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When you’re in one of the oldest great cities in one of the world’s oldest civilizations, there’s plenty to see and do. Along with Stone Age villages to terracotta soldiers, terrace farms and towering brick pagodas, you’re surrounded by great food, arts, and traditions that reflect a few thousand years’ worth of heritage. Get to know the styles and colors of the Tang Dynasty court, the incredible view from one of China’s sacred mountains, and a terrific selection of things to do in Xi’an and among the towering stone hills of the countryside.
Surrounded by some of the best-preserved ancient city walls in China, Xi’an’s historic center features 14th-century landmarks and modern shopping malls laid out around the old street grid. Hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks share the area with parkland, towers, and places of worship that have been part of the cityscape since the Middle Ages.
A cluster of newer developments built away from the walls and outside Xi’an’s second ring road, Yanta takes advantage of the extra space. Eighth-century pagodas and royal retreats rest alongside suburban neighborhoods, which lead to commercial districts of office towers, performance halls, and museums.
Set in a triangle in northern Xi’an between the second ring road and the banks of the Weihe and Bahe rivers, modern Weiyang is known for its corporate headquarters and science and technology parks. Along with the dumpling shops filled with Chinese professionals, though, the area hosts some of the city’s oldest relics, with fortifications and palace ruins that date back to the Han Dynasty 1,000 years ago.
The army of terracotta figures crafted back in the second century BC is easily Xi’an’s most famous attraction, but they aren’t the oldest or biggest draw in town. You can check out the immense city walls that have kept the same iconic design since the 1300s, or visit the Banpo archaeological site to see one of the earliest settlements found in the country. You can admire the 1,400-year-old elegance of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda or the rebuilt gates of Daming Palace, home of the Tang Dynasty’s emperors for more than 200 years. The Great Mosque of Xi’an is a showcase of uniquely Chinese design, and a former Confucian temple holds a trove of stonework and calligraphy in the Stele Forest.
If you’re having trouble deciding which of Xi’an’s grand historic sites to visit first, there are plenty of guides you can turn to for advice. There’s a private tour that shows off the vast range of architecture the city has collected over the years, another that features a 2,000-year-old tomb and even older Stone Age relics, and a trip to explore the origins of Taoism at Chongyang Palace.
For a look back at the city’s heyday as the center of Chinese life, you can spend an evening at a theme park that recreates the brilliance of the Tang Dynasty or treat yourself to a dumpling banquet with live entertainment that could have come straight from the imperial court. And if you’re more in the mood for Xi’an’s modern nightlife, a guide can take you on a walking tour to some of the best dishes in town.
To get some time in the countryside, take a day trip to admire the views from the peak of Mount Hua or take a ride across Pingyao County to visit an ancient city where it almost seems like the Ming Dynasty never ended. If you have the time to spare, a high-speed train can carry you to Luoyang for a tour through another of China’s great ancient capitals.