When Joshua and I booked our trip to Xi’An we honestly had no idea what to do or see apart from the Terracotta Army. Yet Xi’an is a vast city and a central city to the province of Shaanxi in Central China and it is known for its great historical significance in China. It is a major endpoint of the Eastern Silk road. It was home to many ruling dynasties of Ancient China. The first emperor of China is buried in this city and the city is home to the famous Terracotta Army. But what to so in Xi’An? What other things to visit except for the Terracotta Army?
One of the most famous sites in Xi’An is the Terracotta Army. Most people travel to Xi’An solely to see the Terracotta Army.
The army belonged to the first emperor of ancient China, Qin Shi Huang. The site consists of three pits which hold awe-inspiring sites of funerary art.
The army was buried along with their emperor. There are more than a thousand warriors of the terracotta army still buried. Archeologists are trying to find ways to unearth the terracotta warriors without damaging them before uncovering the statues in a bid to preserve the army as best as possible. One of the amazing things about the Terracotta Army is that each soldier has different facial expressions and specific characteristics.
We took the bus from Xi’An station to the Terracotta Warriors. Although taking the bus was cheap, I can imagine it can be quite daunting and hard for people who do not speak Chinese or have lived in China long enough to know how public transport works. There are busses for tourists that leave at Xi’An Central Station but you will pay a massive premium when hopping onto one of these. It is best to book your tour with pickup beforehand.
How long will you need at the Terracotta Army? About half a day to get there, walk around and get back. At the end of the park there are numerous shops and places to eat. If you are using public transport make sure to go early to avoid the rush coming back.
2. Ride a bike on the Xi An City Wall
The city wall is an extensively brick wall that was used as an army defense. Many of these ancient sites collectively form the fortifications of the province. The first wall of Xi’an was mentioned in the second century BC but the wall we know and see today is a fairly recent construction.
The wall is built in a rectangular fashion and is 14 kilometers long. The wall was built with watchtowers, corner towers, parapet walls, and gate towers. The wall is 12 meters high and 12 to 14 meters wide.
On top of the wall, you can easily rent a bike. This is the best and most fun way to circumvent the wall. Renting a bike costs about $10 or $13 for a tandem. The bikes are not very comfortable – especially when you are tall, but there are plenty of points where you can stop. The view from the wall is breathtaking. You bike past parks and temples. You can even visit the gatehouses on top of the wall. They are not incredibly interesting, but the view is great.
Along the wall, you will find a few little shops where you can buy water and snacks. It can, however, still take quite a long time to get there. that is why it is important to take a large bottle of water with you on the bike trip, especially when visiting in summer.
Are you a foodie? Then you should not miss the Xi’an muslim quarter. This lively set of streets has many stalls selling delicious local dishes. Food in the province is very different from that in other parts of China. They use, for instance, masala to spice their dishes. The masala in China was almost identical to the masala we had in Nepal.
The Muslim Quarter is located in the middle of the city by the Drum and Bell tower. It is a very lively street and you can easily spend a few hours perusing through the streets, buying food, looking at how the food is made and drinking freshly made juices.
What you definitely need to try is the squid. You can buy it roasted or roasted in masala spices. You should also try the bao bao noodles as they are typical of the region.
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most famous Xi’an landmarks. This large pagoda was constructed around the 7th century and was the highest building in China of its time. You can enter this important Buddhist landmark and climb the stairs inside. You will get an amazing view over the city from the windows located on all 4 sites. The pagoda is now 60 metres high but stood 80 metres high after it was built. The first structure on this site was made from the rammed earth and an exterior brick coating. However, this structure partly collapsed during a violent earthquake and was rebuilt into the pagoda during the Zetian dynasty.
Another Earthquake in the 15th century caused a lot of damage to the upper three stories and reduced the entire structure to just 5 stories.
You can now visit the temples around the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and climb the pagoda itself. You will need a combo ticket if you want to do both: a ticket for the grounds and one for the pagoda.
Xi’an is very proud of the fact it was the capital of the Tang Dynasty empire. In fact: The Tang Dynasty built an impressive palace in Xi’an. The famous Forbidden City was modeled after this legendary palace. Now you can watch the Xi’an Tang Dynasty show to get an idea of the culture and historical significance of the Tang Dynasty.
The Tang Dynasty Show is a spectacular performance of dance and music that recalls the Tang Dynasty history through performance. This performance attracts many tourists from around China and indeed the globe. Actors and dancers are all dressed in beautiful and colourful clothes modelled after the historical and cultural clothing of Xi’an. If you want to watch a theatre show in Xi’an, let it be the Tang Dynasty Show!
Mount Hua is a famous mountain site located around 12 kilometers East of Xi’an. This mountain is renowned for its religious significance. It was recently chosen as one of the five best mountains to visit in China. It is the part of the Qin mountain ranges.
The history of this peak is more interesting than the peak itself. It was around 2nd Century BC. The Taoists, followers of the great Chinese legend Tao believed that the God of the underworld dwelt at this mountain. A temple was built at the base of the mountain where mediums and people who supposedly spoke with the dead helped people to make contact with their deceased loved ones.
Now Mount Hua is the place to be for thrill-seekers! Now you can follow steep and narrow mountain paths and be astonished by the beautiful panoramic sights!
7. Visit the drum and bell tower
Many Chinese cities have Drum and Bell towers. This is also the case for Xi’an. Xi’ans Drum Tower and Bell Tower were built in the 14th century. The Bell Tower had a huge bell that was rung at sunrise, while the Drum Tower announced that the sun was setting. The bells were also sounded when the city was attacked from outside. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) many cities were provided with this kind of “sister towers”.
The Drum Tower is located right in the center of Xi’an, on the edge of the Muslim Quarter. You can climb the tower and listen to the music show inside, but the tower is also impressive to behold from the outside. Especially if the building is fully illuminated at night.
The Bell Tower was originally right next to its partner but was relocated in 1582 two blocks away on a traffic square. You can enter the Bell Tower via the metro station underneath the traffic square.
8. Visit the Shaanxi History Museum
The Shaanxi History Museum is located outside the city walls. Various archaeological finds from the province are exhibited in this museum. The museum is actually very interesting mainly because it is quite interactive. The artefacts and information is displayed chronologically which gives you an in-depth understanding of the history in Shaanxi. The highlight of the museums is the nine terracotta soldiers and four terracotta horses that are exhibited here without glass around them. Admission to the museum is free until 2PM if you can show your passport.
9. Walk in the footsteps of the emperor at Daming Palace National Heritage Park
Josh and I came across this park when we were looking for things to do around Xi’an. Daming Palace National Heritage Park is the site where the old Tang Dynasty palace stood. It is now made into a beautiful and vast park the size of Central Park in New York.
The park is divided into 2 parts: one part is free to enter and one part you need to pay to get in but it contains the ruins (more like foundations) of the old palace. The park is quite vast and there are not a whole lot of cafes and little shops around so I would recommend bringing a bottle of water with you, especially in summer. The park also contains a very cute maquette of what the palace would have looked like and it honestly is impressive…
10. Marvel at The Great Mosque in the muslim quarter
Xi’an was the final stop of the famous Silk Road, the link between Asia, the Arab countries & Europe. Islamic traders introduced Islam in the city and many settled in Xi’an. The mosque of Xi’an (The Great Mosque) is one of the largest and most important mosques in China. Unique to the mosque is that the design is a mix of Chinese and Islamic influences. Outside the Great Mosque you will also find little winding streets with vendors trying to pawn off tourist tat. It is actually quite fun to walk around in the are.