The eternal city

Once located at the start of the Silk Road, Xi’an was home to emperors (most famously Qin Shi Huang whose Terracotta Army is by far the blockbuster attraction), monks and merchants.

Known as Chang’an in ancient times (meaning Eternal City), it was the imperial capital 13 times; today it is the capital of the central Shaanxi province. As well as the pagodas, temples and palace ruins that will keep history buffs busy for days, there is also world-class food to be eaten in the hectic Muslim Quarter and beyond the old city a vibrant youth culture informs a lively bar scene.

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The Terracotta Army and beyond

Unearthed in 1974, The Terracotta Army was arguably the most famous archaeological find of the 20th-century – making it by far the absolute top, must-see sight for visitors to Xi’an. This subterranean life-size army of sculptures (now a Unesco World Heritage Site) was buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in 220BC to protect him in the afterlife. Today, you can get up close and personal with thousands of these intricately crafted, lifelike individuals as well as their horses and chariots.

Other equally important sights to tick off your bucket list are the vast Unesco World Heritage ruins of the Weiyang Palace, which represent what may have been the biggest palace in history, and the beguiling seven-storey Giant Wild Goose pagoda (this is where the fabled monk Xuanzang first stored his scrolls from India on his return from his ‘Journey to the West’). Beyond the main attractions, Xi’an is easily explore on foot: the old town is centered on the ostentatious Ming-era bell and drum towers, both of which house mini-museums and offer amazing views of the thrumming city below. For more vistas, do the four-hour walk along the restored and rebuilt city walls.

History aside, Xi’ian also has a lively street food scene – especially in the narrow back alleys of the Muslim Quarter where typical dishes such as yangrou paomo (crumbled flatbread in lamb stew) and liangpi (cold noodles doused in chili sauce and topped with beansprouts), really pull in the crowds. Caught between vinegar producing Shanxi and spice-addicted Sichuan, Shaanxi province garnishes its food with both sour and spicy sauces meaning you get a punch of deliciously contrasting flavors in a single mouthful.

If you try one dish though, make it the signature thick Biang Biang noodles, which are usually served with a tongue-tingling soup and a Roujiamo hamburger (made with spicy, slow-cooked meat, served in handmade flatbread). Head for Wang Kui, just outside the city wall east of the main gate – the bread is freshly baked over hot coals and the pork burgers are excellent. If you’d rather have a sit-down meal, try De Fa Chang, known for its dumpling banquet, or for something more Western, book a table at smart French bistro La Seine.

After dinner, check out Xi’an’s lively bar and music scene. Some of the slickest spots include King Garden Bar with a lovely outdoor area for the summer; the Xi’an Brewery, which specializes in craft beers; Meeting Jazz, a hip jazz and blues club (go on a Saturday for live sets) and Vice Versa, a chilled-out spot for cocktails which turns into an occasional intimate music venue.

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