Having served as the capital city of 13 dynasties spread intermittently across a 1,100-year period from 221 BC, Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, is proud of its ancient heritage. While Beijing is the place to go if you want to learn about China's more recent history, Xi'an is your destination if you want to discover its further past. This amazing city was once the eastern gateway to the Silk Road — the notorious trade route connecting China to the Middle East and Europe. Xi'an is globally famous, not only for its iconic Terracotta Warriors, but also for its rich history and unique cultural mix of Islam, Buddhism, and Atheism. Nowhere else in China can you find such mouth-watering local Chinese dishes infused with eccentric flavors from the Middle East. Be sure not to miss any of these iconic and historical attractions.
Cover image: "1 xian china wild goose pagoda view" from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1_xian_china_wild_goose_pagoda_view.JPG by chensiyuan. License: CC BY-SA 4.0
1. Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum
Visiting the Terracotta Warriors is the number one item on anyone's bucket list when planning a visit to Xi'an. Located just over an hour away from Xi'an, visitors can conveniently reach the site of the Terracotta Warriors by taking public transits from downtown Xi'an.
When a local farmer was digging a well in the countryside of Xi’an in 1974, a massive archeological treasure from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) was uncovered. Further excavation unfolded a humongous army of around 8,000 life-sized pottery soldiers, horses, chariots, and weapons arranged in battle formations, guarding the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. This grand Mausoleum of the first emperor of Qin and his Terracotta Warriors Warriors was buried without anyone knowing for over 2,200 years. Now, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Park has been built over the entire tomb site, constisting of three main ‘pits’ — vast underground chambers in which different sections of the army were unearthed and now displayed.
2. Xi'an Ancient City Wall
The Xi’an City Wall is the largest and best-preserved ancient city wall in China. Its initial construction dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and it was further enlarged during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Presently, there is 13.7km of the Xi’an City Wall. Biking or walking along the wall will give you some of the best views of the city. It will take you approximately 2 hours of leisurely cycling to go all the way around, so you can rent a bicycle for a two-hour period at the entrance.
3. Xi'an Bell Tower and Drum Tower
While visiting the City Wall, you won’t be able to miss out on its famous towers! In ancient China, every major city had a bell tower and a drum tower, and Xi'an is no exception. Their Bell and Drum Towers are located in the city center of Xi’an, connecting the roads from all four directions within the City Wall. Presently, both Towers are the iconic remnant of ancient Xi'an, the largest and best-preserved of their kind.
Dating back to the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century, the Drum Tower got its name from the huge drum located within the building, and now it even houses a drum museum. You can find a panoramic view of this beautiful city atop both Towers.
4. Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Another symbol of ancient Xi'an no one should miss is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (also called Giant Wild Goose Pagoda). It is located in the southern suburb of Xi'an, about 4 kilometers from downtown. Originally built in 652 during the reign of Emperor Gaozong during the Tang Dynasty, Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most famous pagodas in China. It is a sacred place for Buddhists as it houses a precious array of Buddhist relics that were collected from India by the hierarch Xuanzang during the Tang Dynasty. Xuanzang's journey took 17 years to complete. He started off from Chang'an (the ancient name of Xi'an), traveled along the Silk Road, and finally reached India, the birthplace of Buddhism. Upon Xuanzang's return, Emperor Gaozong commissioned him, as the first abbot of Da Ci'en Temple, to supervise the building of this pagoda. Standing in the Da Ci'en Temple complex and the surrounding scenic gardens, this beautiful pagoda attracts numerous visitors for its stunning architectural beauty. Visitors can observe the beautiful view of the whole Xi'an city on the 7th floor.
During the night, a light and water fountain show begins at the northern square. With the Pagoda as the backdrop, the enormous fountain and laser beams dance to the music. Heading south of the Pagoda will take you to an incredible promenade full of vast, beautifully illuminated buildings, and many stages are set up for performers of all sorts. You can grab a late-night snack from the myriad of food and drink stalls.
5. Discover China's Ancient Culture in Xi'an's Museums
Interested in learning about China's ancient history? No need to look further than the Shaanxi History Museum and the Xi'an Museum. Having been the capital of thirteen imperial dynasties including the most prosperous Qin, Han, and Tang Dynasties, Xi'an is truly the cradle of Chinese ancient civilization.
Housed in a magnificent Confucian Temple is Shaanxi History Museum. It features more than 370,000 pieces of historical relics, primarily from the Zhou to the Tang Dynasty (1100B.C. to 907 A.D.). It was awarded with the designation of "National First Level Museum" in 2008.
While not as famous as the Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an Museum is slightly less crowded and nearly as impressive. It has an astounding collection of 130,000 relics, showing the socioeconomic life of Xi'an starting in the 11th century BC and all the way through modern history. This museum has almost 10,000 paintings and calligraphies, including well-preserved masterpieces dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
6. Muslim Quarter
Having been the entry point to the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty, Xi'an has been deeply influenced by Arabic culture, and the Muslim Quarter here is the living testimony of Xi'an's connection with the Middle East and Europe. From cuisine to clothing, the Chinese/Islamic culture here is strikingly different from the rest of China. Strolling along the busy streets lining with souvenirs and food vendors, you would think you are somewhere in the Arabic world. Lucky are you, who can taste traditional mouthwatering local Chinese dishes, served with a Middle Eastern spin on flavour. Be sure to check out our upcoming post dedicated to Xi'an's cuisine and try all our recommendations - lamb PaoMo (a bread crumb soup dating back to the Tang dynasty), Chinese hamburgers, kebabs, and biang biang noodles (a tangy and peppery dish that’s unique to Xi’an).