Xi’an wasn’t even on our radar as somewhere to visit until a co-worker suggested that we travel there on an upcoming long weekend. So with only three days at our disposal, we booked flights from Dalian to Xi’an ready to pack in as much sightseeing and exploring as possible. This is what we did, what we wish we hadn’t, and what you should consider before travelling to beautiful Xi’an.
Friday at 10am
Xi’an is located in the middle of China and is easily accessible by train, but because we were short on time and travelling from quite a distance (Dalian is about 2000 kilometres from Xi’an), we hopped on a flight at 10am on Friday morning and cruised into Xi’an just two hours later.
Tip For This Spot: Our round-trip flights cost about $300 CDN per person. While this isn’t unreasonable for flights, I think we may have been able to find cheaper options if we had booked farther in advance or were more flexible with the departure dates. Many folks we met in Xi’an who had come from Shanghai, Chengdu, or closer locations, had taken the train, so depending on where you’re coming from or when you’re travelling, the cheapest and more efficient way to get there may vary.
Friday at 2pm
We booked two beds in a six-bed mixed gendered dorm at the Hantang Inn Hostel for under $14 CAD per person per night through HostelWorld.com. This hostel was perfectly located in the old city, just a five to ten minute walk from everything you’d want to see in the Old City including the Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Old City Walls, and Muslim Quarter.
We took a DiDi (like Chinese Uber) from the airport to the hostel which cost us around 100 yuan and was very convenient, but there are definitely better options if you’re looking to save a buck or two. Check down below!
Tip For This Spot: There is a shuttle bus that runs from the airport to the Bell Tower Hotel which is located right in the heart of the old city. From there, the hostel is only a ten minute walk away. We took the shuttle bus when heading back to the airport on Sunday and had we known about it sooner, definitely would have chosen it on Friday.
After checking into our hostel and taking a quick siesta to look over the city map that the lovely Hantang Inn Hostel staff had given us, we decided to start exploring. Our first stop was the Bell Tower. Since it’s located in the very centre of a very busy roundabout, you have to go underground to get there. The pedestrian walkway underground is modelled after the traffic roundabout, shaped like a circle, so once you get underground by the tower, just keep walking and you’ll find the entrance where tickets can also be purchased with cash or WeChat/Alipay.
We chose to buy the 50 yuan joint ticket for both the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Both towers were used at one point in history to inform the town of specific times of day. The Bell Tower is centrally located and is an easy way to see the surrounding city from the heart of everything. You can get a great view from all sides of the Tower. Unfortunately the actual bell was nothing to write home about. It was much smaller than we thought it would be and was surrounded by many people at the time we visited so couldn’t get a great view of it anyway.
The Drum Tower can be seen from the Bell Tower and is located slightly West. In our opinion, it was the better tower. Twenty-four drums surrounded the tower with signs in English explaining their significance (a great help to us.) It is also located within earshot of the Muslim Quarter, a whole other world in itself. Just hearing the mass of people and different sounds making their way up to the Drum Tower helped to give us a true sense of the area.
Tip For This Spot: If you have a tight timeline or budget, skip the Bell Tower. It’s most interesting to look at from the surrounding streets. The two towers are almost identical in terms of architecture, so when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them both. The Drum Tower will cost you 30 yuan and, in are opinion, was the better experience.
We headed over to the Muslim Quarter, packed with people it the feeling of a true busy street market. There were so many shops and stalls that offered all sorts of goods, including the most delicious food. We tried some type of BBQ squid on a stick, a lamb burger (a specialty item in Xi’an), and some amazing juices and were very satisfied.
The quarter seemed to go on forever in multiple directions so it was nearly impossible to see it all. We enjoyed leisurely strolling through with no real destination in mind and just took in as much as we could. By the time we stumbled across the Great Mosque of Xi’an, it was too close to closing to get our money’s worth. It was a shame, given our love for old religious buildings, but we were able to see some of the site from the outside. This is definitely on our list if we ever come back to the city. It’s one of the higher rated attractions in the city.
Tip For This Spot: Eat. We enjoyed everything we ate in the quarter and even saw more things that just wouldn’t fit in our stomachs. Take different turns and see where you end up. It’s all pretty similar looking so this is a good place to wander aimlessly through. You never know what you might find.
We returned to our hostel to take part in the free activity of the night; a dumpling making workshop. We were shown the whole process of making a Chinese dumpling and were encouraged to make our own. Not only was it an insightful activity, but it gave us a chance to socialize and meet other travellers who were staying in the hostel for the weekend. We even got to eat all the dumplings after, free of charge.
We finished the night by learning how to play Mah-jong the right way–nothing like the game you might play on your computer, but more like Gin Rummy with tiles. We got to mingle a little more with everyone over some laughs and a few drinks. We headed to bed a little early in preparation for the following day.
Now, we’ve both stayed in dorms separately when travelling years ago but this was our first time living the hostel life as a 27-year-old couple. We think we may be just a little too old for the shared dorm. After our very friendly but somewhat loud roommate came in at 1am and started doing push-ups with all the lights on when we were trying to sleep, we didn’t have the best night’s rest–which set us up for a pretty tiring day at the Terracotta Warriors (more on that later).
However, staying in a hostel definitely had its perks. It was clean, had a great bar, and an even better rooftop patio. We took part in all the hostel activities, met a ton of cool people from around the world, and the location was amazing.
Tip For This Spot: Definitely book at the Hantang Inn Hostel. If you’re working with a serious budget, like to party, or are an extremely heavy sleeper, the dorms might be totally fine for you. But if not, they also had private rooms available starting around $45 CAD per night which might be a better option for couples, small families, or older solo-travellers (there were definitely people there with their kids and people there over 50.)
If you do stay at the there, make sure to take advantage of the free activities. You can meet a lot of great people and get some complimentary items to boot.
We signed up for a full-day tour of the Terracotta Warriors, an army of soldiers made from – you guessed it – terracotta by the first emperor of China to protect him in the afterlife. While they were constructed over 200 years BCE, they were only recently found in the 1970s and they are still excavating them today. We book a tour through our hostel, which was on the pricier side of things (about 340 kwai, or $68 CAD per person) but after we did some comparisons shopping, it was still the best choice. We considered getting there ourselves, trying to do some googling of the information before hand, and pay our own way in, but it was going to be easier and even more cost-effective to book with the hostel. Included was a complimentary Western style breakfast, free transport to the warriors with a tour guide on a private bus, access to the entire site, and to top it all off, we got a free hour of all-you-can-drink beer at the hostel later that night. (This really sold it for us.) We also thought it would be a good time to meet some more people and interact with other English speakers.
We arrived at the Terracotta Army site with our group an hour and a half after leaving the hostel, with a brief overview about the history of the warriors given to us by our tour guide on the way there. There are four sites to see when visiting the Terracotta Army; the Emperor’s Tomb and three different pits where the soldiers were buried. Luckily, our tour guide knew to save the best pit for last, which definitely made the rest of the tour ripe with anticipation.
The Emperor’s Tomb is under a man-made hill and is thought to be at least 30 metres underground. However no one knows for sure because they have yet to dig down for fear that they’ll hit one of the booby traps rumoured to be protecting the tomb. While it is a World Heritage Site, it’s not much to marvel at. Just a big hill you could see pretty much anywhere.
Next we moved onto the pits containing the warriors. We visited pits 2 and 3 first, where we were able to see the excavation of the warriors in progress. Reconstructing just one soldier can take three to four months, excavating all the broken pieces and putting them back together, which was neat but when we finally got to the first pit, we were hit with a different kind of amazement. Thousands of statues stand in perfect lines stretching over 200 meters, and it’s amazing to think that all these soldiers were costructed over 2000 years ago each with individual features and faces (thought to be modelled after the labourers who created them.)
We then finished off with a late lunch at a nearby restaurant and hopped back on the bus to take us back to the hostel.
Tip For This Spot: If taking a tour isn’t your thing, you can definitely make the trip yourself. As much as we enjoyed the tour, it took a little too much of the day. It was hard to keep the whole group together because it was so busy, being a holiday weekend and all, which added time to the overall trip. We did meet more people, which was nice and we couldn’t complain about the hour of free beer. However, there may be cheaper and more time-effective options available to you with a bit of research.
We returned to the hostel and took it easy for a couple hours in our air conditioned room. Our roommates were gone for the time being so we had the place to ourselves. After a little rest, we found a quick bite to eat just around the corner from the hostel with a girl that we met on the tour. More specialty lamb burgers were had, these being even better than the ones from the Muslim Quarter.
It was time for our free hour of beer. We hung out with our new friend from the tour and chatted about life over our complimentary drinks, which turned into a game of beer pong — the hostel’s activity for the night, which meant even more beer on the house. Needless to say, the drinks continued to flow all night as more people came and went from the common area and joined in on the fun. We were up much later than the previous night, but it was nice to cut loose with other English-speakers and enjoy our final night in Xi’an.
Tip For This Spot: Head to the common area of your hostel and meet people! Even if you never see them again, great conversation goes a long way. And if someone offers you free beer, always say yes.
We woke up on Sunday understandably groggy. After packing up everything, we left our room for the last time that weekend. We’d seen signs for a rooftop patio at the hostel, and decided to check it out before checking out and we’re glad we did. Wooden furniture and lots of greenery made it the perfect spot to snap a few for Instagram before we left.
Our flight was at 1pm and we wanted to get to the airport with enough time to spare. We headed to the Bell Tower Hotel, with a short stop at Starbucks on the way, bought our 25 yuan tickets, and boarded the bus.
We arrived back in Dalian at 4pm and appreciated a little extra time at home on Sunday evening to get back to our regular lives before the work week began.
Xi’an is definitely on our recommended cities list. The Terracotta Army is a good thing to see once but there’s more to the city as well. We still didn’t get to see the Old City Walls and the Great Mosque, so now we have a reason to go back. That, and the very delicious lamb burgers.