When looking for things to do in Xi’an, visitors should expect a completely different experience from any other city in China. From its red lantern-lined streets to delicious foods, colorful people, and lively energy, it is truly a world away from the somber and more contained vibe found in the nation’s capital, Beijing. If Beijing is the serious big brother, then Xi’an is its cheeky, more youthful sibling.
So why the difference?
Without the politics of imperial rule being a part of daily life in Beijing in recent centuries, Xi’an’s focus could be directed elsewhere. Historically, business boomed here, not least because it was once a pivot point between East and West; a veritable turnstile through which travelers and merchants passed before journeying along the mysterious and exciting Silk Road; or heading back home with spices, tea, ceramics, and silks in hand. This commercial pedigree is woven into all aspects of Xi’an. Even today the city remains a melting pot of people, culture, traditions, religions, and cuisines. These can be found at the heart of the city where your explorations should start, as well as further afield in other Silk Road destinations sustained over centuries through enterprise, innovation, and resilience.
In modern times, Xi’an’s fate as a must-see city in China was sealed with the discovery of the Terracotta Army by local farmers in 1974. Now at the top of most visitors’ Xi’an bucket list, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s all there is here, but this guide on things to do in Xi’an will set things straight. We have consulted with our trusty local guides on the ground whose love of their city is parallelled only by their enthusiasm of sharing it with you.
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There is no doubt that Xi’an, located in the Shaanxi province, is rich in history, but where to start? Long before Beijing emerged as China’s imperial home, Xi’an took pride of place as the Qin dynasty capital. Yes, there are many big things in China, however, Emperor Qin really set the tone for things with his commissioning of the Terracotta Army and Great Wall. And while the world’s largest underground army may dominate your knowledge of Xi’an now, our guide will open your eyes to an entirely different perspective. Read on to learn more about what this fascinating city has to offer.
When the sun goes down after a day of exploring Xi’an there’s no need to stop the adventure. There are so many things to do in Xi’an at night that the hardest decision you’ll have is what to enjoy first. Here at ChinaTours.com, we are food lovers at heart, but we also love anything handmade, bespoke, and beautiful, so in this section, we share our insider secrets on how to make the very most of Xi’an at night.
Xi'an Night Markets
Night markets in Xi’an have a reputation that extends well beyond the City Wall. In fact, across China, Xi’an’s night markets - which are essentially food markets - are famous. Think of them as havens for a myriad of flavorsome eats that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in China or the world. From flatbreads to simmers, stews, noodles, meat in every form, dumplings, pastries, and desserts, the night markets provide insight into the variety and flavors that is Shaanxi cuisine. But it’s not all food. Anyone searching for curios, travel mementos, and just wants a chance to mix among the locals for a real experience of China, throw on your backpack and make your way to one of Xi'an’s fabulous night markets.
Dongxin Street Night Market
Dongxin Street Night Market is Xi’an’s largest night market and one you definitely want to arrive at hungry. With a history spanning more than three decades, you will find over 200 stalls selling Halal food on one side and other foods, including dried fruit and nuts stalls on the opposite side. Our recommendation? The so-called ‘Three Amazing Things on Dongxin Street’: Chen Family Hui Cai (a type of beef meatball and vegetable stew); Zheng Family stuffed buns or (bao); and Wang Family chicken.
Night Markets in the Muslim Quarter
Located at the center of Xi’an city, the Muslim Quarter is home to over 60,000 local Hui and Han people. Here you will find streets that not only attract tourists from all over the world but local Xi'anese too who are devoted to delicious food and an atmosphere at night that will keep you up well past your regular bedtime. There are several streets in this precinct that should make your list: Beiyuanmen Night Market, Damaishi Street Night Market, Dapiyuan Night Market, and Beiguangji Street Night Market. Expect local people, authentic food, and a memorable culinary experience you’ll carry with you forever.
Sajinqiao Night Market
Sajinqiao Night Market is an 800-meter foodie’s heaven. Whether it’s hidden by design because locals love it so much, or because most travelers don’t know about it, Sajinqiao Night Market is the quintessential food lover’s paradise. Discover time-honored restaurants and stalls selling authentic food only locals know. Be sure to add these Sajinqiao specialties to your order: hot pepper soup hulatang, hot and sour dumpling soup suantang shuijiao, kebab kaorou, and lamb or beef soup with flatbread paomo.
Designed to satisfy the traveler to Xi'an, Yongxing Fang is a showcase of almost every local Shaanxi delicacy; you can quite literally find just about every conceivable local specialty. Located at the Zhong Shan Gate (just north of East Gate), it’s here you can sample a little dramatic art too with the area lit up at night with gorgeous red lanterns. Another point of difference? The buildings at Yongxing Fang are laid out to reflect that of the Tang Dynasty’s ancient capital, providing visitors with a unique window into 108 fang or quarters from over 1,300 years ago.
Xiaonanmen Night Market
Are you a traveler who likes to avoid the ‘madding crowd’? Then Xiaonanmen Night Market is for you. More like a local’s secret hideaway for delicious food, Xiaonanmen Night Market is where you can visit the city’s famous restaurants for hulutou, paomo, peppery chicken, kebab, and stir-fried noodles. Mix with locals when dining and enjoy the many cafes, bars and handicraft shops here too. And if you’re not a night owl, no problem. Locals frequent the market early morning too, which runs from 5.00 am to 9.00 am and supplies locals with their daily essentials.
Regarded as the best place for noodles in Xi’an (no small claim!), Dachejia Xiang is an alley located close to the South Gate of Xi’an City Wall. Discover an abundant choice of different noodles in the restaurants here. From soup noodles to noodles with sauces, braised pork belly with noodles, hot oil noodles, stir-fried noodles, beef noodles, and more. What’s more, you will be blown away by the different types of noodles: Hand-torn noodles, thin but al dente noodles, hand-pulled thick noodle ‘pieces’, extra wide ‘belt’ noodles, and rice noodles. And if noodles are not your thing, don’t despair. There are many other tasty foods available here. Dishes like boiled meatball soup with vegetables, dumplings, hulatang, skewers, malatang, and smoked meat with flatbread are popular choices with locals. Simply follow their lead for a delicious meal, day or night.
Shows and Concerts in Xi'an
Food isn’t all there is to enjoy in Xi’an. While visiting, make it your mission to enjoy a show or two. This is the perfect way to learn a little about Chinese and local Shaanxi culture and history. Expect theatrical drama with no shortage of conspiracies, betrayal, and thwarted love and performances steeped in an appreciation of the rich history that is China.
Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show
Even local Chinese people have difficulty navigating their way through the various dynasties and their dramas, but the Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show will clear things up for one dynasty at least. Now considered Xi’an’s premier tourism product, the show was first launched in September 1982. Experience the Tang Dynasty Music and Dance Show at the Tang Dynasty Palace, or the Shaanxi Grand Opera House.
Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Chang Hen Ge)
Although its title may cause you to question buying a ticket, for an experience of what is really a uniquely Chinese performance style - the seriously big outdoor performance spectacle - you can’t go past Song of Everlasting Sorrow when visiting Xi’an. Performed on the site of the original Tang dynasty’s Huangqing Palace in Lintong (30 kilometers from Xi’an), the 70-minute historical dance drama is a reproduction based on the literary masterpiece Chang Hen Ge composed by the famous poet Bai Juyi. The story is based on the romance between Emperor Tang Xuanzong and his favorite concubine, Lady Yang Yuhuan.
Chang’an Impression - also referred to auspiciously as the Tang Dynasty Grand Welcoming Ceremony - is a fascinating performance held at the South City Gate of the Xi’an City Wall. Involving over 300 performers, the show tells the story of the Tang dynasty over five acts. Elaborate costumes, amazing lighting, and a sense of occasion will certainly leave an impression just as its name suggests.
Light Shows and Other Performances
More than their love of evening light shows, the Chinese love sharing their love of light shows, so it just seems right to include one among the things you’ll do while visiting Xi’an, where there is even a dedicated venue for them, namely Datang Everbright City, a 2,100-meter long pedestrian mall. By night, the mall is repurposed as a venue to showcase traditional Chinese art, including poetry reading, dance, float, the famous roly-poly performance, folk customs, and much more.
Sights by Night
Part of Xi’an’s appeal is the fact you can enjoy as much of the city by night as you can by day. Some would argue it’s even more enjoyable after the sun goes down and it’s hard to disagree when Xi’an lights up after dark. If you decide to step out at night, make sure you have the following sights on your list.
Bell Tower and Drum Tower
Regarded as the city’s breathing heart, the Bell Tower and Drum Tower will not disappoint if you catch them at night. Lit up stunningly, come prepared to take loads of photos.
North Square of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Catch the daily musical fountain and light show here; the largest in Asia.
Datang Everbright City
Using the Tang dynasty as its backdrop, this corner of Xi’an is a one-stop destination for dining, shopping, entertainment, leisure, sightseeing, and commerce.
City Wall and South Gate
Visit the Xi’an City Wall and South Gate at night and enjoy an altogether completely different experience from its daytime appearance. Photo opportunities abound.