Our visit to Xian was an exciting whirlwind of nail biting adventure, captivating history and mouth watering gastronomy. It has virtually everything we look for in a city and is definitely towards the top of the “favourites list” of places we went to in Asia. Though a visit wouldn’t be complete without seeing the terracotta warriors, you’ll discover far more than that if you spend bit of time there.
So if you’re up for more than just a day trip to the terracotta warriors, here are the 5 best things to do in Xian.
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Uncover the Terracotta Warriors
Incredibly, the Terracotta Army was only stumbled upon in 1974 by a group of local farmers who were attempting to dig a well on the land they worked. Despite not knowing exactly what they had found, they figured it was something potentially valuable and so reported it to the authorities.
Since then, three chambers of varying sizes have been unearthed to unveil an army of over 8,000 terracotta warriors. In addition to the thousands of individually modelled terracotta warriors there are hundreds of chariots and horses, each one being hand made with unique features.
We had a brilliant time learning about the history and cultural significance of this vast army of terracotta warriors, built to accompany emperor Qin Shi Huang Di into the afterlife.
The site itself is extremely busy as you’d imagine, so our recommendation would be to arrive early before the coaches of tour groups turn up. The main chamber is the most packed and you often have to wait to get to the front of the queues that form around the metal barriers protecting the terracotta warriors. The other chambers are less busy but there’s also less to see – although they’re equally as interesting.
Thanks to the terracotta warrior’s huge cultural significance and fascinating backstory, there’s no way the so called eighth wonder of the world couldn’t be included in the best things to in Xian!
Dine Out in the Muslim Quarter
This is without a doubt the most energetic place in the entire city! Everywhere we turned there was something interesting going on.
Thick plumes of steam rose high into the air from giant cooking pots. Smartly dressed men flung three metre lengths of silky smooth sugar over hooks to make boiled sweets. Neat vintage machines that looked like they belonged in Willy Wonka’s factory churned out mini cakes at the rate of knots. Butchers carved the meat from sheep carcasses suspended from barbs, leaving their full skeletons in tact.
The Muslim Quarter is basically a number of intersecting streets that are completely dedicated to the most incredible food imaginable.
Deep fried battered soft shell crabs, whole breaded squid on sticks, bread buns stuffed to overflowing with tender meat that’s drizzled in a savoury sauce, pastries filled with minced meat and fragrant spices, tofu fried with spring onions and chilli, bowls of noodles covered in steaming broths.
Need I go on? We went down there most evenings to make sure we sampled as many of the delicacies as possible and to soak up the electric atmosphere.
If you’re a foodie then the Muslim quarter will be right up your street. You’ll probably end up there more than once (maybe even every night like us) – a worthy inclusion in our list of best things to do in Xian.
Make Your Way Around Xian’s City Wall
The city has long since outgrown the confines of the wall, but Xian was historically an enclosed city with a 10 meter high partition running all the way around it.
Despite having been reduced to rubble at various points throughout its history, the wall has always been restored to its former glory each time, most recently in the eighties.
It’s now possible to climb to the top of it and make your way around the entire 8 and a half miles circumference. The path on its crest is the width of a two lane road and you can hire bikes to cycle around it, or even catch a ride on one of the electric golf buggy-type vehicles that take tourists around.
We spent an enjoyable afternoon walking the whole distance round which took a good few hours but was well worth it. Along the top you get views of the different areas of the city, from colourful markets to busy bar streets. There are also various points of interest along the wall itself including gate towers, souvenir shops and places to buy a drink and have a rest if you get a bit knackered like we did!
Definitely one of the best things to do in Xian if you’re up for good walk or cycle along the historic walls of an ancient city.
Take on Huashan – The World’s Most Dangerous Hike
We hadn’t planned on attempting “The World’s Most Dangerous Hike”. In fact we hadn’t even heard of Huashan before arriving in Xian.
It was a pair of friendly Chinese students who inspired us to do it, when they showed us their photos of the plank walk in the sky over dinner one night. For some reason, seeing pictures of them on the narrow pieces of wood jutting perilously out of the side of a mountain at over 2000 metres up made us want to take it on.
Located slightly outside of the city, the views over Xian from the peaks of Huashan are completely unrivalled. The mountains themselves protrude dramatically from the ground like stunning, green topped white cliffs.
The route is steep and narrow in parts, but overall it’s pretty easy walking as the paths up are clear and simple to navigate. We didn’t have any problems getting up fitness-wise and saw people climbing up in smart leather shoes, business shirts and trousers, and even high heels!
If you love adventure, then tackling Huashan is one of the best things to do in Xian for a guaranteed adrenaline rush.
Visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda & Fountain Show
This Buddhist pagoda is one of the most important and well preserved religious buildings in the whole of China. It was originally built in 652 and its seven stories tower high above the neighbouring buildings. It’s surrounded on all sides by large squares and manicured gardens as well as a number of shops and restaurants.
We didn’t actually go inside, but you can pay to enter and climb the spiral steps to the top of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
At night in the north square there’s a fountain show, which even though we thought sounded a bit naff, made a second visit to see it anyway. We were pleasantly surprised though, and actually really enjoyed the brightly lit fountains shooting choreographed plumes of water dozens of feet into the air.
It was like attending an open air concert, with loud music blaring out into the night and thousands of flashes coming from mobile phones held aloft into the crowd.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the best things to do in Xian if you want to understand the history of this city and you’re interested in learning more about China’s Buddhist past. Or if you just want to see a cool light and music fountain show!
Xian is best known as the home to China’s most famous recent archaeological find, the Terracotta Warriors. But though they’re an astonishing cultural landmark that singlehandedly make Xian worth adding to your China itinerary, they’re just the proverbial cherry on the top of an awesome, multi-tiered cake. If you check out everything on our list of the best things to do in Xian we have no doubt that you’ll love this diverse city as much as we did.
Is Xian on your bucket list? Are these indeed the best things to do in Xian or have you discovered some awesome alternatives? Drop us a note in the comments below to let us know.
Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.