The capital of China for over one thousand years, Xi’an is the root of Chinese civilization. The eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road, it is most famous today as the home of the Terracotta Army. Visitors will also find numerous other historic sites, great food in the Hui Muslim Quarter and Huashan, one of China’s sacred mountains.
Best Time to Go
Xi’an has hot summers, but gets nowhere near as humid as eastern China. The winters are cold and dry. The best season to visit is autumn. Spring is also comfortable, but dust storms often hit in March and April.
Getting to Xi’an
Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is located 40 km from the city center. To get downtown, take the Airport Bus. There are several lines that go to various destinations around town for ¥26. You can take a taxi, but the drivers will almost certainly raise the prices for you. Expect to pay around ¥150, but make sure to take a green taxi. The black ones will cost even more.
The Xi’an Railway Station is at the north end of Jiefang Road, just outside the city wall. You can get anywhere in the city by bus. If you have booked ahead, your hostel will most likely offer a free pick-up service. As always, ignore the touts outside the station—you’ll get a worse room and pay more if you go with them.
The main long-distance bus station is located next to the train station. Some buses arrive at the East Bus Station, in which case you can take bus number 203 to the city center.
Xi’an has one subway line, so the system is still of limited use. Buses will probably be the best way to get around. Taxis are fairly cheap, but it isn’t always easy to find one and it is also not always that easy to find an honest driver.
Like all cities in China, the area around the railway station has several dirt cheap hotels that are not technically allowed to accept foreign guests. Unlike many cities, those rules don’t seem to be too strictly enforced here and some bargaining will get you a room from 30 RMB. It won’t be a nice room though.
Xi’an has a whole bunch of excellent hostels and these are your best bet for cheap accommodation. Dorm beds will usually be $5-$10, while private rooms will be $20-$30, but these often fill up fast.
I stayed at the Xiangzimen International Youth Hostel when I was in Xi’an a few years ago and really liked it. They had a nice bar and hang-out area and a dumpling making party, although they only did that once a week, I believe.
These days (2014) there are several more popular hostels that are probably better bets if you are looking to meet other travelers. I’d check the Han Tang Inn Hostel and the Shuyuan International Party Hostel for available rooms first.
Xi’an actually has a capsule hotel, appropriately name the Xi’an Capsule Hotel. Staying here is a great way to save money while still getting your own room (or your own coffin, depending on whom you ask) and also an interesting experience, especially if you haven’t been to Japan.
Eating & Drinking
The nightlife in Xi’an will never compare to China’s largest cities, but there are some good places to have a few drinks. The area around South Gate has a couple of nice bars with gardens and terraces that are really pleasant in the summer. You’ll also find a bunch of bars next to each other on Defuxiang Street. Most of the clubs are on Nandajie (South Ave), although 1+1, which seemed to be the most popular when I was there, is on Dongdajie (East Ave).
The best place to eat in Xi’an is undoubtedly the Muslim Quarter. Not only will you find a bunch of street-side restaurants and snack vendors on the main road, but you can get cheap street food on the side roads running parallel to the main road. For western food, you’re probably best off eating in the hostels. They usually have pretty good Chinese food too—it’s more expensive than elsewhere and it’s less authentic, but when it comes to Chinese food, a little less authenticity is often a good thing.
Xi’an is a safe place and the main problems are the horrible air quality, the bad drivers and petty crimes like pickpocketing. Just pay attention to your valuables, especially on crowded buses and tourist attractions and you should be fine.
Things to Do
- Army of Terracotta Warriors and Horses: UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of China’s most famous attractions; take bus #306 to the last stop; entrance ¥150, students ¥75, bus from ticket office to entrance ¥5
- Huashan (Mount Hua): one of China’s sacred mountains; requires climbing some steep stairs and gets very crowded in the summer; to get there, take a train from Xi’an North Station or a bus from the railway station; beware of scams with the buses (they should cost 33 RMB one way or 55 return) and with the taxi to the entrance upon arriving (it should cost 10 RMB and only the East Gate closes at night, so don’t let them convince you you need to get a hotel and wait for the mountain to open in the morning; also, don’t believe anything they tell you about bad conditions of the road driving up the price); entrance is 180 Yaun; cable car is ¥80, 150 round trip; guest houses at the peak are around 60-120 RMB
- Huaqing Palace: you can take hot baths inside; 9:00AM-5:00PM; bus #306 (first stop); ¥110, ¥60 for students; cable car 60 RMB return
- Taiping National Park: nice natural area famous for its waterfall
- Xiangyu Forest Park: another nice natural area
- DaMing Palace and Park: giant park with a humongous open square, an ancient palace gate and a lot of green spaces; just north of the Xi’an Railway Station; entrance is free
- Hui Muslim Quarter: great place to wander around and sample snacks or sit down and have a meal; lots of good, cheap food
- City Wall of Xi’an: world’s largest city wall; walking all the way around takes 4-5 hours, biking takes 2 hours; bikes can be rented at the South Gate or East Gate and are 40 RMB per 90 minutes, tandem bikes are 80 RMB; you’ll need a passport or 200 RMB as a deposit and you can’t rent when it’s raining
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport or the stations; take the bus instead or arrange for a free pick-up with your hostel
- use the public buses to get around and avoid taxis
- don’t take group tours to see the sites and rely on public transport instead
- eat street food in the muslim quarter; you can get really good food for very little money
- try the cheap hotels by the station or stay in a hostel dorm room; I much prefer the dorm room