Photo Courtesy of Jacques Savoye
With more than 3,000 years of history, Xi’an (“Western Peace”) is located in central northwest China and is a key part of modern China's heritage. This ancient city, once called “Chang’an” (“Eternal Peace”), was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and served as the imperial seat of the Zhou, Qin, …Han, and Tang dynasties. Xi’an, now the capital of Shaanxi province, still houses a spectacular trove of historical sites—including the famous Terracotta Warriors that were buried with the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
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Unlike some cities in China, Xi’an enjoys four distinct seasons. Spring is mild, but be sure to stay indoors if sandstorm warnings take effect. Summers in Xi’an are hot and humid. Autumn is your best bet if you want to comfortably explore the historical sites: In September and October, the city begins to cool to a comfortable temperature. The leaves on the gingko trees begin to change color, making attractions and historical sites appear even more magical. However, if you love the cold and are willing to brave temperatures below zero, consider visiting during the dry Xi’an winter, which brings fewer crowds and the opportunity for skiing.
If you're coming from the United States you can book a direct flight to Xi’an Xianyang International Airport. Otherwise, consider a short domestic flight from another major Chinese city like Beijing or Shanghai. Xi’an is also connected to greater China by train. Once you've arrived, the easiest way to travel around Xi’an is to use the cheap and convenient taxicab system. Buses will also take you to the major attractions—but be sure to plan around traffic jams. The Xi’an subway system offers two lines (a third is opening in October 2016), with a starting rate of only 2 yuan. If you're traveling in a group, the best option may be to hire your own car and driver; your hotel should be able to help you. If you’re brave, hop in a tuk-tuk, but do not expect a smooth or safe ride!
Xi’an is a foodie paradise, with excellent restaurants serving local and international cuisine. The dining scene runs the gamut from upscale eateries to casual cafes to hole-in-the-wall bars. You can’t come to Xi’an without sampling some—or all!—of the following: savory, often spicy roujiaomo "burgers"; DIY roupaomo, a soupy concoction of bread in mutton stew; cumin-laden meat skewers in the Muslim Quarter; and refreshing liangpi rice noodles with peanut sauce, perfect for cooling down in the heat of summer. Make sure to visit the night market to explore the flavors of Shaanxi street food. And skip the Starbucks. Instead, head to a designer cafe or live music bar to mingle with the locals.
Chinese festivals and holidays take place throughout the year, including the Dragon Boat Festival in June and the Mid-Autumn Festival in September. If you’re in town at this time, be sure to participate: Celebrate with the locals over rice dumplings as you cheer on the dragon boat race, or eat mooncakes under the glow of lanterns for Mid-Autumn. As with the rest of China, Chinese New Year (which occurs around February each year, depending on the lunar calendar) is the biggest celebration of the year. The atmosphere will be joyful, and you’ll see red and gold everywhere to usher in good fortune for the year ahead. If you already thought the food is delicious in Xi’an, you’re in for some extra treats during the New Year celebration: sweet and savory turnip cakes (niangao), candied fruits, noodles, and dumplings are just a few of the many dishes that pop up around this holiday. Festivals local to Xi’an include the China International Tourist Cliff-Climbing Festival in July and the Xi’an Ancient Cultural Festival in September.
Life in Xi’an moves at a quick pace, so don't be afraid to slow down by escaping the city center. Explore small alleyways and hutongs to understand the daily lives of locals. If you’re suffering from jetlag, join the elders in the park for a bout of morning tai chi. Head to the tranquil Louguantai Temple to learn about Taoism, or visit the Taiping National Forest Park and Huaqing Hot Springs for gorgeous waterfalls and vestiges of imperial history. If you're looking for a hike, head to one of the local mountains: Huashan, Qingling, or Cuihua. However, the most popular day trip from Xi’an is—perhaps unsurprisingly—a journey to see the Terracotta Warriors.
Many people visit Xi’an specifically to see the Terracotta Warriors. For another lasting mental memento of your visit, try taking a walk around the city at night: follow the City Wall, stroll along the moat, circle the Bell Tower, and end up in front of the fountains at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Walk through the Muslim Quarter to sample dishes, peruse stalls selling handicrafts, and get to know the Muslim community that resides here. Don't miss the Great Mosque on Huajue Lane! If you're looking to experience the heart of the contemporary party scene, visit Defu Lane inside the South Gate of the City Wall. This district was once part of a palace, but it is now home to a cluster of bars and restaurants, frequented by locals, expats, and visitors who all share one distinction: They are night owls. Last but not least, be sure to sample local food specialities like the liangpi and biangbiangmian noodles.
Emily Chu is a freelance bilingual editor and writer based in Shanghai. Having lived in multiple countries, she has been the chief editor of both English and Chinese magazines and now contributes to international travel and lifestyle publications and websites. She can also be found honing her skills as a stylist or planning the itinerary for the next travel destination. See her daily chronicles via Instagram and Twitter, @emilymchu.