Long before the country – and other countries – kowtowed to Běijīng, there was Cháng’ān: a thriving city of emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and soldiers; a place where many of the world’s great religions coexisted and Chinese culture reached an apogee of creativity and sophistication. Cháng’ān – present-day Xī’ān – was the fabled beginning and end of the Silk Road, a swirl of colours, lute music and desert dust, where camel caravans unloaded goods from across the Eurasian continent and packed up aspects of China that went on to influence the world. But, like all great metropolises, it had to come to an end. Destroyed in rebellions that marked the decline of the Tang dynasty, by the 10th century Cháng’ān was no more.
Xī’ān today sits in the fertile Wei River valley, one of the epicentres of early Chinese civilisation. The area was home to the capitals of several major dynasties (historians can count 11), stretching all the way back to the Zhou in the 11th century BC. The remnants of this ancient world are everywhere – from the First Emperor’s Terracotta Army to the Muslim influence that still characterises the city.
Understandably, Xī’ān is one of China’s major attractions, but the modern city is also one of the country’s great polarisers – you either love it or hate it. Most people only spend two or three days here, but history buffs could easily stay busy for a week. Topping the list of sights in and around the city are the Terracotta Warriors, the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, the Muslim Quarter and the City Walls. With a little more time, throw in the pagodas, museums or any number of sites outside the city. Better still, arrange an overnight trip to nearby Huá Shān or Hánchéng.
Best places to stay in Xī'ān
Best of China
From cosmopolitan cities to ancient capitals and surreal rural scenery, China’s stunning diversity offers adventurous visitors to the Middle Kingdom a chance to explore both its modern allure and ancient past.
China travel guide
With tumble-down chunks of the Great Wall, mist-wreathed, temple-topped mountains, quaint villages, water towns and eye-catching ethnic borderlands, China is home to one of the world's oldest and most remarkable civilisations.
Awe-inspiring ancient sites
Taken from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences, may we present a bevy of BC (or thereabouts) beauties that have stood the test of time without losing any of their ability to drop your jaw...
Private Cultural Tour: Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Terracotta Warriors and Tang Dynasty Show in Xi'an
Enjoy an immersive Chinese cultural experience on this private day tour in Xi'an, including the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Terracotta Warriors. With your knowledgeable guide, you’ll also visit Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a symbol of the city’s long history that serves as a holy place for Buddhists.
This phrasebook covers: Mandarin, Cantonese, Chaozhou, Dongbei Hua, Hakka, Hunanese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, Xi'an, Yunnan Hua, Zhuang, Mongolian, Tibetan and Uighur.
Xi'an Small-Group Tour: Terracotta Warriors and Ancient City Wall Bike Tour
Visit the two most popular historical sites of Xi’an on this full-day tour of the ancient city wall and the Terracotta Warriors. Explore Xi’an’s old city wall, both on foot and on a bike, as your guide leads you around its different sites. Then visit the World Heritage-listed Terracotta Warriors of Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China.
Discover China travel guide
The central civilisation of the Far East and historically the dominant culture of the region, China is a traveller’s treasure box: colossal palaces, sacred mountains, cliff-top temples, roaring metropolises, spectacular scenery and much, much more.
One of Taoism’s five sacred mountains, the granite domes of Huá Shān were once one of those mythical places where 500-year-old hermits became one with the universe while surviving on an invigorating diet of pine needles and wild herbs.