In this guide, we will discover some of the best things to do in Xian, China, including a few hidden gems!
The city of Xian (also spelled Xi’an) is over 3,000 years old and has been an important seat for China’s most important dynasties for thousands of years.
History abounds and evidence of China’s long and colourful past can be found throughout the city from the Bell and Drum Towers, City Walls to the world-famous Terracotta Army of Warriors and Horses.
As the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, Xian also benefits from a range of Middle Eastern and Central Asian influences within its food and architecture.
The city is also a bustling metropolis with world-class shops and hotels, interesting cuisine, and thriving business areas.
Top Things to do in Xian
Xian 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 an excellent way to pass a couple of hours. 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.
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. Entrance to the tower costs ¥30 ($4.60) and it can be reached by the underpass/entrance to Bell Tower Metro Station (Zhonglou).
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).
The Muslim Quarter
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.
The Muslim Quarter is a thriving area west of the Bell and Drum Towers that is packed full of cafes, restaurants and street food stalls.
Here you can try spicy soups, kebabs, freshly baked bread and many other eastern specialities that represent the city’s Muslim population and nod towards Xinjiang and Central Asia. One of the top things to do in Xian!
The Terracotta Warriors (Xi’an’s Top Attraction)
Arguably the most well-known and popular of the Xian attractions is the site of the Terracotta Army (Terracotta 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 round 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. 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).
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist place of worship first built during the Tang Dynasty in 652AD. It was rebuilt in 704 under empress Wu Zetian and is another of the city’s top attractions.
It is possible to climb the pagoda for great views of the city.
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).
Day Trips from Xian
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 the 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).
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.
Luoyang (for Longmen Grottoes and the Shaolin Temple)
The ancient city of Luoyang is 90 minutes by bullet train from Xianbei station (¥175 second class seat) 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.
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. You can also book online or via the Ctrip app (download here).
Food and Drink in Xian (Xi’an Restaurants)
Xi’an 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.
Getting Around Xi’an:
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.
Taxi’s 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
Getting to Xi’an
Air: Xi’an 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: Xi’an 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).
Read my guide on the Beijing to Xian Train for the current timetables and prices or check out my guide on how to buy train tickets in China.
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 🇦🇲