter is a vibrant and bustling area filled with shops, food stalls, and cultural attractions. Visitors can sample delicious street food, visit the Great Mosque of Xi’an, and shop for souvenirs and traditional crafts.
Xi’an is really at the crossroads of China where east meets west and nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the city’s Muslim Quarter. This is one of my favorite places to visit in Xi’an for a bite to eat.
Here you can try spicy soups, kebabs, freshly baked bread and many other eastern specialties that represent the city’s Muslim population and nod towards Xinjiang and Central Asia. One of the top things to do in Xian!
5. The Terracotta Warriors (One of the Best Xian Attractions)
Arguably the most well-known and popular of the Xian attractions is Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum better known as the site of the Terracotta Army of warriors and horses. Unearthed in the 1970s by farmers digging a well, the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (died 246BC) was surrounded by an army of life-size warriors and horses.
Three of the excavated pits are open to visitors and is a must-see for any serious tourist in China. I found the museum and archaeological site so interesting I went around twice!
The site is not huge and you can easily see everything in around 2 hours, but the pleasant gardens make for an excellent place for a picnic in spring and summer. The entrance is ¥150 ($23.80).
To get to the Terracotta Army take bus 306 from the East Square outside Xi’an Railway station. The journey time is approximately 1 hour and the cost of the bus is ¥7 ($1.10).
6. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
The Giat Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda that was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty, and is one of Xi’an’s most iconic landmarks. Visitors can climb to the top of the pagoda for panoramic views of the city, and explore the surrounding temple grounds.
It was rebuilt in 704 under empress Wu Zetian and is another of the best things to see in Xian.
7. Lishan Mountain
From the grounds of the Terracotta Army, Lishan Mountain can be seen in the distance and this makes an excellent side trip. The base of the mountain has some wonderful landscaped gardens and hot springs and has been a site visited by the Emperors of China for centuries.
A cable car runs partway up the mountain, but it is possible to hike up and down in around 4 hours. Stone steps lead all the way to the summit and the views out over the Yellow River basin are magnificent. As with the Warriors, take bus 306 from Xi’an station (¥7 45 minutes).
8. Cuihua Geological Park
Situated in the Qinling Mountains 20km South of Xian lies the Cuihua Geopark. Mountains, an alpine lake, ice caves and the enormous remnants of a landslide make Cuihu a geological paradise and fun for all the family.
Get lost in the ice and wind caves as you descend beneath gigantic boulders. Stroll along the shores of Heavenly Lake or climb the steep precipitous steps 2,000 metres to Cuihua peak (strenuous but worth it for the views at the top). Entrance to the geopark is ¥70 ($11.10).
To get to the mountain take metro Line 2 to Weiqunan and then take the 905 bus (¥4). Journey time is about 90 minutes from central Xi’an. You could also take a taxi if you can negotiate (around ¥100/$15.85).
9. Huashan Mountain
Type in “World’s most dangerous walkway” into Google or Youtube and Huashan will be at the top due to the infamous Plank Walk; a few rotting boards of wood held together with some rusty nails 2,000 feet up the side of a sheer cliff.
Huashan also happens to be one of China’s 5 holy mountains dotted with temples clinging to the cliffs high above the clouds.
Huashan makes an excellent day trip from Xi’an as it is just 30 minutes away by fast train. If you don’t fancy the stomach-churning climb then cable cars can take you to 2 of the 5 peaks where you can hike between them at the top.
10. Luoyang (for Longmen Grottoes and the Shaolin Temple)
The ancient city of Luoyang is 90 minutes by bullet train from Xianbei station and is worthy of a few days to explore the Longmen Grottoes; a selection of 100,000 Buddha statues carved into the mountainside, and the world-famous Shaolin Temple and home of Kung-Fu.
This was my home for five years between 2016 and 2021 and I would highly recommend visiting as a day trip as Luoyang is packed with historical monuments, pleasant parks and lots of great eateries.
Go to Beikezhan (final stop on metro line 2) and take the train from Xianbei. Tickets can be bought at the ticket office and usually don’t sell out given the number of trains running per day. ¥175 for a second-class tiket. You can also book online with Trip.com.
Food and Drink
Xian is famous for its food. Whether you want to tuck into interesting street food on Muslim Street, grab a burger at a famous chain or dine in one of any upmarket Chinese or western restaurants in the centre of the city there is something to suit all tastes and budgets.
Xi’an also has a great selection of bars located around the southern gate (metro stop Yongningmen on line 2).
Marleys Coffee serves cheap but tasty western meals (¥20 for handmade burger and chips) and has a great selection of beers and cocktails (I recommend the “Tomorrow”). The décor is “backpacker” with flags and graffiti on the walls and the music selection is usually pretty good. A great place to while away an evening.
Near Wall Bar has an on-site brewery and live music every night. A good selection of real beers and snacks and has a great atmosphere. Located next to the wall 500m west of the South Gate.
Xi’an Cook Shop is an upmarket and popular restaurant a few minutes walk from the Bell Tower specializing in Xi’an’s cuisine. Large open-plan restaurant with views of the bustling kitchen. Nice surroundings, good service, the food is delicious and very reasonably priced. We ordered four large dishes and two beers and the bill came to ¥128 for two.
Xi’an has 4 metro lines with Line 2 running from Xianbei (North Station) to the south of the city with stops at most of the major central destinations.
Taxis are ubiquitous, but traffic can be heavy. The minimum fare is ¥10 and then ¥1.50 for each additional kilometre.
Buses are great to get to the outlying attractions such as the Terracotta Army, Lishan and Cuihua and cost from ¥1 to ¥7.
Within the city walls everywhere is reachable on foot.
Best Hotels in Xian
Xi’an has accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets. See the booking.com map below for locations and prices.
Budget: Travelling with Hostel (South Gate)
This excellent hostel is right next to the South Gate and very close to the main Xian attraction. There is a rooftop bar with fantastic views across the city (you can visit even if you are not staying at the hostel). Dorm beds under ¥100.
Metro: Yongningmen, Line 2
Luxury: Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel
This upscale hotel has rooms overlooking the south gate and walls with rooms starting at ¥500 per night. There is a restaurant and spa on site. The buffet breakfast is superb with a large selection of Chinese and Western options. A great base to explore Xian’s attractions!
Metro: Yongningmen, Line 2
How to Get to Xian
Air: Xianyang International Airport is 40km northeast of the city and is serviced by flights to most major Chinese cities and also includes a handful of international flights (Helsinki, San Franciso, Bangkok and Singapore). See Trip.com for great deals on flights.
Rail: The city is well-serviced by three railway stations. Xianbei in the north is the high-speed line with connections to Huashan, Luoyang, Beijing and Shanghai. The North station can be reached by going to Beikezhan (final stop on metro line 2).
With so many incredible to things to see and do in the city, Xian is definitely worth visiting, if not for the Terracotta Warriors alone.
Xian is famous as the site of Emperor Qinshihuang’s mausoleum and the Terracotta Warriors that were unearthed there in the 1970s. The city is also famous for its Muslim Quarter and food.
Three to four days is a good amount of time to see the most famous Xian tourist attractions. If you want to take day trips to nearby places of interest like Huashan and Luoyang then one week is better.
With such a rich history and so many amazing things to do in Xian it should be on the top of your list when travelling to China. It remains one of my favorite places in the Middle Kingdom and I can’t wait to get back for a visit.
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Armenia 🇦🇲