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72 Hours in Xian

China has been rolling out a new 72-hour transit visa exemption policy in major cities throughout the country, making visiting China even easier. Now travelers from the U.S., Canada, and 49 other countries can include China as an additional destination on an existing trip without needing to get a visa. Under the policy, visitors are able to enter select Chinese cities for up to 72 hours without a visa, as long as they have a booked plane ticket to a third country or region within the 72-hour time period. This applies to the cities of Beijing, ShanghaiGuangzhou, Chengdu, ChongqingShenyang, Dalian, Xi’an, GuilinKunming, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Tianjin. China continues to expand this policy to additional locations throughout the destination. In the meantime, these cities are the ideal stopovers or add-on destinations for travelers already in Asia.

Xi’an, formerly known as Chang’an, is the capital of the Shaanxi province. Along with Rome, Cairo and Athens, Xi’an is considered one of the “Four Great Ancient Capitals of Civilization” and is the start of the Silk Road in China. Now that you can visit Xi’an for up to 72 hours without getting a visa, the only question is what you want to do while there. The good news is that Xi’an is very doable within three days. Here are some of the top things to do in Xi’an to make the most of your 72-hour trip:

Terracotta Warriors

This incredible archaeological find was not discovered until 1974, when workers who were digging a well outside Xi’an happened to strike upon a life-size clay soldier. They alerted Chinese authorities, and government archaeologists then unearthed thousands more clay soldiers, horses, and chariots. The famous Terracotta Warriors, as they’re now called, turned out to be an army of thousands of handmade statues created to guard Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor, in the afterlife. Perhaps what is so incredible is not only the sheer number of handmade statues, but also the great detail: the clay soldiers each have unique facial expressions, are positioned according to rank, and surround Qin’s tomb in a formation designed to mirror the urban plan of Xi’an. Though most of the statues are largely faded after centuries underground, patches of paint on some of the statues reveal that they were previously painted with detailed, brightly colored clothes and hold a variety of accurate weapons. The Terracotta Museum covers more than 175,000 square feet. More than 7,000 soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons have been unearthed from the three pits housed at the museum, and excavation is ongoing. To see the museum, join a tour, hire a private guide, or take the #306 bus from the terminal outside the Xi’an Railway Station for just a few RMB and pick up a guide or audio guide once you get there.

Mount Lisan and Huaqing Hot Spring

On the way to or from the Terracotta Museum, stop at Mount Lishan, a scenic spot with many ancient outposts, lovely viewpoints and royal gardens. Visitors can take a cable car part of the way up the mountain, then either head back down or continue up the remainder of the steep mountainside on foot or on horseback. The Beacon Tower sits atop the mountain, where ancient army troops were posted in case a beacon fire needed to be lit, and now provides a panoramic view of the scenic area below. At the foot of Mt. Lishan are scenic royal gardens and the relaxing Huaqing Hot Spring, a royal bathhouse built 3,000 years ago and still open to the public today. The hot springs and surrounding gardens are famous for its geothermal pools (which are now drained, but fascinating to see) and the love story of Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Guifei during the Tang Dynasty. There is live show during the spring, summer and fall that depicts this love story with impressive dance, costumes, lights and music.

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, or Dayanta, as it is called locally, is a striking architectural site that houses many Buddhist relics brought to China from India along the Silk Road. The pagoda was built in 652 and today stands over 200 feet high, with the higher of its seven stories providing a bird’s-eye view of the city. The pagoda sits within a plaza featuring lovely gardens, musical fountains and excellent people watching.

Shaanxi History Museum

After the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, head just northwest to the Shaanxi History Museum, which is considered one of the top museums in China. The large-scale modern national museum houses more than 370,000 cultural relics housed within a grand complex of buildings. Its exhibits showcase a variety of ancient artifacts spanning more than a million years of history, including wall paintings from Tang Dynasty tombs, Shang bronze, coins, jade pieces, and other relics from Chinese history. Admission is free, though a passport is required for admittance (or you can pay a small fee to enter without your passport).

Xi’an City Wall

This ancient fortification surrounds the inner city. It was first built during the early Ming Dynasty, then added on; the wall now stands almost 40 feet high and stretches 8.5 miles around the city, surrounded by a deep moat and circular park. It is one of the most complete city walls surviving in China, and one of the largest ancient military defense systems in the world. The City Wall is an excellent place to rent a bicycle and ride the wall’s cobblestone path, which can take up to 2 hours if you complete the full circuit and provides excellent city views of both old and new architecture below. For a more leisurely method, you can hop on a cart for hire, or stroll the wall on foot, taking in the city views by day or the lights and lanterns at night. There are a number of traditional restaurants inside the wall that offer delicacies unique to Shaanxi province, such as dumplings and noodles, in case you get hungry along the way. Four watchtowers serve as the main entrance gates.

Muslim Quarter

CNN Travel recently named Xi’an one of “Asia’s 10 greatest street food cities,” thanks in part to some of the offerings in the city’s Muslim Quarter. As the name implies, this area is the hub of the Muslim community in Shaanxi province, serving as home to more than 20,000 muslims, 10 mosques and incredible cuisine and cultural hybrids, which came to Xi’an centuries ago when it served as the starting point of the Silk Road. The market in the Muslim Quarter is located just north of the Drum Tower and an excellent place to sample local cuisine of hand-cut noodles, lamb kebabs, quail eggs, rou jia (a popular street food that is somewhat like a hamburger, though often made with lamb) and fruit dumplings at the array of open-air restaurants and street food stands. Street food vendors normally set up their stalls at 6 p.m. and run until midnight or later. The architecture and gardens at the mosques also are worthy of exploration.