The large city of Xian has seen a lot over the centuries, acting as the capital for a revolving door of different Chinese dynasties. It’s considered one of the most important places to visit in China for historic sightseeing.
Some of the best things to do in Xian include trips to cultural sites and ancient landmarks. Whether it’s craning your neck up at the towering Giant Wild Goose Pagoda or witnessing the scale of the Terra Cotta Army, there’s plenty to see in this interesting Chinese city.
Thanks to its strategic location along the former Silk Road trading route, Xian also has a bustling Muslim corner and centuries-old hot springs. With the economic development of mainland China in the 1990s, the city is full of modern marvels as well.
Not sure where to go? Start planning your vacation with this guide to the best Xian attractions…
What to do in Xian
Explore the world-famous Terracotta Army at the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang
If you want to see one of the grandest archeological sites uncovered, add the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang to your China itinerary. It’s in the Lintong district, a short trip from the city centre.
The famed location of the tomb of an ancient Chinese emperor, the Mausoleum Site Museum is often one of the first things to see in Xian, mostly due to the Terracotta Army.
The tomb has not been excavated due to a lack of funds, but many of the artifacts are on display. As you tour the museum, check out the ancient tools used over 2000 years ago.
The archeological site containing the Terracotta Army is just a short bus trip away. You can view the unearthed pit containing hundreds of life-size sculptures.
Get better views of the city from Bell Tower and Drum Tower
These two towers are among the top tourist attractions in Xian. The Bell Tower stands at the centre of the old city of Xian, directly in line with the four gates through the fortifications. The drum tower is just a couple of blocks away.
As the names suggest, the bell tower houses a bell and the drum tower has a drum. Both towers also include sections that remain off-limits and a few areas open to the public. Browse small museums before reaching the viewing platforms.
From either tower, you get views of Xian, but the Bell Tower offers a better vantage point of the surrounding streets.
Shop the streets of the Muslim Quarter
If you want to know where to go in Xian to find markets and stalls selling local handiworks, visit the Muslim Quarter. Xian was the first city in China that was introduced to Islam and still has a large Muslim population.
The Muslim Quarter is where you’ll find the melding of the local Chinese and Muslim culture. Packed around the narrow alleys and old buildings, you’ll discover endless treasures.
The merchants sell everything from knick knacks to luxury rugs. If you’re hungry, the area also has some of the most interesting cuisines, combining elements of Muslim dishes with Shaanxi cuisine to create unique flavours.
Examine the stele and stone sculptures of the Stele Forest
The Stele Forest is on the list of top points of interest in Xian for art lovers. The “forest” is a museum containing some of the best examples of stele and stone sculptures.
For those unfamiliar with the word, steles are stone monuments. The collection began over a thousand years ago and now includes close to 3,000 steles.
While the collection is interesting to look at, the museum lacks helpful information about the statues. If you don’t already know the history of steles, you won’t find anything useful, but it’s still fun to admire the ornate carvings on the monuments.
Get your culture fix at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
If you’ve only got 24 hours in Xian, make sure you visit the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. The multi-storey temple is over 1300 years old and leans slightly to the west.
It features the typical Tang architecture of the period, with tiered stories that get smaller with each floor. With a total height of 60 metres, you’ll need to crane your neck to see the top.
Inside the pagoda, you can appreciate various murals painted along the interior walls.
After a trip to the giant pagoda, visit another one of the top Xian points of interest – the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.
Soak your tired feet in the hot springs at Huaqing Pool
The hot springs are some of the best places to visit in Xian when you want to relax. Soaking in the warm water is invigorating, and many locals believe that it helps cure diseases.
To avoid soaking with hundreds of other tourists, try to go early in the day. The hot springs are about 25 kilometres from the downtown area and attract throngs of visitors each afternoon.
You could also explore some of the other attractions near the pool. The pool is part of the Huaqing Palace complex, along with a museum, a mausoleum, and several other structures. It also sits at the foot of the mountain, offering access to the hiking trails and vantage points.
Visit the opulent 8th-century Mosque of Xian
For those who want more historic Xian sightseeing destinations, visit the Great Mosque of Xian. Covering over 12,000 square metres, the mosque includes over 20 buildings and five courtyards.
While it’s a mosque, the buildings feature a combination of Chinese and Muslim architecture. As you walk around the complex, you’ll notice the Muslim influences, such as the Arabic writing on the walls and monuments.
Unfortunately, you can’t go inside the prayer hall. The sprawling complex is an active place of worship, so don’t disturb anyone you come across praying. As an active mosque, it’s also a tranquil retreat from the bustling commercial streets nearby.
Get your heart racing with fun rides at Tang Paradise
If you want to know what to do in Xian after you run out of historic destinations, take a trip to Tang Paradise. The large theme park includes modern constructions featuring traditional Tang architecture.
While some people consider the park a tourist trap, it has a few special features. During the day, you can get away from the crowded streets of Xian, as the park isn’t particularly busy.
Each evening, the park puts on a laser light show. It’s a spectacular display featuring video projections on the water, along with fountains, lasers, and lights synced to create a dazzling show.
Where to stay in Xian for sightseeing
Like most large Chinese cities, choosing where to stay in Xian isn’t always so straightforward. Despite the city’s sprawl, however, most travellers should start their search in Xian City Center, particularly the districts of Xincheng and Beilin as they’re within close proximity to many of the top points of interest in Xian. Here are a few ideas to start your accommodations search…
- Campanile Xian Bell Tower Hotel: A contemporary budget-friendly hotel that’s located close to a handful of the city’s top sites for travellers.
- Eastern House Boutique Hotel: A sleek boutique hotel featuring spacious modern rooms within a quick walking distance of many of Xian’s top tourist attractions.
- Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Hotel Xian: One of the top luxury picks in Xian, this elegant hotel charms guests with rooms decorated in classic Euro flair. There’s a handful of fantastic amenities on-site including several restaurants serving Mediterranean, Chinese and Japanese fare, a sauna, spa, and fitness centre.