Back when Beijing was still a small-time barbarian-plagued northern outpost, the area around Xi'an (Xī'ān, 西安) was the site of successive dynastic capitals, including the first to unite China, the Qin, whose legendary founder, Qin Shi Huang, ordered the creation and burial of the astonishing Terracotta Army, now one of China's top historical attractions.
Today Xi'an is a modern Chinese city, though the impressive Ming-era Xi'an City Walls, the Tang-era Wild Goose Pagodas and numerous other ancient relics constantly remind one of China's vast history. When you've had your fill of the past, the city offers excellent modern dining, arts & entertainment and shopping. Xi'an hotels make a great base for further exploration of historical Wei River Valley sites like the Terracotta Army, Imperial Tombs,pagodas, temples, museums, and the sacred mountain Hua Shan.
Xi'an offers visitors a generous range of hotels and hostels. There are five-star accommodations with both Western and Chinese style rooms, many clean and comfortable mid-range hotels, and a number of hostels and cheaper hotels suited for budget travelers. Most hotels can arrange tours to major sights or arrange for a private driver. Be wary of group tours that waste time with unwanted stops at souvenir shops and overpriced mediocre restaurants.
The Shangri-La Golden Flower Hotel Xi'an and Sheraton Hotel Xi'an are two solid five-star choices among a growing number of luxury hotels. Budget options included the centrally located three-star Bell Tower Hotel and City Hotel. For even cheaper digs, try the the Foreign Language Institute Guesthouse. Its clean, inexpensive rooms are a bit removed from downtown (about 20 minutes by taxi or bus), but the university district is a good place to eat and sleep cheap, and the student population makes for some good bars and cafés.
/hotels-howard-johnson-ginwa-plaza-hotel/h20145.html">Howard Johnson Ginwa Plaza Hotel, Bell Tower Hotel, Skytel Xi'an and City Hotel. Line 2 connects the airport and railway station. Line 3 connects the airport and Huoju Dasha in Xi'an Hi-tech Zone. Line 4 connects the airport and Guomao Dasha in the south, via the Tangcheng Hotel and the Orient Hotel. Line 5 connects the airport and the Jianguo Hotel in the east, via the Empress Hotel. Line 6 connects the airport and downtown Xianyang. Airport shuttle buses depart the downtown area hourly from 6am to 3pm. Line 1 runs until 6pm.
As China's gateway to the west, Xi'an is a major railway hub. The Xi'an North Railway Station (Xī'ān Běi Zhàn, 西安北站) lies about a 30-minute cab ride from the center in the exact cardinal direction you expect. Buses traveling to the railway station can be found on every main street, and cost RMB 1 or 2. Taxi fares should be less than RMB 10 from the city center. Purchasing train tickets can be tricky for international travelers, as the ticket windows are usually crowded and have few English-speaking staff members. Ask for a ticket-booking service at a hotel, which charges a nominal service fee. Try to buy tickets one week in advance, especially during peak travel seasons.
Highway transportation from Xi'an extends in all directions. Long-distance buses run between Xi'an and most of China's major cities. The Xi'an long-distance bus line terminal (chángtúqìchē zhàn, 长途汽车站) lies to the southwest of the railway station. You can usually buy bus tickets on the day of travel.
For many Chinese tourists, it seems the highlight of a trip to Xi'an is less likely the Terracotta Warriors than a visit to one of the city's numerous snack shops or small ethnic restaurants. If you're new to the breadth and depth of China's various cuisines, expect some pleasant surprises. Xi'an's centuries-old Muslim culture has made great contributions to the local food scene, and excellent Islamic restaurants abound, with an especially large concentration on Damaishi Jie (Dàmàishì Jiē, 大麦市街). It need not be a sit-down experience, however; some of the tastiest dishes are to be found in streetside stalls and small restaurants (you can always snack on a cumin-spiced kabab of halal beef or mutton). If you do want a table in a nicer restaurant, you'll find many of them situated around the Bell Tower and down Dong Dajie (Dōng Dàjiē, 东大街) just off the Bell Tower square.
Mutton and bread soup (yángròu pàomó, 羊肉泡馍) is a favorite throughout Shaanxi, but is especially well loved in Xi'an. Consisting of rich mutton broth served with a stiff and crispy flatbread broken into pieces over it, the result is a rich version of the age-old winning combo of soup and bread. Another must-try local specialty is the Xi'an dumpling, long a festival food and now a commonly served delicacy. Stuffed with mutton, shrimp, and sweet bean paste, a well-made dumpling can be a revelation.
Another delicious variation on a Chinese standard is the guantang baozi (guàntāng bāozi, 灌汤包子), a steamed bun surrounding a juicy center. (Hot! Be careful!). The soupy filling inside is typically either beef, lamb or a three-flavor combo of lamb, prawn and mushroom. A great place to sample the baozi is the Jia Brothers' Restaurant along Damaishi Jie. Look for a large blue arch over the entrance and a wall papered with photographs of Chinese celebrities (a testament to a well-earned reputation). Wash it down with a bowl of babao xifan (bābǎo xīfàn, 八宝稀饭), a bowl of sweet rice porridge flavored with peanuts and hawthorn.
Popular items in Xi'an's souvenir markets and shops include Tang Dynasty-style tri-colored glazed pottery, replicas of the Terracotta Warriors and Tang-style horses, as well as folk handicrafts like intricate paper cutouts and embroidery. It's important to keep in mind that opening prices are usually way too high and that any purported "antiques" are almost certainly fakes.
Shuyuan Men (Art Street)
(Shūyuàn Mén, 书院门)
Under the city wall behind the Forest of Steles Museum, Shu Yuan Men's vendors crowd the stone pavement and Ming- and Qing-style buildings, selling local handicrafts, purported historical relics, calligraphy, paintings, antiques (of questionable provenance), jewels and folk art.
Xi'an Antique Market
Located near the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, here you'll find antiques (real and fake) ranging from furniture to coins.
Wenbaozhai Tour Shopping Center
(Wénbǎozhāi Lǚyóu Gòuwùzhōngxīn, 文宝斋旅游购物中心)
As common stop on organized tours, some visitors appreciate the concentration in one spot of silk, rugs, woolen blankets, jewels, jade, calligraphy, paintings, replica relics, antiques, clay figures and bronze figurines. Others hate it. Either way, before signing up for a tour, you may want to find out exactly how much of your time is slotted (often without being explicitly stated) for this crowded and noisy tourist trap.
The Peasant Painting Gallery
(Hùxiàn Nóngmín Huà Zhǎnlǎnguǎn, 户县农民画展览馆)
On the eastern outskirts of Xi'an, this Shaanxi folk-art gallery exhibits "peasant paintings" as well as intricate paper cutouts and shadow puppet art. Craftspeople are usually on hand to help interested visitors to create their own pieces (making it a great place to take kids).
The Xi'an City Malls
There are many large shopping centers in the area, peddling the typical mix knockoffs and real stuff, from brand-name clothing and electronics to "antiques" and crafts. Try Century Ginwa Shopping Mall, located between the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Opposite Ginwa is the Kai Yuan Shopping Mall, one of the biggest and most popular department stores in Xi'an. Others include the Minsheng Department Store and Parkson Shopping Center opposite the Grand Metropark Hotel Xi'an.
Thanks to the many ancient dynastic relics of the capital, Xi'an has become a huge tourist destination. The entertainment industry has grown accordingly. The large Muslim Hui Chinese population adds a distinct cultural twist to the otherwise Han city, and Xi'an's universities—popular with foreign students as well as Chinese—contribute to an up-to-date and fun nightlife scene. Recap a perfect day visiting the city's excellent sites and museums over a few drinks or catch a performance, whether traditional or contemporary, at one of a growing number of venues.
Bars & Clubs
The nightlife scene in Xi'an is lively and always changing. New bars and clubs open monthly, from posh lounges to no-nonsense dives. Defu Xiang (Défú Xiàng, 德福巷) and Dong Dajie (Dōng Dàjiē, 东大街) are two downtown streets lined with bars, clubs and restaurants. A longtime club in the area is 1+1 Nightclub (Yī Jiā Yī Jùlèbù, 壹加壹俱乐部) where students, locals and visitors dance and down overpriced cocktails.
Many restaurants and hotels stage performances of traditional dance, music and song geared toward the tourist crowds. The most popular of these takes place at the Tang Dynasty Restaurant (admission includes dinner). If you're looking for something a bit more local and low key, the Shaanxi Grand Opera House (Shǎngē Dàjùyuàn, 陕歌大剧院) at 165 Wenyi Bei Lu (Wényì Běi Lù, 文艺北路) performs weekly and a traditional dinner is served for about half the price of the Tang Dynasty. Xi'an also has a growing underground music scene. Rock club 8 1/2, located off Nan Dajie (Nán Dàjiē, 南大街) among several coffee houses, hosts the largest names in Chinese rock as well as showcasing local bands and musicians.
Museums & Galleries
Xi'an has one of the country's greatest collections of history on display in beautiful buildings reflecting China's ancient architecture. The most impressive museum in Xi'an is the Shaanxi History Museum. There are more than 400,000 items on display in a well organized, traditional Tang Dynasty-style building. The Forest of Steles Museum, an old Confucian Temple, contains the country's largest collection of engraved stone steles.
Festivals & Events
One of the most significant festivals, Tomb Sweeping Day, is celebrated in April, with locals gathering at the Huangdi Mausoleum to honor their ancestors. The Xi'an City Wall International Invitation Marathon brings in athletes from all around the world. If you're unable to time your trip around a festival, the Great Mosque's several daily prayer services (held in Chinese) are worth witnessing (quietly and respectfully), and it seems as if there's always something to celebrate in the Muslim Quarter, which is noisy and bustling well into the night.