There are a few cities richer in historical significance than the city of Xi’an. Once the ancient capital of Imperial China, it played host to countless dynasties and distant merchants. The city was brought to international recognition by its jaw-dropping archaeological discoveries and remains a travelling hotspot amongst local and foreign tourists alike. Amongst them, Xi’an has plenty of highlights on offer!
So in that case, let me show you the 20 best highlights to see during your time in the ancient Imperial capital of Xi’an!
Table of Contents
The Museum of the Terracotta Warriors
We start with not only the most iconic highlights in Xi’an, but one of the most significant in all of China!
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a large collection of life-size sculptures standing in battle formations along underground corridors. These fascinating figures are widely considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in human history!
The collection of 1,000-2,000 imperial guards and their faithful horses were placed here to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of a newly unified Imperial China) through his afterlife. Each figure has its own unique features, making this already jaw-dropping site even more extraordinary!
Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park (Lishan Garden)
As the Terracotta Warriors are a relatively new discovery, relics are still being found to this day! One of the more recent discoveries turned out to be the most significant of all!
The Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the man responsible for the Terracotta Warriors, was also found not too far from the old excavation pits. To this day, it remains unexcavated, and will probably stay that way too!
The park’s curator refused to excavate the site to protect the tomb and hopes that future technology will allow us to see its contents without disturbing the sleeping souls within. If they did, they’d find quite a sight! Ancient texts and modern-day tests show that the inner palace may be full of precious stones and rivers of mercury that flow through mountains of bronze!
Not too far from the Terracotta Warriors is yet another example of extravagant Imperial design! The Huaqing Palace is a collection of hot springs that were used by members of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). As the grandeur of the palace shows, the rulers of the time knew how to relax in style!
Scattered around the palace are five hot springs, each to be used by different members of the Imperial court. They include the Lotus Pool (named for its shape) which belonged to the emperor and, my personal favourite, the Star Pool, which allowed its users to enjoy the starry night as they bathed.
Marking the geographical centre of the ancient capital, the Bell Tower is often seen as the pinnacle symbol of the old city. Built in 1384, it functioned as an important military strongpoint which allowed rulers to dominate the surrounding countryside and provide an early warning of attack by rival rulers.
Even more fascinating, the tower was actually moved! As Xi’an continued to expand, they had to reposition the tower to the new centre of the city!
The amazing contrasting colours of the grey square base against the green glazed tiles and gold-plated roof makes for quite a stunning view! It looks even better when the sun goes down and the entire tower is illuminated!
From one tower to the next, and you won’t have to go far to find this one! Less than a stone’s throw away from the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower was used to signal the time and alert of any major emergencies.
Built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it combines different architectural styles including those of the Tang and Qing Dynasties too. The 24 drums lined up along the tower represent the Solar Terms, the ancient weather calendar used to guide agricultural production.
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You may be surprised to learn that China has a thriving Muslim community! Xi’an is home to over 20,000 descendants of foreign diplomats and merchants that originally travelled here for business and never left.
Of all the areas worth checking out, the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market is everyone’s first choice! Specialising in street food and souvenirs, the streets are lined with family-run businesses working out of the Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings.
Above all, the star of the show is the authentic hand-made Muslim food! Some of the highlights include crumbled bread in a mutton stew, fried rice with pickled Chinese cabbage and roasted mutton or lamb.
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
It’s no secret that Xi’an prides itself on its ancient past. Standing in the Da Ci’en Temple complex, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is one of these almighty reminders.
Built in 652, the UNESCO World Heritage was used to collect Buddhist materials that Xuanzang originally brought from India. In total, he collected 1,335 sutras, which later would influence the creation of Chinese Buddhism.
But why is it called Giant Wild Goose Pagoda? The legend starts with a large group of geese flying overhead. As one monk looked above, he wished the merciful Buddha would provide them with some meat. At that moment, the leading goose broke its wings and fell to the ground. The monks were shocked and saw it as a damning message from Buddha. As such, they built a pagoda where the goose fell and vowed not to eat meat again.
Da Ci’en Temple
Though the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is its star attraction, the rest of the Da Ci’en complex is also one of the best highlights in Xi’an!
Built in 648 to commemorate the death of a former emperor’s mother, the temple is considered one of the most significant in the country. For a time, it even housed Xuanzang, the man responsible for translating Indian scriptures to create the Chinese Buddhism we have today. This would also end up influencing Buddhism across Eastern Asia! Quite the feat.
Xi’an City Walls
The 8-mile-long, 12-metre high barrier that encircles the old city is the most complete city wall in China! If that wasn’t impressive enough, it’s also one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world.
Visitors can ascend the wall through one of its many gates, though traditionally many choose to enter through the South (Yongning) Gate. There you’ll find two museums inside the barbican and the archery tower.
Though 8 miles might sound a little too much to walk, there’s an easy solution. Bikes are available to rent near the South Gate, allowing you to breeze around the perimeter in no time at all!
The Terracotta Warriors aren’t the only significant excavation site Xi’an has! Banpo site (or Banpocun) is a large Neolithic settlement which dates back to 4500-3750 BC. Over 10,000 stone tools and artefacts, 250 tombs, and almost 100 building foundations were discovered in the area.
Labourers hired to dig up the ground for a new factory came across the site in 1953. Little did they realise they had stumbled upon the first large-scale archaeological project in China! Soon after the Banpo Museum was opened to display artefacts of the Yangshao Culture, which flourished in the Yellow River Valley between 5000-3000 BC.
China has a long history of religious synergy with nearby nations, particularly when it comes to Buddhism. Japan was one of the many nations that were influenced by the blossoming religion, with many monks residing in Qinglong Temple. In 805, many of those same monks returned to their Japanese homeland where they founded Shingon Buddhism, one of the most followed Buddhism sects in Japan to this day!
As fascinating as that is, there’s another reason this place attracts such a crowd! The 1,000 cherry blossom trees that surround the temple burst into life each spring, attracting keen photographers from far and wide.
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From one Wild Goose Pagoda to the next, though this one is a little downsized. The pagoda is yet another UNESCO Heritage Site that has survived from the Tang Dynasty. Though the pagoda isn’t as famous as its giant counterpart, it’s placed in a far more peaceful surroundings.
Like its bigger twin, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda also played a vital role in introducing Buddhism to China. Religious sutras brought back from India were stored inside, which later helped integrate Buddhism with the culture of the Han people.
Temple of the Eight Immortals
Initially built for the God of Thunder, the Taoist temple was then renamed as a tribute to the Eight Immortals, who according to Chinese mythology, were capable of giving life and overcoming evil.
Others know the temple as Ba Xian An Palace, named after Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi hid in the temple after the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing in 1900.
Within the temple are a set of black plates inscribed with the basic principles of Taoism and their dedication to the five sacred mountains of Taoism. The temple also has ancient manuals on proper breathing techniques and how to increase vital energy (chi) to achieve immortality. Who can resist that opportunity?!
Though China isn’t short of stunning gates, none surpass the enormous size of Danfeng Gate. It’s even bigger than the Heaven Gate of Tiananmen Square, the most famous gate of them all!
Coloured light brown to represent the royal family, the gate illustrates the magnificent momentum the Tang Dynasty had at the time. A museum inside the gate also gives a little more info and the history of the structure.
Standing right behind the aforementioned gate, Daming Palace is yet more proof of the Tang Dynasty’s might. The Daming Palace might be more significant than you might think, as the same design was later used to build the Forbidden City!
Originally built as a summer palace for Emperor Li Shimin’s father, it later held important New Year ceremonies and welcomed ambassadors from across the world. Now it stands as one of the largest and most extraordinary highlights in Xi’an!
Great Mosque of Xi’an
As mentioned previously, Xi’an has a surprisingly large Muslim community. As such, a stunning mosque was built to match their equally passionate devotion.
Right in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque is the largest and one of the most important Islamic sites in China. The most interesting aspect of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is its unmistakeably Chinese twist, making it a very rare sight for a Muslim mosque!
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Built in 1705 for the Grand Lama of Tibet as he passed through on the way to meet with the emperor in Beijing, Guangren Temple has since become the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Shaanxi Province. At the time, it stood as a symbol of the cooperation and cultural communication between the Tibetan and Han people.
Inside, halls such as the Mahavira Hall and the Bodhisattva Hall provide some stunning examples of local architecture. Though the most impressive figure must be the Thousand-Hand Avalokitesvara on the lotus throne.
Xi’an is filled to the brim with royal-themed highlights which accentuate their lust for luxury! Lotus (or Tang) Paradise was one such sight, which became the play area for the Imperial elite.
Today, the park has thankfully been turned over to the public. Performances are held regularly within the grounds of the park, including an Imperial Costume Show, Chinese Kongfu Show, Lion Dance, and acrobatics. There’s even a water fountain show which is the biggest of its kind in China!
Stele Forest Museum
The Stele Forest, also called Beilin Museum, displays over 11,000 stone steles, epigraphs and stone sculptures from past dynasties. The unique collection illustrates the complex religions and lifestyles of ancient times.
These national treasures also show an outline of Chinese history and how China would interact with other countries. Another of the worthy highlights on the Xi’an list!
Du City God Temple
Last but not least, we have the largest city god temple in Shaanxi Province. As one of the two remaining Taoist temples in Xi’an, therefore one of its worthy highlights. With a history of more than 600 years, the temple is still a magnificent sight today.
As one of the largest town god temples in China, the Xi’an City God Temple overlooks all town god temples in China’s northwest provinces.
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.