History Museum to the more abstract pleasures of a wander through the Muslim markets.
Xi'an is overflowing with sights, from the big drawcards like the Terracotta Warriors and the
Many lie within the old city walls, which are an attraction in themselves, but if you have enough time there are sights outside the walls, and still more outside the city, from ancient temples, to pandas and holy mountains. Within the city it’s easy enough to walk, cycle or take taxis between the sights, but to get out to the outlying attractions you might want to take a tourist bus or join a tour. They are run by all hotels, with cheaper (and sometimes more adventurous) options run by the hostels.
♥ The Bell Tower
(daily 8:30 am-9:30 pm, 8 am-6 pm Nov 1 to Mar 31; ¥20, or ¥30 for a combination Bell and Drum Tower ticket; tourist bus #5).
Drum and bell towers around the country were used to mark out the time in days of old, but Xi’an’s are the most prominent of any large city and the Bell Tower dominates downtown, stranded in the middle of a large traffic circle. The original tower was located west of its current location in the old city center, but the triple-eaved, 200-foot, two-story tower you see today was built in 1582 under the Ming dynasty and restored in 1792.
Inside the tower you’ll see intricate roof truss work, chime displays and, as you’d expect, a large bronze bell, although this is not the original. The balcony, which runs around the edge of the tower, offers views over the traffic across to the Drum Tower. To get to the Bell Tower you’ll need to take the subterranean passageway that runs under Bei Dajie.
♥ The Drum Tower
(daily 8:30 am-9:30 pm, 8:30 am-6 pm Nov 1 to Mar 31; ¥20, or ¥30 for a combination Bell and Drum Tower ticket; tourist bus #5).
The DrumTower was built at the same time as the original Bell Tower and has remained in place ever since. The enormous drum was used to mark time, and in times of war, to warn citizens of impending
Both the Bell and Drum Towers are illuminated at night, and the Drum Tower offers attractive evening views over the plaza below and on to the Bell Tower.
The tunnel through the center of the tower’s base leads to the Muslim quarter. There are daily drum beatings at 9, 10 and 11 am and 2, 4 and 6 pm.
♥♥♥ The City Walls
(daily , Nov 1 to Mar 31; ¥40).
A wander or a bike ride along Xi’an’s 40-foot-high city walls offers great vistas and, given that the walls are completely flat, it’s a much easier venture than many of the other walls you might ascend in China! From the 500-year-old walls you can see the thronging new city, yet remain comfortably and quietly removed from it all.
You can access the wall from any of the four major gates and can then walk, cycle or take an electric buggy (¥50 for the complete circuit of one hour and 10 mins or ¥5 for any one of the 15 sections). You can see as much or as little of its nine-mile circumference as you want. Guides are available at ¥30 for half the wall, or ¥50 for the whole thing, but there’s little for them to point out beyond a basic introduction.
There are watchtowers on each of the four corners and major gates in the north, south, east and west – the East Gate is worth stopping off at to see the replicas of ancient military contraptions, including a giant catapult.
♥♥ Beilin Stone Tablets Museum
(daily ; ¥45).
While the stelae (stone tablets) are unintelligible to non-Chinese speakers, they are fascinating nonetheless, and the museum’s setting, in a former Confucian Temple, is wonderfully tranquil.
There are over 1,000 stelae spread through several courtyards and halls and you can have rubbings made of some of them. The tablets commemorate everything from the Five Confucian Virtues to historic events such as the arrival of a Nestorian priest in the eighth century, identifiable by the cross at its top, and some are supported by the tortoise-like creature, Bixi, renowned for his enduring strength.
There’s also a collection of small stone posts topped with carvings, which were used to tether animals, but were also symbolic of status. When you’ve seen enough stelae, the pavilions and contorted trees of the courtyards make for a pleasant place to just sit and contemplate.
♥♥♥ Shaanxi History Museum
(daily ; ¥50; buses #610 or tourist bus #5).
A mile northwest of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the History Museum is one of the best in the country and its pavilion-style enclosure houses over 100,000 relics unearthed in Shaanxi. The museum is divided into three key sections – the permanent exhibition halls, an eastern sector that displays temporary exhibits from China and overseas and a themed section containing local Shaanxi cultural relics.
On the lower floor, the Zhou and Shang dynasty bronze vessels steal the show, but there are also weapons and ceramics here. The themed exhibitions include intricate displays of Tang gold, silver and costume and there’s also the chance to see terracotta warriors up-close, a prelude for the thousands more lying in wait near Lintong.
There’s a lot to see here and if you want to take a moment to reflect (or relax) there’s a coffee shop. There are audio headsets and English-speaking guides available. You have to leave your bag at the entrance.
Temples, Pagodas & Mosques
♥♥♥ The Great Mosque
This exquisite blend of Arabic and Chinese architecture was originally constructed in 742 AD and remains a bastion of calm in the thronging streets of the Muslim quarter. To get here, enter the Muslim quarter through the Drum Tower and continue straight on for a couple of hundred yards, after which you’ll see a turn-off to the left lined with souvenir stalls, which is signposted for the mosque.
Turn left again after a few yards, past yet more stalls, and at the end you’ll reach the entrance where you buy your ticket, which includes a pamphlet giving a basic introduction to the mosque.
Pass through the entrance paifang, and into the grounds of the mosque. You’ll soon see a pavilion in front of you, which was actually the original minaret from where the muezzin would perform the call to prayer. Straight ahead of you lies the 1,000-capacity prayer hall. You can look in but not enter the hall.
Note the clock showing the five daily prayer times and the dragon images on the board hanging beneath the eaves – a long way from the Islamic notion that creatures shouldn’t be artistically represented in mosques!
♥ The Eight Immortals Temple
(Baxian An), Changle Lane (; free; bus #300 from the Bell Tower).
Northeast of the city walls, this Taoist temple is still an active place of worship, with monks and nuns in residence. The temple was first built during the Tang dynasty and expanded during the Qing, receiving regular visits from the Empress Dowager Cixi after she fled from Beijing following the Boxer Rebellion.
The Eight Immortals are fundamental to Taoist belief and they are depicted in a dedicated hall. There are stelae pertaining to the religion’s five holy mountains, which include Huashan. On Wednesdays and Sundays there’s a lively antiques market at the entrance to the temple.
♥♥The Little Wild Goose Pagoda, Youyi Xi Lu
(daily , Nov 1 to Mar 31; ¥18, plus ¥10 to climb the pagoda; tourist
Less than a mile south of the South Gate, the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, originally constructed
in the eighth century, is far less popular with tourists than its larger southern counterpart and this is an attraction in itself. Sitting in pretty temple grounds, the honey-colored 130-foot pagoda gracefully rises
up from the bamboo that surrounds it and is very photogenic.
The pagoda was originally built to store Buddhist scriptures brought from India which were translated by the famed monk Yi Jing. The pagoda was originally 15 stories high but was damaged by an earthquake, which lopped off two levels, leaving a jagged top to the otherwise streamlined tower. You can climb the pagoda (¥10), but the staircase is very narrow and the views from the top are pleasant, but not breathtaking.
There’s also a temple here, Jianfu Si, which holds a 10-ton bell dating from the end of the 12th century – its toll can allegedly send out messages to loved ones! In the courtyards you’ll find pretty flowerbeds and a collection of ancient carved stone pillars that were once used to tether animals. To the south there’s a pond crossed by a few arched bridges, but this part of the grounds was undergoing renovation at the time of writing.
♥♥The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xiaozhaidong Lu
(daily , Nov 1 to Mar 31 ; ¥25; bus #606 or tourist bus #5).
Two miles southeast of the city center the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is much more striking than the Little Wild Goose Pagoda and so gets hordes of visitors. The pagoda’s boxy bulk sits in beautiful temple grounds and was originally built in 648 as a fire-proof repository for sacred scriptures translated by the monk Xuanzang.
You can ascend the seven-story, 197-foot pagoda for views over the grounds and square. Inside you’ll find inscriptions made by successful imperial exam candidates who came here in the belief that it would lead to a soaring career. In the large square to the north of the pagoda enclosure you’ll find a visitors center, restaurants and, on the flanks, the new Shaanxi Folk Customs Gardens (west) and the Shaanxi Opera Theme Park (east).
They have an interesting collection of local arts, including papercutting and pottery, although it’s all very Tang Paradise (see below). If you come in the evenings there are sometimes impressive fountain and lights displays in the square.
Tang Paradise (daily ; ¥50; bus #21, #24 & #610).
new tourist construction south of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda offers a glimpse of the splendor of imperial Tang Chang’an, albeit in Disney fashion. The site has become a big attraction with visiting Chinese but, given the proximity of genuine antiquity in Xi’an, it’s only worth a visit after you’ve seen the major historic sights.
The collection of Tang-style buildings is centered around the vast man-made Qujiang Lake and can make for a fun visit, especially with kids. But, despite the incredible attention to detail, it’s just a bit too kitsch to take seriously. There’s a nightly cultural show here.
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