1. Army of Terracotta Warriors
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.
2. Xi'an City Walls
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).
3. Big Goose Pagoda
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.
4. Tomb of Emperor Jingdi
This tomb, also referred to as the Han Jing Mausoleum, Liu Qi Mausoleum and Yangling Mausoleum, is the burial place of the Han-dynasty emperor Jingdi (188–141 BC) and is quite possibly Xi'an’s most underrated highlight. If you only have time for two sights outside Xi'an, make it the Army of Terracotta Warriors and this impressive museum and tomb. Unlike the warriors, though, it's not inundated with visitors so you'll have elbow room to fully appreciate what you’re seeing.
5. Famen Temple
Dating way back to the 2nd century AD, this temple was built to house parts of a sacred finger bone of the Buddha, presented to China by India’s King Asoka who undertook the distribution of Sakyamuni's relics. The older section is worth a visit and you can join the queue of pilgrims who shuffle past the finger bone. The real reason to make the trip out here is the superb museum and its collection of Tang-dynasty treasures.
6. Great Mosque
Bigger than many temples in China, the Great Mosque is a gorgeous blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture and one of the most fascinating sacred sites in the land. The present buildings are mostly Ming and Qing, though the mosque was founded in the 8th century. Arab influences extend from the central minaret (cleverly disguised as a stumpy pagoda) to the enormous turquoise-roofed Prayer Hall (not open to visitors) at the back of the complex, dating to the Ming dynasty.
7. Muslim Quarter
The backstreets leading north from the Drum Tower have been home to the city’s Hui community (non-Uyghur Chinese Muslims) for centuries, perhaps as far back as the Ming dynasty or further still. The narrow lanes are full of butcher shops, sesame-oil factories, smaller mosques hidden behind enormous wooden doors, men in white skullcaps and women with their heads covered in coloured scarves. It’s a great place to wander and especially atmospheric at night.
8. Qian Tomb
This impressive tomb, 85km northwest of town, is the final resting place of China's sole female emperor, Wu Zetian (AD 625–705), who is buried here with her husband Emperor Gaozong, whom she succeeded. The long Spirit Way (神道, Shéndào) is lined with enormous, lichen-encrusted sculptures of animals and officers of the imperial guard, culminating with 61 (now headless) statues of leaders of ethnic groups in China who attended the emperor's funeral. Two stelae on the ground each stand more than 6m high.
9. Xi'an Museum
Housed in the pleasant grounds of the Jianfu Temple is this museum featuring relics unearthed in Xi'an over the years. There are some exquisite ceramics from the Han dynasty, as well as figurines, an exhibition of Ming-dynasty seals and jade artefacts. Don’t miss the basement, where a large-scale model of ancient Xi'an gives a good sense of the place in its former pomp and glory.
10. Banpo Neolithic Village
Banpo is the earliest example of the Neolithic Yangshao culture, which is believed to have been matriarchal. It appears to have been occupied from 4500 BC until around 3750 BC. The excavated area is divided into three parts: a pottery manufacturing area, a residential area complete with moat, and a cemetery. This village is of enormous importance for Chinese archaeological studies, but unless you’re desperately interested in the subject it can be an underwhelming visitor experience.