Xi’an, also known as, Beijing’s little sister, is gritty and charismatic. Brimming with life and personality, Xi’an’s 9 million inhabitants embrace its ancient history and displays it in all its glory. As the ancient start of the Silk Road, Xi’an has mixture of modern architecture and traditional Chinese pagodas. As the capital of the Shanxxi province, an incredible historical background is not all this bustling city offers, boasting a vibrant night life and incredible food. Get lost in the Muslim Quarter, stand in awe of the Terracotta Warriors, and climb to the top of the wall that surrounds this great city. You’ll never get bored in this diverse and busy city. Here’s our guide on how to see the best bits and how to get the most out of your Xi’an adventure. Enjoy!
History & Geography
Xi’an is located in central China and is the capital of the Shanxxi province. A large and expansive city of 9 million people, it boasts a wide range of historical activities at your fingertips. June to October is the best time to visit this city, with warm temperatures and relatively clear weather.
Xi’an served as the ancient imperial capital city for ten imperial dynasties, remaining that way until 904AD. The name of the city was originally called Chang’an, which means ‘perpetual peace’, before being changed to Xi’an, meaning ‘western peace’. Xi’an was original the market and trade epicentre of China, because of its perfect position at the start of the Silk Road.
The fortifications of Xi’an, also referred to as the Xi’an city wall, were built under the rule of Emperor Hongwu as a military defence system. Initially, the wall was built with layers of dirt, with rice and lime extracts found within these layers. But as time marched on, so too did the armies wanting to invade Xi’an. The wall was then built with bricks and mortar, being restored three times since its first construction.
What To See and Do
The Xi’an City Wall
The wall was built around ancient Xi’an over 1400 years ago and still stands proud, in amazing condition. The city has since spilt over these walls, however it has remained as a very popular attraction for both tourists and locals. The top of the wall is about 20m wide, and 12m tall, so can accommodate cyclists and pedestrians comfortably. You will pay about $8USD to ascend the wall, for views over the entire city.
There are a total of 18 gates that serve as entrances into the ancient city, however only about five are open to the public as proper entrances. These include the South, North, East and West gates. The South gate is by far the most popular, due to its beautiful architecture and the abundance of vendors and rentals at the South gate entrance to the wall.
Bike riding on top of the wall is a special experience that is a ‘must-do’ in Xi’an. The full length of the wall (the whole way around the ancient city) is 13kms, so you can either walk or ride. The original cobblestones are bumpy, but you get used to it after a couple of minutes. Bike rentals are dotted all the way along the top of the wall, however the best rental is at the South gate entrance. You can hire tandem or single bikes for about $7USD for two hours. There is also a $30USD deposit that you get back upon returning the bike. Remember to keep to the left to leave space for pedestrians. You’ll see all sorts of people on your trip around the wall. Tourists taking selfies, Xi’an’s elderly basking in the sun, vendors selling their wares, teenagers socialising and even brides and grooms posing for portraits on their iconic wall.
The Muslim Quarter
Bustling with tourists and locals alike, the Muslim Quarter is a section inside the Xi’an wall that exemplifies this city’s varied cultural influences. The main street within the quarter, Muslim Street, contains an array of delicious foods, including noodles, fried octopus, fried jelly, meat on sticks and of course the famous Xi’an burger. When perusing theses streets, a Xi’an burger in one hand enhances the experience significantly! We highly recommend this meat filled, sloppy burger. This bustling market street is truly a feast for the senses. As exotic smells confront your nostrils, you bear witness to the noodles being stretched from hooks along the passageway, the original method of producing this iconic Chinese food. But not only the food will have you intrigued by this section of the city. There is also a plethora of craft stores, souvenir shops and not to forget the Mosque, nestled deep within the Muslim Quarter. You can enter the grounds of the mosque, and meander through the beautiful gardens. When prayer is called, you can remain in the gardens and watch the prayers from large TV screens set up just outside the entrance to the Mosque.
Bell Tower and Drum Tower
The Bell Tower stands proud in the heart of the walled city and its twin, the Drum Tower, about 800m to its west. Both can be scaled for a magnificent views of the city, or simply some great photos from the ground. They’re particularly beautiful at night, when bright lights adorn the Chinese architecture. Both lie in the middle of chaotic roundabouts, and require visitors to descend into underground walkways to reach them.
Shaanxi History Museum
This museum is brimming with information and an insightful and engaging view of this city’s history. This great place boasts an informative history, dating back 1 million years (as the museum claims!) It’s the perfect opportunity to gain an understanding of the city’s history before you delve into its other attractions. The best part is a thorough history of the wall that surrounds ancient Xi’an, an excellent learning tool before you ascend to see for yourself.
The Terracotta Warriors are a ‘must-see’ in Xi’an. Not only are they filled with incredible history, they also have intriguing stories as to why they exist in the first place. Over 2000 years old, these ancient warriors were built for Emperor Qin to guard his final resting place, and buried along with him. Each warrior was hand crafted and each one is completely unique, resembling the real people in his army at the time. Not only were the warriors found in the pits, but also horse remains and human remains. Real horses and the slaves that helped build the resting place were buried alive with the emperor. There are three pits to view, the first contains the most warriors, and the other two are still in the process of being excavated. Each piece of terracotta is meticulously pieced back together, thousands of ancient puzzles. Only discovered in 1974, this incredible archaeological find has been displayed perfectly for the public. The journey there will take about an hour, so ensure that you leave a couple of hours to explore the three pits. Head to the Xi’an railway station, and outside the station to the east is a bunch of buses. You’re looking for the number 5 bus, that takes you directly to the Terracotta Warriors. You won’t miss it; the bus takes you inside the parking lot of the complex. The complex itself is massive, with the three pits spread out over a few acres. There are multiple options for restaurants and food outside of the pits, with many fast food franchises taking over. When you enter, grab a map, as it’s not as easy as you may think to walk between the pits without getting lost.
How to Get There
The best way to get to China is through the capital of Beijing. Flights from LA generally take 12 hours and a ticket will cost travellers approximately $1000USD. Air China runs three flights per day. You can then get the high-speed train from Beijing to Xi-an. About 10 trains depart per day, and it will cost about $75USD. Speeds can get up to 300km/h on these trains, it’s a great way to see the Chinese countryside and a unique experience. It generally takes about 6 hours. The flights from Beijing are double to price of the high-speed train, but will cut your travel time down to 2 hours.
Xi’an is an intriguing and fascinating history, with a multitude of attractions to see. Be prepared to immerse yourself in history, imagine yourself in a world of dynasties and wars and truly feel what it’s like to live thousands of years ago. You’ll be blown away by the diversity of these historical sites. Give yourself plenty of time in this city and you’ll be able to truly explore the depths of what it has to offer. Enjoy!