China is a country with the deepest respect and admiration for its Imperial past, and there’s little wonder why. The city of Xi’an not only marks the centre of China’s ancient Kingdom but in modern times the city is known for some of the most significant archaeological discoveries in human history, the Terracotta Warriors.
From some of the most earliest forms of civilization to the finest of dynasties, Xi’an is an encyclopaedia of Chinese history, and a worthy stop on any itinerary. In the article, I’ll show you how to hit all of Xi’an’s biggest highlights in just 3 days!
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Xi’an is not only the ancient Chinese capital but also was the site of some of the earliest clusters of civilization. As such, the city is full of relics and artefacts that display the incredible history of this city. From excavated villages and tombs to megalithic palaces and religious landmarks. So plenty worthy sites to add to your Xi’an itinerary.
One day of your itinerary should be spent exploring what put Xi’an on the map in the first place, the excavated pits of the Terracotta Warriors! It’s best to start as early as possible anyway because it will be very busy very quickly.
The Museum of the Terracotta Warriors
Obviously, this will be the first and most important stop on your Xi’an itinerary! Not only is it clearly the most famous landmark in the city, but its one of the most significant archaeological excavations in human history and one of China’s greatest national treasures.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a large collection of life-size sculptures organised in battle formations that stand in underground corridors. Each figure represents a member of the imperial guard that was put here to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the man who became the first emperor of a newly unified Imperial China.
The collection of figures which include infantry, archers and horses, are spread across 3 pits, numbered in the order of their discovery. Pit 1 is by far the most impressive with between 1,000-2,000 figures lined up one after the other in battle formations. For more details on visiting the warriors for yourself, check out the guide Travel Plan: The Terracotta Warriors.
There are free shuttle buses that regularly leave between both museums, as long as you have a ticket to either museum. Otherwise, you can take tourist bus number 5 (306) from one museum to the other.
Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park (Lishan Garden)
The Terracotta Warriors are a relatively new discovery, and relics are still being found to this day! One recent discovery was the Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the man that’s being protected by the Terracotta Warriors! It was found next to other major sites, such as the ritual sacrifice pits and the Museum of Terracotta Acrobatics.
Though it’s been discovered, Emperor Qin’s tomb remains unexcavated, and will probably stay that way. The park’s curator wants to protect the tomb and hopes that future technology will allow us to see its contents without disturbing the sleeping souls within. Though it’s pretty tempting! Ancient texts and modern-day tests show that the inner palace may be full of precious stones and rivers of mercury that flow through mountains of bronze!
You can take Bus Line 5 (306) from Qintang Avenue to Huaqing Pool.
Continuing with our Imperial theme, your next stop is the old play area for royalty, the Huaqing Palace. Throughout the extensive grounds of the palace are a handful of hot springs that were used by members of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). As the grandeur of the palace shows, the emperors had no problem with spending a ridiculous amount of money to create a place of luxury relaxation.
Inside are 5 hot springs that were used during the height of Imperial China, such as the Lotus Pool (named after the flower it’s shaped like) which belonged to the Emperor. The top choice by most must be the Star Pool, which didn’t have a roof so you could bathe at night while enjoying the stars.
Take bus number 307 from Huaqing Pool to Banpo Museum.
Who would have thought Xi’an had so many valuable things hiding underground?! Banpo site (or Banpocun) is yet another historically important archaeological site, though it gets much less attention than the Terracotta Warriors! The large Neolithic settlement dates back to 4500-3750 BC and left behind over 10,000 stone tools and artefacts, 250 tombs, and almost 100 building foundations to be excavated.
It was discovered in 1953 by workers hired to dig up the ground for a new factory before it turned into the first large-scale archaeological project in China. Soon after the Banpo Museum was opened to display artefacts from the site and reconstructions of what the buildings must have looked like. The site is also used as a model of the Yangshao Culture, which flourished in the Yellow River Valley between 5000-3000 BC.
Take Metro Line 1 from Banpo to Kangfu Road Station. Sorry that subway routes aren’t visible on the map, google is banned in China after all.
Temple of the Eight Immortals
Originally built for the God of Thunder, the Taoist temple was then renamed as a tribute to the Eight Immortals, who according to Chinese mythology, were capable of giving life and overcoming evil. The is also called Ba Xian An Palace after Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi hid in the temple after the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing in 1900.
Within the temple are a set of black plates inscribed with the basic principles of Taoism and their dedication to the five sacred mountains of Taoism. The temple also has ancient manuals on proper breathing techniques and how to increase vital energy (chi) to achieve immortality. So the secret to life may be a worthy reason to include the temple on your Xi’an itinerary!
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Another day on your itinerary should be spent exploring the incredible spectrum of sites in the south of Xi’an. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a whole lot of architecture to appreciate across many dynasties! From spiritual homes to military defences, there’s a bit of everything!
Also known as the Green Dragon Temple, Qinglong Temple has played a vital role in Japanese Buddhism. Many Japanese monks were sent to the temple during the Tang Dynasty to study Buddhism. In 805, the monks returned to Japan and founded Shingon Buddhism. To this day it’s still one of the most followed sects in the country, just look at how many temples are dedicated to it in my Travel Guide: Kyoto.
That’s not the reason most people come here! Around the grounds of the temple are over 1,000 cherry blossom trees that burst into life every spring. Every year, endless streams of wannabe Instagram models flock to the blooms of pink-tinted flowers to demand their boyfriends to give them a candid photo shoot.
Take subway Line 3 from Qinglong Temple to Dayanta. From there transfer to Line 4 to Datangfurongyuan.
Another royal-themed site for your Xi’an itinerary. What was once a hang-out for imperial family members, today the Lotus (or Tang) Paradise is the first ancient style park that focused on the culture of the Tang Dynasty. In modern times the gardens they were revived to give everyone a look into Imperial luxury.
Performances are held regularly within the grounds of the park, including an Imperial Costume Show, Chinese Kongfu Show, Lion Dance, and acrobatics. There’s even a water fountain show which is the biggest of its kind in China and prety damn impressive!
You could take Line 4 from Datangfurongyuan back to Dayanta. Otherwise you can walk there in the same amount of time.
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
It’s no secret that Xi’an prides itself on its ancient past, and the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most iconic relics of all. Standing in the Da Ci’en Temple complex, the UNESCO World Heritage is yet another significant site for Buddhists.
Originally built in 652, the pagoda was used to collect Buddhist materials that Xuanzang brought from India, the cradle of Buddhism. In total, he collected 1,335 sutras, all of which had to be translated from Sanskrit.
But why is it called Giant Wild Goose Pagoda? Legend tells there was a branch of Buddhism that was okay with eating meat, but one day they couldn’t find any. As a large group of geese flew by, a monk wished the merciful Buddha would give them some. At that moment, the leading goose broke its wings and fell to the ground. The monks were shocked and thought that Buddha was trying to tell them to be more devoted. They built a pagoda where the goose fell and stopped eating meat forever.
Firstly, take Line 3 from Dayanta to Xiaozhai then transfer to Line 2 towards Nanshaomen.
Small Wild Goose Pagoda
Hang on, deja vu? An almost identical square-based pagoda? Well, the people of Xi’an thought so too, so the Jianfu Temple Pagoda was soon renamed the “Small Wild Goose Pagoda” after its bigger brother.
The pagoda is yet another UNESCO Heritage Site that has survived from the Tang Dynasty. Though the pagoda isn’t as famous as the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, it’s much more peaceful and tranquil with the surrounding park.
Like its bigger twin, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda also played a vital role in introducing Buddhism to China. Buddhist sutras brought back from India were stored inside, which later would come to help integrate Buddhism with the culture of the Han people.
You can take Line 2 from Nanshaomen towards Yongningmen. Otherwise you could just walk for 5 minutes.
Xi’an City Walls
Also known as the Fortifications of Xi’an, the walls that encircle 8 miles around the centre of the city are the most complete that has survived in China, and a worthy inclusion on the itinerary. The 12-meter high wall is also one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world.
There are a few places you can access it, but by far the best and most time-honoured is the South Gate (Yongning Gate). Meanwhile, two museums inside the barbican and the archery tower of the South Gate are also open to the public.
Though 8 miles might sound a bit too much to walk, why don’t you just use a bike? You can rent them in the South Gate and ride them along the whole perimeter of the wall.
If you find yourself on the South Gate again, then you can easily walk for 15 minutes or so to your next stop. Since you’re there, you may as well pass and pass some interesting architecture along the way.
Stele Forest Museum
The Stele Forest, also called Beilin Museum, focuses on displays of over 11,000 stone steles, epigraphs and stone sculptures from past dynasties. The collection tells visitors of the religions and lifestyles of ancient times in a unique way. They also show an outline of Chinese history and how China would interact with other countries. Among these relics, there are 19 groups that are seen as national treasures.
You can also walk to the next stop. Believe me its easier than trying to figure out which bus you can take.
Built in 1384 when Xi’an was an important military point, the Bell Tower has always marked the geographical centre of the ancient capital. The tower became a way to dominate the surrounding countryside and provide an early warning of attack by rival rulers.
When it was first built, it stood near the Drum Tower of Xi’an on the central axis of the city. As the city grew, however, the geographical centre changed. Therefore, in 1582, the tower was moved 1,000 meters east of the original site. Except for the base, all parts are original.
The amazing contrasting colours of the grey square base, the dark green glazed tiles and gold plated roof makes it pretty. It looks even better when the sun goes down and the entire tower is illuminated! It has to be one of the best highlights on the Xi’an itinerary!
You can see it across the square, so walk to it!
And now to the Bell Tower’s former neighbour! The Drum Tower is located just to the northwest across the aptly named Bell and Drum Tower Square. As the name suggests, the tower is known for the drums it houses. In ancient China, the drums were used to signal the time and on occasion were used as an alarm for emergencies.
It was initially built in 1380 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but has some architecture styles across both the Tang and Qing Dynasties too. It also has some impressive feats of engineering such as being built with no iron nails. Inside are 24 drums, each representing the Solar Terms, the weather calendar created by the Chinese ancients to guide agricultural production.
Luckily, it’s directly next to the tower!
The Muslim Quarter (Beiyuanmen)
You may be surprised to learn that China has quite a large thriving Muslim community! Here in Xi’an, an entire quarter of the city is dedicated to the ever-growing neighbourhood. The Muslim Quarter is home to over 20,000 descendants of foreign diplomats and merchants that originally travelled here for business and never left.
Any Xi’an itinerary would be incomplete without a visit to the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market, which specialises in street food and souvenirs. Along both sides of the street are Ming and Qing Dynasty designed buildings filled with family-run businesses. Above all, the star of the show is the authentic hand-made Muslim food including crumbled bread in a mutton stew, fried rice with pickled Chinese cabbage and mutton or lamb roasted over a fire.
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For the most part, we have already hit the city’s biggest highlights. If you’re short on time, then 2 days should be enough to cover all the bigger spots. But if you have the time, I’d highly recommend adding one more day to your itinerary to hit the last highlights Xi’an has to offer.
Though China isn’t short of stunningly adorned gates, none surpass the pure size of Danfeng Gate. It’s actually even bigger than the Heaven Gate of Tiananmen Square, probably the most famous of them all!
Coloured light brown to represents the royal family, it was chosen to illustrate the magnificent momentum of the Tang Dynasty. A museum inside the gate also gives a little more info and history of the structure.
Since the gate marks the entrance to the palace, you’re already there!
Functioning during the height of the Tang Dynasty, Daming Palace would be the base to design the most famous Chinese palace of them all, none other than the Forbidden City.
Originally, Emperor Li Shimin built it as the summer palace for his father. The Daming Palace is split into two areas, one where emperors held court, and another used for living and relaxing. Inside the compound, the separate Hanyuan Palace was used as an international exchange centre. On every New Year’s Day, the emperors would hold great ceremonies there, and welcome ambassadors from across the world.
The easiest way to get there is the subway. Take Line 4 from Hanyuandian and transfer at Wulukou onto Line 1 to Sajinqiao before walking the rest of the way.
Guangren Lama Temple
Built-in 1705 for the Grand Lama of Tibet as he passed through on the way to Beijing to meet with the emperor, Guangren Temple has since been the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Shaanxi Province. It stood as a symbol of the cooperation and cultural communication between the Tibetan and Han nationalities.
Inside are a few halls such as the Mahavira Hall, the Sutras Keeping Hall and the Bodhisattva Hall. Outside of the pavilion is the Devajara Hall in which a statue of Thousand-Hand Avalokitesvara on the lotus throne.
This next step is a little awkward. You could walk back to Sajinqiao and take Line 1 and transfer to Line 2 at Beidajie. From there you need to go to Zhonglou and walk for 20 minutes. It would actually be much easier to walk there, which should take the same amount of time anyway.
Great Mosque of Xi’an
This isn’t like any mosque you’ve ever seen before, it comes with a distinctively Chinese twist. Right in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque is the largest and one of the most important Islamic sites in China.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built as early as 742 in the midst of the Tang dynasty. Additions were made as the Dynasties rolled on, making it a complex representative of many periods of time. The mosque is a combination of traditional Chinese architecture and Islamic art.
Since it’s just down the street, why not walk?
Du City God Temple
The last stop on your Xi’an itinerary is the largest city god temple in Shaanxi Province. As one of the two remaining Taoist temples in Xi’an, it’s been listed as a key historical and cultural site. With a history of more than 600 years, the temple is still a magnificent sight today.
As one of the largest town god temples in China, the Xi’an City God Temple exercised control over all town god temples in China’s northwest provinces.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.