Must-See Historical Sites of Xi’an

When the Terra Cotta Army was uncovered in Xi’an in 1974, the world took notice of the Shaanxi city. The army—filled with 8000 life-size soldiers, as well as weapons, horses, chariots, and other characters—was buried in the tomb of China’s first emperor. Visitors can discover more treasures than frozen troops in Xi’an, though: Along with its famous cuisine, the city is rich with peaceful temples and and holy mosques, hutongs that rival those in Beijing, historic palaces from the Tang Dynasty, and intact walls and fortifications that date back to the seventh century.

1 Ci'en Rd, QuJiang ShangQuan, Yanta Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a very cool historical site to visit in Xi’an. It was built in the seventh century to house Buddhist scriptures, statues, and other relics that were brought back to China by the Buddhist scholar and traveler Xuanzang. Extended, rebuilt, and renovated over the years, the pagoda currently leans noticeably to the side. There is an interesting legend about how the pagoda got its name. A group of Buddhist monks had no meat to eat (then, as now, not all Buddhists were vegetarian). As some wild geese flew overhead, one monk hoped that the Bodhisattva would provide some meat—at which point, the front goose fell to the ground. The monks believed this was a sign that they should be more pious. They decided to give up eating meat, and established a pagoda at the point where the goose had fallen. Visitors can pay to climb to the top of the pagoda. We took a pass on the day we were there because there were so many tourists waiting to buy tickets, but the view from the top is said to be excellent.
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
There are a number of old neighborhoods in Xi’an that are lovely to explore on foot, especially between the Bell Tower and the Great Mosque, and west of the South Gate. Wandering around, you’ll see old houses and stumble upon amazing stonework and doorways—such as this one we found that leads into a temple.
The story of the Emperor Qin reads something like Game of Thrones, with hostages, feuding brothers, wars, and the ultimate unification and creation of what we know as China today. Wanting to protect himself in the afterlife, Emperor Qin created an army of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses made of terra-cotta. The first lineup of soldiers were said to be the “Dare to Die” soldiers as they were quick and sharp like a knife. They wore less armor than the rest of the warriors. This is one of the most massive archaeological finds on the planet and is found an hour outside of Xi’an China. Restoring the warriors was like putting together a complex puzzle— it’s really amazing to see how meticulously everything was recreated.
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
Want to know more about Taoism? About 70km west of Xi’an, in Tayu Village, is the Louguantai Temple, where it’s said that Lao Tze, the founder of Taoism, wrote the Tao Te Ching and set the fundamentals for the religion. Built over two thousand years ago, the temple is located within a park, with numerous structures inside, and a statue of Lao Tze nestles among beautiful greenery, so expect so spend a day—if not more—wandering around to take it all in.
585 Ziqiang E Rd, Xincheng Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China
The main royal residence for emperors during the Tang Dynasty (from the 600s to the 900s), Daming Palace was discovered in 1957. After excavations and restoration work, the palace, also known as the Palace of Great Brilliance, opened to the public. Visitors learn about the Tang Dynasty and can admire the palace’s cultural relics and elegant architecture.
91 Xiaozhai East Road
Built in the grand architectural style of the Tang Dynasty, the huge Shaanxi History Museum offers a comprehensive overview of the history of the ancient capital. The museum houses over 370,000 precious relics unearthed in Shaanxi Province. Highlights include sculptures of the twelve Chinese zodiac figures, murals depicting a polo match, and four original terracotta warrior statues.
Hongying Rd, Beilin Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China
An interestingly curated museum, the Forest of Stone Steles Museum (also called the Steles Forest or Beilin Museum) focuses on displays of steles (commemorative slabs), epigraphs, and stone sculptures from throughout history. The museum’s collection of inscribed tablets offers a unique window into ancient ways of life. Located inside the Wenchang Gate of the Xian City Wall, the museum was constructed similarly to Xian’s Confucian Temple, which dates to 1087.
155 Banpo Rd, Baqiao Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710038
The Xi’an Banpo Museum preserves artifacts excavated from the neolithic site of Banpo, settled 5,600 to 6,700 years ago. The museum provides access to the excavated buildings and has several houses reconstructed in the style of the prehistoric settlement. It’s well worth a stop when you’re traveling to or from the Terracotta Warriors.
Huajue Alley, Bei Yuan Men Xiao Chi Yi Tiao Jie, Lianhu Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710001
Located in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, China is the Great Mosque, the country’s oldest and most renowned mosque. The mosque dates back to 742 AD. From all outward appearances, it looks like a Chinese temple and not a mosque; pagodas have replaced minarets. Look closely though and you will see the Arabic lettering that tells you that this is an Islamic mosque through and through. If you happen to be visiting in the afternoon, you might even catch the call to prayer. The start of the Muslim Quarter begins at Beiyuanmen Islamic Street, which is located just around the corner from Xi’an’s Drum Tower. The mosque itself is tucked inside a neighborhood street and while there are signs that point you in the right direction, the signs can be hard to spot so you will likely have to ask for help. If you decide to visit the mosque, remember to dress appropriately before you go and if you’re a woman, make sure you bring along a scarf to cover your head. Only about 2% of China’s population is Muslim so it is rare to see a mosque. The Hui people are the predominant race of Muslims in China and their lifestyle is very different from that of the dominant Han race. If you have never had a taste of Chinese Islamic life, spend some time visiting the mosque and walking Beiyuanmen Islam Street. Try sampling some of the Chinese Islamic food specialties.
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