Things to do in Xi’an, China

Things to do in Xi’an, China

This trip to China was proving to be useful in ticking things off my “to do” list. First, it was the Great Wall outside of Beijing, and now it was a visit to China’s original capital of Xi’an.

What’s in Xi’an that’s so worth seeing? The world’s largest imperial tomb complex, and its famed Terracotta Warriors, that’s what.

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It goes without saying that this is the city’s main attraction, with around 1 million people visiting the museum each year. The site of the warriors isn’t actually in Xi’an itself, and rather just outside the city in the Lintong District, some 40km away.

The historic site contains 3 major pits which are tagged in the same order of which they were discovered. The largest – Pit 1 – sits beneath an expansive roof covering 14,260m2 of life-sized warriors, and their horses, in battle formation. More than 6,000 warriors are here, yet only 1,000 have been unearthed since its discovery in 1974.

Pit 2 was discovered in 1976, and while it’s not as impressive as Pit 1, it does have glassed-in cabinets displaying many warrior and horse statues. As for Pit 3, it is much smaller and is thought, by archaeologists, to be the command centre for pits 1 and 2.

The other main attraction is the Exhibition Hall, or Museum, which has incredible displays of large-scale bronze models of horses and chariots. The headstalls and jewellery worn by the horses are incredible!

One thing for sure is how incredibly busy this place gets, especially Pit 1. If you’re from somewhere that’s used to waiting to get to the front for photos or a better view, forget the manners you’re accustomed to. Nobody will let that happen, so do as the locals do and rudely shove your way through to the front. It’s the only way.

Outside the museum is a retail precinct packed with restaurants and fast food vendors, gift stores and a place to sit and watch an entertaining cultural performance. It’s a tad Disney-fied, unsurprisingly, but if you’re after a souvenir or snack, it does serve a purpose.

Check this website for entry ticket options and prices. Expect to pay around ¥120.

terracotta warrior museum
Terracotta Warriors Museum and its surrounds

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Xi’an City Wall

The City Wall.

The ancient city of Xi’an was once entirely contained within a fortified wall, built under the rule of the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty – Zhu Yuanzhang (1368–1644).

The 13.7 km-long fortification can easily be scaled from any of its 18 gates, and one of the best ways to see it is by hiring a bike (¥45 for 2 hrs) from its 4 main gates. It takes about two hours to cycle around the wall, but walking small sections of it is still perfectly fine.

xian city wall
Yongning Gate (South Gate)

xian city wall

The 12 metre height offers views in all directions; down laneways, over parks and the downtown precinct. Along it you can find places to grab an ice cream, coffee or snack. There are even toilets up there.

Tickets to the Xi’an City Wall cost ¥RMB 54. The South Gate opens 8am – midnight, and the East, South and West Gates open 8 am – 7 pm May – Oct, and 8 am – 6 pm Nov – April.

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xian city wall
Xi’an City Wall

The best time of day to see the wall, especially in the warmer months, is as soon as it opens, or late in the afternoon for sunset. The food up there may be ok, but you’ll be paying inflated prices for it, understandably.

For an easy, and cheap, breakfast before entering, I’d say hitting up one of numerous food vendors out on the streets. If you know the lingo it’s easy to ask for what you’d like, otherwise good old sign language does just fine.

I loved the freshly made wraps stuffed with grilled chicken, sprouts, lettuce and hot sauce!

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Street food for breakfast

downtown xian
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The Bell Tower & Zhonggulou Square

The Bell Tower.

Once considered the centre of Xi’an, the Bell Tower is one of the city’s ancient landmarks, and the bell inside it used to be struck to mark the start of each day. It sits in the middle of a roundabout where the four main streets radiate to the North, East, South and West Gates of the city wall.

You can pay ¥35 to visit the Bell Tower (8:30 am – 5 pm) for great views of the surrounding area, and direct views to the north and south gates.

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Drum Tower

Not too far from the Bell Tower is the Drum Tower, so named for the huge drum hanging inside it. The original drum that was struck daily during the Ming dynasty is long gone, but it was replaced in the mid-1990s with another one.

Zhonggulou Square is situated between both towers and is a great spot to sit, relax and enjoy some people watching; especially late afternoon. There’s a bustling shopping street below the square, which is one way of getting to Xi’an’s other big attraction – Beiyuanmen Street, in the Muslim Quarter.

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Beiyuanmen Muslim Street

The Muslim Quarter.

Thanks to Xi’an being the starting point of the Silk Road some 1,000 years ago, merchants and students travelled from Persia and Arabic countries to set up businesses or further their education.

Many settled in the present Muslim Quarter, and as generations passed, their numbers multiplied. Food and culture came with the migrants, known by locals as Hui, and over the years the area transformed to what it is today.

beiyuanmen muslim street xian
beiyuanmen muslim street xian

During the day the main street of Beiyuanmen – and its neighbouring streets – is a relatively sleepy place, but come the afternoon, the numbers swell to the thousands. The flagstone roads are lined with ancient and well-preserved Ming and Qing Dynasty stores, all operated by the Hui.

Walking along the streets is a complete assault to the senses. It’s noisy, bustling with people, there’s illuminated signage everywhere, countless people staring at you (if you’re caucasian) and good and more challenging smells fill your nostrils.

beiyuanmen muslim street xian

Guys stand on plastic stools offering delicious skewers of freshly grilled, spiced lamb or beef, lamb dumplings fresh off a hotplate served with Xi’an’s unique chilli sauce, roujiamo (slow-cooked pork served in a flat bun) and wonderful discs of patterned nang bread straight out of the oven.

Many vendors sell something called gui hua gao – or osmanthus rice cake – which is a slightly sweet treat cut into long prism shapes and served on skewers.

There are plenty of restaurants in the Muslim Quarter, but the main attraction is all of the finger food. Be sure to try the fresh pomegranate juice, peanut candy, tubs of suan nai (sour milk yoghurt), liang pi (cold skin ‘noodles’) and rou bing (meat bread disc), just to name a few.

gui hua gao osmanthus rice cake
Gui hua gao osmanthus rice cake

gui hua gao osmanthus rice cake
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Drum Tower

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Fake Market Street

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Fake Market Street.

Running parallel to Beiyuanmen Street is Fake Market Street, a covered passageway filled with tiny shops selling tourist tat, bootleg clothing, watches and shoes, handicrafts and folk art. Prices here are seriously inflated, so if you’re non-local, expect to pay triple that of a local. Unless your bargaining skills are fine tuned.

Foodies may find the spice shops much more interesting, and those technicolour ice creams loaded with fruit.

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The Great Mosque.

Any visitor shouldn’t miss the Great Mosque when they’re exploring the Muslim Quarter. This is China’s biggest and most important Islamic place of worship and is a pleasure to wander around and take in its serenity.

First built in 742 AD, the complex is made up of four courtyards containing arches, structures, steles and landscaped gardens. The forth courtyard is where you’ll find the prayer hall, which can hold over a thousand worshipers.

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One thing that makes this mosque stand out from ones many of us are used to seeing is the combination of Chinese architecture and Islamic art.

Entry is ¥25 (March 1 – November 30 ); ¥15 (December 1 – end of February)

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The Great Mosque – 30 Huajue Lane

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Huaqing Palace

Huaqing Palace.

The Terracotta Warrior Museum may be Xi’an’s big-ticket activity, but if you plan on visiting it, it also pays to spend a couple of hours at Huaqing Palace just 15 minutes away.

The royal complex has a stunning setting at the base of Lishan Mountain and has been the location for many palaces throughout its long history; the first being Li Palace which dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). A stone pool was built in the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC), then enlarged in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). It was during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) that the palace was enlarged, and only the powerful were allowed to use its extravagant stone pools.

Today the complex is open to the public, and is filled with stunning gardens, ponds and meandering walkways. The five Imperial Pools which were once fed by the hot springs are still intact, although most are empty and can only be seen from terraces above.

huaqing palace hot springs

Lishan Mountain itself is accessible by cable car, or you can hike, and along the way you’ll find a bunch of pavilions, temples and a palace.

If you’re after views of Xi’an and couldn’t be bothered with ascending the mountain, simply follow the path above Huaqing Palace to the site of the Xi’an Incident which took place during the China civil war period. Great views from up there and you can brush up on the commotion that went down in 1936.

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Along the way up there’s a terrace with a handful of vendors selling delicious snacks. Bowls of fresh fruits diced-up with jellies and nuts or skewers of spiced lamb (3 skewers for ¥10) that’s much tastier than those on Muslim Street.

One vendor specialises in liang pi (cold skin noodles), which are served cold with strips of cucumber, bean sprouts, garlic, vinegar and chilli oil. I also loved the liang feng (10), which are chunks of green pea jelly mixed with cumin and chilli.

Entry to Huaqing Palace is ¥120, or ¥160 including Mount Lishan.

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Huaqing Palace & Hot Springs – 38, Huaqing Road, Lintong District

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Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

The Terracotta Warriors may be the most popular kid on the Xi’an block, but it’s the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda that has the title of the most famous landmark. This seven-storey landmark – built in AD 652 – can be found 4km southeast of the city wall’s South Gate.

The Tang-style pagoda was built to house Buddhist sutras and figurines brought back from India by monk Xuan Zang. Climb the pagoda for ¥25 or just visit the grounds for ¥40.

Each evening thousands of spectators turn out for a musical fountain show in the square just north of the pagoda. On the south side of the pagoda is Yanta South Road, which is an open-air strip of shopping malls, galleries, restaurants and sculptures. At night it’s a visual spectacle of colourful lanterns, lights and projections.

yanta south road
Yanta South Road

Yanta South Road is saturated with food choices, but we left that behind and gave Xhaoyadong Restaurant a go, much closer to where we were staying. These guys have lots of local dishes, so it’s as simple as placing your order at the counter, paying for it, then waiting for its arrival.

It was a light supper for us – cold noodles with bean sprouts & chilli, roujiamo, and noodle soup with vegetables and potato. Don’t skip on the Xi’an chilli sauce, it’s a must!

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Xhaoyadong Restaurant – West 1st Road

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