It was once called the 'city of enduring peace' (Chang'an) and served as the capital of China during the empire's cultural golden age, the Tang dynasty (618-907). A perennial stop for history-loving travellers, Xi'an is home to the country's longest intact city wall and it is a place steeped in Silk Road narrative.
As synonymous with China’s astonishing history as the Great Wall, the silently mesmerising spectacle of the Army of Terracotta Warriors remains Xi’an’s drawcard experience. And in 2017, the site celebrates 30 years since its inscription on the Unesco World Heritage list.
With new high-speed rail and flight connections, a visa-free transit scheme and combo of old world Chinese heritage and up-and-coming hotspots, this year is shaping up to the be a better time than ever to discover Xi'an's marvels.
Warriors of clay
No matter how often you see them in photographs, nothing quite primes you for your first encounter with the silent ranks of the Army of Terracotta Warriors, stumbled upon accidentally by farmers digging a well in 1974. You can explore China from pillar to post, but rarely come face to face with heritage of similar awe-inspiring antiquity, particularly in such original, undisturbed form. Don’t overlook the Qin Shi Huang Emperor Tomb Artefact Exhibition Hall, which contains a pair of astonishing early bronze chariots and a terracotta officer in a glass cabinet. An expanding array of restaurants as you exit the site for the return trip to Xi’an can sort out lunch and the cafe in the theatre building serves good coffee.
Heritage, not height
Modern architecture is often at the fore in today’s China, but it’s refreshing to visit an ancient city still in touch with its past. Xi’an isn’t an observation-deck city like Hong Kong or Shanghai, so you won’t find yourself staggering through a dizzying forest of skyscrapers. Relatively low-lying, Xi’an has preserved much of its heritage and historical integrity, particularly its ancient architecture. Combined with an easy-going tempo and laid-back northern Chinese disposition, Xi’an conveys a sense of what China’s older quarters were once like.
Wheeling the city walls
Xi’an remains the only major city in China where you can bicycle atop the original city walls, a highly satisfying and unique way of gazing into the old city from the Ming dynasty ramparts. In summer, aim for late afternoon, when the sun is dipping over town and the heat is off the boil (it’s also a better time for photography). You can, of course, also tackle the bastion on foot (give yourself around four hours at a leisurely pace) – a terrific way to shed calories and sightsee at the same time.
Snacking the backstreets
Like everywhere across China, Xi'an's restaurant scene continues to evolve, but the home-grown flavours unique to Xi’an are the perennial draw. The Muslim Quarter is permeated with the seasoned aromas of street food that hang over the town, generating an almost insatiable hunger. Follow your nostrils for the city’s best eats and you’ll soon be steeped in the aromas of the city's signature dish - paomo (a lamb or beef broth poured over bread that you break into small crumbs in a bowl). This moreish dish can be sampled at Ma Hong Xiaochao Paomoguan, while the Muslim Family Restaurant at the heart of the this district is a great place to sample a whole array of local specialities.
Xi’an is home to China’s notable collection of Tang dynasty pagodas: the Big Goose Pagoda and the Little Goose Pagoda, which differ from later (and more common) Chinese pagodas in their great age and squarish, brickwork lines. For a view of all the vibrant colour of Tibetan Buddhism, pay a visit to Guangren Temple in the northwest corner of the city, within the town walls – this is Shaanxi province’s sole Tibetan Buddhist temple. Visit off-season and find in Xi’an’s splendid Chinese-style Great Mosque a haven of tranquility.
Like many of China's big cities, Xi'an is undergoing the beginnings of a renaissance, with cafes, hotels and trendy establishments starting to crop up. The city is home to some of the best hostels in China, which push the boat out in service, whether you’re staying in a double room or a dorm. Hantang House is an excellent choice, with motivated staff and all manner of activities for international visitors to join in, as well as a great bar, Jamaica Blue, which is one of several venues championing Xi'an's burgeoning live music scene.
Also a sign of the times, in 2014 Xi'an got its first craft brewery. Xi'an Brewery (xianbrewery.com) is the brainchild of an American expat who wanted to bring US-style beer to the city. Their core suite of beers (ranging from a German-style kolsch to a milk stout) can be sampled at the Near Wall Bar (40 West Section of Shuncheng South Rd), a converted brick space just inside the city's old wall.
On the up: connected and visa-free
Xi’an has benefited from a batch of new flight connections, including the first direct flight from London on Tianjin Airlines. The city is well served by high-speed trains that whisk you to town in a jiffy. Bullet trains now connect Xi'an with many places further afield in China, including Beijing in a little over five hours, while the tail end of 2017 will see the launch of a HSR connection to Chengdu, making journeys south to Sichuan quick and effortless, and chopping travel time from 13 hours to around three.
Xi'an's metro continues to simplify getting around: line 3 opened at the end of 2016 (and giving Big Goose Pagoda its own station) and line 4 is due to be up and running by 2018. Plans are also in place for a line that will reach all the way to the Terracotta Warrior Army.
The 72-hour visa-free scheme means you can plan a stopover in Xi’an en route to somewhere else and spend three days exploring town. Travellers need proof of a flight onward from China to a third destination in order to slot Xi’an into a travel itinerary to avail of the scheme.