Once the terminus of the Silk Road and a gathering place of cultures and religions, as well as being home to emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and warriors, the glory days of Xi'an (西安, Xī’ān; pronounced 'see-an') may have ended in the early 10th century, but a considerable amount of ancient Chang’an, the former city, survives behind the often roaring, modern metropolis . Xi'an’s Ming-era city walls remain intact, vendors of all descriptions still crowd the narrow lanes of the warren-like Muslim Quarter, and there are enough places of interest to keep even the most amateur historian riveted.
The Terracotta Army isn't just Xi'an's premier sight: it's one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. This subterranean life-size army of thousands has silently stood guard over the soul of China's first unifier for more than two millennia. Either Qin Shi Huang was terrified of the vanquished spirits awaiting him in the afterlife or, as most archaeologists believe, he expected his rule to continue in death as it had in life.
Xi'an is one of the few cities in China where the imposing old city walls still stand. Built in 1370 during the Ming dynasty, the magnificent 12m-high walls are surrounded by a dry moat and form a rectangle with a perimeter of 14km. Most sections have been restored or rebuilt, and it is possible to walk the walls in their entirety in a leisurely four hours (or around two hours by bike, or at a slow jog).
This seven-storey pagoda, Xi'an’s most famous landmark, 4km southeast of the South Gate and formerly within the old (and huge) Tang dynasty city wall, dominates the surrounding modern buildings. One of China’s best examples of a Tang-style pagoda (squarish rather than round), it was completed in AD 652 to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang. His travels inspired one of the best-known works of Chinese literature, Journey to the West.