The Perfect Weekend in Xi’an

Xi’an is the historical heart of China. Walk along the Old City Wall, and imagine yourself in the Tang Dynasty. The city feels especially enchanted when the lanterns light up and street musicians play traditional music on street corners. Xi’an’s food is enough to win over the most reluctant visitor: biang biang noodles, a regional specialty, and street food in the Muslim Quarter, and all the sweet desserts.

127 E 1st Rd
Muslim noodle restaurants are ubiquitous all over China, but Xi’an, with its large Muslim population, has a far better class of them. Most restaurants have photos of the various dishes on the wall, and all you have to do is point. My personal favorite is 面片, which translates as “noodle flakes.” The chef has a clump of dough and flicks thin slices of noodle off into boiling water. At Lanzhou Muslim Traditional Beef Stretched Noodles I like the noodle flakes with beef and potato gravy, but the options for toppings are endless.
China, Shaanxi, Xian Shi, Yanta Qu, GaoXin ShangQuan, 高新区科技路徐家庄附近(近白沙路) 邮政编码: 710065
Delhi Darbar is an excellent Indian restaurant in Xi’an. I usually order palak paneer and malai kofta when trying a new Indian restaurant, because unlike curries, it’s really hard to make these without fresh ingredients. (In China, you either need to make your own paneer or serve something with shelf-stable cheese in it.) The dishes were perhaps a bit bland and safe, but they unambiguously passed the quality test. We also had some veggie raita and garlic naan, both of which were highly delicious. We knew this place was legit when we asked for some pickles and they brought us a half-full jar of imported spicy Indian pickles.
Xingshansi W St
There’s a little bar area south of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, two blocks east of the Westin. The bar scene in Xi’an isn’t as boisterous, by Western standards, as in other cities. That being said, if you’re in the area and want a beer, this is a good place. There’s the Lan Kwai Fong bar, Emi Club, and the Blue Lotus to try, and lots of outdoors vendors and street food help make for a fun night.
This is a great little market directly across the street from the Westin and south of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. It’s oriented towards visitors and tourists, so there are lots of cheap souvenirs. However, there are also plenty of cool, locally handmade things like fabrics and carved statuettes.
1 Ci'en Rd, QuJiang ShangQuan, Yanta Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a very cool historical site to visit in Xi’an. It was built in the seventh century to house Buddhist scriptures, statues, and other relics that were brought back to China by the Buddhist scholar and traveler Xuanzang. Extended, rebuilt, and renovated over the years, the pagoda currently leans noticeably to the side. There is an interesting legend about how the pagoda got its name. A group of Buddhist monks had no meat to eat (then, as now, not all Buddhists were vegetarian). As some wild geese flew overhead, one monk hoped that the Bodhisattva would provide some meat—at which point, the front goose fell to the ground. The monks believed this was a sign that they should be more pious. They decided to give up eating meat, and established a pagoda at the point where the goose had fallen. Visitors can pay to climb to the top of the pagoda. We took a pass on the day we were there because there were so many tourists waiting to buy tickets, but the view from the top is said to be excellent.
Shuyuanmen Pedestrian St, ZhongLou ShangQuan, Beilin Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710001
Xian’s art district is called Shuyuanmen, 书院门, and there are some local artists here that sell paper cut art. Paper cutting began as a major art form in Xi’an around the seventh century, which was the city’s heyday. People in China place cut paper on their windows and doors to celebrate various auspicious events. For a wedding, red paper cuttings are traditional and are required as decorations for the service. A big red paper character, 喜喜, (double happiness) is crazy-popular for newlyweds. The little stands on the street in Shuyuanmen are probably selling mass-produced paper cut art, so be sure to haggle. Don’t pay a lot unless you see the master at work.
1 Ci'en Rd, QuJiang ShangQuan, Yanta Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China
Northern China has some of the most amazing tasting yogurts. Since we don’t have any decent yogurt in Shenzhen, I pig out every time I go north. Stalls and shops around Xi’an sell really cool drinking yogurts. This stall was on the west side of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. The yogurt was perfectly tasty, though the best bit about it was the glass jars.
Ci'en West Road
The Underground Palace is one of the strangest places I have ever visited. We stumbled upon it by chance while wandering along the west side of the wall around the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. Despite not knowing what it was, we bought tickets and went in. The first part was a very long hallway lined with old Chinese paintings under glass. We reached a fork and turned right, heading down more creepy tunnels with stone walls and old carpeting. Displayed along the hallway were relics collected by Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who traveled the world in the seventh century. Everything was labeled in Chinese, including photos of mummies. There were only a few other people around, which is a very odd feeling in China. At the end of the tunnel was a shrine/temple. We doubled back and took the other tunnel. First, there were funhouse mirrors. This tunnel was even weirder and creepier than the others, because every 50 meters or so there was a little alcove. One alcove had an erotic exhibition that you had to pay to enter; we didn’t go in. Another was dark, with mirrors. I got scared and my friend and I started screaming, and then the two other female tourists down here started screaming. What can I say? A dark tunnel with mirrors deep underground is really scary! Another alcove had what looked like a tombstone exhibition. There was a sign that said we were 1,370 meters below ground. I loved this, whatever it was. Definitely a must-visit.
China, Shaanxi, Xian Shi, Yanta Qu, GaoXin ShangQuan, 高新一路 邮政编码: 710065
This is a slightly odd place. It’s in the middle of a commercial area, with no restaurants in sight. If you get to the right block, it’s actually behind a large building. You have to knock and be let in like a speakeasy. Once inside, it’s a pretty normal expat locale. The first floor is a Spanish restaurant, supposedly with one of the only wood-burning pizza ovens in Xi’an. Downstairs is the real Green Molly, an Irish pub. You can also order food here. The pizza was disappointing, but the Caprese salad and potato skins were outrageously good. Green Molly is 200 meters north of Ginwa Shopping Center on the intersection of Gaoxin Road and Keji Road. It is behind the GAOKE building.
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
There are a number of old neighborhoods in Xi’an that are lovely to explore on foot, especially between the Bell Tower and the Great Mosque, and west of the South Gate. Wandering around, you’ll see old houses and stumble upon amazing stonework and doorways—such as this one we found that leads into a temple.
China, Shaanxi, Xian Shi, Weiyang Qu, 范家南村54号 邮政编码: 710016
The Muslim Quarter of Xi’an is famous for its vendors of dried fruits and nuts. These aren’t just any old packs of nuts. They are of the finest quality, selected and dried by hand. A pound of shelled walnuts goes for the equivalent of around $10.
80 Nanyuanmen, ZhongLou ShangQuan, Beilin Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710001
You can’t talk about Xi’an without talking about biangbiang noodles, a unique Shaanxi food. The character for biang is one of the most complex among noodles, and is achieved by kneading the dough 58 strokes. With all the hype about the giant character, I was expecting the noodles to be a bit of a let-down—oh, was I wonderfully wrong! The noodles are huge, practically long lasagna sheets. The sauce reminded us of a kind of thick minestrone soup: tomato, flakes of slow-cooked lamb, and fresh herbs. It’s such a cheap, hearty, and delicious meal—I would eat this every day if I lived in Xi’an.
The story of the Emperor Qin reads something like Game of Thrones, with hostages, feuding brothers, wars, and the ultimate unification and creation of what we know as China today. Wanting to protect himself in the afterlife, Emperor Qin created an army of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses made of terra-cotta. The first lineup of soldiers were said to be the “Dare to Die” soldiers as they were quick and sharp like a knife. They wore less armor than the rest of the warriors. This is one of the most massive archaeological finds on the planet and is found an hour outside of Xi’an China. Restoring the warriors was like putting together a complex puzzle— it’s really amazing to see how meticulously everything was recreated.
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
Want to know more about Taoism? About 70km west of Xi’an, in Tayu Village, is the Louguantai Temple, where it’s said that Lao Tze, the founder of Taoism, wrote the Tao Te Ching and set the fundamentals for the religion. Built over two thousand years ago, the temple is located within a park, with numerous structures inside, and a statue of Lao Tze nestles among beautiful greenery, so expect so spend a day—if not more—wandering around to take it all in.
91 Xiaozhai East Road
Built in the grand architectural style of the Tang Dynasty, the huge Shaanxi History Museum offers a comprehensive overview of the history of the ancient capital. The museum houses over 370,000 precious relics unearthed in Shaanxi Province. Highlights include sculptures of the twelve Chinese zodiac figures, murals depicting a polo match, and four original terracotta warrior statues.
Huajue Alley, Bei Yuan Men Xiao Chi Yi Tiao Jie, Lianhu Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710001
Located in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, China is the Great Mosque, the country’s oldest and most renowned mosque. The mosque dates back to 742 AD. From all outward appearances, it looks like a Chinese temple and not a mosque; pagodas have replaced minarets. Look closely though and you will see the Arabic lettering that tells you that this is an Islamic mosque through and through. If you happen to be visiting in the afternoon, you might even catch the call to prayer. The start of the Muslim Quarter begins at Beiyuanmen Islamic Street, which is located just around the corner from Xi’an’s Drum Tower. The mosque itself is tucked inside a neighborhood street and while there are signs that point you in the right direction, the signs can be hard to spot so you will likely have to ask for help. If you decide to visit the mosque, remember to dress appropriately before you go and if you’re a woman, make sure you bring along a scarf to cover your head. Only about 2% of China’s population is Muslim so it is rare to see a mosque. The Hui people are the predominant race of Muslims in China and their lifestyle is very different from that of the dominant Han race. If you have never had a taste of Chinese Islamic life, spend some time visiting the mosque and walking Beiyuanmen Islam Street. Try sampling some of the Chinese Islamic food specialties.
Hongying Rd, Beilin Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China
An interestingly curated museum, the Forest of Stone Steles Museum (also called the Steles Forest or Beilin Museum) focuses on displays of steles (commemorative slabs), epigraphs, and stone sculptures from throughout history. The museum’s collection of inscribed tablets offers a unique window into ancient ways of life. Located inside the Wenchang Gate of the Xian City Wall, the museum was constructed similarly to Xian’s Confucian Temple, which dates to 1087.
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