We had no idea that Xi’an is so old! In fact it’s over 3,000 years old and as the former capital of China for well over 1,000 years it has a huge amount of history to sink your teeth into. And not forgetting that it was the start of the ancient Silk Road, the route connecting Asia and Europe, moving goods and people for over 2,000 years – culminating in a fantastic mix of cultures. We absolutely loved exploring the city and hopefully have provided the perfect Xian itinerary, so you are in the know before you go!
Why go to Xi’an?
There is apparently an old saying ‘if you haven’t been to Xian, then you haven’t been to China’, which hopefully tells you all you need to know! However, if you need a bit more inspiration on why you should go to Xi’an – here’s a quick insight into why this city is so awesome:
- Being the ‘historical’ capital of China means that the city is littered with numerous cultural and historical sites to visit. You’ve probably heard of the Terracotta Warriors, but there is so much more to explore.
- If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you can take on the scariest mountain hikes in the world – Mount Huashan
- With all the cultural diversity that you would expect at the end of the silk road, expect to try some wonderful cuisine
- It is so easy to get to around – the infrastructure is phenomenal, whether you’re arriving by plane or a bullet train. And don’t even get us started on how good the Metro is in Xian!
Our perfect 3 day Xian Itinerary
- Day 1 | Ancient City Walls, Beilin Museum, Chinese Calligraphy
- Day 2 | Terracotta Warriors, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
- Day 3 | Bell Tower, Drum Tower and the Muslim Quarter
How long do you need in Xi’an?
We’d suggest that you spend at least 3 days in Xian to explore all aspects that the city has to offer. We’ve built our Xian itinerary based on 3 full days in the city, however, if you have more time in the city, we’ve also added some bonus suggestions below on how you could further pad out your Xi’an itinerary.
If you are adding this as part of a larger itinerary, why not check out our recommendations for visiting Beijing? We were lucky enough to spend a month exploring China, so do get in touch or leave a comment below if you’d like any other tips!
Where to stay in Xian
Xian has loads of great accommodation options for all budget levels, but we’d recommend that if you love walking the city streets to stay central within the city walls. It’s also good to note that although many places call themselves ‘Bell Tower’ or ‘Drum Tower’ they can be located quite far from these landmarks.
Budget: One of the most popular youth hostels in town, 7 Sages International has really great rooms at affordable prices. It was fully booked while we were in Xian but we did stay at their sister property 7 Sages Boutique Bell Tower which we also really enjoyed.
Mid-range: Only 5 minutes walk to the city walls, the Eastern House Boutique Hotel, is in a fantastic location, really wonderful rooms and gets amazing reviews!
Luxury: If you’re looking for extravagance and everything you’d expect from 5* luxury, the Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Hotel is for you. It’s the kind of place that we wish we could stay…
Walk (or bike) the Ancient Xi’an city walls
Kick off your day with James’ favourite activity in the city: a tour of the ancient city walls. The walls are hugely impressive, built in 1370 they are the largest city walls in the world – and provide a continuous loop of nearly 14km around the old city. There are 4 main gates: The East Gate (Changle Gate), West Gate (Anding Gate), South Gate (Yongning Gate) and North Gate (Anyuan Gate), with the South Gate being the most impressive of them all.
If you go early, you get whole sections of the wall completely to yourself, so a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle. Walking the walls takes about 3 hours if you’re at a relatively quick pace. You can also hire bikes on the wall to cycle around which is a bit easier, and there are even electric carts that you can take if you’re feeling super lazy.
The price for entrance is 54 RMB (7.50 USD/6 GBP) and if you’d like to hire a bike it’ll cost 45 RMB (6.20 USD/5 GBP).
Open: 8.00am to 6.00pm (Nov to Apr) and 8.00am to 7.00pm (May to Oct).
Located right next to the city walls and housed in a Confucius Temple, the Beilin Museum (also known as the Stele Forest) hosts over 3,000 stone monuments (steles), dating all the way back from the Tang dynasty. It may sound a bit weird to have a museum dedicated to stone tablets, but these are really impressive and well worth the visit.
The cost for the museum entrance is 65 RMB (9 USD/7.35 GBP) but you can also combine this with a ‘Museum and Walls’ combo ticket costing 100 RMB (14 USD/11.50 GBP).
Location: 15 Sanxue St, Zhong Lou Shang Quan, Beilin, Xi’an
Open: 8.00am to 6.00pm
Try out Chinese Calligraphy
In and around the museum area, you can get lost in the surrounding streets, and find yourself marvelling at the stores and stalls full of stunning Chinese calligraphy. It’s wonderful just observing these artists going about their business, but what better than to actually give it a try yourself? Note: it’s way harder than it looks!
You can give it a try at the Calligraphy Museum or there are a bunch of tours that you can try out.
One of the most famous sites in China, if not the world, you’ll need to set aside at least half the day to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Terracotta Army. Nearly 2,000 years old, the sculptures were built to protect the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife. And if it wasn’t for a farmer digging a well in the 1970s, the Terracotta Army may still lay undiscovered to this day!
There are 3 main pits that they estimate contain over 8,000 sculptures. And it’s a painstaking process to put the statues back together, with each one taking as long as 6 months. So it really is a working archaeological dig, which we found fascinating.
It’s well worth getting out to the Terracotta Warriors as early as possible to try and avoid the tour buses! As the pits are housed in buildings, and you’re viewing from the edges, it can get very busy.
It’s pretty easy to make your own way to the site, with buses leaving from outside the main Xian train station from around 7.00am and it takes about an hour to get there. The bus costs 10 RMB (1.40 USD/1 GBP) and leave every 10-15 minutes. Entrance to the museum is quite expensive, at 120 RMB (16.75 USD/13.50 GBP) per person but you can’t go to Xian and not see the Mausoleum. Get your tickets here.
We’d also recommend getting a tour guide for the visit, we aren’t usually people who get a guide, but there is so much history and detail that you’d miss at the Terracotta Warriors that in this case it is worth it!
Location: Lintong, Xi’an, Shaanxi
Open: 8.00am to 5.00pm daily
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Located outside the city walls in the Daci’en Temple complex, the hugely impressive Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a World Heritage Site. Originally, this Buddhist pagoda was built in 652 during the reign of Emperor Tang, only to be destroyed 50 years later. It was then rebuilt as a ten story pagoda by Empress Zetian in 704. In the 1550’s a major earthquake damaged the pagoda and 3 layers had to be removed, leaving the seven story structure that you see today.
The easiest way to reach the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is on the Metro, get off at Da Yan Ta station on Line 3 and 4. The cost to enter the Daci’en Temple complex is 40 RMB (5.50 USD/4.50 GBP), and if you’d like to go up the pagoda (well worth it for the views) that costs 25 RMB (3.50 USD/2.80 GBP).
Location: 1 Ci’en Rd, Xiao Zhai Shang Ye Jie, Yanta, Xi’an
Open: 8.00am to 5.00pm daily
Bell Tower & Drum Tower
Set relatively close together, the Xi’an city Bell Tower and Drum Tower are two of China’s best examples of these structures. Quite interestingly, the Bell Tower was rung to signal dawn and the start of the day, whereas the Drum Tower drums were beat to mark the end of the day.
The Bell Tower, set in the middle of the old city, was built in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty. Alongside letting the Xian population know the time, it was also a place for locals to find out news. The Bell Tower is a really impressive structure and a definite stop on your itinerary, even to see the outside. Cost for entry to the Bell Tower is 35 RMB (5 USD/4 GBP).
Closer to the Muslim Quarter, the Drum Tower is also a very impressive structure and the downstairs hall has lots of ancient drums within the drum museum – and the views from the top of the city are also great. Cost for entry to the Drum Tower is 35 RMB (5 USD/4 GBP).
Location: Zhonglou Shangquan, Beilin, Xi’an
Opening hours: 8.30am to 9.00pm (Apr – Oct) and 8.30am to 6.00pm (Nov – Mar)
Definitely the best place to try out some Xian dishes is in the Muslim Quarter, or Huimin Street. Some of the most famous dishes that you should try on a walking tour of the Muslim Quarter include Roujiamo, a beef or lamb bun, Xi’an dumplings, the cold rice noodles and the pita bread with lamb soup – Yangrou Paomo. The food dishes are amazing, very inexpensive and you won’t be disappointed! If you’re not great with trying street food, let’s be honest it can be daunting, why not try a walking food tour?
So that wraps up our suggested 3 days in Xian itinerary, if you have any other ideas or options do let us know in the comments below. And as mentioned before, here are a few additional bonus ideas in case you have more time to spend in the city:
Bonus: Additional & unusual things to do in Xi’an
For a city that is best-known for the Terracotta Warriors (and not much else), there is surprisingly a lot to do in Xi’an! Here are a few of the bonus activities you could add to your travel guide for Xi’an:
Small wild goose pagoda
Also known as the ‘Little Wild Goose Pagoda’, this ‘brother’ of the large pagoda is just inside the Jianfu Temple, about a kilometre south of the city. Like it’s neighbour it was built during the Tang Dynasty about 1300 years ago. The pagoda used to be 15 storeys high but an earthquake in 1556 lobbed off the top two tiers, which were never replaced. You can walk up the pagoda through an internal staircase at an extra cost of 30 CNY (4 USD / 3.25 GBP). Actually, the site offers about 3000 tickets free each day, after which you pay 20 RMB ( 2.75 USD / 2.25 GBP) for visiting the pagoda or 50 RMB ( 7 USD / 5.50 GBP)if you want to also climb it.
Location: 72 Youyi W Rd, Beilin, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Open: 9.00am – 4.00pm daily (closed on Tuesdays)
Shaanxi History Museum
I’ll be honest – we aren’t the hugest fans of museums, hence this one not making it onto our final list. But if you’re a history buff and love ancient artefacts, this is a good place to visit. The museum (which is quite near to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda), is one of the largest state museums in China. It actually boats more than 37,000 different items and is 65, 000 square metres in size, so you could spend at least a few hours sauntering the walkways and exhibitions. Highlights in the museum include the fossils of Lantian Man (a precursor to Homo Erectus i.e. modern man), pieces from the Tang Dynasty, including a huge mural of people playing polo, and the Empress’ Seal, a jade seal which is one of the most important in the country. Tickets are free for most of the exhibitions but special exhibitions usually charge a fee.
Location: 91 Xiaozhai E Rd, Xiao Zhai Shang Ye Jie, Yanta, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.00am – 5.30pm
Climbing Mount Huashan
Disclaimer: we didn’t do this one, but only since James has a fear of heights. You might have seen videos of this place – essentially Mount Huashan has a death-defying cliff-side climb of 2160m, and is known as ‘the most dangerous hike in the world’. It’s essentially a plank walk, suspended a very long way from the ground! It’s become quite difficult to actually do, due to the huge interest from tourists in the place. It’s also a little tricky to get to: 40 minutes on a train, then 30 minutes on a bus before either walking up or taking the cable car. If you are going to attempt this one, we suggest reading this article from the Nomadasaurus travel blog, and going early!
The only Tibetan Buddhist temple in the province, this temple dates back to the early 18th century. It’s a small complex so quite an easy thing to add to your itinerary, particularly if you’re walking the city walls, as you can take a small detour off the wall and down into the complex. It’s a very spiritual place, with prayer flags flapping and monks walking the grounds, so well worth a visit. That said, when we were there we encountered quite a few ‘engagement’ photo shoots outside the walls, which made for a bit of fun but might have ruined the mystery of the site!
It has a number of great treasures in it’s halls and also some very rare trees in the grounds, like the ‘clothes-hanging cypress’ and the 300 year old Cuilan Cypress. Entrance costs 20 CNY (2.75 USD / 2.25 GBP)
Location: 152 Xi Bei Yi Lu, Lianhu, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Open: 8.00am – 6.00pm daily
When is the best time to go to Xian?
The two best seasons to visit Xi’an are Spring and Autumn. Both March to May and September to November provide warm days and cooler nights. It’ll be quieter as you’re out of peak season. Although make sure you watch out for the National Holiday in October as it is heaving with people!
The summer months can be extremely hot and humid, and there’s a pretty good chance of a rainstorm or two. During winter it can get pretty cold, but it’s also the quietest time of the year, so if you’re happy with freezing temperatures maybe this would be a good time for you.
How to get to Xian?
China’s transportation network is pretty solid, and you have quite a few good options for Xian. Usually you’ll be heading to Xian from a major city like Beijing or Shanghai, although of course you could be flying in from South Korea, Hong Kong or further afield. The airport, Xianyang International Airport, is located 41 km northwest of Xian. There is a great airport shuttle service into the city centre that costs 25 RMB (3.50 USD/2.85 GBP). To check out the latest flights try out Skyscanner.
The other option is the trains, and we really can’t tell you how impressed we were with the trains across China. The high speed bullet trains are immaculately clean, fast, quiet and comfortable.
To book your trains directly you need to understand Chinese, and have a local number and ID. So we’d recommend going with a third party service to book your train tickets. We got all our train tickets (10 of them) through China Highlights. It’s handy to know that tickets go on sale for trains 30 days in advance and some trains can become fully booked, so just turning up at the station may not be the best idea.
Must have apps
So after a month of travelling in China, we believe we’ve got the knowledge of what apps you’ll need to survive, so we put together a list of the must-have ones for you to download before heading to Xian. We even have a more in-depth article on all the must-apps here. Aren’t we helpful? 😊
The most important app to install before you get to Xian (or even China) is a VPN, we’ve experienced using both ExpressVPN and NordVPN and although both work well, we’d say that Express just pips it in terms of quality of access that you get. Without a VPN you won’t be able to access any Google email, Google maps, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram etc. Click here to get ExpressVPN – we personally recommend it; the world’s number one VPN means something, right?
Although Google Maps is great, our favourite route planner is Maps.me. Download offline maps, and this app provides you with your positioning throughout China.
As long as you have the VPN turned on, you’ll still be able to access Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, although these can be a bit slow. However, it’s definitely worth also downloading WeChat (Google/Apple). China’s answer to WhatsApp will allow you to stay in contact with people you meet in China plus you could even make payments through it, if you link your credit card.
Travel & Accommodation
So Uber (or Grab) don’t work in China, but they do have their own version – DIDI which basically works the same. If you get it from the US Apple store or the APK of the right version it’s available in English! Pretty handy…
And if you like to store all your accommodation bookings, train tickets, airplane trips into one place, then check out Tripit. This nifty little app automatically pulls in your bookings from email confirmations and then puts it all together in one trip itinerary. Win.
If you’re looking for the best accommodation options, then Agoda has to be the one for you. It has far more options than Booking.com in China.
Our favourite money planning app – Trabee Pocket – allows you to add in everything that you spend in a day, then shows you how you are doing on your daily budget. A really handy app to make sure you’re not blowing all your budget on the first couple of days…
So you probably want to figure out what you’re spending along the way. We always find that XE is the perfect tool for a rough estimate on costs.
One of the most handy tools for travelling in Xian is having a great translation app. English isn’t widely spoken and having Google Translate in your pocket will help you out immensely. Whether it’s directions, ordering the right dinner or checking something with a shop assistant before you make that purchase – this is a must.
Useful Chinese phrases
- Hello – nǐ hǎo
- Thank you – xiè xie
- You’re welcome – bú yòng xiè
- Yes – shi
- No – méiyǒu
- How are you? – nǐ hǎo ma?
- OK – hǎo
- Good – hǎo de
- Not Good – bù hǎo
- I’m sorry – duì bu qǐ
What camera equipment and other gear do we use?
We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.
- Main Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ1000
- Drone: DJI Mavic Air – Fly More Combo
- GoPro: Hero 7 Black
- GoPro Dive Case: Go Pro Super Suit
- GoPro Case: AmazonBasics GoPro Carry Case – Small
- Packing Cubes: Eagle Creek Packing case
- Backpack: Osprey Fairpoint 70
- Powerbank: Anker Powercore
- Phone: Xiaomi Mi 9
- Hard drive: Transcend Slim Storejet 2TB
- Laptop: Lenovo IdeaPad 720s
- Headphones: Bose Quiet Comfort 35
- Wifi Hotspot: GlocalMe G3
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