If Xi’an isn’t on your travel bucket list list, put it on there. Close to the top! It is an easy two-and-a-half-hour flight from Hong Kong, with daily options. Or a great add-on to a Beijing jaunt, with two hours flying time from the capital. While the ancient Chinese city is famous for its terracotta warriors, there is so much more to see and do — all manageable in two or three days. Xi’an boasts a population of nine million, with tall buildings, fast trains and mammoth crowds, but it retains a very old world, imperial feel — as it was the capital of China during 13 dynasties and much of its old architecture still stands.
Travel Tip: The best months to visit are March to May and September to November. Pollution can be harsh in the winter months and it gets pretty chilly.
Where to Stay
With western influences permeating China at a record rate, Xi’an is becoming home to a plethora of five star hotels. I would choose any one of the following:
Not that I’m biased or anything but I do believe the Westin Xi’an is located in the most convenient part of the city, especially if you’re a tourist. And just quietly I know a guy (my husband!) who can help you, just make sure you bring chocolate! Located in the heart of the Qu Jiang New District, the hotel is opposite the famous Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Buddhist temple) and is heaving with activity day and night. Kites fly high, glow sticks light up the night sky and there is always something to entertain you, even if you just want to take a walk around the area! It’s also home to several shopping centers and restaurants, including Bar Street. The Qu Jiang Museum of Fine Arts sits underneath the hotel. And if you’re a lover of artifacts and historic treasures, the Shaanxi Museum is just up the road.
A blend of contemporary meets tradition, Westin Xi’an has an oriental vibe. I highly recommend the hotel’s Chinese restaurant 5-senses, and Mai, the Japanese restaurant. Mix Bar is also a great place to hang out.
If you’re after a touch of grandeur, check into the Sofitel Legend (not the Sofitel). The iconic building is a blend of French and Sino-Russian and has been the host of many historic events. The Dolce Vita restaurant serves authentic Italian, so if you’re looking for something to soothe your palate after a busy day of sightseeing, this is the place. It is a little on the expensive side, but definitely worth it. The Sofitel Legend is located within the ancient City Wall, so a great location if you want to be in the city center.
This Spanish hotel is about a five minute drive from the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and close to Tang Paradise park, making it not too far from the action, but definitely a little quieter. A mix of luxury and modern contemporary it’s definitely an impressive hotel with a relaxed ambience. The Spanish restaurant Duo is a firm favorite of ours!
The Shangri-La is one of Xi’an’s premier hotels and exudes fine dining and luxury with great views overlooking the city. Located in the financial and shopping district of Gaoxin, it’s about a 20 minute drive to the city (out of peak hour). The international buffet restaurant Yi Cafe comes highly recommended. The Belgian Bar is also located a hop, skip and a jump away.
If you want something a little less taxing on the budget, try the Holiday Inn or serviced apartments at Citadines. The Jin Jiang Inn and Super 8 Inn are even cheaper and there are plenty of hostels in Xi’an from as little as 20 RMB a night.
Where to Eat
Xi’an is still evolving as a cosmopolitan city and much of the food is traditional Shaanxi style. By all means give it a try. Try the Shaanxi noodles and the Rou Jia Mo, Xi’an’s version of a hamburgers. The Ma Po Dofu, tofu smothered in chilli mince and the Chao Tu Dou Si (fried, shredded potato) are also my go-to Xi’an dishes.
Don’t be afraid to try the street food, but choose wisely and purchase from those carts that seem busy and clean! Hygiene is not a strong point here, so please be aware or you’ll be in for a touch of La Du Zi (literally translates to ‘pulled stomach’).
For some family fun, try Hai Di Lao hot pot restaurant. A popular chain, Hai di Lao is renowned for its service. Their restaurants also have a kids’ play area and all sorts of quirky fun things to keep you entertained (including a nail salon while you wait). Definitely worth it, if you want to soak up some local culture!
The famous De Fa Chang Dumpling restaurant near the Bell Tower is also a big hit for tourists and locals alike.
If you’re need a break from local eats, go to any of the above restaurants attached to the hotels. The Brewery is a new restaurant in the Qu Jiang district and is proving popular for its American fare. Peter’s Tex Mex in the Kai De Shopping Mall is always fun, just make sure you order a margarita! Bar Street in Qu Jiang, New Delhi serves great Indian food.
If you happen to be child-free, there is a great rooftop bar called Sky Bar near the city wall at the South Gate (above Mann Coffee.) It doesn’t quite boast the spectacular views we’re accustomed to in Hong Kong but you will feel like you’re a world away, in an ancient city. Mind you, new bars are springing up all over the place and just as quickly disappearing so, check first that it’s not a case of “here today, gone tomorrow!”
What to Do
You can’t come to Xi’an and not see this 13 kilometer stretch of wall, complete with a moat that envelopes the city. It is the most complete city wall that has survived in China. Even if you don’t get up onto it, it’s worth a drive-by, especially at night when it is lit up. If you do go up, you can walk around the wall (if you’ve got the stamina) or grab a bike (tandems included) and cycle around, which takes about two hours. There are also buggies in which you can zoom around, in about one hour, stopping at each gate to give you a great perspective of the city.
Entrance to the wall is open from 8am. Tickets can be purchased at the bottom near the South Gate for 54RMB for adults and 27RMB for kids between 1.2 and 1.4 meters tall. Children under 1.2 meters are free. Note: It’s not terribly stroller-friendly with very steep stairs leading up on to the wall.
From the South Gate, it’s a five to ten minute walk to both the famous Drum and Bell Towers. Both are spectacles to see and worthy of a photo! If you have time you can go up into both for a small fee.
Just near the Drum Tower you’ll find the effervescent Muslim Quarter. Xi’an was the start of the famous Silk Road trading route, when many merchants travelled from the middle east to trade and as such, many of their descendants are still living in Xian today, making up a 60,000 strong muslim community in the city. This area is a colourful and vibrant feast for both the eyes and tastebuds. A hive of activity, it covers several blocks of food stalls and quite a few market stalls selling traditional souvenirs. (Sneak down the side lane ways for more markets. Two words ladies: cheap handbags!)
You can also visit The Great Mosque for 25RMB. It’s one of the oldest, largest (covering 12,000 square meters) and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China. (If you are in Muslim Quarter main street, there is a blue sign pointing to the Mosque about half way down.)
Of course, Xi’an is most famous for these fascinating clay blokes. There is a compelling story behind their great unearthing which you can read all about on my blog here: Xian’s Terracotta Warriors: The Largest Jigsaw in the World. These guys are about a 40-minute drive from the city. A taxi ride is around RMB 110-120. They are close to the airport, so you can always opt to check them out when you arrive. Most hotels will provide you with a car and driver for hire.
The Cost: Peak season (aka the hot season) is March to November and the entry fee is RMB150. Low season (aka the cold season) in December to February, the entry fee is RMB120. Kids under 1.2 meters tall are free.
Opening Times: Summer — tickets sold from 8:30am to 5:00pm; last check-in at 18:35pm. Winter — tickets sold from 08:30am to 4:30pm; last check-in at 18:05pm. You’ll probably need around four hours including travelling time.
*Strollers are available if you’ve got little ones who aren’t keen to stay on their feet for the visit. There are also wheelchairs. There is quite a walk from the entrance to the pits, and let me tell you, if it’s cold, you’ve got kids, or elderly people with you, you will want to grab the buggy.
It’s helpful to have a tour guide to explain the history and, in my humble opinion, adds a lot more value to the trip. Hire one at the site for around RMB100 or your hotel should be able to recommend a good one (usually a little more expensive.) Or, alternatively rent an audio guide for RMB40.
The Huaqing Palace Heritage/Hot Springs are six kilometers from the warrior site, set at the base of Mt. Lishan for some stunning landscape views on a clear day. About 150 meters from is here is the Lintong Museum, which has about 10,000 artifacts dating from the Stone Age to modern times.
Da Yan Ta
Also known as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Da Yan Ta is definitely worth a look — if not only for the area itself, which is a popular tourist spot. This buddhist pagoda was built in the Tang Dynasty in 652 standing 64 metres high with views stretching out across the city.
South Park Lake (aka Qujiang Pool Park)
A ten-minute drive (via yuk tuk) from the Da Yan Ta and you’ll find this beautiful scenic lake. It’s a great spot to take the kids, weather permitting. Have some fun and hire three-wheeler bikes and ride around the lake or get into some paddle boats!
Luo Ma Shi
If you’re up for some cheap shopping, this is the place to go. A mass of underground tunnels there is a maze of stalls, selling everything from handbags to sneakers, sunglasses, jewlery and cheap and cheerful trinkets.
Called Wen Yi Lu, this is a treasure trove of fabrics, including silk, in every color and print imaginable. Want something tailor-made? You can get it done here on the spot! Just bring the correct measurements.
Tang Dynasty Show
Performed at the Tang Dynasty Palace theater restaurant, about 15 to 20 minutes from the city, the music and dance show is not to be missed. I admit, I was skeptical when I first went, but it was a truly mesmerizing performance and slice of China’s ancient culture that entertained the whole family. Prices start at 220RMB. You’ll probably be encouraged to take a package that includes dinner, but to be honest, I’m told it’s not worth it.
Hua Shan Mountain
If time permits, Hua Shan Mountain is 120 kilometers from Xi’an. As one of five sacred mountains in China, it is a steep climb but worth it for the breath-taking scenery. Though, no hiking required if you’re not up for it — grab a cable car!
Just like Hong Kong, Xi’an is super safe. And while a lot of people don’t speak English, they are very friendly (just be prepared for a lot of staring). Oh, and most toilets are “squat” so, BYO tissues and lots of hand sanitizer –.and a good sense of humor.