Everyone comes to Xian for the Terracotta Warriors, and whilst there is no denying that they are incredible, there is so much more to Xian. If you can spare a long weekend, this itinerary takes in 8 fascinating things to do in Xian. In 72 hours, you can explore the major sights of this magnificent walled city and the Terracotta Warriors. I left Xian wishing I had stayed longer, so please don’t make the same mistake as me!
Note on getting around in Xian
Sights can be far apart in Xian and hop on hop off tourist buses do not operate currently. You will need to rely on public transport (read our guide on getting around in China) and do some advance preparation.
There is a metro with just three lines in Xian. Stations can be widespread and so the metro may not always be convenient. It is however, easy to navigate as stations are marked in English and Mandarin and there are maps in all stations.
Buses are more difficult to decipher. There are no maps in bus shelters, so navigating by bus is impossible unless you speak Mandarin or ask your concierge for the relevant bus numbers for your destinations.
Once you have established which bus to take, it is a simple affair. Find the correct stop (the numbers are shown in English and Mandarin) and simply put your money for the fare in the box by the driver. The electronic device by the driver seat indicates the price for each bus. You need to pay the exact fare as you will not receive change. It makes sense therefore to save small notes for this purpose.
Taxis are cheap ,but should be a last resort as you will miss out on Chinese people watching. Also, traffic in China is simply horrific. Unless you are travelling at 7am on a Sunday (the only time we witnessed little traffic), I do not recommend this mode of transport.
These were plentiful in the Muslim quarter but less so in other parts of the city. Sadly, I have no idea of the cost as we used the bus for most of our trips. I’d love to hear from anyone who has taken a rickshaw in Xian with details of how much they paid.
8 Fascinating Things To Do In Xian
So, once you have your city map (I have prepared a route below) and have established how you will travel, follow this itinerary of 8 fascinating things to do in Xian. Note that whichever mode of transport you choose, you will need a good pair of walking shoes. We walked a minimum of ten miles every day, even though we were hopping on and off buses.
Your city map
You can also download the GPS My CityGPS My City for an offline version of this itinerary and others like it.
Morning day one – Base circuit of Xian City Walls
One of my favourite things to do in Xian is to visit the City Walls. Xian is one of the few Chinese cities with intact city walls and they are amazing! Here’s some incredible facts about these imposing walls.
Facts about the walls
- 13.94 km long
- 10 – 12 metres high
- 15 – 18 metres wide at the base
- 12 – 14 metres wide on top
- A staggering 4,256 metres in length from East to West and 2,078 metres from North to South.
- Over 600 years old
The city even hosts a half marathon on the walls! They are that immense!
A circuit of the walls was the highlight of our trip, and you can walk, run or bike its entire base. You can hire an Ofo bike (the bright yellow bikes scattered around the city – read more in getting around in China) in multiple locations. They work out ridiculously cheap, but you will need to be roaming to hire the bike.
Running the base of the walls in Xian
A circuit of the base gives you a snapshot of Chinese culture. Jason and I used the base as a long training run one day, and I couldn’t stop grinning despite the relentless heat and stifling humidity.
As you circle the walls, you may spot people engaged in all manner of activity. Locals play highly competitive table tennis matches on well-maintained tables, and tai chi and yoga classes are a frequent sight.
There’s a wealth of different workout areas dedicated to a variety of activities, and people of all ages congregate for exercise or social interaction. Couples stroll the beautifully maintained paths and groups of friends chat animatedly in the shade.
Memories of our run will stay with me for a long time, as locals shouted hello, waved and grinned at us. One elderly lady even offered to fan me down! Others simply laughed at our exertion, as they conducted their morning mobilisation exercises.
The gardens on the outside of the wall are beautiful and dotted with regular free and clean bathrooms. To run the circuit, allow around 90 minutes, but to walk, I’d recommend around four hours. There are so many distractions including small temples, sculptures and ornamental bridges.
Afternoon of day one – Qujiang
This area is around 4km south of the walls. From the South Gate, take bus 609 to the music fountain in front of the Big Goose Pagoda. Alternatively, from the Bell Tower, take any of the following buses – 19, 21, 22, 320, 408 and 610.
The area is spectacular and combines parkland, lakes, temples and shopping malls. A light railway transports visitors around the area, although it was not operating when we visited.
From the front of the fountains, you can admire lots of beautiful sculptures and statues. Wander up past the pagoda and cross the road south of the entrance to the pagoda. You enter a shop lined outdoor mall with endless larger than life statues. There are lots of colourful displays, little street stalls and animations for all the family. Here’s us creating moulds of our bodies in one such area. Neat hey?
Eventually you reach a further plaza with more fountains and a small temple.
The lakes are situated over to the left of the fountains if you are facing them. It is wise to allow at least an afternoon to wander through this area leisurely, especially if you are visiting in summer. The heat and humidity sap your energy meaning you may wish to rest more frequently than you might expect.
Day two – Terracotta Warriors
Of course, no visit to Xian would be complete without taking a trip to see the thousands of Terracotta Warriors.
However, ignore the guide books which all recommend an early start. We adopted that advice on several occasions in China and it backfired every time. Mornings are crazy busy as everyone clearly has the same idea. Enjoy a lazy morning and head to the main train station around 11 (you can read a fuller post about getting to the Terracotta Warriors independently here).
This should get you to the Terracotta Warriors for lunch time when it is considerably quieter. We were leaving around 2.30 and could see a notable difference in the crowd numbers. It felt like the place was over-run by swarms of tourists. Don’t be surprised if you are attacked by parasols, herd culture or rude local tourists desperate to shove you out of the way in their quest for a picture.
Read more on the Terracotta Warriors here:
Suffice it to say that the Terracotta Warriors are utterly incredible and nothing can prepare you for the row upon row of warriors arranged for battle. The detail, intricacy and life like nature are staggering, as is the fact that they were only discovered in 1974 when local farmers were digging a well. What a find!
Morning day three – Top of the walls
So, you have already navigated the base, but now it is time to get on top of the walls for different views of Xian. Whilst navigating the 13.94km circumference, you will spot ancient Chinese streets teaming with artisans, foodsellers and delivery men, young couples posing for wedding photos and beautiful temples.
As before, you can walk or run but bear in mind there is virtually no shade on the walls. There are plenty of bathrooms, convenience stores and cafes selling drinks, but unless you arrive as the walls open, the heat might be too much.
You can hire a cycle from the South Gate for 45 yuan a person (around £6) or ride the electric trolley if you feel less energetic. There is also an entry fee of 54 yuan per person.
Riding the top of the walls is almost as fascinating as circling the base. Whilst you will witness less authentic Chinese culture, you will often find yourself alone on the walls. You can enjoy a rare moment of peace with city views in all directions. As with most cities we saw in China, the skyline is far from beautiful, however there are pockets of beauty scattered along the walls.
Afternoon day three – Xian city sights
After descending from the walls, head under the walls and facing towards Bell Tower, turn right and follow the walls towards Wangcheng Gate. This leads you into a warren of small Chinese streets bustling with activity. Brides to be pose for engagement or wedding photos and shops sell a range of artistic supplies. It’s a quaint area where the smell of spices tingle your taste buds and bars and restaurants compete for your attention.
Bell Tower and Drum Tower
From here, head to Bell Tower which is the tower in the middle of the large roundabout on West Avenue. You can enter both this and Drum Tower (just behind at 11 o clock if the Bell Tower is a watch face and you have approached from the South) on a combined ticket for 50 yuan. Be sure to come back at night to see them both lit up in their full glory. They are impressive by day but the star attraction in the evening.
From Drum Tower, follow Beiyuamen Street away from West Avenue. This leads into the Muslim quarter where you can haggle for all manner of Chinese tourist memorabilia and clothing. Every conceivable tourist trinket can be found here, from spices to beautifully decorated fans, intricate hand painted postcards, and brightly coloured Chinese outfits.
It’s a labyrinth of narrow lanes teaming with bikes, mopeds, rickshaws and delivery carts all vying for space. Food stalls line the road, offering every conceivable food imaginable (and many that I could not imagine, and certainly do not want to try!). You will spot pigs hanging in the street, octopi on sticks and a wide range of other foods we could not determine.
Deju alley is a bar lined street just north west of the south gate and is perfect for bar hopping in the evening. It also hosts a few restaurants, although you can grab snacks in some bars.
Many host live music in the evening, have big screens for football and other sporting events and occasional karaoke sessions.
We enjoyed a lot of very amusing local interaction and the beers are reasonably priced between 20 yuan and 60 yuan.
We stayed at the Sheraton Xian using our SPG free nights from my SPG Reward Credit card. Find out how you can get earn free nights here. Be sure to use my referral link if you sign up as you will receive 33,000 bonus points when you spend £1,000 in three months. That’s an extra 3,000 points just for using my referral).
Have you been to Xian?
This 72 hour Xian tour itinerary includes eight fascinating things to do in Xian. However, I genuinely believe you could comfortably fill five days of exploring this amazing city. There were plenty of other things to do in Xian that we did not have time for. Sob sob!
Maybe you have visited Xian and have some ideas for those who may wish to linger longer. Please feel free to share them in the comments below.