You must be planning a trip to China. How exciting! We’ve taken our kids to China twice, so if you’re looking for things to do in Xi’An with kids — you’ve come to the right place! I can help you build the perfect Xi’An itinerary.
Top 10 Things to do in Xi’An with Kids:
1. Terracotta Army
Our first stop in Xi’An was the Terracotta Army, aka the Terracotta Warriors. They are located about 45 minutes from Xi’An by bus, and the buses run frequently from the train station.
The buses are easy to find, if you know where to look. We wandered a bit before we found them. Exit the train station (there is only one exit) and walk to your left, toward the information booth. Keep walking past the information booth until you see a bus parking lot. It’s not on the street, but an actual parking lot just for the buses.
You’ll see several buses numbered 914, 915 and 306 and you can hop on any of these buses, as they all go to the same place. They charge 8 RMB per person.
You will surely be accosted by taxi drivers as you leave the train station or airport. One taxi driver was particularly persistent with us. He wanted 800 RMB to drive us out to the Terracotta Army site. The bus would only be 80 RMB for all ten of us, so we just kept refusing. You have to do your homework beforehand so you don’t get scammed by taxi drivers.
Take the bus all the way to the very last stop. It also stops at Huáqīng Hot Springs and the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang before the Terracotta Army. Remember where you get off the bus, because that’s where you’ll catch your bus back to the train station.
Between the buses and the entrance you’ll be accosted by guides. Most of them speak decent English and charge around 400 RMB to give you a tour of the complex. We had already learned about the terracotta army as part of our homeschool, and we wanted to spend less than two hours touring the site, so we opted to rent an audio guide instead.
You can rent audio guides in the same building in which you purchase your tickets. There is also a secure (and free!) luggage counter, just for tourists who visit straight from the train station. The luggage building is located just behind the bathrooms, to the side of the building where you purchase tickets.
The Terracotta Army is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. They were buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE in order to protect the emperor in his afterlife.
Fragments of the terracotta army were discovered in 1974 by local farmers outside Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. The three pits containing the Terracotta Army are estimated to hold more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.
The majority of the figures (which also includes court musicians, acrobats and entertainers) are still buried at the site of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb. It hasn’t been opened yet because archaeologists are unsure how to preserve the artifacts. It’s very interesting that the terracotta warriors you see are plain terracotta. They were originally painted, but in 4 minutes from the time they are exposed to air, the paint and lacquer completely flaked off. Thus the hesitation to unearth the remaining figures.
The museum building houses complete and restored figures, in both terracotta and bronze, like the horses and chariot pictured below, along with other interesting artifacts.
The other 3 buildings contain the gigantic pits in different stages of discovery and preservation. This is pit 1, the largest of the three. Most of the terracotta army is still buried, so you can watch ongoing restoration work. Tourists are only allowed to walk the perimeter of the gigantic, airplane-hangar-like structure.
Caleb dropped a package of antibacterial wipes over the railing into the pit of terracotta warriors (oops!) and got chewed out by all the other kids. That’s why he’s none too happy in the photo below.
As you exit the park, you walk for probably 15 minutes through a strange complex of shopping and eating areas, kind of reminiscent of the way all Disney rides exit through the gift shop, only on a much larger scale. Don’t purchase souvenirs here unless you want to pay more than four times what you can find them for at the muslim night market!
Including the bus rides, we spent about 3.5 hours to visit the Terracotta Army, and it was well worth the time and admission fees — it was one of our favorite things to do in Xi’An!
2. Muslim Quarter
The muslim quarter in Xi’An is the maze of streets located just to the north and west of the drum tower. They’re pretty easy to find, because you can’t miss the hordes of people. By day, the muslim quarter is a fun place to shop, eat, and sightsee. At night, however, it really comes alive!
You don’t need to know your way around. There are interesting things to see on each street, and sightseeing destinations (the mosque and the muslim quarter gate) at the end of each street, so it’s fun to just wander.
It’s also interesting to stand and watch the merchants work. This lady was prying open oysters, removing the pearls, cleaning and polishing them. But you could also watch weavers, potters, paper cutters, wood carvers, and all kinds of cooking demonstrations.
3. Muslim Family Restaurant
Probably our favorite places to eat in China were all the yummy Muslim Family restaurants. They were also much cheaper than Western establishments, like McDonalds. There is a McDonalds right near the Drum Tower, but keeping walking about 100 yards North and this Muslim Family restaurant will be on the East side of the street.
All of the muslim restaurants have picture menus so you can just point to what you want and tell them how many. The Chinese number system is amazingly easy to memorize! Much more so than our own!
My kiddos always wanted big bowls of handmade noodles with shaved beef, which were only about $1 a bowl, and my favorite dish was the potato haystack. They’d fry thin strings of potato, with slivers of sweet peppers and onion, into a heaping, crispy, hot mound. The chars (chunks of meat, grilled on skewers) were also yum! I loved all of the different seasonings they used, and I wish some muslims would move to where I live and open a restaurant!
4. Muslim Night Market
We first visited the muslim quarter at night, because we had heard how fabulous the night market was. It didn’t disappoint! This is a hangout for locals and tourists alike, so you’ll see lots of nationalities and hear all kinds of languages. It was even packed when we visited in April!
Because our family is so large (there are 10 of us) we had to take 3 separate taxis from our hotel. Our first trip in the taxi, to the muslim night market, we all lost each other, because each driver dropped us off at a different place. My phone was the only one with a Chinese SIM card and Chinese data, and one daughter had Google Fi service, which worked, but none of our other phones worked to text. So it took us awhile to find each other.
We finally realized that the taxi drivers often don’t read Mandarin, so the best way to get to the right places was to pull up maps on our phones and meet at recognizable landmarks. Anyway, we did finally find each other, and the night market was every bit as incredible as we had heard.
The boys ate fried scorpion and fried squid on a stick, which they liked. The rest of us ate potato tornadoes, which are highly seasoned fried potatoes on a stick. We’re a little less adventurous, I guess.
When you visit China, you have to try the Durian cheesecake. In fact, you should probably try all of the food booths that have extra long lines, because you know that the locals already know about the best stuff. This place had a looooooong line, so I knew it would be good.
Durian is a large, spiky fruit, with several lobes inside. And it stinks to high heaven once it’s been cut open! It’s actually been outlawed on public transportation because it smells so bad. It stinks even after being baked into cheesecake and made into candies. But it you can get past the smell, the taste is sweet and caramel-ish.
When you’ve finished shopping, eating and sightseeing, you’ll have to head back out to the main street, near the drum tower, to find a taxi. They line up there waiting for fares. Be sure you have a map with your hotel, and not just the name, since they don’t always read mandarin.
You’ll also notice in China that there will be many hotels with the same name. We stayed at the Tian Yi hotel (I don’t recommend the one we stayed at, because it was actually just an apartment building in a high rise — no signage whatsoever. And it’s a miracle we found it at all!) and realized that there are no fewer than 12 Tian Yi hotels in Xi’An.
Talk about confusing! Anyway, just pull up a map on your phone, and the taxi driver will be able to find it. It seemed like the taxis all left around 11 pm, but the tuk tuk drivers stayed around a little later. Because we had little kids, we never stayed out very late.
5. Fish Pedicures at the Muslim Night Market in Xi’An
There are several fish spas along the street at the Muslim Night Market. They offer foot massage and pedicures in addition to the fish spas.
We were excited to give these a try, and we enjoyed them until Anne spotted a dead fish in her tank, being eaten by the other fish. Eeeeeek! So she googled fish spas and we learned that they spread nasty diseases. Double eeeeeek!
So we hurried and dried our feet with the provided paper towels, then cleaned them thoroughly with the hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes we always carry in our travel backpacks. Phew! Disaster avoided! It was still one of our favorite things to do in Xi’An and one that we’ll never forget.
Your kids will love this ticklish experience! Just be sure to take plenty of sanitizer and antibacterial wipes when you go!
6. Xi’An Bell Tower
The Bell Tower and Drum Tower in Xi’An are located near each other (they were originally built next to each other, but the bell tower was later relocated), in the very center of Xi’An, but with a busy street between them. The Bell Tower is the center of a roundabout, while the Drum Tower is on an adjacent corner. You can access both by pedestrian tunnels beneath the street.
You can purchase a combo ticket to tour both places, at either location for 50 RMB. We visited drum and bell towers in other cities during our trip, but these two were the most interesting of all that we visited.
The Bell Tower marks the center of Xi’An, the ancient capital of the Ming Dynasty. It’s supposedly the largest and best-preserved bell tower in China. It was built in 1384 by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang as a way to provide early warning of attack by rivals.
7. Xi’An Drum Tower
The Drum Tower was initially built in 1380 during the reign of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). There is not a single nail used anywhere in the Drum Tower.
There are tall, arched doorways in the centre of the south and north walls. The north entrance leads to Beiyuan Men and south to the West Avenue. If you have a ticket, you can go upstairs to the second floor and enjoy the views around the Drum Tower.
The North and South sides of the Drum Tower are lined with 24 drums, 12 on each side. They represent the twenty-four solar terms. It’s a kind of weather calendar created by the ancient Chinese in order to guide agricultural production.
Inside, there is an interesting drum exhibit, along with concerts at specified times throughout the day. As a family of musicians, we thoroughly enjoyed the unique costumes and instruments! It was well worth the admission and time to visit. Of all the fun things to do in Xi’An, this will be one of the most memorable.
Check out these elaborate costumes and instruments!
8. Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
I don’t know if this area is always this lit up and beautiful, but we were there in April (low tourist season) and it was. The strip in front of the pagoda is a series of fountains. Every night you can watch an epic water and light show.
The area surrounding the north plaza is full of food and shopping booths. We were pretty shopped out from the muslim night market, but Caleb did find a set of Samurai swords he couldn’t live without. And we enjoyed some snacks and ice cream.
The cost to enter the pagoda plaza is 50 RMB, plus another 30 RMB if you want to climb the pagoda.
Huashan is fun to hike if you have older or more adventurous kids. It’s something like 6000 super-steep steps straight up the side of the mountain, and that’s after you’ve ridden the gondola part of the way up.
When we started planning this trip, my third child, Hyrum, could talk of nothing but the plank walk. He loves rock climbing and adrenaline rushes! So we planned our visit accordingly.
As I researched it a little more, I realized my youngest probably wouldn’t make it, and my two oldest didn’t want to go, either. So we split up the day of Huashan. I stayed in Xi’An with the littles while the hubs took the others and hiked Huashan.
Be aware that Huashan is very steep and the stairs are steep and narrow, without handrails. So I wouldn’t take bouncy, young children because they’d give me a heart attack. I think probably tough-minded, adventurous 8+ could handle this hike. It isn’t known as the ‘world’s most dangerous hike’ for nothing. Though I think that moniker is a little exaggerated.
You can take a high speed train from Xi’An North Railway Station to Huashan North Station. It will take about 40 minutes and cost about 40 RMB per person. When you get off at Huashan North, jump on one of the free, green minibuses and it will take you to the mountain.
You’ll need to purchase tickets where you get off the bus, before you hop on a shuttle bus to ride to where the hike starts. We purchased combo tickets, which included entrance (100 RMB), the shuttle (40 RMB) and the cable car (150 RMB). If you want to, you can avoid the shuttle and cable car and hike the entire way, but you won’t make it back in one day.
The shuttle takes an hour or two off your hike, and the cable car will take you about half way up the mountain. That way, you can hike all four peaks in one day and still make it down in time to catch the train back to Xi’An. We took the North Peak cable car up, and the West Peak cable car back down.
10. Bike the Xi’An City Wall
I saved the very best thing to do in Xi’An (in my opinion) for very last!
The Xi’an City Wall is supposedly the oldest, largest and best preserved of all the Chinese city walls. I say supposedly because that’s what the signs here said, but we saw the same sign at the city wall around Datong.
The wall was built during the Ming and Qing dynasties as a military defense system. It’s one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.
The current Xi’An City Wall is an impressive 40 feet tall and 40-60 feet thick. The wall is nearly 9 miles long and is surrounded by a deep moat.
The walls feature a total of 98 ramparts and four main gates – North, South, East and West. Each gate has three towers that served as watchtowers and used to open/close the suspension bridges that granted access to the city.
You can access the top of the wall at the South gate, where there is also a pretty park. There is an admission fee of 54 RMB for adults and half that for kids, plus they’ll need to see your passports. That fee includes admission to the two tower museums atop the wall. I don’t know why, but many Chinese tourist spots require passports, so be sure to keep them with you.
We rented tandem bikes so we could ride the entire perimeter of the wall. Bike hire was 45 RMB for 2 hours. It took us just over an hour to circumnavigate Xi’An, with a few stops to familiarize ourselves with the layout of the city, to watch the interesting Chinese street market (so different from the Western markets like the muslim night market) going on below, and to walk through the tower museums.
We all loved biking the top of the city wall. In fact, it was definitely my favorite of all the things to do in Xi’An! Here are a few of the interesting things you can see from the top of the city wall, or on top of the wall itself:
Replicas of ancient weaponry, gorgeous scenery, the two tower museums, and you can watch interesting Chinese markets. The one pictured below was exclusively for local Chinese. You can tell because there are no booths or stalls. Produce and wares are just laid out on the ground.
You can see the old moats around the wall and the drawbridges from the other direction at the gates. Biking the Xi’An city wall should definitely be on your list itinerary of things to do in Xi’An!
What we learned while traveling Xi’An:
One of our favorite things about homeschooling is that we can travel frequently and learn as students of the world. We call it worldschooling, and it doesn’t involve textbooks!
- We learned about dynastic ruling.
- Xi’an was the capital city for 13 dynasties and over 1,100 years!
- We learned about ancient fortifications at the Xi’An city wall.
- We learned about ancient funerary practices.
- We learned about archaeological practices as we toured the terracotta army site.
- We learned about ancient agricultural practices as we toured the drum tower.
- We learned about ancient instruments and music at the drum tower.
- We learned about modern Chinese culture.
- We learned about Chinese money and bartering.
- We learned about Chinese and muslim food, and we got plenty of chopsticks practice. We learned how to find the foods we wanted and to order them and pay for them.
- We learned a little about modern farming practices in the countryside.
- We learned about cormorant fishing.
- We learned how to recognize the characters for Muslim family restaurants, lol!
- We learned how to navigate a foreign country where we could not read any signs.
- We learned how to navigate confusing train stations and trains and bus stations and buses.
- My older kids flew home alone from Beijing, and we all took trains and taxis alone at different times, both of which were great learning experiences.
- We learned patience and perseverance.
- We learned how to use squatty potties, and also how to avoid them.
Tips for traveling in China with kids:
- You’ll want plenty of packaged tissues, hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes (restrooms do not provide toilet paper or soap, and they are usually dirty).
- Carry a filtering sports bottle for water, like the kind backpackers use. That way, you can use the water from any tap, and you don’t have to be constantly on the lookout for safe, bottled water.
- Carry plenty of familiar snacks, like granola bars. Chinese food for every meal will be tough on little people. We filled one entire suitcase with granola bars, pop tarts, goldfish crackers, cheese sticks, and things we knew our kids would eat (we were there for a month).
- Keep your passports on you at all times. Most of the tourist sites you visit will require them.
- Hang on to your tickets. China has mastered redundancy and inefficiency, and most places will require you to show your ticket upon exit as well as upon entry. It’s exasperating!
- Taxi’s allow 4 passengers total (tuk tuk’s will only allow 3 passengers total). However, the hubs and my college-aged children could only stay for two weeks, so I was alone with my younger kiddos for two weeks. There was no way I was sending any of my children off alone in taxis. So we devised a trick for squeezing all of us into one taxi. The taxi would stop and I’d hop in the front and distract the driver by showing him the map on my phone. While he was distracted, the kids would all very quickly jump in the back of the taxi, with little ones on laps. By the time the taxi driver turned around to see what the ruckus was, it was too late. We were all in his taxi, and we didn’t understand any Chinese, so he’d just take us where we wanted to go. We hired private drivers with vans where we could, but that service wasn’t always available.
- Many taxi drivers don’t read Mandarin. So it works better to have a map (I just used Google Maps, because my VPN worked well, but I’ve been told that Google Maps don’t usually work in China) of your destination pulled up on your phone. The taxi drivers are really familiar with the cities and will be able to get you where you’re going. But if you just have a card with your destination written in Chinese, they may not be able to read it.
- You’ll want Chinese SIM cards for your phones, but check first and see if your phone is unlocked and able to use one, or dual SIM. You can’t purchase SIM cards in the arrival hall at the airport, either. You’ll have to visit China Telecom to purchase one. I think mine was $15 for a month of service and 2 GB data.
- If you plan to use the internet at all, you’ll need a VPN, because China blocks everything. We used Express VPN on all of our devices, and it worked great.
- Download a translator app and download it entirely so that it will work offline. Because in China the one thing you can count on is that things won’t always work. Especially internet.
- Travel light, and preferable with backpacks.
Happy travels, friends!
Have I missed any fun things to do in Xi’An? Where is your favorite place to travel with kids?