Once the starting point of the greatest trade route on Earth, the Silk Road, as well as the seat of power for a thousand years worth of Chinese emperors, Xi'an is a city rich in cultural history that is hard to match in the Eastern world. There may be no other reason nearly as compelling to visit the capital of the Shaanxi Province, for its nightlife is relatively pedestrian for a city of its size and the wow factor of a modern skyline has been downplayed for less provocative avenues like the aerospace and software industries. Then again, the cultural component may be all the wow factor you're going to need.
There are a handful of unmistakable cultural highlights in Xi'an, the most notable of the which is the Qin Terracotta Army. The artistry and detail of these life-sized, clay figures meant to serve the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is incredible, as are their overwhelming numbers. Located in the Lintong District, this is by far the biggest attraction in the area, although the city walls that enclose the heart of the city are also worth quite a bit of your time. The largest intact city walls in the world, you can rent a bike to ride along its 14 km (8 miles) length amidst the rouge glow of hanging lanterns or walk it in sections between stops at other central highlights like the Bell Towers, Drum Tower, the Grand Mosque, and the unique Forest of Steles (a collection of standing tablets bearing ancient texts). The last must-see's of Xi'an (and part of every tour ever run through the area) are the Wild Goose Pagodas that stand at the south end of the city, the larger of which is seen as the symbol of Xi'an. We explore the cultural side in more detail here.
Xi'an's historic side is its most prominent draw, although the varied cuisine, which offers all types of Chinese and Muslim-influenced fare, is a point of interest for travelers. To get a taste of what is available on the cheap, hit up the Muslim Quarter within the old city walls, although you can expect a range of buns and dumplings from a number of eateries if you're searching for authenticity. If you are, instead, searching for adventure (the most necessary of travel components), there are the aforementioned relics of Chinese imperials, but there is also plenty of hiking in forest parks or harrowing climbs to Daoist pilgrimage sites up in the mountains to pique your interest. Taiping National Park is great for a few waterfall hikes and some attractively severe escarpments, Cui Hua Shan is a stellar climb into the realm of meditative monks, Hua Shan is labeled the most dangerous (tourist) climb anywhere, and Mount Li is much more than the Terracotta Warriors that everyone else has come to see. Our adventure page has everything else you'll need to know.
As far as getting around, it's best to find the Bell Tower on the horizon and then work to all points of the compass from there. Buses are your most dependable form of transportation, especially because the subway is still limited and taxis are short on supply and reliability. Just don't expect transfers to be easy once you work your way beyond the city limits, especially if you don't know Chinese. Then again, if you've rented a car, the roads are fine, but the drivers can tend to be a little crazy. It's a city of 8.5 million people; this is to be expected.
In summation? Xi'an's biggest sell is it's rich cache of dynastic history. Everyone who travels here sees the same few attractions, tries the excellent food, and then moves on the the next destination on the agenda. If you want to make Xi'an your own, stay a few extra days, do a few climbs (even if it's with a tour group to avoid transportation issues), and get comfortable with a lesser know Xi'an. Browse our listings for options on how to make that happen.