The vibrant capital of the Shaanxi province, Xi’an is a cultural melting pot that offers a mix of rich historic culture among the bright lights and high rises of modern day China.
I was actually born in Xi’an, but left over two decades ago to move to the UK to join my parents. My memories of what you could call my hometown were nearly non-existent by the time I went back on my recent trip, which has turned out to be one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever taken so far. The truth is, I harbour a lot of guilt for not holding onto some parts of my past, and going back to Xi’an as a conscious adult really reminded me of how much there is to be proud of about my birthplace – one that’s changed immeasurably from the city I used to know, or thought I knew.
Having spent most of my life in the UK, I don’t consider myself to be a Xi’an local at all. But luckily, I had my dad acting as my own personal tour guide during our stay, who knows this city well having grown up here and still makes regular visits. So while I’m taking credit for this guide, you can be sure it’s everything that a true Xi’an local would, and did, recommend.
What to do in Xi’an
Climb the Big Wild Goose Pagoda
After a quick nap and shower to wash off our jetlag and overnight train from Beijing, the first stop we made in Xi’an was to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
Standing at seven tiers, this traditional pagoda was built in 652 to house Buddhist treasures acquired from the Silk Road, of which Xi’an sits at the eastern end of.
Located within a Buddhist temple complex, the area also contains several beautiful gardens and structures that make a great visit.
Entry to the temple courtyard costs 50RMB each (roughly £5), and for an extra 30RMB, you can also climb the winding staircase all the way to the top of the pagoda. Each tier gets a little narrower as you reach its peak, and along with displays of treasures and artefacts, there are stunning panoramic views across the city in every direction.
See the Small Wild Goose Pagoda
There’s also a smaller version of the tower, aptly named the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.
Similar to it’s larger sibling, this pagoda has also suffered some earthquake damage which is still visible from the missing layer at its peak.
You can’t climb the small pagoda, but the surrounding courtyards are beautifully kept and really worth a stroll through. For a fun tourist photo, you can also pay 5RMB to strike an ancient bell located in the courtyard.
Entry to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda is free with your passport and can be found within the same site as the Xi’an Museum.
Cycle the Xi’an city walls
As the best-preserved city wall in all of China, a visit to the surrounding fortification is an absolute must.
Measuring 8.5 miles in total (over 13km) and 12 metres tall, the city of Xi’an was once contained within these four walls and protected by the surrounding moat river.
There are four main city wall gates located in the middle of the north, south, east and west side, and each road that leads to them are named as such – North Road, East Road etc.
Entry to the city wall costs 54RMB (or 100 RMB if you buy a combination ticket with Beilin, which I’ll mention next), and you can either walk, cycle, or take an electric golf-buggy-style car around it. Out of the three, I’d highly recommend renting a bike which will cost you 45RMB for 3 hours. This gave us plenty of time to enjoy the sights, stop to take pictures, and cycle a full circuit of the wall at a leisurely pace – of which I loved every second.
You’re able to pick up and drop off the bike at any of the gates, so you don’t have to do a full lap if you don’t want to.
As an unofficial arts district of Xi’an, Beilin is named after the museum nearby which is sometimes also referred to as the Forest of the Stone Steles. Inside, this museum contains China’s biggest collection of engraved stone tablets of poems and other texts, displayed among large peaceful gardens.
If you’re lucky during your visit, you might also see the staff making prints of the tablets by dabbing ink over a very thin piece of paper, which you can then purchase at the gift shop in its original copy or as a print.
Outside the museum, the surrounding area of Beilin is also filled with traditional tree-lined streets where you’ll find a number of arts and crafts stalls selling calligraphy brushes, hand engraved marble stamps, and more.
Watch the dancing night fountains
Out in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is the Northern Square, which is where you’ll find the biggest musical fountain in Asia.
With free displays on twice a day (usually), this huge square is transformed from a seemingly empty space into an outdoor show with bright lights, music, and impressive water jets that dance in time and shoot up several feet into the air.
It’s especially great to watch during the night when you can also see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda illuminated in the background, and better appreciate the light show.
Free to watch and fun for the whole family, head there well before midday or 9pm each day to get a good spot to catch the show.
See the Drum Tower
One of the most recognisable and iconic landmarks in Xi’an is the Drum Tower. It sits at the heart of the city and all four main roads (the aforementioned North, South, East and West) all lead directly to it from the city wall.
As we’d already climbed the Big Wild Goose Pagoda earlier, we skipped a visit inside this one, but it costs 30 RMB if you want to visit and walk around the tower.
Relax at Tang Paradise
If you’re looking to escape the busy streets of Xi’an while still soaking up some views and culture, then Tang Paradise is a great place to go.
Built as a cultural theme-park, Tang Paradise is a vast, immaculately kept garden spread over 165 acres. With a beautiful lake and a large collection of replica buildings, sculptures and monuments inside, everything is dedicated to the Tang Dynasty, a historic era when China gained significant power and prosperity.
Among the impressive buildings, there are also free performances throughout the park, boats available to hire on the lake, as well as the world’s largest water cinema, where jets of water are used to create a screen for the film to be projected onto!
Entry to Tang Paradise costs 120RMB (about £15), and you can easily spend a whole afternoon there (or a full day) seeing everything on offer.
Learn history at the Shaanxi Museum
Like the rest of China, Xi’an has a very rich history dating back thousands of years, and the Shaanxi Museum is the perfect place to go to find out more about this province’s past.
Each section of the museum highlights the history of the area by the dynasties that ruled it, with various precious artefacts, treasures and heirlooms on display from the time period, and how it helped to shape the place you see now.
Entry to the museum is free, but tickets are limited to 6,000 per day, half of which are allocated in the morning, and the other half in the afternoon. While that might sound like a lot of tickets, China is a very, very busy country, and so you’ll need to get there incredibly early if you want to get your hands on one. As with most places, remember to bring your passport.
Eat traditional Shaanxi food
Doing all this sightseeing is sure to get your stomach rumbling, but luckily there are not many places where you’ll get a better meal than in China.
With a country full of gastronomes, there’s an overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to eating out, so I’ve put together this separate guide to help you eat like a local in Xi’an.
See the Terracotta Warriors
As one of the most famous attractions in Xi’an, the Terracotta Army is simply unmissable on your trip.
Located on the outskirts of the city, this incredible archaeological site has to been seen to be believed – and even then, you might still be left dumbfounded.
Discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were trying to drill a well, what they helped archaeologists to uncover is a vast burial site believed to measure around 38 square miles, and dating back over 2,000 years. It was constructed for the First Emperor Qin of China who’s buried in a nearby mausoleum, along with over 8,000 life-sized statues of his army in these surrounding pits, in order to help protect him in the afterlife.
Just like the real soldiers, each figure is totally unique, with varying facial expressions, shapes, hairstyles, dressings and weapons depending on their military rank. Along with standing soldiers, there are also statues of kneeling archers, chariots, cavalry horses, and more.
Three pits of statues can be see at the site as well as a museum exhibition, and you can visit everything easily on a day trip from Xi’an with or without a guide.
I’ll be writing up a separate post all about the Terracotta Warriors and how you can see them for yourself, so stay tuned!
Climb Huashan (and the optional plank walk)
Huashan is a sacred Taoist mountain located two hours drive away from Xi’an, and a beautiful place to visit on a day trip if you have the time.
Once accessed only on foot, nowadays a cable car ride will take you up to one of the five peaks where you’re then free to hike along the mountains.
Among the views, religious temples and structures along its peaks, Huashan is also infamous for its ‘skywalk’, a path made up of narrow planks of wood nailed into the side of the mountain. If you dare, you can walk this path with just a harness secured to a chain along the cliff and a strong head for heights. Having had my eyes closed and my head in between my knees just on the cable car ride up, this wasn’t something I’d even contemplated trying, but for the braver ones among us, this might be the thrilling, death-defying experience you’re after!
And there you have it! Are you going to Xi’an China? Let me know if you get to do any of these, of if I’ve missed anything off!