Xi’an is located in the centre of China, at the beginning of the Silk Road and at the crossroads for many of China’s most famous cuisines. With so many rare spices and different travellers coming through the city, Xian developed a rich and diverse culinary landscape which still exists today. From its famous terracotta warriors to the ancient walls which enclose the city, Xi’an has an impressive array of cultural and historic attractions. However, we discovered its food is what we loved the most on a ‘Xi’an Walls and Street Stalls’ tour.
We began our half day tour near the Drum Tower in the heart of the old city where our Intrepid Urban Adventures guide Michelle gave us an overview of the plan for the day before we set off to walk the city in search of some of Xi’an’s best food. We were lucky to have Michelle all to ourselves as we were the only people who had booked that day but it would also be fun to enjoy this experience as a group. However, this tour is not just about eating which was a good thing as we made the mistake of having breakfast at our hotel. Don’t make the same mistake we did as there is a lot of serious (and seriously good) eating to be done when you do this tour. You definitely do not need breakfast!
Michelle explained the history of Xi’an as we walked through a traditional local neighbourhood, telling us about the city’s significant cultural impact on China. Xi’an is often called the birthplace of Chinese civilization due to the fact it was the capital city of 13 imperial dynasties, the most of any city in China, with many of the ancient structures still preserved. Xian was also the home of ‘The First Emperor’, Qin Shi Huang, who united China from his base in the Xi’an area, and also left a legacy that included the mighty terracotta army. Our first snack stop wasn’t the very traditional stall in the photo below.
Instead Michelle eased us into the local street food scene with our first dish of the day, a roujiamo (or Xi’an hamburger) which consists of baked leavened bread and shredded meat. These are available from street stalls throughout the city and roujiamo restaurants which resemble a fast food store, like the one Michelle took us to. We are fairly adventurous when it comes to trying different foods, but if you were a bit nervous this first restaurant would certainly put your mind at ease about signing up for a food tour. Our roujiamos had plenty of finger licking goodness and were not that spicy. However, they were very, very tasty with juicy meat and bread that was flaky and soft yet crispy on the outside.
We took a short bus ride to our next destination, Hanguangmen morning market, which was located adjacent to the city’s inner wall. Pomegranate is a local specialty and was in season while we were in Xi’an, with the majority of the fruits grown at Lintong where the terracotta army is located. Not surprisingly, there were many stalls selling this popular fruit as well as plenty of other locally grown fruit and vegetables. Michelle explained that the area around Xi’an has some of the best agricultural land in China and that good local produce is always readily available, although few young people have time to shop at a traditional market like Hanguangmen these days and tend to visit a supermarket instead.
As we left the bustling market, Michelle took us around a corner to try our next Xian delicacy, a Xi’an Bing which is a bit like a Chinese meat pie consisting of beef, spring onions and garlic in a thick, flaky pastry pancake that looks like a jaffle. There are so many different herbs and spices in a traditional bing and making the pasty is so labour intensive that it is not a dish locals attempt to create at home. I loved the tickle of Schezhuan pepper on my palate and the spicy filling which was a little bit zingy without being too hot. This was my favourite dish of the tour and I’ve been craving it ever since we got back to Australia.
We needed a food break by then so it was perfect timing for a stroll to Xi’an City Wall Park where locals were participating in activities including tai chi, fan dancing and Qin opera which is the traditional opera of the Shaanxi Province. We also enjoyed watching some men practicing water calligraphy, writing original poetry on the ground with large brushes dipped in water. Michelle translated some of the poetry for us and it was beautiful.
It seemed fitting that we walked from here to the street known as Calligraphy Street which was filled with shops selling everything from parchment and ink to brushes of every shape and size, including the big ones we saw in the park. If you would like to bring back a quintessential Xi’an souvenir, you will find it here. I was tempted by all the beautiful inks, even though I am not sure what I would have done with them when we got home.
After a visit to the serene Wolong Temple which is over 1,800 years old, we headed to a dumpling restaurant where we watched our lunch being made through the window. Our mix of pork with green leek and beef with yellow leek dumplings were perfect to share before we ventured to a tiny hole in the wall rice wine distillery which was one of the oldest in Xi’an. The tour usually visits a noodle restaurant as well but the best one was closed for some unknown reason and we were really full of food, so we said it was fine to pass on the noodles.
We ended our tour at Xi’an’s city walls where Michelle gave us some information on their history and showed us where to take a walk or hire a bike to explore this ancient city structure. Even though she was meant to leave us on the wall, Michelle offered to come with us which was really kind of her. Xi’an was a real surprise and I mean that in the best possible way. We visited the terracotta warriors the following day but it was this tour – not Qin Shi Huang’s famous army – which was the highlight of my stay in Xi’an. Michelle showed us a different side of the city and we learned a lot about Xi’an’s history and its people during the tour. My only regret is it has left me constantly craving bing which isn’t available in my home town. Looks like I’ll just have to go back to Xi’an.
Note: Xi’an also has a Muslim quarter which is famous for its street food but it isn’t open in the morning which is why Michelle didn’t take us there. However, it is definitely worth seeing. Intrepid Urban Adventures run a separate evening tour to this area or you can find the entry to it near the Bell Tower. It’s best to go in the early evening when it’s bustling, but not too busy, so you can enjoy the atmosphere without getting jostled too much.
Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Intrepid Urban Adventures. Her son paid for his tour and was equally impressed. This blog contains affiliate links which can be used to book this tour at no additional cost to you.
If you also also visiting Beijing when you are in China, don’t forget to read these Beijing travel tips. We also enjoyed staying at the Rosewood Beijing and the Rosewood Beijing and hiked an unrestored section of the Great Wall with Imperial Tours.