China: A Weekend in Xi’an

What to do with a weekend in Xi’an

Xi’an was once a great capital city that was home to the confluence of cultures that met at the end of the silk road.  Today, Xi’an is China’s second most popular tourist destination. Like many travelers, I had only a short time to explore this great city.  Here is what I did on a short weekend in Xi’an.

1. Come Face to Face with the Terra-cotta Army

The Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang was discovered quite accidentally by some farmers in 1974.  Since then, this archeological sight is among the most famous  in the world.

Terracotta Army in Xi'an, China
Pit one contains 6,000 figures each with unique facial features
Terracotta Warriors Pit 1
The Terra-cotta warriors show the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. They were buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE

Every recommendation is to see the pits in reverse order. That is, visit pit three first, pit two second, and save pit one for the end.  Although I set out to follow this advice, lack of English signage, and maps made it impossible to find which pit was where until after you’d entered one of the buildings. As it happened, I entered the building for pit one first.

Visiting pit one first was not a bad way to go.  I made my way along the railings squeezing in among other groups of tourists to catch a photo.  After visiting pits three and two, I returned to pit one to take another, more relaxed look.

Around me, crowds of tourists pressed against the railing and clutched their earpieces to their ears as their guide spoke quietly into a transmitter. I gazed at the warriors.  As I looked I imagined that one had fixed his clay eyes on me – unflinching, unmoving, and oddly terrifying. I would not want to go up against this army – clay or not.

Terra-cotta army in Xi'an, China
Pit 1 is the largest pit at 230 meters long and 62 meters wide.

Practical information about the Terra-cotta Army

Getting there:  Plan at least one hour each direction for transportation. Buses leave from the central train station (to the right as you look at the station) as soon as they fill up. They are clearly marked.

Admission: CNY 150 (adult) and 75 (Student). There is a small price drop between December and February.

Hours: 8.30am-5.30pm Mar-Nov, to 5pm Dec-Feb

Finding your way around: If you want to save pit one for the end, bear right as you come to the buildings that house the pits. You will enter pit two first. From there you can follow the signs to pit three, and from there to pit one.

2. Pay a Visit to the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower

Drum tower in Xi'an, China
24 drums line the north and south sides of the tower and represent the 24 solar terms

Xi’an’s Drum tower was constructed in 1380 (Ming Dynasty) and the Bell tower just four years later.  During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, a huge drum stood in the tower to beat the time at Dusk.  Similarly, bells were rung in the bell tower to tell the time at dawn.

Today, the Drum tower is home to a large collection of traditional Chinese percussion instruments.  One can see performances featuring these instruments at 45 minute intervals throughout the day (There is a break for lunch).

Daily performances take place at the Drum Tower (video link)

The upper floors of the Bell Tower hold a Qing Dynasty Furniture collection.  Besides that, though the only reason to visit the Bell tower is for the views down the intersecting main roads of Xian.

Xi'an Drum Tower
Xi’an’s Drum Tower performances feature pitched bells, drums, and other traditional percussion instruments.

Practical information for the Drum Tower and Bell Tower

Admission: A combined ticket to both towers costs CNY 50, or they cost CNY 35 each to visit separately.

Hours: 8:30 to 22:00 (April-Oct) and 8:30 am to 18:00 (Nov-March)

Getting there: Buses 603, 611, 201, 251, 608, 229, 6, 239, and 610 all pass the drum tower and the Bell Tower at the center of the city.

3. Grab a bite in the Muslim Quarter

A weekend in Xi'an
A man pulls noodles in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter
Three wheeled delivery trucks weave among pedestrians in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter

Located right next to the Drum Tower, the Muslim Quarter boasts a street scene that bursts with life.  It also bursts with tourists.  The main thing to do in the Muslim Quarter is eat.

Street vendors pull noodles to impossible lengths or serve up meat sandwiches (Rou Jia Mo), mutton stew, and cold noodles (liang pi) along with less unique Chinese snacks of noodles and fried street meat.

Approximately 20,000 muslims live in Xi’an and while the snack street is fun if it is culture you are after, grab a bite and then explore some of the streets.  Xi’an’s Muslim quarter is home to several mosques, and a slew of tiny and interesting back alleys that beg exploration.

4. Circle the city on Xi’an’s City Wall

Xi'an City Wall
The Xi’an city wall stands 12 meters tall and stretches nearly 14 kilometers around the city

The highlight of my time in Xi’an was certainly the time I spent on the wall.  It is simple enough to rent bikes, but the morning I went it was raining steadily.  I figured I would walk.

The rain drove the other tourists indoors.  Aside from a pair of middle aged men, a young couple on a bicycle, and two women – I had the wall to myself for more than four hours.

With only a weekend in Xi’an, I briefly questioned my decision to spend my last four hours on the wall. A friend of mine told me that this wall was the highlight of her time in Xi’an and as I walked, came to understand why.  Everything about the wall was magnificent from the imposing scale of the tall walls to the elegant curve of the classical Chinese roofs perched atop the guard towers.  I walked for hours and never tired of the scene before me.

Practical information for the Xi’an City Wall

Hours: The south gate is open year-round between 8:00 and 22:00.  The other gates also open at 8:00am but their closing hours vary depending on the season.

Admission: CNY 54 for adults, CNY 27 for children up to 4.6 feet tall, and free for children under 3.9 feet tall.

Gates: The South Gate, Small South Gate, East Gate, West Gate, North Gate, Heping Gate, Wenchang Gate and Hanguang Gate all allow visitors to access the wall.

Bicycle Rental: A two hour bicycle rental costs CNY 45 for a single or CNY 90 for a tandem bike.  The rental offices open at 8:15.  There are rental offices at the North Gate, East Gate, West Gate, South Gate.


Fruit trees begin to blossom in spite of an overcast sky outside the walls of Xi’an.

Useful Links

Wild China has a great post about walking through the Muslim Quarter including food suggestions Consult Xi’an Travel if you have more than a weekend in Xi’an and want to explore some of the sights that are further afield.  They also have a decent online tourist map for the city inside the walls.

Travel China Guide has a list of airport buses, their operating hours, travel times, cost, and destinations to aid you in traveling to and from the airport in Xi’an.

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