Xi’an in Shaanxi Province is one of China’s most interesting cities, and a mixing bowl of old-fashioned and modern city life. I’ve been there twice, now, and these are my top 10 things to do in Xi’an! These can be divided into “touristy” things and “local” things, to give you a flavor of some of the more authentic things you can do here.
Some of these are things you can do in other cities in China, too, but if you’re in Xi’an there are excellent versions of some things they have in other parts of China, as well as the big tourist staples such as the walls and drum and bell towers which is probably what you came to the city to see, along with the Terracotta Army.
1. The drum and bell towers
These are a really spectacular sight right in the centre of Xi’an, so really easy to get to. You probably heard all about them already but if not, here’s what you need to know:
Almost 40m high, the bell tower was built in 1384 in the Ming Dynasty and is one of Xi’an’s most recognizable landmarks. It was originally in a different location, but in 1582, the Shaanxi local government ordered it to be taken apart, piece by piece, and rebuilt exactly as it was but in the place where you can find it today. The bell tower contains several Tang dynasty bells as well as the Jingyun bell.
2. The underground walkways
Beneath the bell tower is the biggest underpass I ever saw. It goes between the metro system, the towers, the shopping malls and the roads. During the Boat Festival, it was so busy, they had police officers doing crowd control! It was literally like being carried along in a tide of people.
You can get to them by taking the Xi’an Metro to the bell tower then following the subterranean passageways to your heart’s content.
3. The Terracotta Army Museum
This is not technically in Xi’an, it’s about a 60 minute taxi ride. It made me feel all cultured and historical. The place is absolutely crammed with Chinese tourists who will elbow, shove and barge through you. It’s glorious! Respect the one way system inside the big buildings full of warriors, and don’t get mad at middle-aged Chinese grandmas when they elbow you in the ribs; they do it to everyone.
You can get here by taking a taxi (use the Didi app if you’re living in China or the Uber app if you’re a tourist, or get your hotel to book you a taxi). There is no train here. When you leave, there are a ton of Chinese taxi drivers waiting to give you a ride home, just have your hotel’s address card handy in Mandarin so they know where to drive you.
4. Walk the historic city walls.
I did this walk on my first trip to China and it was excellent and made me feel all historical and cultured.
This is a fun thing to do if you are not pregnant. You will get fantastic views of the city. Give it a miss if you are 6 or more months pregnant because there are serious steps to get onto the walls and breathlessness, loose joints and swollen ankles in 35 degree July heat is not funny.
There is at least one shop selling drinks up there and you can hire bikes to cycle around if walking isn’t your thing. Just be aware there are a LOT of reckless American tourists going around on their bikes shouting and having no consideration for other people. Don’t be that guy.
5. Go past a hospital.
You will see a fascinating slice of local life as you walk past any of the traditional Chinese medicine hospitals. On the footpaths between the hospital and the city walls, elderly people walk around following rituals. I saw some people walking backwards, while others were thumping themselves or clapping. I’m not entirely sure what they were doing but it was an experience. I didn’t take any photos as it seemed inappropriate. This is a pregnancy-friendly activity.
6. See the light show and artistic features at Starry Street mall.
The malls in China are stunning, and Xi’an has some really beautiful ones.
This one has two parts, a long thin section (which is the official Starry Street mall) and across the way, a ginormous mall, much of which is underground. It has this water mist that gets dropped down from the top of the covered walkway and they project patterns onto it with lights. It’s amazing. And there’s a reading corner, some modern art sculptures, and some really good eateries. Well worth a trip if you’re nearby. There’s also a Godiva if you’re peckish for expensive chocolates and there’s a Bread Talk if you want to enjoy authentic Chinese baked goods from a clean, reputable chain store; I recommend the Hello Kitty cake for utter creamy decadence or the donuts for a taste of really good sugary fluffy deliciousness. Pregnancy-friendly especially for those eating for two!
7. Visit the little amusement park for kids
If you have kids, there’s also a mini amusement park outside that mall, in a pedestrianized area. I’m not sure if that was permanent or whether it was only there when we visited the first time, as there’s so much to see and do in Xi’an, we went to a different part of the city for our second visit.
8. Go to one of the many parks.
I especially liked Xi’an Huancheng Park which is a long thin one running north to south alongside the western walls, the Children’s Park, which is near the Xi’an Children’s hospital complex. The Revolution Park, near West 5th Road, one of the main roads in the city centre. The Daming Palace National Heritage Park is also ginormous and well worth a visit.
9. See the terrarium shop at Ocean Towers mall on FengCheng Second Road.
This is really hard to find because it’s not marked properly on Google but in real life it’s the shopping mall next to the Marriott Xi’an North (which is not where it claims to be on Google maps, but is exactly where it claims on Apple maps, another reason to use Apple maps in Xi’an). Oh, my, goodness, if you can find it, you absolutely have to see the terrarium shop, it sells terraria like nothing you have ever seen before. Basically, some artistic masters have created miniature ecosystems complete with rockeries, waterfalls, bonsai trees, plant life and ponds with tiny living fish in them. If I hadn’t been moving away from China four weeks after my last trip to Xi’an, I would have bought one and had it shipped to our apartment in Changzhou for sure! The children’s bookshop on the top floor of this mall is fabulous, too. Pregnancy-friendly activity.
10. Grab some street food on Muslim Street… maybe.
This is last on my list for very good reason as I have a controversial opinion on it compared to other westerners. Lately, this has become so touristy, and the food hygiene is not good.
Everyone I know who ate there in the past year was stuck on the loo for days, and you cannot readily get Imodium (loperamide) in Xi’An (although they will sell you creosote tablets at most of the traditional Chinese pharmacies… they were sort of effective, but not as good as Imodium).
Avoid eating anything here if you are pregnant or otherwise delicate of digestion. Severe diarrhea can cause miscarriage.
But do go there to soak up the atmosphere and buy cheap non-food souvenirs in the side streets; even if you’re eighty, this area will make you feel like a twenty-year-old backpacker when you walk down the street.
For excellent and authentic modern Chinese dining, choose one of the fantastic restaurants in a shopping mall instead (I 10/10 recommend the eateries in Starry Street mall), which is how all the locals eat. Don’t make the mistake of thinking because the customers at the stalls in Muslim Street are all Chinese, that they are locals. China is a huge, beautiful country with a lot to see, the Chinese year offers a lot of time off for holidays and hardworking Chinese residents love nothing better than a good staycation.
And a few things I wish I’d had time to see:
- The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
- Little Goose Pagoda and Gardens
- Tang West Market Museum in Datang Xishi (on Xishi Bei Luo, which on Google maps is half-translated to Xishi North Street).
- Shaanxi TV tower, because it looks a lot like the Shanghai pearl tower.
- Shaanxi History museum beside the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
- Tang Paradise Gardens around the corner from the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
- Qu Jiang Chi Yi Zhi Gong Yuan (aka Quijiang Chi Relic Park), just below Tang Paradise Gardens (see a potential entire travel day you could spend in this area? I got quite bad asthma during my last 3 months in China as I was heavily pregnant and the pollution disagreed with me so I was not up to walking very far and had to miss out on this amazing part of Xi’an on our second visit).
We spent a total of 10 days in Xi’an across two visits, and it wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of what this fab city has to offer, and yet we saw very few westerners beyond the main sites, whisked between the big tourist attractions by buses! This is one city that’s crying out for off-the-beaten-track independent exploration adventure travel and like all of China, it’s a very safe city, although some people are very surprised to see westerners walking around because most just go on coach tours and never see the real China! Go there and walk around, taking in the surroundings and seeing what modern Chinese city life is really like.
Have you been to Xi’an? Did you see any of the things on my wish list? Let me know in the comments!