What to know before your trip to Xi'an: From a Local's Perspective
Learn how to get around, where to stay, and useful phrases!
· 8 min read
Xi'an, the capital of China's Shaanxi province, is a fascinating gateway to China's profound history and its dynamic present. It offers a captivating blend of ancient and modern, and is renowned for being home to the legendary Terracotta Warriors, an iconic archaeological marvel that draws visitors from around the world. Beyond its archaeological wonders, Xi'an boasts a rich heritage, with its well-preserved city walls, ancient temples, and vibrant street markets. In recent years, it has also embraced modernity, showcasing a thriving urban center with a booming tech industry and a lively culinary scene. If you are planning a visit to Xi'an, or considering if you should put it on your itinerary for your next trip, why not get an insiders' perspective of the city so you know what to expect, and maybe, get some insider tips!
What is Xi'an like, and what you should know before you visit: a local's perspective
We speak to two locals from Xi'an to find out more about what they think about their city, along with tips that they might have for visitors to Xi'an.
Fair Warning: this represents just two highly unfiltered opinions of Xi'an. Locals or other travelers may not agree with what’s said here, but you didn’t come here for a canned answer, did you?
What is something about Xi’an that you don’t get in other parts of China?
Patsy: History! Xi’an was the capital of China for 13 dynasties. You can easily find ancient tombs if you dig 5 meters in Xi’an. Hey, that’s how Terra Cotta Warrior was found. It was found by a farmer who was trying to dig a well for his village.
Chuankai: Well, besides the stunning Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an is known for its mouthwatering street food. From crispy fried dumplings to spicy lamb skewers, you'll be in foodie heaven! Just be prepared to loosen your belt a few notches, because the temptation to eat everything in sight is real!
Teach us some important Chinese phrases we need to know to survive in Xi’an!
Patsy: You need to know ‘东’ (pronounced Dong, meaning East)， ‘南’(pronounced Nan, meaning South)，‘西’(pronounced Xi, meaning West)，‘北’(pronounced Bei, meaning North). People in Xi’an do not say “turn left after the traffic lights” when you ask for directions. They say “go all the way to the North”.
Chuankai: QR code payments are very popular in China, including Xi'an. There are two forms of QR code payment, one is when the merchant scans your payment code and the other is when you scan the merchant's collection code. So when you want to make a payment you might have to ask “你扫我，还是我扫你?” (ni sao wo*, hai shi wo sao ni?)*, which means “you scan my payment code, or I scan your collection code?”.
What is the best way to get around Xi’an?
Patsy: Subway is definitely the most convenient transportation in Xi’an for tourists. I usually drive or take Didi. It’s nice to walk and ride bicycles during autumn when the weather is a little chilly but not cold.
Chuankai: Sharing bikes is a good and convenient option. You can see sharing bikes everywhere on the roadside in Xi'an. You can take out your phone and scan the QR code on the bike to unlock it, and then ride the bike to wherever you want to go. Just turn the lock off when you reach your destination, no need to do anything else.
Where do you recommend that tourists stay in Xi’an?
Patsy: I would recommend near the city wall (downtown). You can easily find the subway, street food, decent restaurants, stores, bars and everything nearby. I like to go downtown with my friends during weekends. The hotels are also not as expensive as the ones in downtown Manhattan.
Chuankai: The best neighborhoods for tourists to stay in Xi'an are the ones near the city center, such as the Bell and Drum Towers area and the Muslim Quarter. These neighborhoods offer convenient access to popular attractions, vibrant markets, and a wide range of accommodation options, including hotels, guesthouses, and hostels.
What safety tips would you give travelers to Xi’an?
Patsy: Xi’an is a very safe city. It used to have many thieves stealing people’s phones. Mine got stolen when I was in high school… But now I can leave my bag in a public place without worrying about anything getting lost.
Chuankai: Xi'an is a very safe city, you don't have to worry at all. But, if you are planning to lose weight recently, it is best not to go out at night, because the delicious food you can find everywhere on the road may ruin your plan.
If you were a tourist in Xi’an, which areas would you be exploring?
Patsy: Terracotta Warriors, city wall, historical attractions, and night bars. Actually you might run into me anywhere, I’m always down to exploring all the places. There’re so many good restaurants and fun places in the city that I’ve never been to and I like to be a “tourist” in my hometown.
Chuankai: I will probably be at the lesser-known temples like Guangren Temple or Jianfu Temple, tranquil parks like Qujiangchi Park, or traditional neighborhoods like Gaoxin District. But if you are visiting for the first time, you have to go to the famous attractions like the Terracotta Army or the City Wall. And spend your money on local street food and local cuisine, or shop for souvenirs in the Muslim Quarter.
Patsy: Yes to spending money on food, food, and more food!
Visitors to Xi’an can’t say they have been to Xi’an if they….
Patsy: Didn’t consume too much carbohydrates. (Everything is about carbs!)
Chuankai: Haven't tried wearing traditional costumes, or han fu in Chinese. There are many historical buildings in Xi’an. It is worth wearing the traditional costumes of the dynasties corresponding to these ancient buildings and taking photos with them.
What are some of the most common stereotypes about Xi’an, and how true are they?
Patsy: People in Xi’an are not modern. Well…. it’s 70% true, lol.
Chuankai: One common stereotype about Xi'an is that it is solely focused on its ancient history and lacks modern development. Xi'an is indeed famous for its ancient sites like the Terracotta Army and City Wall, but it has also experienced significant growth and boasts a vibrant and modern cityscape with skyscrapers, shopping malls, and a thriving economy. So, this stereotype is not entirely true.
What is the best thing about Xi’an?
Patsy: You can wear Han or any historical clothes in public without anyone judging you.
Chuankai: Xi'an is the geographical center of China. The distances from Xi'an to most other Chinese cities are similar.
And the thing about Xi’an that you dislike the most?
Patsy: The air is polluted in winter.
Chuankai: The weather is very hot in summer.
Where are some of the best places to meet locals in Xi’an?
Patsy: Night bars!
Chuankai: Head to the south gate of Xi'an City Wall, there are many street performers and spectators.
Finally, what would you tell someone who hasn’t been to Xi’an?
Patsy: Do not visit Xi’an in summer, it’s one of the most popular destinations in summer. Fall is the best time to visit Xi’an.
Chuankai: Xi'an is a city with a long history. It is also the habitat of pandas. Come visit!
Why you might want to get a local's perspective before you visit Xi'an?
In recent years, there's an increased emphasis on authentic travel and sustainable travel. More and more, we see travelers seeking unique and different experiences when they travel - it's no longer simply about 'ticking off' a checklist of attractions. Of course, it's not that we completely miss out on the 'must-see's, but the emphasis has shifted to being there and doing things, rather than simply just visiting and seeing. With the limited amount of time and money that we have, we also want to make sure that we make the most out of our travels.
Finding a local guide - or having a local friend - is a good way to learn about a place and gain insights to the city that you are visiting, so you can get the most out of your trip to Xi'an.
Get genuine, honest opinions about Xi'an - even if it’s not something you wanted to hear
Although there's a lot of material out there in the internet that can help you plan your travels, a vast majority of the information are rather generic. More often than not, the materials include a laundry list of places you should visit - and it's hard to find actual authentic opinions about a place.
Speaking to a local helps in identifying tourist traps that you might possibly want to avoid, and also learn about alternatives that are available. You also get to learn about hidden gems that you might otherwise not know about.
Learn how not to be that annoying tourist
With residents in many cities pushing back against overtourism, one of the best ways that you can prepare for your travels would be to connect with a local at your destination. Instead of simply flocking to where everyone else is, speak to a local before your trip and learn more about off-the-beaten-path gems and small, local businesses. Get different experiences while also boosting their local economy.
And, you'll get to learn more about what to take note of, how to behave, and what to definitely not do. Remember, you'll be visiting their cities, so you should go by their rules. Don't be that annoying tourist.
Enhances your travel experience
It can be stressful planning for a trip, or even being on a trip itself. By connecting to a local that you can speak to and knowing there's someone who is ready to help, it could help to alleviate your stress.
And in case you have common interests and can get along really well, you've potentially got yourself a new friend!
How to get some local opinions BEFORE your trip to Xi'an?
We get that some of you prefer spending time doing your own research and planning before your trip, and in fact, might actually really enjoy that part of going on a trip. During the planning of your trip, getting a local guide or contact that you can speak to before your trip will be a very useful resource for you!
From speaking to hosts of your accommodation to participating in discussions in forums, there are a number of ways that you can actually connect with locals before your trip.
Reaching out to hosts on sites like Airbnb used to be a good way for you to get in touch with a local, but these days, the interactions are mostly transactional. (But note that Airbnb isn't legal in many places, including China!)
Alternatively, platforms like Couchsurfing also make for a good way for you to reach out to locals before your trip. In fact, such platforms provide a good avenue for you to really immerse in the local experience, since you'll actually be living with a local during your trip. But, couchsurfing could bring about a certain degree of anxiety, and it's understandably not for everyone.
Forums are also a great way for you to reach out to locals — from reddit subs to more local forums, there are a number of ways for you to get opinions from locals. Unfortunately, these connections are often a lot less personal; and your question(s) might not always be seen as the threads in forums are usually sorted by popularity.
A Local Answers: Get a local perspective before your trip to Xi'an
With the aim of helping you travel better, we set out to build a way for locals and travelers to connect over a virtual cup of coffee. This is a service that we are running as an experiment, where we put ourselves out to be that local who can help you plan your trip. Not to worry, this is a free service - and there are no hidden agendas.
The service will be available from now till November, and we will have locals from Singapore, Toronto, and Xi'an. Simply hit us up on our WhatsApp business account and let us know where you want to go, or who you want to speak to.
Not sure what you need to know? Here are some useful questions:
- How is the weather like in Xi'an?
- Do I need a lot of cash in Xi'an? How do I set up ePayment?
- Are there places I should avoid in Xi'an?
- Are there apps I should download before visiting Xi'an?