Xi’an: China’s Hidden Gem!

Updated On: November 08, 2023


China has many great places to visit, and the city of Xi’an is definitely on the top of the list of those places. Xi’an is a city with a rich history, and it was once called the “City of Eternal Peace” (Chang’an). It was the capital that witnessed the cultural heyday of Ancient China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This was also, among other things, during the reign of the regent who shaped China like no other: Emperor Qin.

It was he who unified China, and it is his family name that gives the Middle Kingdom its name “China” to this day. Xi’an also has a history that goes back several millenniums, as it was the easternmost city on the famous Silk Road. Xi’an, 1,000 kilometers southwest of Beijing and 1,700 kilometers north of Guangzhou, is the fourteenth largest city in mainland China with a population of 8,467,837.

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When you ask yourself what to do in Xi’an, the first thing that comes to mind is inevitably the terracotta army that corresponds to the mausoleum of the Qin emperor. Nevertheless, after reading this, you will see for yourself that visiting Xi’an is not only about seeing this major historical site in China. The city has many other places of interest that deserve a long vacation in Xi’an. There are so many great things to do in Xi’an and amazing places to visit. Let’s find them out!

Terracotta Army

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When you think of China, the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and the clay warriors of the Terracotta Army immediately come to mind. The Terracotta Army was created by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to provide him with a fighting force in the afterlife.

The museum containing the army today is located outside Xi’an, about 40 kilometers from the historical center. The Terracotta Army museum includes around 8,000 different life-size clay warriors, and it is divided into three vaults.

Interestingly, today’s UNESCO World Heritage Site was discovered purely by chance; the location of the tomb complex was unknown worldwide for millennia (apart from the burial mound), and it was quite challenging to access.  However, it was not renowned archaeologists who stumbled upon the warriors, but farmers with their spades!

In 1974, while digging a well, peasants of Xiyang village discovered the tomb when they came across a hard layer of the land. Shortly after, some of the warriors were unearthed. Now there are thousands, with warriors still being excavated.  In today’s museum complex, you can even build your own clay warriors with some plasticine and clay – original from Xi’an!

At the museum, besides the terracotta soldiers, who by the way all look different somehow, there are horses and other animals, acrobats, musicians, officials – all made of clay. There are also remains of weapons, carriages, vessels, and animals. Most of the weapons, spears, and arrowheads are in very good condition.

Visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an will take you a little more than half a day. The site itself can be visited in two good hours, but you have to add at least one hour to get there from Xi’an and as much to come back. The Terracotta Army is the major site in Xi’an; many travelers include Xi’an in their China itinerary just for this important historical site of China tourism, and it is absolutely a must-visit!

No matter how often you’ve seen them in pictures, nothing compares to the impression you get when you see the silent terracotta army with your own eyes ….It would be a shame to visit Xi’an without passing by the Terracotta Army.

The City Wall

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Thanks to heavy renovation work in the 1980s, Xi’an now has the largest fully preserved and walkable city wall in China and one of the largest in the world. It is about 15 meters wide and 12 meters high, for a total length of 12 kilometers, and encloses the historic city center of Xi’an.

In summer, it is best to go to the wall in the evening when the sun goes down, and the heat subsides. You can also walk along the wall on your own (it takes about 4 hours at a leisurely pace), and we highly recommend doing so; it is a great way to see the sights and get rid of extra calories.

For those who don’t like exploring on foot, there are bicycles and even tandems provided along the wall. There is also biking, which is one of the best ways to get a good overview of Xi’an. Xi’an is the only modern Chinese city in which you can ride a bicycle along the historical Ming Dynasty fortress wall. It is an extremely fascinating and unique way to see the sights of the old city.

The city gates are imposing as well, and the sheer size of the wall and the gates is overwhelming. You don’t see anything like it in all of Europe! It’s also worth strolling in the parks at the foot of the city wall. This is where the locals gather for sports and dancing.

The Great Mosque Of Xi’an

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As the crossroads of cultures in China, Xi’an has provided a home to the people of the world for thousands of years. Through the Silk Road, Muslim peoples in particular settled in Xi’an. In order to be able to follow their faith, the Mosque of Xi’an was built – with a total area of 12,000 km², making it the largest mosque in China!

Unlike most mosques, the one in Xi’an was built entirely in the Chinese style. If there were not some Arabic inscriptions, the building could well be mistaken for a Buddhist temple. Despite the Chinese form (even aligned according to Feng Shui), the mosque is by no means lacking in Muslim functionality – thus, the mosque combines Chinese Han culture with Muslim spirituality. A beautiful sight that you must visit while in Xi’an.

The Huaqing Bathing Site

Once upon a time, this bathing place was built in the midst of nature to provide a place of relaxation for the rulers of China. During the Tang Dynasty, however, the site became the scene of romance between the love-struck Tang Emperor and his mistress Yang Guifei.

In honor of the young lady’s beauty, buildings and statues were carved out of the ground, turning the former bathing site into a large park. Today, visitors can admire the architecture and the beautiful location at the foot of the mountain and even take part in various musicals at night – including a breathtaking light show!

Admire the City’s Historical Heritage

Modern architecture often takes center stage in China, but this city is a great place to take a break from modern trends and get in touch with the past. Xi’an is quite unlike Hong Kong or Shanghai, so you’re unlikely to find yourself in the middle of skyscrapers. Because of the relatively low construction, Xi’an has retained its historic appearance, including many architectural sites.

Thanks to the serenity of Northern China, Xi’an’s streets look like the quarters of old China. Make sure to plan some time to stroll through the city’s street to admire its historical heritage. It is one of the best things to do in Xi’an.

Huashan” Mountain

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Huashan Mountains, or Mount Hua, are one of the most dangerous “hiking” routes in China and can turn into a death trap, especially when it rains! In good weather, however, the mountain range, with its five peaks, the highest of which is nearly 2500 meters above sea level, is one of the most beautiful places in Xi’an, China, and perhaps even the world!

It is little wonder that the mountain range is often found as a motif and inspiration in Chinese art. If you are looking for a thrilling experience while in Xi’an, then this is the place for you!

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

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Xi’an has many pagodas dating back to the Tang dynasty, such as the Big and Little Goose pagodas, which differ from later temples not only in age but also in their distinctive architecture. One of China’s most impressive pagodas is located in Xi’an: the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

The Buddhist place of worship towers 62 meters above the ground and can be visited as well as climbed. From the top, you have an impressive view of the surrounding park. Like the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built during one of China’s cultural golden ages, when the sole empress, Wu Zetian, ruled China.

The main purpose of the sacred site was to preach sutras and mantras to make the spirits benevolent. Today, the site still serves the teachings of Buddhism, and you can see a monk or two while visiting.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda In Xi’an

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The small wild goose pagoda is the other main pagoda of the city of Xi’an in China. This one dates from the very beginning of the 8th century.

The pagoda is 43 meters high. It is also located outside the old city of Xi’an, south of the city walls. As the two pagodas are the main places of interest to visit in the south of Xi’an city, we recommend you see them at the same time to avoid having to go back several times to this part of the city.

There is also a subway station near the small wild goose pagoda. If you are planning to visit Xi’an soon and are wondering what to do in Xi’an, it would be a waste not to visit at least one of these pagodas.

The Hanfu

In China, for some years now, there has been a movement trying to revive the classic clothing of the Han Chinese, the so-called Hanfu. Therefore, in Xi’an, you can often see especially younger people in the traditional robes – and wow, does it look chic! So, where better to go with the trend than Xi’an?

Dress up in traditional Han Chinese clothing and then present your robes to the public. Integration has rarely been prettier and, more importantly, more fun.

The Drum Tower And The Bell Tower

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When visiting the ancient capital Xi’an, it doesn’t take long to grasp the immense size of the city. The historic buildings have survived the test of time and still stand in the places where they were built centuries ago.

Two of these buildings are the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. They stand outside the city walls and used to serve as gigantic spy towers. If you catch the right bus, you can admire both buildings as you pass by with a ticket.

If you have already fallen in love with the giants during the day, you should definitely wait until sunset, because then the unique architecture of the towers is illuminated in warm colors.

The Muslim Quarter

Xi’an is considered the starting point of the legendary Silk Road, over which Marco Polo once traveled. Through trade with other peoples, Xi’an has always been a central nexus of cultures. Unsurprisingly, some of the traders settled in Xi’an. Not far from the city walls in the heart of Xi’an is the city’s cultural hub: the Muslim Quarter.

The Muslim Quarter is another place of interest for tourism in Xi’an. This district is clearly the most dynamic of the old city of Xi’an. There are dozens and dozens of stores, restaurants, and street food stands.

Tourists and locals like to stray here to satisfy their palatal pleasures. At the quarter, you will find many delicious street foods to try; Paomo soup (a broth of lamb or beef eaten with bread crumbled in it) is very popular here.

But you can also find many noodle dishes that are even prepared on the spot in the open street. A real feast for the palate and the eyes! Also, if you want, you can still haggle in the markets of the historic city and stock up on souvenirs.

It is probably in the evening that it is the most dynamic and the most impressive; the agitation is exceptional, and the numerous neon lights color the district. Be careful not to go there too late because the Chinese eat pretty early and many shops close at 10 pm (or even earlier).

Beilin Museum

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The Beilin Museum is located in the south of the old city, inside the city walls. This museum is actually located in an ancient Confucian temple. This museum of Xi’an houses nearly 3000 steles which can be found in the park of the museum or in the buildings.

Beyond the museum itself, the place is worth a visit for the quietness of the place (not much visited) and for the beautiful park! The entrance of the museum is just in front of the city walls, south of the historical center. It takes about 2 hours if you plan to walk between the buildings and also visit the rooms of the museum.

With its thousands of years of history and mélange of cultures, Xi’an is probably one of the most impressive cities in the world. It would be a shame not to have it on your bucket list.

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