Xi’an – more than just the Terracotta Warriors

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In March we spent a long weekend in the city of Xi’an, in the Shaanxi province of China. We really only went there because we wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors, but we both really enjoyed our time in Xi’an – it’s a very nice city.

We stayed in Citadines Central Xi’an, which calls itself an apart-hotel. I don’t know if all the rooms were apartments, or just the larger ones, but ours was the biggest they had and it was very spacious indeed! Two very large bedrooms, both en suite, with an equally large open-plan lounge-kitchen. It was all newly decorated and very well equipped. The breakfast, which was included in the price, was mostly Chinese with a few western-style options. Not the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had, but adequate to fill you up at the beginning of the day.

The hotel was really well positioned, just a few minutes walk south of the Drum tower. There were a few small 7-11 type convenience stores nearby which were useful for buying milk and snacks for the twins. If you wanted to go shopping, there were plenty of shopping malls nearby too, although we didn’t go in any!

We arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon and after relaxing in the room for a little while we headed over to the market in the nearby Muslim quarter where there are lots of food stalls,particularly along Beiyuanmen (北院门) and West Yangshi (西羊市). We enjoyed wandering round, trying different things from the stalls. One of the best things we tried was a kind of ‘burger’ which was shredded beef in a flatbread. It was really good! There was a great atmosphere and lots of random sights to see, smell and taste.

The drum tower was nicely (and brightly!) lit up at night. There is a nearby bell tower, which sits in the middle of a roundabout, but we didn’t visit it.

Xian drum tower

Our first full day was a Friday so we decided to head straight to the Terracotta Warriors, as we thought it would be more busy at the weekend. There are regular buses that go from Xi’an train station but we thought it would be a bit of a hassle to get to the train station and then get the bus (and do the same in reverse) with the twins, so our hotel organised a private car for us, which wasn’t that expensive and was very convenient. I forget how long it took to get there, but I think it was the best part of an hour.

Once there, you are met with a wall of potential tour guides (we declined, preferring to take things at our own pace), you buy your ticket and then have to walk through a kind of park to actually get to the site of the of excavations. The cherry blossoms were starting to come out so it was really pretty.

Terracotta warriors cherry blossom

Once inside, there are 3 pits that you can visit. We chose to go to Pit 2 first. It was much bigger than I was expecting, and much less excavated! The most interesting thing for me was that a few areas were excavated, showing the warriors in situ, as they were first discovered. It makes you realise why it is taking them so long to excavate the whole site! It must take a lot of work!

Terracotta warriors excavated pit

There are a few warriors in cases here, so you can get a real close up look at the detail.

Terracotta warrior and horse

There is also a photography area where you can get your photo taken with fake warriors. We don’t usually go in for photo opportunities but indulged ourselves for once (at only 10 yuan per person, and they didn’t charge for the twins) – I doubt we’ll ever go back, so it was worth it for such a great photo!


Pit 3 was our next port of call, which is the smallest pit. They have re-created the warriors in the formation they would have been in, but obviously haven’t had much luck with the heads so the result is slightly eerie…

Terracotta warriors pit 3

Pit 1 is the most impressive, and best left till last. Just the number of warriors is astonishing, and the excavated area only takes up about half the building, so I’m not sure if there are more to be excavated here.

Terracotta warriors pit 1

You also get to see the process of putting the warriors back together again, and processing them.

Terracotta warrior re-assembled

Wandering around the pits took us the whole morning (although we didn’t go in the museum bit), so we stopped for lunch at one of the many restaurants outside the site (not amazing, but adequate) and headed back to the hotel.

That evening we decided to go to Defachang (德发长) for dinner, which is a famous dumpling restaurant situated between the drum and bell towers. The restaurant has two floors, and we decided to eat upstairs which is more like a proper restaurant, whereas downstairs was more of a fast food canteen (the logic being that we didn’t want to be rushed with the twins). In hindsight, I think the downstairs would have been adequate! But anyway, if you like Chinese dumplings, this is a good place to come!

The next day we wandered south from our hotel to the south gate of the city wall. It’s a very impressive sight! At the bottom of the gate is a small ticket booth, so we bought our tickets and headed in. First you have to climb a lot of steps to the top of the wall, and then you are free to roam. The wall is wide and straight and you can hire bicycles to ride around it (we didn’t do that!) or just walk. It will take you several hours to walk the whole way round the wall (we didn’t do that either!).

Xian city wall

There were a couple of buildings on top of the south gate so we let the twins run around and investigate for a bit. I do love Chinese architecture, so beautiful!

Xian city wall Chinese building with lanterns

There were also some odd sea-themed displays up around the south gate. Jack and Isobel enjoyed running around them!

Xian city wall ocean display

Xian city wall fish


We headed west from the south gate for a while and then took the next available place to descend back to street level. Our thoughts started to turn to lunch and we headed for the Muslim quarter where we popped into one of the small restaurants along West Yangshi (西羊市)for some dumplings. From there, we decided to visit the Grand Mosque which was nearby.

The mosque was really beautiful, and not really what you expect from a mosque. The architectural style is very Chinese, but there is Arabic writing everywhere and some Arabic influences can be seen. The central area is very open with beautiful pagodas and landscaping. It’s also surprisingly peaceful, given the bustle of the narrow streets outside!

Xian grand mosque

Xian grand mosque blossom

For dinner, we went to East Mutoushi street (东木头市). There are lots of restaurants there, many of which are pretty basic. We went for one of the trendier ones (unfortunately I don’t remember the name), and the food was lovely. There was also a Walmart nearby which was handy for picking up more supplies.

On our last morning we booked a food tour with Lost Plate. It was such a great way to end our holiday! Our guide was lovely and spoke excellent English. We were given a range of foods from stall vendors and small cafés, and none of it was what you would really expect from Chinese food. No rice in sight, for a start! (except for a sticky rice dessert) Apparently, the area around Xi’an is very dry so they don’t grow much rice or vegetables – as a consequence, they eat a lot of breads and stews. It was market day so we were also taken on a tour of the local market (which just happened to be ridiculously busy that day) – it was massive and you could buy just about anything there! And we were the only tourists that we saw the whole morning!

So that was our weekend in Xi’an. The city itself was a lot nicer than I was expecting (I didn’t know what to expect at all) and it was a really interesting place. Because we had the twins with us we didn’t try to do too much, but there are lots of other things in Xi’an that we didn’t visit, such as the Wild Goose Pagodas (Giant and Small), Xi’an Museum and the Mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. So you could fit a lot more into your time in Xi’an if you wanted to!

Just a couple of points to finish on:

Firstly, there isn’t a huge amount of English in Xi’an. But there is some, and it’s amazing how much you can get by with gesticulating! Tom speaks a moderate amount of Mandarin so that made our lives a lot easier. I think if you had a good guide book to help you get around then you would be fine.

Secondly, Xi’an is pretty touristy, but mainly with Chinese tourists. This makes it quite busy, but also means that as a westerner you are likely to stand out. And if you happen to be westerners with small, blond twins, you will stand out a lot! The twins got an awful lot of attention, even more than in Hong Kong, and can now be found in the holiday photos of many, many Chinese tourists. Some people asked to take photos but most didn’t. One or two people actually picked the twins up without asking, which is a step too far in my book. If you really mind this sort of thing and have young children then you might want to think twice before going to Xi’an, or indeed anywhere in China. We decided that we could put up with it for a long weekend but we’d think twice about going into China for any longer periods!

Have you been to Xi’an? If you have, let me know what you thought! I’d love to compare notes!

Thanks for reading!