China · China travel · Travel

China’s four great ancient capitals

I’d better put up some posts and photos about Southeast Asia because I have another trip coming up soon, but let me post one more post on mainland China. It’s about the four great ancient capitals of China – Beijing, Nanjing, Xian, and Luoyang, which I’ve been lucky to have visited. These four were all capitals during China’s greatest periods, such as the Tang Dynasty (Xian), the Han Dynasty (Luoyang), the Ming Dynasty (Nanjing), and so on. As Chinese history is so complex and turbulent, the capital was changed many times, and these four cities were capitals several times as well.

The first one I listed above is China’s current capital and probably most famous city (though Shanghai might beg to differ), so most people are definitely familiar with it. To be honest, Beijing actually isn’t even that ancient, with its first turn as capital in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but it’s still one of China’s most historic and important cities. The second, Nanjing, is also very well-known, though not as big on the travel itinerary for foreign tourists, which is a shame. The third, most people should know but mainly for its world-famous terracotta warriors. The fourth one, Luoyang, is the least well-known, both because its glory days were the furthest away, and also since it hasn’t developed as much as the other cities, especially being in Henan province, which is rich in history but not so rich in actual socioeconomic terms. But just like the others, it’s got several very interesting sites such as the Longmen Grottoes (a UN World Heritage site), a great museum, and China’s first Buddhist temple, the White Horse Temple. I even wrote an article about Luoyang for China Daily.

My favorite capital is Nanjing, which is also my favorite Chinese city in general. It’s very pleasant, charming, modern, even green with lakes and large leafy parks, and of course, historic. It has a more laidback vibe than other cities like Beijing or Xian, as well as nearby Shanghai, but it’s not a sleepy, boring place either. I’ve actually been to five capitals though, with Hangzhou (Southern Song Dynasty) being the fifth. Hangzhou is actually more famous for its West Lake than for being a former capital, but it’s an attractive city. All five are well worth visiting, with Luoyang being quite close to Xian (less than 2 hours by high-speed train) so it’s not exactly off the beaten path and hard to visit.

Inside the Forbidden Palace. This is one of the main structures inside the giant complex, which even though I saw it countless times in movies, photos, and ads, still amazed me when I actually visited in 2012. Forgive me for the picture color; the air that day wasn’t very good.

This is the CCTV headquarters, which is one of the strangest modern buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s one of Beijing’s many interesting buildings, though maybe not so attractive. You can notice the sky is bright in this photo, which shows that you do get nice days sometimes in Beijing.


Confucius Temple entrance. The historic area surrounding this temple is also confusingly known as Confucius Temple and is considered one of Nanjing’s main attractions, but nevertheless the whole area is a good place to check out.


The Sun Yat-sen mausoleum, which honors and houses the body of Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of modern China” and a great Chinese, albeit not without some flaws. The mausoleum is located on a hill, which also has the tomb of the founding Ming Dynasty emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (itself a very pleasant site), and a historic pagoda.


Xian’s Bell Tower makes for a grand sight at night. It’s located near the center of downtown Xian, with roads extending in four directions to the main gates of the giant city walls that surround the downtown.

Xian features a Muslim Quarter, which is a nice place to visit and eat. It’s full of stores like these, restaurants, food stalls, and vendors, as well as a unique mosque built like a Chinese temple- Great Mosque of Xian.


Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes has thousands of stone Buddhist carvings, but these are by far the largest and grandest.


Luoyang fittingly has a very nice history museum, with ancient Chinese pottery, like this blue Tang Dynasty horse, being one of the highlights along with fossils and a fully-reconstructed Chinese mammoth.


4 thoughts on “China’s four great ancient capitals

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I thought it was the exact center because roads lead out from it to the four main gates. I didn’t realize the Bell Tower is, as you say, much closer to the south than the north. I made a correction in my caption.


    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, Luoyang would be good to visit. You can also consider Nanjing too, which is personally my favorite Chinese city.


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