I’ve been living in China for about four years now, and I couldn’t help but notice that most China travel itineraries are always the same: Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong… or maybe Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an.
If by some miracle Xi’an is included, most people stop by for a maximum of two days, see the Terracotta Warriors and promptly leave.
This may be a bit controversial, but I MUCH prefer Xi’an to Shanghai, and if you have to pick between the two, I would choose Xi’an over Shanghai, hands down, every single time.
As someone who’s been to Xi’an three times and used to live there for a summer, I can tell you there’s so much more to this ancient capital than the famous archeological site. So today I’m going to go over my absolute favorite activities, excursions, and eats in and around Xi’an to help you make the most out of your flight ticket.
There are so many things to do in Xi’an, I recommend staying at least three full days. Seriously, you don’t want to miss out on all of the incredible activities and excursions Xi’an has to offer.
The Top 10 Things You Need to do in Xi’an!
1. Explore the HuiMinJie Muslim Market
Xi’an’s Muslim Market is one of my favorite places in the entire city. With stall upon stall of fresh food, spices, snacks, drinks, and more, it’s best to come with an empty stomach. You’ll see men hoisting lamb carcasses up on poles, and vendors pounding a sweet nut mixture with giant cartoonishly-large mallets.
Veer off the main street to find cramped alleyways full of any souvenir you could ever want from China. Whether it’s trinkets, genuine art, or fake designer bags, you’ll find it here. My favorite stall is a man who creates the most beautiful paintings by just dipping his fingers in black ink!
The best time of day to visit Huiminjie is in the evening when the trees light up with beautiful, sparkling blue lights. Come a little before sunset for great photos, and then stay for dinner!
2. Wander The Great Mosque of Xi’an
Did you know that Xi’an has a very large Hui Muslim population? Hui people are one of the many ethnic minorities in China, and they’re descendent from Muslim Silk Road traders who married local Han Chinese women. While most Hui people look Han Chinese, they’re all practicing Muslims, and many women choose to wear the hijab.
Once in the Huiminjie Muslim Market, you can find the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in all of China outside Xinjiang province (a primarily Muslim province). Explore the beautiful courtyards and pavilions, which are a welcome break from the hectic market outside. With 12,000 square meters to explore, you can almost forget that you’re right in the center of downtown Xi’an!
Tip: Head to the Great Mosque in the late afternoon before visiting the Huiminjie Muslim Market for dinner!
Tickets cost between 15 – 25 RMB ($2-4 USD) depending on the season
3. Ride Bikes on the Xi’an City Wall
Once of the last remaining city walls in all of China, Xi’an’s city wall is perfectly preserved. Built in the Ming Dynasty (1300-1700 BC), the fact that the wall is still standing and functional is pretty impressive!
The wall surrounds all of downtown Xi’an, offering spectacular views of the city. You can also rent a bike on top of the wall (they offer single and tandem), which is the perfect way to explore. It should take you 1-2 hours to bike the whole wall depending on how much you stop, which is perfect since rental prices are based on a 2-hour window.
Single bikes can be rented for 45 RMB ($6 USD), and tandems go for 90 RMB ($13 USD), with a 200 RMB deposit ($30 USD).
4. Visit The Drum and Bell Towers
Right in the center of Xi’an, you’ll find a giant square with the Drum and Bell towers. Historically, these drums and bells were used to signal the running of time and on occasion, were used as an alarm in emergency situations. Ancient Xi’an used bells in the morning and drums in the evening. While neither tower is used to keep time anymore, they’re definitely well worth a visit.
I highly suggest visiting the Drum and Bell Towers in both the afternoon and evening, to get incredible photos. Once the sun goes down, both the towers light up, and many locals come out to enjoy the night air. On a nice evening, you’ll see giant groups of women dancing together and smaller groups of people playing Chinese hacky sack, walking their dogs, opera singing, and more.
5. Try a Calligraphy Class at the TangBo Art Museum
While I’m not usually one to spend a lot of time in art museums, I absolutely loved TangBo. The museum itself is pretty small, and you’ll be guided through the history of each major set of work by your calligraphy teacher. My friends and I spent about 45 minutes wandering through the museum, which was the perfect amount of time for me before we headed to the calligraphy class.
Even if you’re not an artist, I highly recommend taking a calligraphy class while in China. You’ll get to learn how to write a few Chinese characters while playing with ink and various brushes. Calligraphy classes also usually come with a bit of culture and history, giving you insight into ancient China.
At TangBo, your teacher will guide you through the basic strokes, and let you get creative with a few characters. Finally, they’ll teach you the hardest Chinese character: which is actually a character for local Xi’an noodles. Yeah, I can barely even read that, let alone write it!
TangBo offers private and group classes. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for prices and booking.
6. Eat Your Heart Out With Traditional Xiannese Cuisine
Xi’an is famous throughout China for having incredible food! My absolute favorite is roujiamo, which is the Chinese version of a pulled pork sandwich. A good place will give you plenty of vegetable topping options, and chop up some spicy peppers if you like it hot. I used to visit a little hole-in-the-wall shop weekly to grab a roujiamo or two, for about $1 USD each!
In addition to roujiamo, there are plenty of other dishes you need to try. Yangroupaomo, a lamb soup with little tiny pieces of flatbread floating on top. Or how about lamb kebabs called yangrou chuanr, seasoned with cumin and other incredible spices. Don’t forget the noodles! I love lianpi cold rice noodles doused with chili pepper, vinegar, garlic and cucumber, but you can also try noodle soup, spinach noodles (bocaimian), and biangbiang noodles (the most complicated Chinese character to write).
If you’re looking to try all of these delicacies in one evening, I highly suggest taking a food tour with Lost Plate. I did their Beijing dinner tour and loved every minute of it. You’ll get to ride from restaurant to restaurant on a Chinese tuk-tuk while sipping ice cold beer. What’s not to love? They also have a Morning Market Tour which looks incredible too.
7. Take a Day Trip to Hua Shan
Hua Shan is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited. Commonly referred to as the “Most Dangerous Hike in the World“, this mountain is a must-see on your trip to Xi’an. The most famous portion of the hike involves a wooden plank nailed into the side of a cliff. To get to the other side you’re given a flimsy harness, to keep you protected while people push past you on the tiny plank both ways.
It was simultaneously one of the most exciting and terrifying things I’ve ever done in my life.
If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I still recommend heading to the mountain for some incredible views. Take a hair-raising cable car up the side of the mountain, and look down over the edge of a cliff that drops thousands of feet to the mountain floor. Just be sure to watch where you’re walking on all of those stairs so you don’t accidentally slip off the mountain.
Want more details on Hua Shan? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!
8. Learn Your Facts at the Shaanxi History Museum
I’m a huge Chinese history buff, which is why I always enjoy spending a little time at the Shaanxi History Museum. Learn about how Xi’an became the first capital of China under Qin Shi Huang, who united the seven warring kingdoms. See ancient treasures left from the Tang and Song Dynasties. You can even take a few photos with Terracotta Warriors on display.
The museum is categorized by dynasty, which makes it really easy to learn the history in chronological order and discover which dynasties were a bit more wealthy than others. I’ll give you a hint: the Tang Dynasty was pretty epic.
Tickets cost 20 RMB ($3 USD) for the main hall. The Museum is open every day except Monday. Avoid visiting during July and August due to large crowds of Chinese tourists.
9. Chill Out at the Wild Goose Pagoda
Right near the History Museum, you’ll find the Wild Goose Pagoda. I studied abroad in this area a few years ago, and often visited the surrounding plaza on a breezy summer night. Here you’ll find grannies dancing in unison, kids flying kites, and sometimes even fireworks!
Originally built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the pagoda collected Buddhist materials that were taken from India by the hierarch Xuanzang. Inside the pagoda, you can climb to the top for an incredible view of the city.
This area is also home to a Haidilao, so if you’re looking to try hotpot and you’re not heading to Chongqing or Sichuan, this is the perfect place!
10. Don’t Forget the Terracotta Warriors!
Just because there’s more to Xi’an than the Terracotta Warriors doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a visit to this incredible historical site. Located about an hour outside of Xi’an city in Shaanxi province, this army is made of a type of pottery or clay called “terracotta”. These soldiers stand in perfect lines, protecting emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife.
The Terracotta Warriors are an open archaeological site, which means you’ll see archaeologists actively reassembling the broken pieces of clay. In the largest pit, you’ll see a series of reconstructed soldiers, followed by remnants of smashed terracotta that people are slowly piecing together. In addition to the first pit, you’ll also find two smaller pits, with life-size warriors on display for you to take photos with.
Want some more information about visiting Xi’an’s most famous site? Read this next!
Don’t Miss Xi’an!
Seriously, Xi’an is one of my all-time favorite cities in China and there are so many things to do and see. When it comes to planning your China trip, be sure to leave at least three full days for this incredible city, especially if you plan to hike Hua Shan.
I’ve been to Xi’an three times and even lived here for a summer and I still can’t get enough. If you’re looking to explore Western China while having an incredible time, this is the place.
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