Xian is the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province and has been an important center of culture and trade for centuries. The city was once China’s capital and the first city on the ancient Silk Road. As such Xian has an east-meets-west feel about it. The city is a major stop on most China itineraries as it is the home of the world-renowned terracotta army of warriors and horses, discovered by farmers in 1974. However, Xian has a lot more to offer than just the impressive archaeological site. The walled city is bursting with history, art, culture, and food making it one of China’s must-see places. Today we’ll explore 11 of the best things to do in Xian (including some fabulous free things to do in Xian).
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Where to Stay in Xian
We visited Xian in July. It was brutally hot, although thankfully it was a dry heat and not humid. Having somewhere with great A/C and comfortable to go back to after exploring was, to us, essential. In Xian, you’ll want to stay somewhere central and easy to get to the metro, train station, or tourist bus stops. The area around the Muslim Quarter – aka the food street is excellent and means you’ll never go hungry! Here are my picks for the best places to stay in Xian.
The Hilton Xian is in a great location in the city center of Xian. The international brand means it’s easy to stay here and there’s great English spoken by the staff. There’s free wifi at this Xian hotel and breakfast is also included. Check rates and availability here.
The Courtyard in Xian is a great four-star location hotel in Xian. There’s a spa and a gym, well-appointed rooms, and the staff speak English too. There’s WiFi in all rooms and some rooms have fab city views. Check your dates here.
The GreenTree Inn Xi’an Ming City Wall is in a fabulous location in Xian for exploring the city walls and the Muslim Quarter. Rooms are bright and comfortable with WiFi – there’s also a laundry service here. See if your dates are available for this great hotel in Xian here.
Where is Xian?
Xian is the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province and lies within the plains of central China not far from the Yellow River. Xian is the last major tourist stop before the wild western region of China and Tibet. We arrived in Xian from Pingyao and afterward headed to Shanghai.
The Top 11 Things to Do in Xian
There’s no doubt about it, visiting the stunning terracotta army in Xian is the top thing to do here, but you’ll want to explore further, as this city and the locales around it have a lot to offer.
On 24th March 1974, a group of local farmers discovered what was to become one of the greatest archaeological finds in history; the gravesite of Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China (259 to 210BC). It wasn’t just any gravesite. No, no, no! Buried along with the Emperor were 8,000 life-size soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, all made from terracotta. 40,000 pieces of weaponry have also been recovered from the area.
Needless to say, on any trip to Xian, China even, the UNESCO-listed terracotta army, mausoleum, and archaeological pits are a must-see!
Take away the hassles of public transport to get to the Terracotta Warriors – AND skip the line (it’s worth it, believe me), this tour will get you to the front of the line, transported to and from the site and gives you a guided tour with an English speaking host. Book your trip to the Terracotta Warriors here.
- Terracotta Army, Xian Opening Hours: 08:30 to 18:00
- Terracotta Army, Xian Entrance Fee: ¥120
- Time Needed to Visit Xian’s Terracotta Army: Two to three hours
- Terracotta Army, Xian Address: Qinshihuang Mausoleum, Lintong District
Take metro line 9 to Qinling West Station and transfer to shuttle bus 617. Alternatively, take tourist bus number 5 from Fangzhicheng Bus Station or the east square of the railway station.
Xian’s ancient city wall stretches for 13km (8.5 miles) around the center of the center. The Xian city wall was completed in 1370 and remains one of the largest remaining fortifications in China. (The largest is the Great Wall of China, which you can read about here).
There are four main gates on each point of the compass for entrance to the Xian City Walls. While you would need a whole day to walk the entire length, you can rent a bicycle on the wall and cycle it in under two hours. There are also touristy battery-operated cars available for the less mobile.
The views from the wall of Xian are some of the best in the city and you can peer across old streets and rooftops, and see temples, monasteries, and more. Exploring the city wall of Xian is definitely one of the top things to do in Xian!
- Xian City Walls Opening Hours: 08:30 to 18:00
- Xian City Walls Entrance Fee: ¥54 – note that your entrance fee is for a single entry, so plan your visit accordingly.
- Xian City Walls Bike Hire: ¥45 for three hours. ¥100 deposit required
- Xian City Walls Battery Operated Car Hire: ¥80
- Xian City Walls Time Needed to Visit: around two hours (if cycling the entire wall)
- Xian City Walls Address: Lianhu District
How to get to the Xian City Walls.
The nearest Metro stations to the Xian City Walls are
- Xian City Wall North Gate: Beida Jie Metro Station
- Xian City Wall East Gate: Chaoyangmen Metro Station
- Xian City Wall South Gate: Yongingmen Metro Station (closest to the wall)
- Xian City Wall West Gate: Yuxiang Men Zhan Metro Station
Built in 1384, the Xian Bell Tower represents the geographical center of old Xian. From the tower, you can look out down wide avenues to the city walls in the distance. The tower is built on a brick base with a small garden. In spring it is covered with beautiful brightly-colored flowers. The Bell Tower is now home to a small museum and photography exhibition, as well as excellent examples of early Chinese architecture. You won’t usually hear the Bell Tower mentioned without the Drum Tower (i.e. the Xian Bell & Drum Towers), so keep reading to find out about the Drum Tower.
It’s easy to visit Xian’s Bell Tower – and even simpler to get there as part of a small group tour. Read more about visiting the Bell Tower in Xian here.
- Xian Bell Tower Opening Hours: Mar to Oct: 08:30 – 21:00, Oct to Mar: 08:30 – 18:00
- Xian Bell Tower Entrance Fee: ¥30
- Combined Bell and Drum Tower Entrance Fee: ¥50
- Xian Bell Tower Time Needed to Visit: under one hour
- Xian Bell Tower Address: Zhonglou Shangquan, Beilin District, Xian
How to Get to the Xian Bell Tower
Xian Bell Tower Nearest Metro: Bell Tower Station (line 2)
The Drum Tower is the sister building of the Bell Tower and is located just across the square from the Bell Tower. Like the Drum Tower in Beijing, it was used to mark the passing of time and also served as an emergency alarm. The Xian drum tower was built four years before the bell tower in 1380. It has since been renovated in 1699 and 1740. It is home to the largest drum in China! You can enjoy a drum performance inside the tower, before walking around the corner to Xian’s Muslim Street for some street food (keep reading for this and more free things to do in Xian).
- Xian Drum Tower Opening Hours: Mar to Oct: 08:30 – 21:00, Oct to Mar: 08:30 – 18:00
- Xian Drum Tower Drum Performances: 09:30, 10:15, 11:00, 11:45, 14:00, 14:45, 15:30 and 16:20
- Xian Drum Tower Entrance Fee: Drum Tower: ¥30
- Xian Drum Tower Combined Bell and Drum Tower Entrance Fee: ¥50
- Xian Drum Tower Time Needed to Visit: under one hour
- Xian Drum Tower Address: Zhonglou Shangquan, Beilin District, Xian
How to Get to the Xian Drum Tower
The nearest metro station to the Xian Drum Tower is the Bell Tower Station (line 2)
Originally built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907AD) as an important Buddhist place of worship, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was rebuilt in 704 under China’s first Empress Wu Zetian. The Pagoda was used to house Buddhist scriptures and figures of the Buddha collected from India. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the top attractions in Xian along with the associated Da Ci’en Temple! You’ll learn about Buddhism in this area on this small group tour of the Giant Wild Goose Padoga.
- Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda Opening Hours: 08:00 to 17:00
- Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda Entrance Fee: Temple and Pagoda: ¥40, Climbing the Pagoda: ¥25
- Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda Time Needed to Visit: around one hour
- Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda Address: 1 Ci’en Road, Xiao Zhai Sheng Ye Jie, Yanta District, Xian
How to Get to the Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
You can take any of the following buses to the Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda: 5, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 30, 34, 44, 242, 271, 307 or 601
Alternatively, the nearest metro to the Xian Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is the Dayanta (line 3 or 4)
6. Discover the Han Yang Ling Mausoleum in Xian
This mausoleum was constructed for Chinese Emperor Liu Qi of the Han Western Dynasty (206BD to 24AD) and his wife Wang. It was constructed in 152 AD. This impressive site contains tombs, burial pits, burial objects, ceremonial sites, and more.
- Xian Han Yang Ling Mausoleum Opening Hours: Mar to Nov: 08:30 – 18:30, Dec to Feb: 08:30 – 18:00
- Xian Han Yang Ling Mausoleum Entrance Fee: Mar to Nov: ¥70, Dec to Feb: ¥55 ($8.40)
- Xian Han Yang Ling Mausoleum Time Needed to Visit: two to three hours
- Xian Han Yang Ling Mausoleum Address: Weichang District, Xianyang, Xian
How to Get to the Xian Han Yang Ling Mausoleum
Take metro line 4 to City Library and change to Tourist Bus No 4.
7. Visit the Huaqing Pool and Lishan Mountain Scenic Area near Xian
Located close to the Terracotta Warriors 30km outside the city, the Huaqing Pool is a set of beautiful gardens at the bottom of Lishan Mountain. Tickets to the pool and gardens also include access to Li Mountain where you can climb the 1,302 meters (4,272 feet) to the top if you are feeling energetic (stone steps all the way).
The views from Lishan over Xian are fantastic and it’s possible to visit both the Terracotta Army and Lishan on the same day.
- Huaqing Pool, near Xian Opening Hours: Mar to Nov: 07:00 – 19:00, Dec to Feb: 07:30 – 18:00
- Huaqing Pool, near Xian Entrance Fee: ¥120
- Huaqing Pool, near Xian Time Needed to Visit: at least half a day
- Huaqing Pool, near Xian Address: 38, Huaqing Road, Lishan, Lintong District
How to get to Huaqing Pool & Lishan
As with the Terracotta Army, take metro line 9 to Qinling West Station and transfer to shuttle bus 617. Alternatively, take tourist bus number 5 from Fangzhicheng Bus Station.
Huashan is one of China’s most famous peaks as it is one of the five holy mountains. (The five holy mountains are: Huashan (Shaanxi), Taishan (Shandong), Hengshang South (Hunan), Hengshan North (Shanxi), and Songshan (Henan).) Huashan is also famous around the world for another reason; its infamous “plank walk”. This was one of the most unique things to do in China and it was amazing. Want to know what it’s like to walk the plank walk? I wrote about it here.
Huashan has five peaks, the tallest of which is 2,154 meters (7.067 feet). If you don’t fancy the four-hour-plus climb up narrow steps to the peaks, there are two cable cars going to the North and West peaks, from where you can walk between all of them. It’s a brutal walk – it’s even brutal just coming back down (steps, steps, steps, and more steps) and I hobbled for days after climbing this mountain.
If the transport sounds like a tough way to get to Huashan, then you can take a trip from your hotel in Xian, with an English-speaking guide, and get to explore the best parts of Huashan mountain. There are more details here.
Many Chinese people climb the mountain in darkness for the incredible sunrise, however, this is dangerous and not recommended for those without experience. If you want to see the sunrise/sunset there are guesthouses between the peaks at the top.
- Huashan Mountain Opening Hours:
- Mountain: 24 hours a day
- Hushan Mountain Temples: 09:00 to 17:30
- Huashan Mountain Cable cars: Mar to Nov: 07:00 – 19:00, Dec to Feb: 08:00 – 18:00
- Huashan Mountain Entrance Fee: Mar to Nov: ¥160, Dec to Feb: ¥100 (The ticket is valid for two days.)
- Huashan Mountain Cable Car Fee: Mar to Nov: ¥140 one way, ¥280 round-trip, Dec to Feb: ¥120 one way, ¥240 round-trip
- Huashan Mountain Time Needed to Visit: one to two days – you can do this as a day trip from Xian – but you will need to get up early and on the train (or bus) early. Expect a late (and tired) return!
- Huashan Mountain Address: South Section of Yuquan Road, Huayin City, Shaanxi
How to get to Huashan Mountain from Xian
Take the train from Xian North to Huashan North. Journey time is 30 minutes and tickets cost ¥54.50 for a second-class seat. From Huashan the free green shuttle bus or a taxi to the visitor’s center.
Top Free Things to Do in Xian
Don’t worry we haven’t finished, there are still some great things to do in Xian. It’s just these fabulous things to do in Xian are free.
1. Visit the Free Shaanxi History Museum in Xian
The Shaanxi History Museum is one of the best in China and charts the country’s history from prehistoric times until the mid 19th Century. There are four main halls of exhibitions over two floors which include over 300,000 artifacts from paintings, murals, pottery, weapons, ornaments, utensils, and more from throughout China’s history. Exploring the Shaanxi History Museum is one of the best free things to do in Xian!
- Shaanxi History Museum Opening Hours: Mar to Nov: 08:30 – 18:00, Nov to Mar: 09:00 – 17:30, Closed Mondays
- Shaanxi History Museum Entrance Fee: Free
- Shaanxi History Museum Time Needed to Visit: two to three hours
- Shaanxi History Museum Address: 91 Xiaozhai East Road, Xiao Zhai Shang Ye Jie, Yanta District, Xian
How to get to the Shaanxi History Museum
Take any of the following buses to the Shaanxi History Museum: 5, 19, 24, 30, 34, 271, 400, 401, 521, or 610, or the nearest metro is Xiaozhai Station, Exit D (line 2 or 3)
2. Dive into Xian’s Muslim Quarter aka Food Street
Xian’s Muslim Quarter is a pedestrian area with many food stalls selling a variety of street food. This is a great place to sample some of the city’s dishes and people-watch from the streetside restaurants and cafes.
We ate here every night during our stay in Xian and it was fabulous. Don’t speak Mandarin? Don’t worry. Point. And someone will tell you how much it is.
If you’d prefer to join a small group tour and know exactly what you’re eating, then this tour of the Muslim Quarter is a fabulous way to explore Xian.
The food is fabulous, and even if you’re the slightest bit squeamish you’ll find something. We ate for literal pennies every night and the memory of it still makes my mouth water! There are lots of places selling arts, and crafts, so this is a great place to pick up souvenirs if you have room in your bags.
- Xian Muslim Quarter Opening Hours: 24 hours
- Xian Muslim Quarter Entrance Fee: free
- Xian Muslim Quarter Time Needed to Visit: under one hour.
- Xian Muslim Quarter Address: North Gaungji Street, Zhong Lou Shang Quan, Lianhu, Xian
How to Get to the Xian Muslim Quarter
The nearest metro station to the Xian Muslim Quarter is the Bell Tower/Zhonglou, Exit B (line 2)
3. Explore the Daming Palace Park for free in Xian
This beautiful, large park in the north of the city is home to the Daming Palace Museum, a large lake, and many pavilions.
- Daming Palace Park Opening Hours: 09:00 to 18:00
- Daming Palace Park Entrance Fee: the park is free to visit, but there is a charge of ¥60 for the museums and archaeological sites.
- Daming Palace Park Time Needed to Visit: around one hour
- Daming Palace Park Address: Taihua South Road, Weiyang District
How to Get to the Daming Palace Park
The nearest metro station to the Daming Palace Park is Daminggong or Hanyuandian (line 4)
Map of things to do in Xian, China
You can also see the map of Xian’s things to do here.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China
If you like visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, then our guides to these Chinese World Heritage sites will be useful
- How to Visit Huanglong National Park [the Yellowstone of China]
- Discover Xian’s Terracotta Army
- How to Visit The Great Wall of China – [Independent Public Transit Route]
- The Forbidden City of Beijing
- The Historic Center of Macau
- Jiuzhaigou National Park
- Huangshan National Park and Sacred Mountain
- Wulingyuan and the Zhangjiajie National Park
- The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries
- Tiger Leaping Gorge
How to Get to Xian
Most people will fly in or take the train to Xian. The Xian train station is central to the city, and it’s also easy to get to the city of Xian from the international airport.
Getting to Xian from Xianyang International Airport
The airport is approximately 40km away making it easy to reach the city. A taxi should cost around ¥150. There are also airport shuttle buses from terminals 2 and 3. Journey time is around an hour and a ticket costs ¥25. The airport (terminals 1, 2, 3, and 5) is linked to the Xian Metro via the Xian Airport Metro Line. Take this to Beikezhan (Xian North Railway Station) and transfer to line 2 for the city center.
Getting around Xian
Xian is a large city but has a convenient metro system that services most of the main attractions. For sites like the Terracotta Warriors, Lishan, and Huashan, there are tourist buses, which I’ve detailed in the individual sections of this article. Taxis are ubiquitous in Xian and make a cheap and easy way to get around Xian.
Local buses, although cheap at only ¥1 or ¥2 are best avoided for non-Mandarin speakers unless you know the exact route. The timetables are not in English and buses tend to get very crowded.
Another great way to get around Xian is by making use of shared bikes. You will need the Alipay or WeChat apps for this and be able to (or have a friend that) speaks Mandarin.
The Best Time to Visit Xian
Xian is situated in northern/central China and has four distinct Seasons. Spring, summer, and autumn are all great times to visit. Avoid national holidays like Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb) and Golden Week (first week of October) as the city becomes very busy.
Is Xian Safe to Visit?
Xian is a generally safe city to visit, but take usual travel precautions and don’t venture to unknown areas on your own at night. Follow all the usual precautions that you would when traveling in a busy city
- Keep valuables out of sight
- Always lock your valuables away when they’re not with you (read how we use a portable travel safe here)
- Use a VPN when utilizing public WiFi networks in hotels, hostels, and guesthouses (read about VPNs here)
- Tap water is generally NOT potable in Xian. Consider taking a refillable water bottle to reduce the use of single-use plastic. We always travel with a filter water bottle, which I wrote about here.
Travel Insurance for Xian
Xian is a pretty safe city to travel to, but accidents can happen. If you’re considering travel insurance for your trip to Xian, then you can get a quote from World Nomads for your travel insurance for Xian
Travel Tips for Exploring China
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- Download and install a VPN BEFORE you travel to China > discount coupon here
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Final Words on the 11 Best Things to do In Xian
Most people will come to Xian specifically to see the Terracotta Army and that is a fine reason to come to this city. For us, it was also about seeing the city walls, eating the amazing food of the Muslim Quarter, and heading to one of China’s sacred mountains, Huashan. The city is busy, and stuffed full of culture, art, and food and is an incredible place to visit, don’t miss it!
Stock images in this article are courtesy Deposit Photos.
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