I’d been waiting eagerly to travel to Xi’an to visit the Terracotta Warriors (or Terracotta Army) forever. But this ancient city is so much more than the home to the world’s largest imperial tomb complex.
Xi’an was the first capital of united China in 221 BC that was ruled by 13 dynasties! In many ways it is the birthplace of China, the nation. It was also at one point the starting point of the Silk Road, the trade route between Asia and Europe. It played a vital role in economic and cultural exchange during imperial times. In fact, “Xi’an” is the romanization of the Mandarin pronunciation of its name which means “Western Peace”.
Should You Go To Xi’an?
Of course, you must visit Xi’an. As once China’s political, economic and cultural centre, and one of the first cities open to the western world, Xi’an is full of historical and cultural sites. And what’s more, it’s amazing how well the ancient relics have been preserved.
How Many Days Should You Spend In Xi’an?
Although you could cover all the main attractions in Xi’an in 2 days, I’d say keep 3 days to avoid rushing through them. Xi’an is a relatively big city, with it’s main attraction (the Terracotta Army) located well outside the city limits. And the traffic within the city can also slow things down.
So keeping these factors in mind, the travel itinerary for Xi’an that we propose is for 2 days, but we keep the 3rd day for spillover or other smaller attractions.
3 Day Itinerary For Xi’an, China
Let’s plan our Xi’an travel itinerary around the top things to do and see in in the city. Personally, I think these are the top attractions that you have to visit:
- The Terracotta Army
- Ancient City Wall
- The Bell & Drum Towers
- The Muslim Quarters
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda
In our travel itinerary for Xi’an, we’ll show you how best to visit each of these attractions, keeping in mind their relative distance from each other.
So, let’s start.
Explore the Ancient City Wall
Let’s start by exploring the Ancient City Wall. The main city of Xi’an is literally a walled-city. The 14 km (9 mile) fortification was built under the rule of the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang as a military defense system. Today, the wall stands 12 metres (40 feet) tall, 12-14 metres (40-46 feet) wide at the top and 15-18 metres (50-60 feet) wide at the bottom.
The best way to explore the wall is to walk or cycle along the top of it. The walkway on the top of the Xi’an City Wall can be accessed through any of the 18 gates, depending on your location. However, keep in mind that the gates may have varying opening hours.
Cycles can be rented at any of the main gates (North, South, East, West). Cycling around the wall should take you a couple of hours. It could obviously take longer if you decide to stop and take photos, which is highly recommended. And of course, you don’t have to cycle the entirety of the wall. You could also cycle from one gate to another.
What I found incredible about the city fortification was how well it has been preserved. Granted that it has been renovated on numerous occasions, it was still a pleasure to see an ancient wall in such beautiful condition.
South Gate: 8 AM to Midnight
East/North/West Gate, Hanguang Gate, Wenchang Gate, Heping Gate, Zhongshan Gate, Shangde Gate: May to Oct: 8 AM to 7 PM | Nov to Apr: 8 AM to 6 PM
Ticket price: RMB 54
Visit The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda built in 652 during the Tang dynasty. Back then, one of the pagoda’s main function was to house sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Buddhist translator and traveler Xuanzang. Today, the interior walls of the pagoda feature engraved statues of Buddha by the renowned artist Yan Liben.
We found that the easiest way to get to the Pagoda is via taxi as it’s located a few kilometres south of the City Wall.
8 AM to 5 PM
Entrance Fee: RMB 40
Ascending the Pagoda: RMB 25
You could end the first day with dinner at the Muslim Quarters. That’s what we did. There’s so much good food and variety at the Muslim Quarter, that you could eat there every night. But for simplicity, we’ve included it in our itinerary for the second day at Xi’an.
Visit The Terracotta Army
It should come as no surprise that the Terracotta Army at Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum, is the main attraction at Xi’an. It is by far the most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – an elaborate mausoleum created to accompany Emperor Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife.
Thousands of clay warriors, of different ranks and with different facial expressions, and horses standing in trenches to protect the emperor. Just imagine the reactions of the farmers who discovered this ancient relic when all they wanted was to dig a well!
How to get to the Terracotta Warriors from Xi’an
The actual site of the Terracotta Warriors is located in Lintong, almost 40 kms outside the city of Xi’an. We found it most convenient to hire a local taxi for the day. But we’d also like to point out that you could book a full day tour or a half day tour that are inclusive of hotel pick-ups.
Given the traffic within the city and near the site of the Terracotta Warriors, we’d suggest you budget 1.5 hours travel time. It’s also good to note that mornings are the best time to visit as the large tour crowds only arrive after 10 AM. We’d say, budget anywhere between 4-6 hours for trip.
The mausoleum opens at 8:30 AM and shuts at 6 PM during the summer (March to November) and 5:30 PM during the winter (November to March).
Tickets and Opening Hours
Getting tickets to the site shouldn’t be an issue. However, you could skip the ticket line by booking your tickets online. Given the number of visitors, especially during the holidays, it might be advisable to buy your ticket beforehand.
- Admission ticket only
- Tour guide
- Local lunch
- English speaking tour guide
- Admission Ticket
- Pick up and drop off service for Xi’an downtown hotel
- Hotel pick up and drop off
- Admission Ticket
- Private half-day tour
Now there’s no way to sugarcoat this, but be prepared for enormously large crowds if you happen to visit the Terracotta Warriors during a Chinese holiday.
It’s advisable that you hire a guide from outside (they’re the ones wearing pinstripe suits). It cost us RMB 120/person for the guide. You could also opt for an audio guide that would cost you RMB 40 per person (with a RMB 100 deposit).
Inside Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum
The Terracotta Warriors historical site contains 3 major pits tagged in the order of their discoveries and the Bronze Chariots and Horses Exhibition Hall.
Pit 1 is the largest pit at 14,260 square metres. It was the first pit to be discovered in 1974 and was opened to the public in October 1979. There are over 6,000 terracotta warriors and horses in Pit 1, of which 1,000 have been unearthed. Each statue is life-size and arranged in battle formation.
Pit 1 is also the most crowded pit, visitor-wise. All along it’s 230 metre length and 60 metre pit are eager tourists along the rails waiting for their turn to take photographs. Before you exit the hall, you can see the area where archaeologists reassemble the broken terracotta statues.
Pit 2 was found in 1976. This 6,00 square metre, L-shaped pit is not as impressive as Pit 1 but it does contain a variety including infantry, crossbow team, cavalry, and chariots.
However, the main attraction in the pit is not the pit itself, but the restored clay statues up for display in their enclosures. It’s here that visitors can get to see statues of the archer, general, soldier, and horse up-close.
Pit 3 is the smallest of all the 3 pits at only 520 square metres. It too was found in 1976 and opened to the public in September 1989. Archaeologists believe that this pit was the command centre for Pits 1 and 2.
After your visit to the 3 pits, make your way to the Exhibition Hall or the Museum that’s located next to Pit 2. Although most of the exhibits in the museum are passable, our guide pointed out that there is one exhibit that we had to see. And that’s of the Bronze Chariots and Horses Exhibition Hall.
In this exhibition hall are two large scale models of bronze chariots and horses that were unearthed in 1980. These chariots were meant to serve the emperor as vehicles in the afterlife.
The horses and chariots are absolutely beautiful and intricately made. Make sure you check out the exhibits of the headstalls worn by the horses. These were intricately crafted pieces of jewellery using gold and silver, and have some very advance linking techniques.
Binge at the Muslim Quarter
Xi’an was the starting point of the Silk Road and in its heyday saw numerous traders and merchants come through the city. Many of them settled down in Xi’an and today many of their descendants continue to live in the same area now popularly known as the Muslim Quarter.
Today the Muslim Quarter is one of the main tourist attractions in Xi’an where locals and visitors congregate to eat delicious food and shop for spices. Some of the must eat dishes here are:
- Meat skewers
- Cold noodles with sesame and chili
- Biang-biang noodles (flat, wide noodles)
- Lamb dumplings
- Lamb stew
- Pita bread and lamb
For the list of best restaurants to visit in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, check out this blog.
Also, the Muslim Quarter is home to numerous old mosques in Xi’an, including the Great Mosque of Xi’an.
Visit the Bell and Drum Towers
Just outside the Muslim Quarters are two beautiful structures – The Bell Tower and The Drum Tower.
The Bell Tower is a beautiful grand, traditional building that was once considered the centre of Xi’an. From the Bell Tower, you can also see the Drum Tower that can be approached via a short walk.
The Drum Tower got its name from the huge drum located within the building. It was at the Bell Tower where the bell was struck to mark the start of the day, whereas it was at the Drum Tower where the drum was beaten at sunset to indicate the end of the day.
Both buildings are open to the public from morning till the evening. However, we found that they were far more beautiful at night once the lights were turned on.
I would keep the third day as part of your Xi’an itinerary to explore a few more sites, or visits some sites that you were unable to fully explore in the first 2 days. Essentially, any spillover items.
You could also explore other attraction in Xi’an, such as the Shaanxi History Museum, or the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.
Here’s a quick video of our highlights from Xi’an.
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Accommodation in Xi’an
Here are our top hotel and places to stay in Xi’an.
Xi’an Travel Itinerary
We hope you found this 2 to 3 day itinerary for Xi’an helpful. As always, please feel free to share it. And if you have any questions, leave them in the comments below. And also, don’t forget to check out our photo gallery of Xi’an. That should definitely inspire you to travel to Xi’an!