For a Chinese city of a mere 8.5 million people (a tad bit larger than a small town by the name of New York City), Xi'an really packs quite a cultural punch. One of China's oldest settlements and a long-time capital, Xi'an has everything from an underground clay army meant to accompany an emperor to the afterlife to ancient structures reminiscent of every kung fu movie you've ever seen. If you want to encapsulate the best of Chinese history and culture without confining yourself to a museum, then Xi'an is for you.
The first “must” attraction has to be the Xi'an City Walls, which are 14 unbroken km (8 miles) of battlements that are very much worth a full walk, or even better, a bike ride. Other famous attractions in the city include the Big and Little Wild Goose Pagodas. Both about 2700 years old, they are marvels of Chinese architecture, while the Big Wild Goose Pagoda also has the benefit of a lot of garden space and a famous fountain that does a synchronized music show. The Drum and Bell Towers near the center of the city are also very historic and well worth seeking out, while there are a handful of temples and mosques (Grand Mosque and Wolong Temple particularly) that have also been around for millenia. Finally, there are two museums that are head and shoulders above the rest of what you'll find in Xi'an. The Forest of Steles Museum is home to an improbably large collection of stone tablets, including a tablet that signaled the coming of Nestorian Christianity to China, while the more regionally based Shaanxi History Museum is a proper representation of culture as it has evolved in the area.
Outside of the city, the biggest cultural draw is undoubtedly Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Park, which encompasses both the emperor's tomb and the underground mausoleum that houses the Qin Terracotta Army, one of the most epic artistic achievements in Eastern history. Then again, a half day's drive south to the Hubei Province will bring you to the most important mountain in all of Taoist practice, Wudang Mountain. The monasteries there are quite isolated and a great opportunity to see monks of true devotion go about their daily lives.
A last thing worth mentioning, although it will consist of a day or more of driving, is Xi'an's relative proximity to the Silk Road and the artifacts that remain. Although the extensive Jiaohe Ruins or the Mogao Caves are by no means reachable in even 24 hours of driving, we feel that they deserve mention here because of their bearing on the history of this massive and influential country. For more information on these activities, check out our listings. No, really, you should. Xi'an is quite a trip for anyone with even a passing interest in Eastern culture and history.