Located in Shaanxi province, in an area once described as the "Nation of Heaven", Xi'an is home to one of the most important archaeological discoveries of our time and is a city with fantastically rich culture, history, and a cuisine to match! A magnificent City Wall still encircles the city center, echoing times passed, and the streets are bustling with activity.
Xi'an is home to one of China's most vibrant Muslim communities, and within the City Walls, you will find the Muslim Quarter, alive with the scent of delicious local food with strong Islamic influence. Here you can visit the famous Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Ming dynasty Bell and Drum Towers.
As a major tourist destination, Xi'an boasts one of China's most connected airports, with daily flights to several international and most domestic destinations. Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is located around 41 kilometers from the city center, near the city of Xianyang. Alternatively, there are frequent trains to most major domestic destinations from Xi’an Railway Station and Xi'an North Station (high-speed trains only), as detailed below.
Beijing: Xi'an is roughly 2 hours from Beijing by direct flight. The high-speed train covers the 300km distance between the cities in around 5 hours.
Shanghai: A direct flight from Shanghai will take around 2 hours 45 minutes. Alternatively, an overnight sleeper train will take between 15-22 hours (price dependent).
Guangzhou: Direct flights from Guangzhou take around 3 hours. The overnight sleeper train takes around 26 hours.
Chengdu: The overnight sleeper train from Chengdu takes roughly 16 hours 30 minutes.
Shaanxi province was the domain of the Qin dynasty, the first that sought to unite China. The Qin made Xi'an their capital.
The city lies in the Guanzhong plain, a place famously described as "belonging to the nation of Heaven". Once the location of the beginning and end of the Silk Road, the first Imperial capital of China found fame long before the establishment of Beijing. The city has been the site of human settlements for at least 6,000 years and this distant past can be seen preserved in the settlement of Banpo, situated east of the walled city. It is these strong historical links coupled with the connection to the Silk Road that makes Xi'an a historically rich location boasting a unique combination of religion and culture. This blend of religion and culture is reflected in its landmarks. You will find traces of dynasties evidenced in the Terracotta Warriors, the old City Walls, and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, and a stroll through the streets of the Muslim Quarter will leave you both gastronomically and culturally fulfilled.
Xi'an has a three-line metro system that can be used to navigate between all tourist attractions. In addition, there are a large number of public bus routes, with the most convenient being the 610 departing from Xi'an Railway Station and passing several of the major sites.
Terracotta Warriors: The main attraction of Xi'an is undoubtedly the Terracotta Army and with good reason. The greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, Emperor Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum is also the final resting place of around 8,000 terracotta warriors who have been guarding his resting place for over 2,000 years. Discovered by fortunate accident in 1974, the incredible preparation the Emperor undertook for the afterlife is awe-inspiring, resulting in this fascinating army in which no two of the warriors are the same.
Located 35 kilometers east of the city, the site that houses the warriors is very accessible by public transport: simply take Tourism Bus 5 (306), departing from the east side of Xi'an railway station. Entrance costs 150 CNY (Mar-Nov) and 120 CNY (Dec-Feb). The ticket also includes entrance to Qin Shi Huang's tomb — not yet excavated, the site is around 3km from the Terracotta Army and can be reached by Bus 306.
Old City Wall: The large wall that encircles the city center is another unmissable sight, dating back to the Ming dynasty. The wall stands 12m high and is 14km in length. The old City Wall is one of the few in the Middle Kingdom that remain standing and restorations mean that you can traverse its entirety by foot or bicycle. Walking will take around 4 hours, while bicycles are available to rent from the South Gate of the Wall.
Muslim Quarter: Xi'an's Muslim Quarter is a testament to the city's rich blend of religion and culture. Located within the City Wall, north of the Drum Tower, it is home to the city's Chinese-Muslim (Hui) community. The Great Mosque that lies close to the area is one of the largest in China and boasts a delicate blend of traditional Chinese and Islamic architectural traits. Admission to the mosque varies seasonally from 15 CNY (off-peak season Dec-Feb) to 25 CNY (peak season Mar-Nov).
Bell Tower and Drum Tower: The city center also plays host to the Bell and Drum Towers. Used respectively to signal dawn and nightfall, the two towers date back to the 14th century (both were rebuilt in the 1700s). A combined ticket to the two will also grant you access to the musical performances held six times a day inside the Bell Tower.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda: Among the city's many historic temples and towers is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Arguably Xi'an's most noticeable landmark, it dominates the skyline in juxtaposition with its modern surroundings. The pagoda dates back to the Tang dynasty, who also made Xi'an their capital. You can reach the temple on the 610 bus.
If you are on a tight schedule and want to experience the best Xi'an has to offer, the five sites mentioned above should be at the top of your list. Rise early to visit the Terracotta Army (the site opens at 8.30am and the journey is roughly an hour) and make use of the 610 bus as it will take you from the Bell Tower to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
Museums: If you have longer to spend in the city, don't miss the opportunity to visit the Forest of Stelae Museum, located nearby the South Gate of the City Walls, whose sculpture gallery is home to an impressive collection of artifacts from the Tang dynasty. There is also the impressive Xi'an museum, which has a replica model of ancient Xi'an.
Natural: If you are keen to explore the nature surrounding the "Nation of Heaven" you can visit Huaqing Hot Spring and from there hike to the Taoist temple found on Black Horse Mountain — taking the cable car down if needed on your return. The buses running from the city center to the Terracotta Army stop at this site.
While the sites around Xi'an are breathtaking, Shaanxi cuisine is an attraction in and of itself. Many cultures have contributed to the shaping of the dishes you will find in Xi'an and top on the list for any foodie visiting the city should be a trip to the Muslim Quarter - especially for those fond of spices and succulent lamb. All of the food is simply delicious but you should keep an eye out for the dishes below in particular:
Suantang shuijiao: Trying these hot and sour soup dumplings is a must while you are in Shaanxi. The dumplings are made with mutton, diced leek, and sesame, as opposed to the pork that is common throughout the rest of China.
Roujiamo: Xi'an's answer to the burger, this dish of braised meat and leavened bread dates back further than its western counterpart and is arguably more delicious. Often paired with liangpi (cold noodles), this is a classic duo. Find the best lamb and beef roujiamo in the Muslim Quarter (they are a great portable snack to enjoy while you're walking around, too!).
Paomo: The quintessential Xi'an dish, paomo is unleavened flatbread soaked in rich mutton soup. A tear-it-yourself approach to the bread means paomo is a unique, hands-on, and delicious experience.
Biangbiang Noodles: As well as being delicious, biangbiang noodles are famous for having the most complex character in Chinese (made up of 53 strokes) in their name. Biangbiang noodles are incredibly thick and long, with just one giant noodle sometimes being served in each bowl! This dish can also be found in the Muslim Quarter at Lou beilou Fanzhuang.
Outside of the Muslim Quarter, Dongmutou Shi has a good selection of restaurants.
Evenings in Xi'an offer many diversions, whether that's wandering the lively streets, taking in a show or relaxing at one of the city's many watering holes.
Shows: The Tang Dynasty or Shaanxi Grand Opera House dinner shows are both great options. Both boast traditional music and dance with tickets available including or excluding dinner. Shaanxi is the cheaper alternative, while Tang Dynasty is definitely the more extravagant. You can also watch the daily fountain and music show located in Big Wild Goose Pagoda Square (times vary seasonally between 8/9pm).
Bars and Clubs: The city has a great nightlife scene, with most of the bars located on Defu Xiang (close to the South Gate). If you want to listen to live music, look for Moonkey Music Bar. For true night owls, the clubs can be found on or around Nandajie, one of the most popular of these being 1+1.
Climate: Pleasantly warm temperatures make April and May an ideal time of year to visit Xi'an, although the city may be crowded. To avoid the rain but still enjoy some warmth, try to plan your visit around September/ October.
Festivals: Mid-autumn festival occurs on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (usually in the first half of September). October sees Kurban Bairam, a four-day festival of sacrifice that takes place in all of China's Muslim communities.