This past fall, I embarked on a whirlwind, seven-week journey through mainland China. This entire trip was a tremendous experience for me, whether I was downing soup dumplings in cosmopolitan Shanghai, roaming the streets of ancient Pingyao, climbing the hills of sacred Wutai Shan, exploring Buddhist cave art outside Datong, or gaping at the beauty of the Summer Palace in Beijing. However, I must say that Xi’an won a special place in my heart as one of my favorite stops on the trip. (Shanghai is still #1 bae for me, but Xi’an is extraordinary in its own right.) Hearing the Chinese talk about Xi’an is special: many of them refer to it as a Chinese heartland of sorts, a treasure trove of Chinese culture and history. After all, China was in fact unified for the first time under the Qin Dynasty, whose capital was located just outside of Xi’an. AND Xi’an served as the capital for several other ancient imperial dynasties. AND it was the eastern starting point of the Silk Road. So like, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
To pay homage to this special city, I’ve created a countdown of the top 7 sights to see in Xi’an.
#7. The Terracotta Warriors.
These guys are almost undoubtedly what Xi’an is most well-known for. Not surprising, since these statues number in the thousands and were built over 2000 years ago for Qin Shi Huang, the emperor that first unified all of China. Why did he have them built, you may ask? Well, Qin Shi Huang thought he was so big and bad that he needed a whole army of soldiers to protect him in the afterlife. So the soldiers were constructed for his tomb. By slaves. Who were killed when they finished their work. Because this whole plan was to be kept a secret. Super chill. The site contains three pits. Pit 1 is the coolest, since it has the most warriors. Pits 2 and 3 have fewer fully intact warriors. You’ll see more unfinished – namely, headless – statues or broken bits of soldiers’ legs or horses’ bodies. If you’re an archeology buff, this whole spot is a gold mine. Regardless of your interests, this is an important stop in any visit to Xi’an – just not my personal favorite. This is not to say that Xi’an is underwhelming; on the contrary, this is to say that Xi’an is pretty impressive, given that its most world-renowned site isn’t even its coolest attraction!
#6. Xi’an’s City Walls.
The city walls in Xi’an were the most impressive city walls I saw during my time in China. Pingyao and Datong also have city walls, but neither are nearly as awe-inspiring as Xi’an’s. Xi’ans walls remain intact from the Ming Dynasty, although they have been periodically restored. These ramparts are exactly the kind of sight that makes you want to come visit China: they’re ancient, imposing, gracefully lit, and dotted with colorfully illuminated watchtowers. Along the walls are well-planned walkways where people stroll and do exercise, day and night. These areas are also a hub for guang chang wu (public dancing). It’s really pleasant to stroll along the walls and see what you stumble upon!
#5. The Big Goose Pagoda.
The Big Goose Pagoda is one of Xi’an’s most recognized landmarks. The pagoda is interesting because it is square, unlike the round pagodas that are more common throughout China. The Buddhist Da Ci’en temple on the grounds of the pagoda also makes this a worthwhile stop: if you arrive at the right time, you’ll hear the ringing of the bells and the sounding of the drum that are common in Buddhist temples. When I was there, I witnessed a prayer service as well as monks bustling around. The jade murals of the life of the Buddha in the side-halls of the temple are spectacular, as is the bodhisattva next door. The grounds are lively and especially beautiful in autumn. As a lover of the fall, I was barely able to tear myself away from the place. The adjacent grounds to the east of the pagoda literally made my fall foliage dreams come true!
#4. The Drum and Bell Towers at night.
When lit up at night, the iconic Drum and Bell Towers in the city center are a sight to behold (the main photo above for this post is the Drum Tower). These quintessentially Chinese structures will have you alternating between taking pics and gaping in awe. You’ll see drum and bell towers throughout China – like in Datong and Beijing – but the towers in other cities just don’t compare. Xi’an’s are more beautiful, better-lit, and have a more lively ambience surrounding them. In fact, the Drum Tower leads you to one of the most vibrant areas in the whole city…the Muslim Quarter, my #1 on this list!
#3. Xi’an Great Mosque.
This mosque, nestled in the Muslim Quarter, earns a top spot on my list because it represents such a captivating blend of culture and religion. The juxtapositions here are fascinating: traditional Chinese architecture meets Islamic art and Arabic script. All the images that come to my mind when I think of mosques in the Middle East and Morocco – tall minarets, arches, geometric tile patterns, domes – are not present here. Instead, you find structures that are more characteristic of China, like pavilions and pagodas. In fact, the central minaret of this mosque is itself a pagoda! The grounds are rife with color in the fall: red pavilions; orange, yellow, and green leaves; turquoise roof tiles. This place really is one of a kind!
#2. Guangren Temple
This Tibetan Buddhist temple may just be my favorite temple of all time thus far in life (I’ve done pretty extensive trips through Japan and China up to now, so I’ve seen quite a few temples). Photos don’t do this place justice: the vibrant colors must be seen in person. Take it slow as you walk the grounds in order to appreciate the intricate details and coloring on the doors, roofs, and walls of the various halls in the temple. Look out for the golden-clad hall dedicated to the God of Wealth and the hall that houses a thousand-hand boddhittsava. The final hall is home to a gorgeous golden statue of the Buddha that measures several meters high.
#1. The Muslim Quarter.
The Muslim Quarter takes #1 for its uniqueness and INCREDIBLE food. This area has historically been home to Xi’an’s Hui community, non-Uighur Chinese Muslims who are descendants of Persian, Arab, and Mongol merchants on the Silk Road. Over time, intermarriages with the Han Chinese have produced a community that often appears to be ethnically Han but is actually ethnically mixed. Throughout the Muslim Quarter, you’ll see Hui men in traditional Muslim skullcaps and women in headscarves. This intriguing blend of cultures was a really special learning experience for me. The atmosphere of the Muslim Quarter is exciting and boisterous as food vendors sell their treats, mopeds zigzag through the narrow lanes, and tons of people roam the streets in search of the perfect meal. I have to thank the MQ for one of the most delicious dishes I ate while in China: cold noodles, a typical dish in the province of Shaanxi. As the name suggests, the noodles are served cold (which really means more like room temp) and dressed with a variety of sauces, including a peanut sauce, a spicy chili sauce, and a sauce I can best compare to soy sauce. One vendor let me mix different noodles, which was a huge plus. These noodles were so freaking good – so good, in fact, that I had to go back and get seconds! For desert, try an orange persimmon cake, which you’ll see everywhere. Yummmmm!
No trip to China is complete without a visit to Xi’an. I’d recommend staying three whole days to be able to experience all of the places on my list. You won’t regret it!