Best things to do in Xian
Find out more about those top places in Xian
Located deep in China’s interior at the point where the country’s densely-populated provinces give way to the vast steppe of Qinghai and the Himalayan foothills of Sichuan, Xi’an is a melting pot of Islamic and Confucian cultures. As the capital of no fewer than eleven dynasties between 1000 BC and 1000 AD, Xi’an has historical sites to rival Beijing. Most visitors come for the world-famous Terracotta Army but stay for the Ming dynasty city walls, Great Mosque and Big Goose Pagoda. As the medieval terminus for the Silk Road, the city was influenced by traders from as far afield as the Middle East. Today, these influences have resulted in the beguiling and bustling Muslim Quarter where ancient mosques are tucked down alleys and the street food combines the best of Central Asia and China.
The Terracotta Army is not just Xian’s most famous attraction – it may even be China’s. Discovered accidentally by villagers drilling a well in 1974, archaeologists eventually dug up thousands of life-sized sculpted warriors and horses that stood guard over the tomb of China’s first unifier, Qin Shi Huang. The attraction is divided into a museum and the three archaeological dig sites, each of which contain hundreds of soldiers. For the best experience take a guided tour, which will help you get to grips with the ancient Chinese world.
The booming metropolis of Xian is situated at the cultural crossroads of the Confucian and Islamic worlds and there is no better demonstration of this than the city’s Great Mosque. Constructed in stops and starts over the last millennia, it is a truly jaw-dropping site that blends Islamic calligraphy and minarets with the ideals and traditions of Confucianism. Guided tours of the complex are available but note that the turquoise-roofed Prayer Hall is closed to casual visitors.
One of Xian’s most enthralling experiences is the four-hour walk around it's remarkably intact 12th century city walls. Encircling the city’s historic core, the walls offer a breathtaking vantage point from which to consider Xian’s history and pass by many world-class attractions, including the colorful Guangren Temple.
Populated by Hui people (non-Uyghur Chinese Muslims), Xian’s Muslim Quarter has a pedigree that stretches back to the times of the Qing Dynasty. Today, the rabbit warren of narrow alleyways is filled with intoxicating smells and unforgettable sites, including many small mosques that date back nearly a millennia. For a taste of traditional Hui cooking, make sure to peruse the stalls of Beiyuanmen.
Formerly at the heart of the Tang Dynasty-era city of Xian, today the Big Goose Pagoda, which was completed in the year 652, sits well south of the historic core amongst the rush of Chinese modernity. Despite this, it remains one of the city’s most impressive landmarks with its gargantuan brick pagoda towering to the same height as surrounding apartment blocks. For the best experience, organized tours from the city center can take you to this jaw-dropping attraction.
Peppering the plains surrounding Xian are numerous imperial tombs, which can be explored with the help of guided tours from the city itself. The most interesting tomb is undoubtedly that of Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor who ruled between 625 and 705, although many others are well worth visiting.
The lone Buddhist temple is Shaanxi Province, Guangren Temple was largely built during the 20th century and is replete with the sense of tranquility and mystery usually associated with Buddhist places of worship. The temple’s highlights are undoubtedly the golden figure of Sakyamuni that sits atop a pedestal from the Tang Dynasty and the Hall of the 1000 Hand Guanyin.