Known as Chang’an in ancient times, Xi’an’s illustrious history spans more than 3,000 years having served as the capital city for 13 dynasties throughout the ages. After its decline in the 10th century, the city fell into obscurity until the discovery of Emperor Qin’s army of 2,200-year-old Terracotta Warriors in 1974. Now firmly on China's tourist trail, Xi'an provides visitors with a wealth of historical heritage and a world-renowned star attraction.Read More
Xi’an itself is surrounded by a well-preserved city wall, which was reconstructed during the Ming Dynasty (14th century). Since Xi’an is relatively flat, there are no steep inclines on the impressive walls, making it plenty wide enough for an elevated and enjoyable stroll or bike ride without risk of getting mown over. Other drawcards in Xi’an include the spectacularly lofty Big Wild Goose Pagoda - constructed around the 7th century to store translations of Buddhist sutras from India, the smaller Little Wild Goose Pagoda, the Bell Tower and also Drum Tower. The Shaanxi History Museum boasts a large and impressive collection of artefacts both ancient and modern, tracing Xi’an’s history from its early beginnings.
As the final point on the legendary Silk Road, Xi'an became a melting pot of cultures and religions, which can be felt today in the buzzing Muslin Quarter, home to several mosques and a colourful market. The Great Mosque in Xi'an is the largest mosque in China with an intriguing blend of Islamic and Chinese architecture. Founded in the 8th century, the mosque features an Arab-inspired minaret, pagodas, a large prayer hall and attractive gardens.
Here are some popular itineraries that include a visit to Xi'an. Alternatively, if you would like to include a visit to Xi'an on a bespoke touring itinerary to China, take a look at our tailor-made holiday planning section.
Best sites to visit in Xi'an
Big Wild Goose PagodaView on map
The angular and square Tang-style Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of Xian's most iconic landmarks standing at a height of 64-metres and rising above the surrounding buildings. The pagoda was built on request by a Tang monk to house precious Buddhist sutras from India after his pilgrimage and a number of tablets and engravings tell the story of his voyage. Originally built in 652 BC with five stories, the brick structure has undergone many renovations over the centuries with the last repairs taking place in 1964. Today the pagoda has seven storeys with large windows on each level offering fantastic views over the city.
The City WallsView on map
Surrounding the old city of Xian and separating the historic centre from the newer suburbs that have developed around it, the ancient City Walls are one of the first landmarks visitors will encounter. Dating back to 1370 the 12m-high walls are some of the few remaining urban fortifications still standing in China today and after extensive restorations the City Walls offer ample opportunities from which to explore Xian. A popular option is to hire a bicycle and ride along the walls, stopping at the corner watchtowers and admiring the defensive ramparts. With a rectangular perimeter of 14km this activity could easily swallow up an entire day.
The Muslim QuarterView on map
The atmospheric narrow lanes and alleyways of Xian's Muslim Quarter have been home to a sizeable Hui population (Chinese Muslims) since Islam was first introduced to China centuries ago. Two-storey buildings, reminiscent of Qing and Ming dynasty architectural styles, line the historic streets with almost a dozen mosques of varying size dotted throughout the area, including the famous Great Mosque. Large leafy trees add further appeal to the scene with the smells of sizzling meats wafting from the numerous restaurants that prove especially popular at night when the streets come alive with hungry people.
The Great MosqueView on map
Located in the Muslim Quarter, Xian's Great Mosque is the largest of its kind in China and a stunning blend of Islamic and Chinese architectural design with four courtyards, sweeping roofs, landscaped gardens and a minaret cloaked within a traditional pagoda. The mosque was originally founded in the 8th century though the structures seen today date back as early as the 16th century. The large Prayer Hall can accommodate over 1,000 people and although this section remains closed to non-Muslims, the remainder of the complex is open to all visitors irrespective of beliefs, the only mosque in China to be so.
Bell & Drum TowersView on map
In the heart of Xian's ancient centre stands the grand Bell Tower, a 14th century construction that has been moved and reconstructed over the years to now stand on a traffic island from which the city's four main roads extend like the points of a compass. The original bell no longer rings at dawn as it once did but inside the tower there's an exhibition of chimes and a replica bronze bell with a balcony offering views from all sides of the structure. Not far from here is the triple-eaved Drum Tower that would have once been used to signal nightfall. The tower is notable for the fact that not a single nail was used in its construction.
Shaanxi History MuseumView on map
Over three thousand relics are housed within the Shaanxi History Museum providing a comprehensive overview of Xian's illustrious history as well as that of the Shaanxi province, which has played host to the capital cities of thirteen dynasties throughout the ages. The impressive modern building, designed in a classical style, houses spacious exhibitions halls with displays of objects dating back to prehistoric times with informative labels provided in English. All manner of objects are presented from weapons to ceramics, paintings to costumes, as well as four original terracotta warrior statues.
Beilin MuseumView on map
Covering a scenic area of 31,000 square metres close to the south gate of the city, the Beilin Museum is a specialist museum that houses over a thousand inscribed stone tablets (stele), epigraphs and stone sculptures from past dynasties that date back as early as the 5th century. Also known as the Forest of Stone Steles, the museum is set within Xian's Confucius Temple and was built to preserve the twelve Kaicheng Classics, a collection of 114 stone tablets engraved with scholarly text on both sides. There's four galleries within the grounds with rubbings made in the fourth hall where the ancient maps and portraits are kept.
Recommended things to do in and around Xi'an
Terracotta WarriorsView on map
Standing in battle-ready formation and numbering into the thousands, the Terracotta Army is Xian's most popular sight and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, 13 years after the army was discovered. Built by local craftsman during the 3rd century BC for emperor Qinshihuang, the life-sized warriors and horses were designed to offer protection in the afterlife. The army is housed in what is officially known as the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum 28km east of Xian.
Tang Dynasty ShowView on map
For an entertaining journey through the glorious history of the Tang Dynasty in Chang'an (ancient Xian), an evening show at the Tang Dynasty Palace is your best bet. Featuring traditional music, song and dance, the show draws its inspiration from the splendid cultural practices and folk performances typical of the period, brought up-to-date with a modern stage and visual effects. The show lasts for an hour and can be combined with a delicious dumpling feast at the onsite restaurant beforehand.
Eating out in Xi'an
Lao Sun JiaView on map
Founded in 1898, this family-run restaurant is a firm favourite on the Xian food scene thanks to its delicious meat dishes inspired by Islamic flavourings and ways of cooking. It specialises in Xian's signature dish, a meat soup poured over cubes of bread known as paomo. Diners are encouraged to rip apart the flatbread to their liking with the tasty broth then added to the bowl. There's now three branches - one in the Muslim Quarter, another in a large black glass building on Dong Dajie and the third also located on this street.
Meal prices: $
De Fa ChangView on map
The time-honoured De Fa Chang restaurant is the first port of call for visitors looking to sample Chinese dumplings. This famous dining venue is known for its dumpling banquet offering a wide range of fillings from the usual pork and chive stuffed dumplings to those served in a bowl of chrysanthemum soup with the loved doughy balls of goodness available steamed, boiled, pan-fried, deep fried and roasted. The banquets are particularly popular with larger groups with preset menus available while the buffet option offers good value for money at lunch and dinner.
Meal prices: $$
Cyclist RestaurantView on map
Those looking for familiar Western dishes in a quirky setting will find plenty to like about the Cyclist Restaurant in Xian. Bicycles decorate the walls either whole or their parts fashioned into funky ornaments and the overall ambiance is whimsical, welcoming and bright. The menu offers classics such as pasta dishes, salads, steak and pizza, and the extensive imported beer menu also gets a thumbs up. The friendly owner ensures fantastic customer service is delivered all round with English spoken and ordering what you want made easy with computer tablets.
Meal prices: $$
Tang DynastyView on map
Located in the same complex as where you'll find the Tang Dynasty dinner and show package, this separate restaurant offers imperial-era inspired Chinese dishes. The sophisticated menu is noted for its fresh seafood dishes including sea snails, a delicacy in China. It's possible to make a reservation and eat at the Tang Dynasty Restaurant before the show starts rather than opting for the standard package offered, definitely worth it for those looking for a fine-dining experience while in Xian.
Meal prices: $$$$
Shopping in Xi'an
Beiyuanmen Night MarketView on map
The busy Beiyuanmen Night Market in Xian's Muslim Quarter is a treasure trove of small trinkets and traditional local wares ideal for souvenirs and gifts such as silk scarves, engraved chopsticks and pretty teapots. There's also loads of street vendors that usually stay open to midnight offering a range of tasty snacks and treats including fresh fruit juices, steamed buns and barbecued meats. Open each night it's a great spot for photography.
Northwest Antique MarketView on map
Spread across three floors in a building close to Zhongshan Gate, this warren of shops is recommended for serious shoppers looking for genuine antiques and rare oddities including jade carvings, calligraphy, bronze and Mao memorabilia. With some 600 shops it's the largest of its kind in Xian though the majority of foreign visitors head to the markets in the Muslim Quarter so you'll find much more of a local experience here.
Ancient Cultural StreetView on map
Situated on the eastern side of the South Gate, the street of Shuyuanmen is home to nearly 100 shops specialising in Chinese artistic traditions from water paintings to calligraphy with art works and materials all on sale. It's also a good place to pick up delicate papercutting designs. Many of the buildings lining the streets are of traditional design and add to the sense of history watching these arts and crafts lovingly kept alive.
Transport links in Xi'an
Flying InView on map
The city is served by the Xian Xianyang International Airport (XIY), which is one of the largest airports in northern China. Located 40km northwest from Xian, the airport also serves as the primary transport hub for the larger Guanzhong region. Over 180 domestic routes are operated from the airport with cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu under 4 hours away. On top of this over 20 international routes are operated including Singapore and Seoul, which means those starting their China trip in Xian instead of the capital or one of the larger cities will need to fly via Asia en route to Xian.
Railway ServicesView on map
Train travel in China is extremely popular and Xian is well-served for the mode of transport with two railway stations - the busy Xian Railway Station in the northeast corner of town and the newly built Xian North Railway Station located in the Weiyang district further north of the city centre. The former is a major stop on routes from Beijing to destinations further afield and where the overnight sleeper trains pull into. The latter was designed to service the high speed rail network with the bullet train to Beijing and even Shanghai taking just a little over 5 hours. Other destinations include Guangzhou, Chengdu and Datong.
SubwayView on map
A brand new metro system in Xian was launched in recent years with two lines currently in operation and a further four planned and expected to be completed by 2020. Line 2 runs north to south from the Xian North Railway Station and is useful for reaching the Shaanxi History Museum, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Muslim Quarter. Line 1 serves Xian's older railway station and runs from east to west with stops close to the city walls. Tickets are inexpensive and it's a quick and easy way of getting around the city.
Best Time to Visit
The Shaanxi province experiences a temperate and continental monsoon climate with four distinct seasons and the spring and autumn months are considered the best time to visit Xi'an. Between April and May (spring) the temperature starts to rise to pleasant levels with warm sunshine and beautiful cherry blossoms decorating the landscapes. This time of year does see occasional sand storms however. The months of September to October are another good time to visit with beautiful autumnal colours on the trees. This period also coincides with a few big national holidays and is particularly busy with domestic visitors. If you like your historic buildings dusted with snow consider visiting in December when temperatures are low but there are far fewer visitors to the city.