The first thing on our Xian itinerary was, of course, the famous Terracotta Warriors. Of course, Xian is famous for the amazing Terracotta Army and it is an absolute must-see if you’re in the city. Of course, I’ll be telling you all about the Terracotta Warriors in this article. However, there is quite a lot more to Xian. So I want to share some tips on exploring the city and give you an idea of what other great attractions you can visit.
Xian is in central China in the province of Shaanxi. In fact, it is located at the eastern end of the famous Silk Route. Even more, Xian has a rich history spanning many thousands of years. So it’s a fantastic place to visit on a trip around China. We arrived in the city at the main station after taking the overnight train from Beijing. There are other options though. You can take a daytime high-speed train or you can also fly in as Xian has its own airport.
Xian Itinerary Index
Getting Around Xian
Xian had a subway system when we were there but it’s expanded quite a bit since then. As I have said before, I think using the metro or subway system is one of the easiest ways to get around if a city has one. We walked from Xian Railway Station to our hotel because there was no metro station. However, now it is much easier and you can get to the main railway station directly on subway line 4. You can also take line 1 to Wulukou station and then it is a short walk.
If you arrive in Xian on the fast daytime train then you will find yourself at Xian North Station. This is a little way north of the city centre but it is also connected to the subway system. Take either line 2 or 4 to reach Xian North Station.
Xian subway system is still under development and there will be lots more lines eventually. However, for now, there are 4 lines in service: Lines 1, 2, 3 and 4. You can buy single fare tickets. The cost starts at 2 CNY (about 25p) but depends on how far you’re going. If you use the machines to buy your ticket you can put in your destination station and then it will tell you how much to pay. As you can see, using the subway is a really cheap way to get around. You can also buy an unlimited one-day pass for 15 CNY (£1.75) or 3-day for 40 CNY (£4.50) which is also excellent value and does make using the subway very straightforward.
Where to Stay in Xian
Of course, Xian is a big city and it has plenty of accommodation options. I only like to recommend places I’ve actually stayed at myself so I’m going to talk about where we stayed. We booked to stay at the Mercure Xian on Renmin Square during our Xian itinerary. Basically, I picked this hotel for its location. We could walk there from the railway station and it was also close to the main sights.
Basically, Renmin Square is a small private complex which has three hotels surrounding some lovely gardens. As you can see in the photos, it’s a very pleasant environment to stay. Xian can be hot, busy and also chaotic. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring it was wonderful to return to the tranquillity of Renmin Square to relax at the end of the day.
Grand Mercure Hotel
The other reason I booked the Mercure is that it was the cheapest of the three hotels and you could still use the pool and spa facilities at the Sofitel. In the end, we didn’t stay at the Mercure. When we arrived, very early, as usual, there was a conference at the Mercure so we were upgraded to the Grand Mercure Hotel instead. This is the rather posher and more grand looking sister hotel next door. It’s not the most expensive of the three, that’s the Sofitel Hotel, but it is pretty impressive. We were certainly very pleased with our upgrade. Not only that but they were hugely apologetic and were happy to give us access to our room straight away. Even though it was only 9 am.
This is typical of the customer service at all these hotels. They can’t do enough to help during your sta. Our room at the Grand Mercure was huge with a separate lobby area and an enormous bathroom with a separate sink area and wet room.
Pool & Spa at the Sofitel hotel
We used the pool and jacuzzi spa at the Sofitel quite a bit during our stay. It was very quiet and although we didn’t have it to ourselves there were only one or two other people there whenever we visited. The Sofitel is also the hub for restaurants and bars and there is plenty of choice. We ate dinner at their Moroccan restaurant and the food was excellent. Be warned though, wine and beer were expensive. Wine is always expensive in restaurants in China but the beer usually isn’t quite so pricey.
I’d highly recommend staying at the Grand Mercure Hotel in Xian. When you consider that we paid less than £50 a night to stay in this luxury you can see what great value it is. That rate also included breakfast. It is a little bit more than that if you actually book the Grand Mercure but only £10-15 a night more. If you’re on a tight budget then book the Mercure as you still get the lovely environment to relax in and can use all the facilities. To check availability for the Grand Mercure just click here. Or click on any of the hotel names above if you want to check availability for the others.
We found the Bell Tower in the centre of Xian. It’s also in the middle of a busy roundabout surrounded by modern shops, restaurants and cafes. It really is a bit strange how ancient and modern buildings are just crowded in together here, existing alongside each other. The Bell Tower definitely stands out though. Undoubtedly, it’s a very impressive building.
Firstly, you need to find your way across the busy road to the tower. Above all, don’t be tempted to try and cross the road. As you can see in the photo below there are several lanes of quite fast-moving traffic. Fortunately, there is a pedestrian subway network running underneath your feet. Look for the steps going down on each corner of the roundabout. Underneath you’ll find lots of little shops and market stalls as well as safe access to the Bell Tower.
Inside the Bell Tower
In fact, Xian used to be the capital of China and the Bell Tower was built at its centre deliberately as a marker. Once inside you walk up a series of steps as you ascend the tower. It’s not a big climb though. In the photo above you can see the bell. Apparently, there used to be a bigger one but it was replaced with this one at some point in its history. It still looks rather impressive to me.
You can also go inside the pagoda at the top and see the various smaller bells. There are regular performances when you can hear the bells rung. Each one lasts about 10-15 minutes and it’s well worth staying around to hear it. You can see an up to date schedule when you buy your tickets but they usually occur every 30 minutes or so.
Bell Tower: Practical Information
March to October: 08:30 am to 9 pm
November to April: 08:30 am to 6 pm
Bell Tower only: CNY 30 (£3.50)
Combined ticket with the Drum Tower: CNY 50 (£5.75)
Bell Tower Station on Line 2
You’ll also find the Drum Tower near the Bell Tower in the centre of Xian. In Ancient China, the drum was used to tell the time and might also be beaten if there was an emergency.
In the photos, you can see the large upright drum. This is actually quite a new drum since it was replaced within the last 20 years. Inside you can also enjoy musical performances. They take place approximately every 45 minutes. Catch one if you’ve time during your visit.
Drum Tower: Practical Information
March to October: 08:30 am to 9 pm
November to April: 08:30 am to 6 pm
Drum Tower only: CNY 30 (£3.50)
Combined ticket with the Bell Tower: CNY 50 (£5.75)
Bell Tower Station (Exit B) on Line 2
Small Wild Goose Pagoda
There are two Wild Goose Pagodas in Xian. The Big (or Giant) Wild Goose Pagoda and also the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. While we were in Xian, we visited the UNESCO World heritage Small Wild Goose Pagoda which is on the site of Jianfu Temple.
The Pagoda and museum are set in a lovely park just south of the city wall. It dates from the Tang Dynasty so around 618-907. Originally it was called Jianfu Temple Pagoda but became known as the Small Wild Goose Pagoda later on. Undoubtedly, that is a comparison to the larger Big Wild Goose Pagoda which was built earlier.
Inside the Small Wild Goose Pagoda
Paul climbed the steps to the top of the Pagoda but I stayed at the bottom with the bags. I’m a bit claustrophobic and I also didn’t fancy the rather steep climb. Paul said it was very dark and narrow and the last bit was a ladder through a small hole so I’m rather glad I didn’t attempt it as it didn’t sound very nice. Here you can see some photos that he took inside so you can make up your own mind.
This photo makes me feel a bit claustrophobic just looking at it. Paul said it wasn’t actually too bad but he did wonder what it would be like if it got busy.
He did get some great views across Xian from the top though. You can see that it is a little bit hazy which apparently isn’t uncommon in China in March/April.
Small Wild Goose Pagoda: Practical Information
April to October: 9 am to 6 pm
November to March: 9 am to 5.30 pm
Entrance to the pagoda area is free. If you want to climb the Pagoda it costs 30 CNY (£3.50).
Nanshaomen Station (Exit A1 and A2) on Line 2
Shaanxi History Museum
Afterwards, we walked through the beautiful gardens you can see in the photos below as we left the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. It’s an absolutely stunning sight. Full of cherry blossom and fountains. Two of my favourite park features. To the side of this lovely park, you’ll also find the Shaanxi History Museum.
I don’t actually have any photos of the museum itself but no matter as you can view these lovely gardens instead. I’m not sure why I don’t have any museum photos but I’m guessing that they didn’t allow photography inside. Don’t let that put you off though, it’s a great museum and completely free to enter. So well worth a visit.
It’s a modern building shaped like a traditional pagoda and inside you’ll find artefacts representing thousands of years of Chinese history. In fact, many of the exhibits are specific to the Shaanxi province. I always really enjoy spending time in these regional museums because it gives you the opportunity to find out something about the region you’re in. Because China is a very diverse country it’s a mistake to assume that history is the same right across this vast country.
I won’t list all the various displays as you can see those for yourself. Do make sure you visit the exhibition of Tang murals though. I’m sure you’ll agree that they are rather spectacular. After you’re finished in the museum take some time to relax and enjoy the gardens. Although it’s a popular spot with locals, it’s still relatively uncrowded and of course, totally free.
Shaanxi History Museum: Practical Information
April to October: 08:30 am to 6 pm
November to March: 9 am to 5.30 pm
Entrance is free. Just show your ID at the ticket desk.
You can rent an Audio Tour in English for 30 CNY (£3.50). You need to leave a 100 CNY deposit (£10)
Xiaozhai Station (Exit D) on Lines 1 and 2
Xian was a fortified city and an amazing amount of its wall still remains intact. That’s quite incredible considering it was built during the Ming dynasty, many hundreds of years ago. It is nearly 14 km (over 8 miles) long and has four main gate towers and also several smaller ones. On top of the wall, you’ll see wide walkways and it’s a great way to see more of the city from an elevated viewpoint.
Also, as you can see in my photos, it’s quite uncrowded up there. In fact, we hardly saw anyone else while we were walking. We visited out of season but during busier times it is also possible to take a ride on the battery car. Although we didn’t see it at all when we were there. You can also hire bicycles and cycle along the wall. The rental place is near the Southern Gate.
As you walk around there are several points of interest along the wall itself. You’ll find two small museums at the gate towers. Both are included in your ticket so do take a look. Here you can see a photo of me standing by a large bell displayed in a corner on the wall. Behind me, you can also get a glimpse of the city of Xian.
We started our walk along the wall at the north end which is near the main Railway Station. As you exit the main entrance you can see the wall straight in front of you. Indeed, you can’t miss it! If you walk slightly to your right then you’ll see the ticket kiosk and the steps up onto the wall. You can also enter the wall at various other points. If in doubt, just follow it until you see a ticket kiosk and steps going up. Although you can enter at lots of different places, if you’re making a special journey it is easier to head to the North or South gates which are both close to subway stations.
Xian City Wall: Practical Information
March to October: 8 am to 7 pm
November to April: 8 am to 6 pm
Adults: CNY 54 (£6)
Children: CNY 27 (£3)
Children under 1.2m tall are free
45 CNY (£5) for 2 hours or 90 CNY (£10) for a tandem bicycle
You need to leave a deposit of 200 CNY (£23)
(North Gate) Anyuanmen Station on Line 2
(South Gate) Yongningmen Station on Line 2
Getting there by bus
You can’t come to Xian without visiting the Terracotta Warriors so we set off early one morning in search of them. There are lots of tours available. And also what seems like a million taxi drivers all offering their services. However, I am not a big fan of either organised tours or taxis so I was determined to get there by public bus. We like travelling by public transport when visiting a city but we usually stick to trains and the subway with the occasional tram. Mainly because it’s easier to tell when you’ve reached your destination. Buses rarely have named stops and are thus much harder to use without risking ending up somewhere miles away from where you intended to be.
However, the only way to get to the Terracotta Warriors Museum by public transport is by bus so we walked back up to the main railway station and looked for bus 306(5) in the bus park to the right of the station entrance. It was actually very easy to find and there was only a small queue so we were on the next bus and on our way to the warriors.
On the bus
There was the option to stop at the hot springs on the way but we decided against it. We can sit in hot water at the hotel and we didn’t want any distractions from our main purpose. The ticket lady, suitably uniformed to indicate her official status, took our money – 7RMB each – that’s approx. 70p. Great value indeed as it is 35km to the museum.
The journey took about 50 minutes and was very interesting. Chinese driving is a tourist attraction in itself and our bus driver was fully adept at both using the horn and trying to take out other motorists.
A Stunning Sight
At the museum, we firstly purchased our entrance tickets. Then although we had intended to wander aimlessly around the museum on our own we managed to acquire ourselves a young Chinese guide. She only charged 150RMB to accompany us throughout the museum so it seemed like a good idea. She immediately earned her money by pointing me towards some clean toilets after which she ushered us onto a motorised shuttle. This was a bit like a large golf cart (cost 5RMB each) and whisked us to the museum entrance.
Security is tight throughout China and bags are scanned at the entrance to museums, subways, trains stations etc. Our tickets to the museum were scanned twice. Clearly, they don’t want anyone sneaking in!
Our guide took us to Pit 1 first. This is the largest pit with the standing soldiers. It is really an incredible experience to see them all stood there, in their original positions. We saw the travelling exhibition of the warriors some years ago when we were on holiday in Malta, where we saw several soldiers, a chariot and some horses. However, amazing as that was, it doesn’t come close to the impression of seeing them lined up in Pit 1.
Ongoing excavations and recovery
They were first discovered around 40 years ago but the process of excavating and reconstructing them is a long one and many pieces are still being worked on. We were able to see the Chinese archaeologists working on the recovered warriors and our guide was very knowledgeable about the process.
There are 2 further pits, Pit 2 holds more soldiers and Pit 3 was set up as a headquarters and the soldiers are stood around as if in a meeting. There is also a stable with horses. The colour of most of the soldiers was lost due to a number of factors, decay and fire playing a part as well as a deliberate attack by a subsequent Emperor. However, some do still have some colour in them and we were able to see these in the museum building.
The detail on the soldiers is amazing. The infantry are all young, slim men with knots on their heads, the middle-ranking officers are slightly plumper and older ones have square hats. Then the Generals, of which there were only a few, were quite fat, much older and had heart-shaped head-gear. Their shoes also differ according to rank. In addition, there are archers and horsemen with their own specific designs. It is really quite incredible.
In the photo below you can see one of the museum display boards. This shows some kneeling archers being excavated. You can see how they were found and their condition before any repair or recovery work was done. Obviously, the condition of the statues varied throughout the site but it is incredible how well preserved these are.
Afterwards, our guide took us to a local noodle restaurant for lunch. It didn’t look much from the outside but she helped us order bean curd, chicken and noodles with egg and tomato and it was very tasty. We did quite well with the chopsticks I thought although the waitress did appear with some forks after a while so perhaps not.
Terracotta Warriors: Practical Information
March to October: 8 am to 6 pm
November to April: 8.30 am to 5.30 pm
Adults and children over 1.4m tall: CNY 120 (£14)
Children under 1.4m tall are free
40 CNY (£4.50)
You need to leave a deposit of 100 CNY (£11.50)
From Downtown: Take Bus 5 (306) from Beijing Railway Station
From Beijing North Railway Station take the free shuttle bus