Eastern charm and ancient history meet luxury and superb hotels in Xi’an. The vibrant markets that sell the freshest of tasty dishes to delight any foodie are the perfect place to relax after a trip round the famous Xi’an landmarks. If Xi’an isn’t on your bucket list yet, you’re missing a trick!
Two Iconic Xi’an Landmarks
Xi’an is a history lovers dream, packed with significant ancient sites. Two of the most imposing and most accessable landmarks are the ancient Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Located slap bang in the middle of the medieval walled city, you can stroll up close to them and take all the photos you want. And the best part is, it’s totally free.
The only time you’ll have to pay is if you decide you also want to go inside them. If you do, it’s only CNY50 to go inside both towers (or CNY30 for each tower) but you can get beautiful pictures and a good understanding of their purpose from outside.
The Bell Tower of Xi’an
As a (church) bell-ringer, I love bell-towers and there are plenty to see in China. Chinese bell towers are rather different though to those in Christian churches because the ringers use a long pole to strike a static bell suspended from a frame. Not at all like climbing up inside a dusty old tower to ring bells using ropes, but no doubt just as much skill is needed.
The 14th century medieval brick and timber bell tower in Xi’an is the largest tower of its type in China. Constructed by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the two story tower stands 118 feet (36 meters) high and is topped off by three layers of eaves. It’s a very colourful sight, with grey brickwork, green tiles, red-painted woodwork and gilding on the roof.
Inside the tower, there’s a spiral staircase and many traditional decorations from the Qin and Ming dynasties.
Before the Bell Tower was built, Xi’an suffered from frequent earthquakes, causing the people to believe that they were caused by a huge underground dragon.
The Bell Tower was built to imprison the dragon, so it would become inactive and not trouble the city again. Once the tower had been built, Xi’an became free from the devastating earthquakes that had caused do much havoc.
The Bell tower houses large bronze hanging bells from the Tang dynasty, however the famous ancient JingYun bell was relocated from the Bell Tower to the Xi’an Beilin Museum in 1953. The large bell you see today is an exact copy of the JingYun bell.
You can strike the bell and it’s supposed to bring good luck if you do!
The Bell Tower was bombed and extensively damaged by Japanese planes early in the Second World War. It was repaired by the Xijing Municipal Construction Committee Engineering Office and finally opened to the public in 1984.
The bells were rung to mark sunrise and the passage of time for city residents in the days before the introduction of watches. At the sound of the bell, city traders could open their shops and people would start to work.
The Bell Tower was also used as an alarm station during the Anti-Japanese War, warning the people of Xi’an of Japanese air raids.
The Bell Tower is right in the geographical centre of Old Xi’an city, with streets running North, South, East and West to connect the tower to the North, South, East and West Gates of the City Wall.
Traffic doesn’t run through the archways in the tower base anymore, due to the limited size of the archways and the rapid expansion of the city. There’s a roundabout encircling the tower with a pedestrian subway below it. This is where you can access the tower from if you want to go inside to explore further. Alternatively, just snap the images you want and move along because, as if that’s not enough culture to take in, your next stop is the Drum Tower.
The Drum Tower of Xi’an
Location and Purpose
Walking North West across the Bell and Drum Tower Square from the Bell Tower, you’ll find the magnificent 14th century Drum Tower which provided an emergency warning system for the people of the old walled city in times of danger.
The drums also sounded every hour from sunset until night, letting city dwellers know when the gates in the city wall would close for the night.
In total, there are 24 drums along the North and South sides of the tower, named after solar terms in the Chinese weather calendar. The biggest drum, the largest drum in China, is covered by one single piece of cowhide! Performers use this drum in daily musical performances.
Sadly we missed the performance on our visit and I really feel we missed out! Looks like we might just have to go back to Xi’an and that would be wonderful as it is a city with so much to offer.
Inside the Drum tower, there’s a collection of exhibits, some of which are a thousand years old.
How to Get to The Landmark Towers
The Bell and Drum towers are such a key part of the landscape in Xi’an they even have a station named after them (Zhonglou or Bell Tower Station), which makes it easy to visit them.
Take Metro Line 2, get off at Zhonglou station and exit the station at Exit B. Once you’ve exited the station, you can’t miss the Bell Tower. Once you’ve had a good look around, continue walking in a Westerly direction for about 5-6 minutes and you’ll find the Drum Tower.
The Metro system in Chinese cities is clean, modern and easy to navigate, even for foreigners!
Tourist buses (the safest option) from all corners of the city stop at the Bell Tower. Look out for Tourist Line 7 and Tourist Line 8 (No. 610) which stop at Zhonglou Xi (Bell Tower West) Station.
Tourist buses are an off-white colour and they are the easist buses for visitors to use, as they usually have English speaking conductors.
The Best Time to Photograph the Towers
These two towers are possibly the most instantly recognisable and impressive of all the historic landmarks in Xi’an, drawing photographers in like bees to a honeypot.
The best times to capture their beauty are during the golden hour. Some of the most stunning pictures of the Bell Tower are taken at night, when the mix of neon signs, street lights and lights from passing cars on the roundabout illuminate the tower in a kaleidoscope of colour.
Book Your Trip to China: Planning Tips and Money Saving Advice
Getting to Xi’an
You’ll need to fly to one of the major Chinese cities (Beijing or Shanghai) and get a connecting flight to Xi’an, or take the bullet train. I’ve found Skyscanner and Momondo. very reliable at finding the best deals available from all around the world.
Book Your Accomodation in Xi’an
I’ve used most search sites over the years to book travel and accommodation. Booking.com unfailingly offers the best rates for hotels, including some fabulous boutique ones. At first, I double checked their prices against a couple of other comparison sites, but I save the time now, because they always come up with the goods and I like the selection of hotels they offer.
We stayed in the Old City of Xi’an, to be within walking distance of the city wall and other central landmarks, including the Muslim Quarter. We loved the centrally located Bell Tower
We also met so many people staying at (and loving) the Sofitel Legend Hotel that it deserves a mention here! It’s located just outside of the old city, but you’ll be impressed with the comfort and high standards here.
If you want to stretch your budget a little further, check out all the boutique hotels and hostels in Xi’an on Booking.com. Prices are remarkably reasonable and there’s over 1,000 to choose from.
Don’t Forget Your Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is your essential protection in case of illness, injury, theft, or cancellation on your trip. I’ve claimed against my travel insurance several times over the years I’ve been traveling and it’s so much easier and less stressful when your insurance company has top-notch customer service. Having shopped around at first, I now only use World Nomads because they offer great value and second-to-none customer service. Older family members (aged 70+) swear by Insure My Trip.
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out our resources page for more recommendations on who to trust when you travel! It’s like our little black book – packed with companies we Grey Globetrotters use to save money when we travel. We think it will be helpful for you too!
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Have you been to some of the ancient Xi’an landmarks too? Share your experiences in the comments below – we love to hear from our readers.
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