Xi’an is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations. It has long been known as the first capital of China, with a total of 13 Chinese dynasties calling it home. And many journeys along the ancient Silk Road started here. But it’s known most as the gateway to the incredible Terracotta Warriors. Here are a few reasons why it should be on your wish list:
1 See the Terracotta Warriors
One place that is forever fused with thoughts of China is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world – the huge army of Terracotta Warriors and horses who safeguard the tomb of China’s First Emperor.
Thousands of individually detailed, life-size models represent the military power that united China at the end of the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), and the imperial status of First Emperor Qin during his life. Each figure, bearing a spear, bronze sword, dagger-axe, halberd, longbow or crossbow, faces east to protect the emperor from attackers who lived in the kingdoms he had conquered. Non-military figures have also been found in the pits, such as acrobats and musicians; and the museum also shows two bronze chariots and horses, equally detailed and also found near the tomb.
With the area not yet fully excavated, you can’t help but wonder what else is under your feet when you visit!
2 Cycle the City Walls
The Great Wall of China may be hundreds of miles away, but Xi’an doesn’t disappoint when it comes to ancient fortifications. It holds the most complete city wall in the country; which also happens to be one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world.
The first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty is behind the great scale of this 637-year-old fortification – a solid 12 metres tall, up to 15 metres thick and reaching 8.5 miles in length. A moat and multiple towers and sentry buildings all helped to scare off potential threats.
If you find yourself with some free time, it’s worth ascending the ramparts and maybe hiring a bike to explore the top. It’s now a playground for the city which has great views across the low, ancient buildings of the old city within, and of the high-rises and highways of the modern city that spreads outside the wall. It’s quite stunning by day, but visit at night for added atmosphere – the City Wall is lit up with red Chinese lanterns after dark.
3 Savour the Food
Swap your Chinese take-away for a taste of the real thing… with a twist. When Arabic and Persian merchants and students settled in Xi’an over two millennia ago, they settled in what is now known as Muslim Street. This road is the eastern starting point of the Silk Road, the historical route merchants followed to sell goods and share knowledge, including recipes!
Today, the city’s Muslim Quarter is popular with locals and tourists looking to taste foods created by descendants of the settlers. The street is lined with stalls offering barbecued meats with Middle Eastern flavours, or breads, dried fruits and sweets.
One of the most popular foods in China is dumplings, usually filled with meat, fish or vegetables. Taking a lesson in creating this delicious dish is a great way to immerse yourself in Xi’an culture.
4 Explore the Big Wild Goose Pagoda
You can’t go to Xi’an and not visit one of the many temples that transfigure the skyline. The most famous is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, one of the few major Tang-era buildings left in Xi’an today. This UNESCO protected temple was first built in AD 652. It held Buddhist materials that were taken from India by Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, including several Buddha relics and figures. Make your way up the multiple floors to see the relics, and be rewarded with views over the ancient city at the top.
When you’re back on the ground, be sure to take a look at the Music Fountain in the North Square of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This creation of water, light and music is the largest music fountain in Asia at 110,000square metres, and holds several world records.
5 Be enchanted by the Tang Dynasty show
Over 1,000 years ago, folk dances were performed as part of a prayer ritual for a good harvest or a better life. It developed into a skilled art form to entertain prosperous audiences of the Tang Dynasty, the golden age of Chinese arts and culture.
Since 1988, The Tang Dynasty Palace has hosted a vibrant show that combines exuberant, traditional classical music with wonderful performances of ancient dance. This outstanding hour-long performance recreates scenes during the Tang dynasty, giving you a sense of life here nearly a millennium ago, with explanations in Mandarin and English. You‘ll be mesmerised by the colourful costumes and incredible choreography, recreated according to ancient art, relics and records discovered in Xi’an.
6 Learn Chinese calligraphy
Ok, so I know this is supposed to be 5 reasons to visit Xi’an, but there’s so much to mention I had to squeeze in one more!
The TangBo Art Museum is an unexpected delight. In this small building, you can browse through a rich collection of Shaanxi folk arts – farmer paintings, decorative masks, rice paper pictures, and paper silhouettes used in shadow plays – before learning the art of Chinese calligraphy.