Most people come through Xi’An on their way to visit the Terracotta Warriors. And then something unexpected happens to them. They look around the city and they realise, “Hey, this city is pretty cool!”
I don’t know if this really happens to most people, but it did happen to me. I came ready to brush off Xian as a mere jumping point to other destinations but I ended up enjoying Xi’an so much more than the final destination itself (in this case, the Terracotta Warriors).
If you follow my Instagram Story (if you don’t, you miss out on all the live crazy-ness during my travels) you know that I was loving the city’s vibe, oh I don’t know, about 30 seconds after I got off the overnight train from Beijing. There’s just something about it.
Modern Xian feels very cosmopolitan. Big brand names like Chanel and Gucci line the main street of the old town. But Xian used to be the capital of 13 Chinese dynasties. That means if you’re a history buff, there’s so much more beyond the Terracota Warriors to see in here in Xi’an. The city has a lot of museums, palaces, and temples within the city itself or the surrounding areas.
For me though, Xian’s attractions lie outside the confines of museums and temples.
The Street Food of Muslim Quarter
The Muslim Quarter is without a doubt the best thing to do in Xi’an at night. It truly comes alive in the evening, so go ride a bike on Xi’an City Wall during the day and head over to the Muslim Quarter nice and hungry, I promise you won’t regret it.
I have to warn you though: it can be very overwhelming.
The night market at the Muslim Quarter is a major sensory overload what with screaming street food vendors, beeping motorcycles (why bother driving here?), and don’t forget the crowd, the competing smells, and the lights.
And the food. SO MUCH FOOD! Food I’d never seen before in my life.
There’s a butcher skinning a whole goat hanging off a hook. When I said “butcher”, I meant a 10 year old kid wielding a giant knife.
More Xian specialties to try at the night market include:
Biang Biang Mian, thick and wide noodles, served with hot oil. Really good if you like spicy.
Xiao Lung Pao, soup dumplings (I like the soup dumplings I had in Taipei better). Can be found in one of the sit-down places in the Muslim Quarter.
Yang Rou Pao Mo Mutton Stew thickened with pieces of flatbread, is eaten throughout Shaanxi Province but particularly popular in Xian.
Mung bean cakes, seem to be popular but tastes like eating chalk to me.
Rou Jia Mo (or “Chinese Hamburger” although it looks more like the Chinese version of sloppy joes to me) Basically seasoned meat in buns. Our Chinese friend says it’s a local favorite. Based on the long lines, I totally believe that.
I went to the night market with a couple of people I met at the hostel. Coming as a group and sharing food is the best way to explore a food market. Otherwise, you get so full so quick.
We left the area full from all the food and exhausted from the sensory overload but I convinced everyone to stop for a drink on our way back to the hostel. Google wasn’t much help when it comes to finding a good drinking hole in Xian, but by pure coincidence we stumbled across Xian’s nightlife area right by the South Gate! We stopped by a bar called “The Belgian Bar” where I had my first non-domestic beer in China. I so needed it!
Xi’an See Tang Hostel
I stayed in really nice hostels in Beijing, but the See Tang hostel in Xi’an is probably one of my top favorite hostels ever. It’s located within the city walls right by the South entrance in a quiet alley full of little shops selling calligraphy brushes and paper. Sometime when you booked a place online you never really know what you’ll get despite the reviews.
But when I turned into this alley, I knew I lucked out in terms of location.
There are a lot of artists selling their wares here. Even if you don’t stay in See Tang, this area is worth exploring.
My favorite part about See Tang Hostel is the rooftop seating areas.
They also have really, really good breakfast with real coffee.
The hostel offers a free walking tour (upon demand) of the nearby morning market. I’ve always loved walking tours and I always try to go on one when I arrive in a new city. It’s a great way to get a layout of the place but more importantly it’s often the best way to get a local’s perspective of whatever current or past events in the city.
In this particular example, our guide was an LGBT and women’s right activist and we had some very interesting discussion while enjoying delicious morning snacks and soy milk.
The best way to explore the Xian’s City Wall? By bikes!
Fun fact: The city wall in Xian is the world’s largest city wall. Walking its 14km perimeter would easily take 4-5 hours to complete. With a bike the journey takes about 2 hours including photo stops. There are bike rental booths at each wall entrance and you can return the bikes at any of the booths.
To be honest, the views from the top of the city wall wasn’t the all that great but it was a joy to feel the breeze on your hair on that hot, hot day.
Biking Xian’s city wall made you realise the contrast of the world inside and outside the city wall. Outside the wall there are these skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings. Inside the wall, there are no buildings taller than the wall itself so you can see, when it’s not so muggy, all of Xian’s old town encompassed within the wall. It’s pretty cool.
Tip: there’s zero shade so be generous putting on that sunscreen.
Beautifully Lit Drum Tower and Bell Tower
These towers are impressive enough during the day and being right in the middle of a busy commercial intersections, they’re impossible to miss. But at night, they’re lit up in such a pretty way.
More about these destinations later!
Easy Day Trips From Xian
Like I mentioned, my original intent to visit Xian was to use it as a jumping point for areas of interest around Xian itself. Xian with is a major hub for the region. The train and the bus station are located conveniently next to each other within the city wall.
Xian makes a convenient base to visit nearby attractions like the Terracotta Warrriors, Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, and Huashan’s trails (including the one so-called “world’s deadliest hike” – insert eyeroll here).
Where to sleep: I stayed in See Tang Hostel and highly recommend it for its location and beautiful rooftop area, but rooms can be small. Check out other accommodation options in Xian.
Where to eat: The Muslim Quarter night market. Also, Three Sisters Restaurant. Known for their dumplings, but everything we had there was so good!
Where to drink: Xian nightlife area is located by the South Gate (if you’re at the gate and facing north, it’s going to be on your left along the wall). The Belgian Bar has live music and a decent selection of Belgian beer.
From Beijing to Xian there are many daily trains connecting the 2 cities. I took an overnight train that was comfortable and efficient that arrived in Xian at 7 am. A great way not to waste travel time.
From Xian to Terracota Warriors there are buses leaving almost constantly from the terminal next to the train station (not the terminal across the street).
From Xian to Emperor Jingdi tomb, a taxi there is your best bet. You can take a bus back that will terminate somewhere outside the city wall near a Metro Line 2 stop. From here, jump on the Metro to get back to the old town.
To get around Xian, Bus #610 runs along the main streets of the old town, connecting South Gate and the train station. This is the line tourists will find most useful.