19 Things to do in Xian – The Ultimate Cultural & Foodie City

Once the starting point for the ancient Silk Road, Xian City is one of the most popular places to visit in China. Located in North-Central China, Xian is the capital of the Shaanxi Province, with a population of around 13 million people.

Known as the birthplace of Chinese civilisation, Old Xian City was home to Emperor Qin Shi Huan (founder of the Qin dynasty), and it was China’s capital city; for a total of 13 imperial dynasties.

With thousands of years of history to explore, there are lots of exciting things to do in Xian, and you should definitely consider adding a trip to Xian to your China itinerary. In this post, you’ll find my recommendations for the most beautiful places in Xian.

The name “Xian” means “peace in the west”

Amazing things to do in Xian - visiting the Great Mosque
Visiting the Great Mosque is one of the most interesting and serene things to do in Xian

“Xian was one of the few exceptions I found. It was genuinely interesting and pretty, and rather a stately and dignified place”

Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster

The Top 10 Things to Do in Xian City

1. Your Absolute #1 Must See in Xian – the Xian Terracotta Warriors

Xi’an’s most famous attraction is the Terracotta Warriors Museum. You’ll need your comfy shoes and a fully charged camera here because you’re in for a long day, with lots of walking and unusual things to see.

If you have a private tour guide, everything will be taken care of for you, but it’s quite easy to find your way around independently too.

As one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, the Terracotta Warriors Museum will be busy; you should expect there to be large crowds.

Aim to arrive as soon as the gates open, and avoid weekends and Chinese public holidays like the plague!

As Terracotta Warriors Museum is one of the most popular things to do in Xian, we took the Xian Skip-the-Line Terracotta Warriors Private Day Tour, so we could concentrate on simply loving every second at this iconic site!

The massed Terracotta Army in Pit #1 at the Terracotta Warriors Museum Xian
The massed Terracotta Army in Pit #1 at the Terracotta Warriors Museum Xian

Here is my complete guide to visiting the Terracotta Warriors Museum, which includes the must-see exhibits, with tips and tricks to help you plan your visit.

2. Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum

While the terracotta warriors and horses are world famous, the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor Qing Shi Huang, which has yet to be excavated, is less well known.

If you have time in your schedule, it’s worth taking the free bus to the mausoleum site from the museum. You will need to show your ticket for the museum to use the bus and get to the mausoleum site.

Guides will tell you that the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum took 720,000 labourers almost 40 years to build and that the burial chamber is larger and more splendid than the Great Pyramid. It’s also believed to be intact – not raided like so many of the tombs in Egypt.

The Chinese government won’t allow the mausoleum to be opened until archaeologists are certain about how to preserve any treasures they find inside. We may have to wait many years for the secrets of this tomb to be revealed. Meanwhile, there’s little to see apart from the great burial mound.

Top Tip: The site is huge! You can ride by cart around the excavation sites, but make sure you have lots of water with you

3. Cycle Around the Old Xian City Wall

Places to visit in Old Xian City - the City Wall Grey Globetrotters
Path to one of the gates for the Xian City Wall

Cycling around the ancient city wall encircling the old city is the ultimate way to see Xian City. It’s an unmissable way to see the huge contrast between the higgledy-piggledy ancient city streets within the wall and the modern sprawl of skyscrapers beyond the boundary.

Amazing things to do in Old Xian City - cycle the City Wall.
Cycling around the Xian City Wall gives an incredible view of the city!

It will take 45 minutes to an hour to ride around Xian City Wall, allowing for regular stops to enjoy the view and take photos.

Read All about Cycling the Xian City Wall, including how and where to hire a bike and what to look out for from the wall.

4. The Shaanxi History Museum

The vast Shaanxi Museum is a cornucopia of Chinese history – bigger than the Louvre!

You could easily spend a week here exploring the cavernous exhibition halls, but you can see the highlights in a couple of hours – with the right know-how!

Artefacts at the Shaanxi History Museum China
Ancient figures displayed at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xian

The sheer size and the busy crowds make it essential to know what you want to see, so you should plan your visit before you arrive.

Related Post: Everything you need to know about visiting the Shaanxi History Museum, including what you need to prioritise if you only have 2 hours.

5. The Drum Tower Xian

Close up to the magnificent Drum Tower in Xian City
Close up to the magnificent Drum Tower in Xian City

The 14th-century Drum Tower, located in the geographical centre of Old Xi’an, is moments from the City Wall.

This is the largest Drum Tower (of this type) in China) and it will give you fascinating insight into what life was like in Old Xian City when this tower was used as an “early warning” system. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear the drums being played – it’s quite thrilling!

6. The Xian Bell Tower

the bell tower Xian
The Bell Tower with its large hanging bell on the left corner

The 14th-century brick and timber Xian Bell Tower in Xi’an was constructed by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Standing 118 feet (36 meters) high, the two-storey tower is topped off by three layers of eaves.

It’s very colourful, with grey brickwork, green tiles, red-painted woodwork, and gilding on the roof. Inside, there’s a spiral staircase and many traditional decorations from the Qin and Ming dynasties.

Lots of tours include a visit to the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower in their itineraries, but not all include entry to the towers. This private tour does Xian City Wall, Xian Museum, Bell Tower Square & Muslim Quarter Private Day Trip

Related Post: How to see the Drum Tower and Bell Tower for free.

7. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The UNESCO World Heritage Big Wild Goose Pagoda is about 4 km outside the centre of Xi’an, within the Da Ci’en Temple complex. Showcasing 1,300 years of history, this holy place for Buddhists sits in vast, meticulously landscaped gardens.

Visit South Square to see the Statue of Xuanzang, the monk who imported sacred Buddhist texts into China from India. Afterwards, walk around North Square to see China’s most extensive musical fountains.

Recommended Tour: Xian Afternoon Tour to Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Qujiang Pool

8. Discover the Muslim Market for the Best Xi’an Food

You’re missing a trick if you don’t visit the Muslim Quarter in Xian. A thriving warren of narrow ancient streets dating back to the 7th century, it’s home to about 65,000 Muslims and is the ultimate foodie location!.

What to do in Old Xian City - visiting the Muslim Quarter. Grey Globetrotters
What to do in Old Xian City – visiting the Muslim Quarter. Grey Globetrotters

Packed with stalls and restaurants selling tempting dishes with ancient recipes, the sights, smells, and tastes of the Muslim Quarter tantalise every sense.

The ridiculously cheap food is far more inspiring and authentic than a bland hotel meal. A visit here is the perfect way to end your day.

Don’t worry if you don’t speak Chinese, as most of the stalls and restaurants have pictorial menus. With a bit of pointing, sign language, and a smile, you’ll soon be eating amazing food that’s so much better than any Chinese food you’ve experienced in the West!

Delicious foodie treats in Old Xian City - Mooncakes in the Muslim Quarter. Grey Globetrotters
Delicious mooncakes for sale at the Muslim Market in Xian City

Wondering what to do in Xian City at night? An evening foodie tour is a brilliant way to sample some of the huge variety of authentic local food on offer – and to discover those hidden away stalls with the best treats.

This Muslim Quarter Foodie Tour by TukTuk is a great addition to your Xian itinerary! We loved visiting food stalls offering new, exciting dishes, including cold noodles, mutton and bread pieces in soup, and glutinous rice and date cake. It’s one of the best things to do in Xian!

9. Huajuexiang Great Mosque

Inside the glorious Great Mosque in Xian
Inside the glorious Great Mosque in Xian

Xi’an is home to one of the oldest and best-preserved mosques in China which still serves the local community of 65,000 Muslims today.

It’s the most beautiful, serene place to visit in Xian City – a peaceful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the Muslim Quarter.

The mosque covers 12,000 square meters, with more than twenty buildings you’ll want to see across its five courtyards. Allow plenty of time to explore here.

10. Great Tang All Day Mall

Brightly lit with Chinese lanterns, the Great Tang All Day Mall - one of the best things to do in Xian
Brightly lit with Chinese lanterns, the Great Tang All Day Mall. Image TeeRaiden

A 1,500m pedestrianised street located to the south of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, the Great Tang All Day Mall or Grand Tang Ever Bright City is lined with buildings celebrating the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) and is one of the top tourist attractions in Xian.

Filled with architecture and sculptures telling Tang stories and lively street performances, it’s a great place to shop, eat and people-watch. During Chinese New Year, expect there to be lots of extra activities!

Top Tip: Evenings are the best time to visit the Great Tang All Day Mall when the street is transformed with glowing Chinese lanterns and bright neon, and the air is heavy with the scent of delicious food.

More Things to Do in Xian

11. Get Back to Nature – at Huaqing Hot Springs

The beautiful gardens at Huaqing Hot Springs Xian
The beautiful gardens at Huaqing Hot Springs Xian by cityanimal

Take a short trip to enjoy the Huaqing Hot Springs complex located at the northern foot of Mount Li. It’s picture perfect!

12. Get Arty

If you fancy slowing the pace for a day, why not take a calligraphy class or learn the techniques for Chinese brush painting? Try this Chinese Painting and Shaanxi Folk Art Overview with Calligraphy Lesson.

Related Post: 5 Reasons why a Chinese Brush Painting Class is a Great Idea

13. Get Cooking

After tasting all the authentic local Chinese food at the Muslim Market, it’s fun to learn how to make Chinese dumplings!

14. Get Shopping

Explore Shu Yuan Men Pedestrian Street – the perfect place for snapping up those holiday gifts and souvenirs!

Day Trips From Xian

While Xian City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, it’s also a great base for day trips in the local area. There are so many things to do near Xian – here are some of the most popular ones to get you thinking about what you want to do on your trip:

15. Mount Hua Shan – Climb One of the Five Great Mountains of China 

Walkway at Mount Hua Shan near Xian China
Dangerous walkway at top of holy Mount Hua Shan, China by flocu

While you may not want to attempt the infamous “death walk” high up in the mountains, this spectacular landscape is a delight. You won’t want to miss the Buddhist and Taoist temples that cling to the sheer rocks, and you don’t have to do the scary walk (unless you want to!)

Temple clinging to the rock at Mount Hua Shan China
Temple at Mount Hua Shan China by Wirestock

This Xi’an Huashan Mountain Adventure Day Tour leaves Xi’an early to make the most of your day and includes a cable car ride to the summit of Mount Hua Shan.

16. Daming Palace and Danfeng Gate

Dafeng Gate at the Daming Palace Xian China
The colossal Dafeng Gate at the Daming Palace site, Xian by scale_08

The super-sized Daming Palace was the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty for almost 300 years but fell into disrepair long before England had even trembled at the thought of William the Conqueror.

The palace was (re)discovered in 1957 and now forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor“.

The best thing to do at the Daming Palace site is gasp in awe at the sheer size of the Dafeng Gate – the central southern entrance to the palace. It has an astonishing five massive doorways. Everything at this site is super-sized!

17. Volunteer to Work With Pandas 🙂

Volunteer work with critically endangered pandas is just about the most enriching cultural thing you can do on a day trip from Xi’an.

It’s a bit of a faff to get to, but this Volunteer with Pandas tour, with a private guide, is fantastic! It might just be the #1 highlight of your whole China holiday.

Don’t forget your camera! Take an extra SD card and a spare battery too – you WILL need them for all those oh-so-cute panda pics!

18. Banpo Village and Museum

Banpo Museum Xian China
Xian Banpo museum by Nastya Tepikina

This site is an easy tag-on to a trip to the Terracotta Warriors Museum, as there’s a direct bus between the two sites. Don’t miss the reconstructed houses that are designed to look like the original Neolithic settlement on this site.

19. Xingqinggong Park

Visiting Xingqinggong Park in the Beilin district is one of the most fun things to do in Xian, and it’s also FREE. If you’re travelling with kids, it’s a great place for them to let off steam for a while.

Built on the ancient Xingqing Palace site, this is the largest park in Xian – perfect for a leisurely stroll around the Xingqing Lake where Emperor Xuan Zong enjoyed boating!

Book Your Trip to Xi’an

How to Get to Xian City

As a visitor to China, you have two basic options:

  1. Fly to Xian from one of China’s International airports
  2. Take the bullet train.

Where to Stay in Xian

We stayed “within the walls” to be within walking distance of the Xian City Wall and other central landmarks, including the Muslim Quarter. The centrally located Bell Tower Hotel – just 200 yards from the Drum Tower and the Muslim Quarter – was fantastic.

The Sofitel Legend Hotel is located just outside of the old city, but you’ll revel in the comfort and high standards here. It’s also on the doorstep of several Xian attractions.

More Travel Inspiration for Your Trip to China

Essential Stuff to Know BEFORE You Go on Your First Trip to China
The Absolutely Best Way to Visit the Great Wall of China
A Complete Guide to Taking a Li River Cruise in Guilin

Find all the posts about China in the China Travel Guide.

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Coralie Thornton

Coralie is an over 50s travel writer based in Yorkshire in the UK who writes engaging travel tips, destination guides, and detailed itineraries about the UK, Europe and beyond to inspire boomer travel. When she's not travelling, she's either planning a new trip, exploring locally in the UK, visiting castles and cathedrals, or finding somewhere new to enjoy afternoon tea.

5 thoughts on “19 Things to do in Xian – The Ultimate Cultural & Foodie City”

  1. What a fabulous guide. I have been thinking of a trip to Xian so that I could see the Terracotta warriors. But so nice to learn of the MANY other things to see, do and eat in the city. So excited to pin this post for my future trip!

    Reply
  2. Besides the “death walk” I totally would do all of these things in Xian. Top of my list would be to see the Mount Hua Shan. I just love incredible views as long as I’m not near the edge, haha! Gorgeous photos and an excellent guide!

    Reply

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