If there’s a city that has more historical significance than Beijing, it’s the city of Xi’an. Geographically at the heart of China, and the terminus of the Silk Road, Xi’an is in league with great ancient civilization cities like Cairo, Rome, and Athens. Think in those perspectives and you realize that there is so much history and culture to take in.
“Go to Shanghai and you will find a 100-year-old China; go to Beijing and you will find a 1000-year-old China; go to Xi’an and then you will find a 3000-year-old China.”
The Perfect 2 Days in Xi’an – A Visual Journey
To put some context around this itinerary, we started off our trip to Xi’an with a full day to see the Terracotta Warriors followed by full day at Mount Hua. The map below shows you all the different spots we went to during our time in the city.
Table of Contents
– DAY 1 –
Xi’an City Wall
Without a doubt, the fully intact and complete city wall and its gates were the most impressive part of the city. While I know for sure that this is the only complete wall in China, I’m going to say that this might be the largest in the world. The walls are complete with gates at all four compass directions which are augmented by towers, ramparts, battlements and even a draw bridge over the moat.
The best part about City Wall is that the top of the wall is fully accessible and best enjoyed by bicycle. It’s easy to underestimate the wall because it’s hard to picture the scale but once you hop on your bike, you realize that you easily need two hours to do a full loop. Just be sure to adhere to some of the tips I mention down below.
When you plan your city wall biking excursion, it makes sense to finish off at South Gate just because most of the main attractions within the wall are in that area. For us, we started at East Gate and worked our way counter-clockwise around to South Gate. My parents stopped there while my girlfriend and I continued around to the south east corner before turning back. We would’ve stopped at South Gate but our guide mentioned that the moat was most complete in that corner. It turned out to be more anti-climatic than anything because all it was, was the same moat we saw on other parts of the wall except it actually wrapped around the corner.
By the end of it all, our butts were pretty sore and a little sunburnt but I couldn’t complain one bit!
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Ancient Street of Shuyuanmen
Right off the South Gate, we made our way to the street of Shuyuanmen. This is one of the cultural streets of Xi’an and is mainly composed of arts and crafts like calligraphy, jade, paintings, books, and keepsakes. You won’t find too many Terracotta Warriors for sale here but there were a few stores that carried them. We made the mistake of purchasing our first two here when we probably should’ve waited until the Muslim Quarter.
This street was a great place to wander aimlessly after our noodle lunch.
Small Wild Goose Pagoda
We decided to head over here on a whim and as a result we squeezed 3 of us in one of these tricycles for hire. While the ride was really fast because he was able to duck in and out of traffic and use the motorcycle lanes, the cost was way more than it would’ve cost by normal cab.
The Small Wild Goose Pagoda is adjoined to the Xi’an museum but by the time we got there it was closed. Luckily, that didn’t mean the pagoda or the temple were closed so we had a chance to walk the grounds and snap a few photos.
This pagoda is the little cousin to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and was one of the main temples used to translate Buddhist texts from India.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda
We already had a chance to check out this area the day before but we felt like there was still more to see so we grabbed short cab ride over here. Off to the west side of the large square are a ton of little side streets like this one where food and souvenir vendors line up the streets. Let’s just say there was a lot of snacking along the way.
While we ate to our heart’s content, the real reason why we stayed here so late was because we wanted to catch the 8:30PM musical fountain show right in front of the pagoda. The fountains here produce the largest show in all of Asia with 1,024 burner caps that cover 15,000 square meters.
To set the stage properly, you have to understand that there are sections of fountain subdivided horizontal walking platforms that people use to take photos and what not. In the photo above, we’re pretty much on one of the last platforms before the giant “Fire Mountain” fountain. Wanting to capture the best shots, I thought it was an acceptable risk to set up my tripod and GoPro smack in the middle here. While the shots turned out great, let’s just say we got rained on really hard thanks to the 20 meter high fountain behind us.
The show itself was quite long, running a good 40 minutes but we ended up staying through all of it. Aside from the rainfall, the other disadvantage from our position was that we didn’t really see much of the fountain show that was happening behind us. That being said, if you want clean shots like this, I’d recommend standing here (if you’re not afraid of a little water) or moving to the platform in front.
– DAY 2 –
The next morning, we started off the day with a cab ride out to Shaanxi Museum in the southern end of the city near Big Wild Goose Pagoda. However, being a Saturday, we arrived with a massive line up ahead of us. Turns out, the museum hands out a bunch of free tickets a day as long as you have your ID with you. We were totally fine with purchasing the tickets which cost 20 RMB but because of crowd control, they actually stopped selling all tickets. Lucky for us, a sketchy looking Chinese guy came up to us asking how many tickets we needed. Long story short, we ended up negotiating his free tickets down to 70 RMB. Cronuts all over again!
I was a bit annoyed by the fact that my GoScope pole was flagged by security. Turns out, selfie sticks are not allowed and so I had to go back out and drop them off like coat-check.
Considered by many to be the cradle of Chinese culture, the Shaanxi Museum features a miniature overview of two thousand years of history broken down into 3 exhibition halls. There were a lot of interesting artifacts to see but of course we had to skip quite a few sections simply because there were way too many people. It didn’t help that there were big school groups there too. I swear every kid there was snapping photos every single damn artifact with their smartphones so you can imagine how gridlocked some areas were.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda (again)
Yes we somehow managed to come back for the third time. This time, we instead focused on the new southern part of the space which features a bunch of shopping malls, restaurants and a beautiful sculpture garden.
Simply put, the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an is snack CENTRAL. As the name implies, this area is home to 20,000 Muslims and has become an incredibly popular spot for food and souvenirs. In fact, I ended up getting two of my Terracotta Warriors here and the price here was much cheaper than anywhere else.
Bell Tower and Drum Tower
The Muslim Quarter actually starts from the Drum Tower and so after we finished there, we simply made our way back. Since it didn’t seem like the Drum Tower had great views, we bolted over to Bell Tower and made it in just in the nick of time before closing. We ended up spending 30 minutes in the tower before they kicked us out. I would highly recommend the Bell Tower over the Drum Tower simply because it is right in the middle of a roundabout and gives you straight line views of North and South gate of the wall.
One Last Look at South Gate
After having a snack at Honeymoon Dessert and dinner at a local dumpling shop, we walked down to the South Gate to see the whole area illuminated. This was a great opportunity to see it from a totally different vantage point since we had only seen south gate from the city wall the previous day.
Other Activities You Can Try
Lost in Translation
Know Before You Go
- City Wall
- The hours vary between the gates but all open at 8AM.
- South Gate closes at 8PM Nov – Mar and 10PM Apr – Oct
- Remaining gates close 6PM Nov – Mar and 7PM Apr – Oct
- 54 RMB adults, 27 RMB for students
- Bike rentals cost 45RMB for single bikes and 90 RMB for tandem bikes (2 hours)
- Every additional 10 minutes is 5 RMB for a single and 10 RMB for tandem
- Bikes can be returned at any station (one at every gate)
- Hat and sunscreen – There’s not much cover up there.
- It’s all cobblestone up on the wall so be prepared for a bumpy bicycle ride
- Riding tandem on the city wall wouldn’t be a lot of fun so I would recommend against it despite it seeming like a good idea
- Small Wild Goose Pagoda
- 8AM – 5PM
- 30 RMB adult, 15 RMB student to climb the pagoda itself
- Musical Fountain at Big Wild Goose Pagoda
- Tips: The best spot to stand to see the whole show is behind the super big spout (the first fountain if you’re looking towards the pagoda). We stood right in front of the big spout which is great for getting wet
- Shaanxi Museum
- Closed Mondays
- 9AM – 5:30PM (Nov 15 – Mar 15), 8:30AM – 6PM (Mar 16 – Nov 14)
- There are 2,500 free tickets before 12PM and 1500 tickets after 1PM. No tickets are sold between 12-1PM
- Regular admission is 20 RMB
- You have better things to do than stand in line for tickets especially when they only cost 20 RMB per person. There should be no lineup for the paid ticket booth
- Know that you’re going to have to check-in your selfie stick if you have one. You could try to sneak by security if you tuck it in your bag
- If you want to do the free tickets, make sure you bring your passport
- If you can, avoid weekends and definitely don’t go during any Chinese holidays
- Bell Tower
- 35 RMB adult, 17RMB student
- 8:30AM – 5PM
- Max 1 hour here
- Buying Terracotta Warriors
- Refer back to the Terracotta Warriors day for details.
- ibis Hotel
- Great find on Agoda We were very happy with this hotel throughout out our entire stay there. It’s clean and kept to the ibis European standards which we appreciated.
- We were a bit surprised about the cash deposit required upon check in (300 RMB for each room) but turns out this is pretty normal around here. Remember to bring enough cash. It doesn’t matter if you’ve paid in full online or not.
- General Tips
- Don’t underestimate distances between places in Xi’an. For instance, we thought we could easily walk back from Big Wild Goose Pagoda back to our ibis hotel but turned out to be a big mistake.
- Cabs are ridiculously hard to grab – one of the annoying things about the city. You just have to be really patient
- Bring that student card if you have one!
- Private Guide
- So how come we didn’t use a guide for this part of the trip? For one, Michael was already booked these days but it actually worked out for us because the two days we had in the city were a nice break in our schedule to just do our own thing.
- Walk to East Gate from the hotel
- Explore East Gate
- Bike the City Wall from 10:45AM – 1:30 PM
- Lunch at a local noodle shop
- Roam around Shuyuanmen Cultural Street
- Small Wild Goose Pagoda
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda markets
- Dinner at a Chinese fast food restaurant
- Watch musical fountain show at Big Wild Goose Pagoda
- Accommodations: ibis Xi’an Heping Gate Hotel
- Shaanxi Museum
- Big Wild Goose Pagoda
- Muslim Quarter
- Lunch in the Muslim Quarter
- Bell Tower
- Dinner at a dumpling restaurant
- South Gate
- Accommodations: ibis Xi’an Heping Gate Hotel
If you haven’t seen the rest of my journey throughout China, make sure you see the full itinerary that is packed with details about places like Mount Hua, Luoyang, Shanghai, Terracotta Warriors, Shaolin Temple, and Yuntai Mountain.