Visiting Xi’an: Ancient Capital and a Window into China’s Past

Located in the Shaanxi Province and considered the birthplace of modern China, Xi’an is one of China’s four great ancient capitals. The surrounding areas served as the capital, starting in the 11th century BC under the Zhou Dynasty and again under the Qin (for whom China is named) Dynasty in the 3rd century BC.

Historical and Cultural Significance

Silk Road Sculptures in Xi'an China
Photo Credit: [@JUN YANG/Shutterstock]
Originating in Xi’an during the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road spanned 4000 miles across the Eurasian continent and consisted of a series of routes connecting East and West. With the production of silk, the Chinese export helped to initiate the Silk Road and the subsequent exchange of ideas, religions, customs, and philosophies that would reshape the world.

Marco Polo, one of the most well-known European merchants to travel the Silk Road, started his journey from Venice, Italy, in 1271. He spent 24 years exploring Asia, including China, Burma, and Sri Lanka. He also served in the court of Kublai Khan for 17 years, becoming a trusted diplomat and envoy.

Upon his return to Italy, he shared his story with a writer, and they co-authored the “Book of the Marvels of the World.” This book introduced Europeans to Chinese inventions and customs, such as gunpowder, porcelain, paper money, and new and exotic plants and animals. It is said to have inspired Christopher Columbus to start his explorations.

Xi’an City Walls

Xi'an City Wall in China
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As one of China’s four ancient capitals, the Xi’an City Walls offered protection from various warring clans and invaders. Originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty (14th century), the walls reinforced the previously existing palace walls from the Tang Dynasty. The city walls were restored in the 16th, 18th, and 20th centuries.

You can walk or bike atop the 8.5-mile wall and marvel at the defensive fortifications—including the moats, drawbridges, gates, and towers—while taking in views of the city and surrounding areas.

The Hanguang Gate, on the western end of the southern part of the wall, is one of the most historic gates and a great starting point for any tour of the City Walls. The South Gate also has a place where bikes can be rented.

Bell Tower and Drum Tower

Xi'an Bell Tower in China
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Also built in the late 14th century under the Ming Dynasty, visitors should not miss the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. Also known as the “Sister Buildings,” the towers are some of the best preserved in China, and both serve important functions.

The bronze bells from the Tang Dynasty, located within the Bell Tower, were struck in the morning to start the day.  The Drum Tower, located northwest of the Bell Tower, housed a drum that was struck at the end of the day and, on occasion, as an emergency signal.

The Sister Buildings can be visited with one combined ticket, or each Tower visited individually and are open until 10 PM in the Spring and Summer months. Closely examining the intricately painted decorations and architecture of the towers’ exterior and interior makes them worth the visit. If visiting during the day, try to return after dark to see the Towers illuminated.

Muslim Quarter

Muslim Quarter in Xi'an, China
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Given the city’s role in the Silk Road, some Muslim travelers and merchants who traveled along the route settled in an area now known as the Muslim Quarter. Located in the city’s center and west of the Bell Tower, the Muslim Quarter offers an array of food vendors selling a variety of beef and lamb stews, soup dumplings, meat skewers, rou jia mo (braised meat in a soft bun), hand-pulled noodles, and desserts.

Wandering the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter is an amazing way to spend the evening, moving from vendor to vendor and enjoying a variety of food options, as well as shopping for souvenirs.  The Great Mosque of Xi’an within the Quarter, dating back to the Tang Dynasty and constructed in 742, offers visitors a wonderful mix of Chinese history, Islamic religion, and culture.

The Muslim Quarter can be easily accessed from the Sister Buildings of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower.

Wild Goose Pagodas

Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, China
Photo Credit: [@VLADJ55/DepositPhotos]
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda are both great reminders of the role that Buddhism has played in the religious history of China. The tiered towers were both built during the Tang Dynasty and have been destinations for religious travelers and monks.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was built in the late 7th century and housed the Buddhist scriptures brought back from India by Xuanzang, later serving as a place of worship and teaching.  A statue of Xuanzang stands in front of the pagoda. The Smaller Wild Goose Pagoda was built nearby in the early 8th century and served as a place of worship and teaching.

Xi’an has sightseeing buses that stop at the Ancient City Walls, including the Hanguang Gate, the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.

Museum of Terracotta Warriors Day Trip

Museum of Terracotta Warriors
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The Museum of Terracotta Warriors and the Qin Mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 25 miles east of the city, was one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Many of the last resting places of Chinese emperors remained unmarked to prevent the area from being vandalized or desecrated.  In the mid-1970s, a farmer dug for a well and uncovered the final resting place of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty and the first Emperor of China. His 8000 Terracotta Warriors horses and chariots were meant to protect the Emperor in the afterlife following his death in approximately 210 BC.

The museum highlights the differing hairstyles and uniforms of the approximately ten different ranks of the warriors.  The sightseeing buses in Xi’an have routes that include the Museum of Terracotta Warriors.

Longmen Grottoes Day Trip

Longmen Grottoes
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The Longmen Grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Luoyang, another of the ancient capitals of China.  Luoyang can be reached from Xi’an via high-speed train, usually taking no more than 90 minutes, depending on the time of day.

Dating from the Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907 AD), the vast and impressive Buddhist carvings and sculptures, numbering over 100,000 with some as small as 1 inch, are housed in small and medium caves dotting the limestone cliffs. The most significant part of the grottoes showcases the 55-foot-tall Buddha surrounded on both sides by monks and spiritual beings, all nearly as tall.

Where to Eat in Xi’an, China

Pao Mo Stew in Xi'an, China
Photo Credit: [@L.F/Shutterstock]
For dining options, the Muslim Quarter offers wonderful street food vendors and a few sit-down restaurant options. Some additional recommendations for restaurants to experience authentic and delicious Chinese cuisine include:

Ma’er Youzhi Suantang, located near Lianhu Park in the NW part of the city within the Ancient City Walls, is an excellent destination for savory dumplings.

Liu Laosi, within the Muslim Quarter and near the police station on Miaohoujie, is an amazing place for hand-pulled noodles called biangbiang.

Qinyu Rou Jia Mo Restaurant, just north of the South Gate of the Ancient City Walls, is a great place to try Chinese hamburgers, which are braised meat and soft bun sandwiches.

Liuxin Niuyangrou, located near Lianhu Park in the NW part of the city within the Ancient City Wall, has some of the best paomo, a famous local dish of lamb and pita stew.

Visiting Xi’an, China

Xi'an City Building in China
Photo Credit: [@wangsong/DepositPhotos]
The best time to visit Xi’an is late Spring. As the season changes from Winter to Spring and temperatures start to warm, the area can experience dust storms. In early summer, we can see hot and humid conditions. The late Summer and early Autumn months tend to be the rainy season.  Winter in Xi’an is cold and dry, with some snow but not much accumulation.  

From the city’s role in China’s history to the cultural and religious significance of the Muslim Quarter and Buddhist pagodas to the amazing day trips to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a visit to China should include exploring the wonders of Xi’an and its surrounding areas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Visiting Xi'an: Ancient Capital and a Window into China's Past
Audra Morris

I am a travel lover and history buff who desires to discover and blog about as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible, though my first love is Florence, Italy. My travel blog is The Nerd Traveler. I hope to bring the world to people through my blog and inspire them to travel and explore!