Xi’an, called Chang’an during its heyday, is an ancient city that served as China’s capital during many dynasties, and was the first stop on the famed Silk Road. However, most tourists visit Xi’an for the Terracotta Warriors, but the ancient city itself has a few attractions worth seeing. I spent 2 full days in Xi’an, and had another half-day when I flew in from Beijing. This is enough to take in the major attractions (including the Terracotta Army) however there are some other places outside of the city that might be worth visiting (such as a hot spring near the Warriors, or the Famen Temple, located about two hours from the city) that would require more time.
There are a few options for getting to Xi’an from Beijing. The cheapest is to take the overnight train (about 13 hours total). I avoided this because I can’t really sleep on trains. I considered taking the high speed train instead (this takes only about 5 hours). But it turned out that the price of a flight on China Eastern to Xi’an was actually cheaper than the high speed, so decided to fly. But when considering the price of the airport transfer (25 yuan) it was slightly more than the train, but it still saved time.
The upside to the high speed train is that it arrives at Xi’an North station, which is somewhat out of town but still connected to Xi’an’s subway system so it’s possible to get into the city by rail. The airport does not have a rail but 25 yuan for the bus is pretty cheap.
The airport web site lists the routes the airport buses take. I took the bus to the Xi’an Hotel, which is located near a subway station (there is a sign nearby pointing in the direction) and near the city center. At the airport, it’s easy to buy a bus ticket. The distance is about an hour.
Xi’an has two subway lines, and I found it easy enough to get to most of the tourist attractions using the subway (though it requires a bit of walking). The buses do not have stops announced in English so they can be a bit difficult for a non-Chinese speaker to use. Xi’an’s main railway station (where the slow trains arrive) is not connected to the subway, but it’s located near the city center. The city also has plenty of taxis, but make sure they use the meter.
In the very center of Xi’an is the Bell Tower, and the Drum Tower nearby. The Bell Tower is the largest in China, first built in 1384 and moved to its present location in 1582. The Drum Tower is also impressive, built in 1380 and renovated in the Qing dynasty. Both are especially amazing at night when lit up.
A short walk away from the Drum Tower is the Muslim Quarter, where Xi’an’s Muslim community resides. This area covers many streets and it’s a bustling place at night. Very touristy, but still enjoyable, mostly because of the food. Lots of great options to try, including Paomo, one of the most famous foods in Xi’an. Paomo is a soup consisting of bread and either mutton or beef. The Muslim Quarter has a few restaurants serving this dish. When I ordered I was given a bowl with a color and number tag attached and two pieces of pita bread. I sat down and broke up the bread into small pieces. Then a server comes over, takes the bowl and the soup is made. Once it is finished, the server will call the number on the bowl and bring it to the table.
Street food options also abound. There are a few stalls selling beef or lamb in pita bread, plenty of kebabs, fried bananas, glutinous rice cake dipped in sugar, drinking yogurt, small potatoes, tofu, octopus, noodles, and more. The best sweet food I had here was a persimmon cake, crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside (be careful cause it’s messy), very delicious. There’s also vendors making noodles and hammering candy.
In a small back street area is the Grand Mosque, the most well known of the mosques in the area. I only saw it from the outside because I went to the Quarter in the evening when it was already closed, but it’s made using traditional Chinese architecture and might be interesting to see. The alleys have shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs.
Xi’an is also well known for it’s city wall. The wall surrounds the inner part of the city that includes the Bell and Drum Towers (some of the city now lies outside this wall). The entrance fee is 40 yuan. Bicycle rentals are available on the wall, these cost another 40 yuan for 100 minutes and a 200 yuan deposit. I decided to rent a bike to see the wall, but I didn’t bike the whole thing.
Unfortunately, the air in Xi’an wasn’t great (it can get worse than even Beijing) but I still liked biking the wall. The city wall was first built in the Ming dynasty, and has been restored multiple times since then (the latest being in 1983). Plenty of traditional buildings surround the wall and there are some nice views at the top. It’s also surrounded by a moat and it’s especially beautiful when lit up at night.
The Shaanxi History Museum is another key attraction and should definitely be seen in Xi’an. As mentioned in a previous post, there are Terracotta warriors displayed here for close inspection. It might be a good idea to come here before visiting the warriors, though I came after.
The museum also has plenty of other interesting exhibits, on the same scale as the Museum of China in Beijing.
From what I read, the museum issues a limited number of tickets per day, but I had no trouble getting in. I had to wait on line for quite awhile, and I had to present my passport to get a ticket. The admission is free. It’s probably best to come earlier in the morning and on a weekday. It was pretty crowded when I was there.
I rented an audio guide in English for a 200 yuan deposit and 30 yuan fee. I advise doing this because there isn’t a lot of English on the descriptions.
A fairly short walk away from the Shaanxi museum is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, located in the Da Ci’en temple. Not only is the pagoda impressive, but the temple itself is very pretty as well. It costs 50 yuan to get in, and another 40 to go up the pagoda (I opted out of this). The temple was built during the Tang dynasty and used to collect Buddhist relics that the monk Xuenzang collected on his journey to India (he wrote the famed epic Journey to the West based on this trip).
If in the mood for Indian food, there is a restaurant called Delhi Darbar just nearby. I ate here and it was good and reasonably priced.
In Xi’an, I stayed in a 4 bed dorm at a hostel called Xiangzimen Youth Hostel and I would recommend it. Beds are comfortable and the room was well heated (which was great after the inadequate heating in my room in Beijing) and a decent size. Location is also great, near a bus stop and subway station and a short stroll to the South Gate of the city wall. It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the Muslim Quarter and Bell Tower area.
The hostel is also located in a beautiful traditional courtyard house. They have a restaurant that served decent food for breakfast. The staff was pretty helpful as well. They give out a map of the Xi’an area although it has some errors (the map had the wrong location for the Xi’an hotel). Also, they emailed me outdated directions to the hostel from the airport (they told me to take an airport bus route that had been discontinued). But when I notified them of this they recommended another route and were generally prompt with emails.
The easiest way to get to Xiangzimen from the airport is to take the shuttle to the Xi’an Hotel, go to the nearest subway and get off at Yongingmen station. From there, walk to the inside of the city wall, for a few minutes until coming to a street with a Pailou gate. Go through there and there’s a traditional house with a sign for the hostel.
Accommodation in Xi’an is generally very cheap. Hostel rooms go for about $5 a night for a dorm bed on Agoda.com, basic hotel rooms for about $20.