Nearly rivaling the iconic status of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City sits at the nucleus of Beijing, and for centuries was the heartbeat of China. The massive collection of over 8,700 rooms is one of the most historic sites in old Beijing and is a perfect example of classical Ming architecture. Also known as the Imperial Palace or the Purple Forbidden City, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is regularly maintained and restored to preserve its historical grandeur. The monument hosts an average of 40,000 visitors per day (with the all time highest day clocking more than 182,000 people), so get here early to beat the crowds. Honestly, though, you still won’t beat them...
The Forbidden City is an absolute must see for any Beijing traveler – period. Like countless other hallowed Chinese monuments, the Imperial Palace is built along strict geometric functions that have a divinely significant connection with the cardinal directions and heaven and earth. What does all that mean? It means the city was built in a shape and direction to maximize energy flow and please the cosmos. Prepare to be blown away by the huge centrally aligned ceremonial halls, but don’t forget about the charming courtyards, pagodas and museums on the peripheral edges. Brush up on the history that follows, and remember that the secret imperial life here only became public less than a century ago.
Before You Go
Though there are restaurants and cafes inside the Forbidden City complex, prices for water and other essentials will be considerably higher than outside. “Exorbitant” is a good word for it. The palace includes plenty of walking, so bringing your own fruit, snacks, and water is highly recommended to keep you hydrated and energized as you explore. Savvy travelers will raise an eyebrow at the posh Chinese women who wear heels and cocktail dresses on their visit; do we even need to tell you this is a bad idea? Finally, while the large courtyards will leave you captivated, they will also leave you exposed to the sun on beautiful days. Giving your skin a good slather of sunscreen before departing will save you from an unwanted sunburn souvenir.
Info & Cautions
Buzzing like bees around many top sights in China are would-be tour guides. They can be pests. Some may have excellent English, but you will pay a pretty penny for their services. Give no expressions or signs of interest if you don’t want to be hounded. Maps are available inside the Meridian Gate, but you have a Panda Guides map in your hand! Automatic audio guides are available in 30 languages. Those who prefer a guided tour are advised to choose these options instead of a pricey personal guide.
The first large gate you approach (the one with the giant portrait of Mao) is the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Passing under this gate is free and is the access point to the city. However, do not make the mistake of some guests and buy a ticket for the tower at this gate if you want to enter the Forbidden City. You must first pass under the Gate of Heavenly Peace and Mao’s enormous picture and walk north towards the Meridian Gate. To your left and right sides there will be quick-moving lines where tickets to the inner complex can be purchased.
Exiting from the north gate (the exit gate) pours guests into a land of aggressive rickshaw and black taxi drivers hustling people into taking a ride. Don’t do it. You might be tired after a big day, but don’t let your fatigue lull you into a sketchy situation where dubious drivers could haggle a price only to jack it up or add a zero upon arrival; it is not uncommon. Though most locals who may witness the fraud will sympathize with you, they will wisely refrain from getting involved. Instead, walk a few minutes from the exit to find a city-sanctioned taxi that operates by meter.
Please see our section Hot Topics (pg 312) for information on scammers and black taxis.
The inner Forbidden City has ATMs, toilets, restaurants, cafes and shops. Smoking is not permitted anywhere on the grounds, and is one of the few places in the city where the ban is well enforced. Wheelchairs and pushchairs are free to rent, however they require a deposit of ¥500 and ¥300 respectively, so prepare the cash if you need one.
The site of the current Forbidden City began its imperial career in the mid-14th century. Back then, Beijing was called Dadu, the Great Capital, under Kublai Khan’s ruling Yuan Dynasty, and it was palace-crazy Kublai who built the first one at this site. When the Yuan collapsed and the Ming Dynasty stepped up to the plate they moved the capital to Nanjing and torched the Mongolian palaces. It was the third Ming emperor, Yongle, who moved the capital back to Beijing in 1403 and ordered the construction of the Forbidden City palace on the rubble of Kublai Khan’s old place. From 1406 to 1420, the bold emperor commissioned legions of artisans and laborers – by many accounts more than a million – for the insane amount of work required to build the palace complex. Massive stones were carted in from around the Beijing countryside, and they were so heavy that the winter road was covered with water along the way so that the horse-drawn carts could slide the stones along a road of ice.
Occupying his divine palace in 1421, Yongle was the first of 24 emperors (14 of them Ming, 10 Qing) to reside in the city. The pampered emperors were regarded as the “Sons of Heaven” and employed tens of thousands of servants to tend to their every need, which sometimes included hours of kneeling in front of the Son of Heaven as he lectured. The mystery surrounding the happenings within the elite community was so intense the city might as well have been built inside a giant glass bottle, preferably with air-holes. The bizarre spectacle included droves of gossipy eunuchs and conspiring concubines who from time to time made their own grab for power. Emperors spent most of their lives in indulgent self-confinement, and venturing out of the city was done only when absolutely necessary. It was a good thing for the commoners, too, since the penalty for viewing the emperor (deliberately or not) was instant death.
This royal resort spanned two dynasties and finally came to a screeching halt in 1911. The insanity of the revolution had begun, and as the last mandates of the Manchu Qing Dynasty exited the palace, the mysteries behind the walls came with them. Puyi, the last Manchu emperor, was allowed to live with his court in the rear areas of the palace until 1924 when, just to stick it to him, the revolutionaries renamed the palace “Former Palace” (Gù Gōng;故宫) and opened it to the public.
Today, nearly all of the wooden buildings are post 18th century structures. Carted in from southwestern China, the beautiful wood was well-known to be a tinder box, and foresighted emperors had 308 very cool copper cauldrons (of which 231 remain) tactically placed throughout the city as fire-preventative measures. Each massive pot weighs an impressive 1,696 kg (3,731 lbs) and has a diameter of 1.6 m (5.5 ft). To further increase fire safety, the Imperial Library’s roof was tiled in black, the Chinese elemental color of water. Thought to have more than just a symbolic presence, the black paint was hoped to act like a roof drenched in water. It didn’t. In spite of such “state-of-the-art” fire safety measures, a handful of blazes ravaged the city throughout its 500-year history, usually started by a strong wind and an unfastened lantern, a fireworks display, or a cunning servant who could see a nice payday through repairs. While several other particularly flammable buildings were also roofed in black tiles, the remaining were done in a brilliant yellow, the color of the imperial family. At one point 75 wells delivered water around the premises – 30 of which remain today – and an advanced drainage system addressed Beijing’s spring rains.
An occupation of the city and several lootings brought trying times to the palace during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Anglo-French forces stomped their way into the city for an extended stay during the Second Opium War of 1860, and the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party both looted the palace in the 1940s. While many of the relics that were carted off to Taiwan were later returned, a great deal of them still occupy the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Even so, the breathtaking beauty of the Forbidden City remains, with the restored buildings painstakingly crafted to their exact pre-1911 conditions, and many mini-museums displaying ancient artifacts and clothing of China’s imperial past.
The Forbidden City is huge. The entire complex covers a staggering 720,000 sq m (7,800,000 sq ft), and holds over 980 buildings and over 8,700 rooms. A 52 m (170 ft) wide moat circles the walls, which are made of 12 million limestone bricks that were cemented together with glutinous rice and egg whites. The main ceremonial halls all sit on a centrally aligned, north to south axis, and face south to accept vitalizing yang energy, and to ward off troublesome yin energy from the north (including Gobi Desert dust storms and barbarians). This layout follows Chinese geomancy, the art of divination through the placement of objects in a geometric space.
Towering over the Forbidden City’s southern ambit at nearly 40 m (124 ft), the Meridian Gate is the complex’s largest gate and only entrance. Check out the five towers and their flying phoenix carvings, which give the gate its alternate name, Five-Phoenix Tower (Wǔfèng Lóu;五凤楼). At each end of the central tower great bells and drums are kept. Used as signals of the emperor’s departure back then, the bells were rung when he swung left to the Temple of Heaven, while the drums were struck to announce his walk to the Ancestral Temple (Workers’ Cultural Palace) to the right.
Meridian Gate ( Wǔ Mén 午门)
Towering over the Forbidden City’s southern ambit at nearly 40 m (124 ft), the Meridian Gate is
the complex’s largest gate and only entrance. Check out the five towers and their flying phoenix
carvings, which give the gate its alternate name, Five-Phoenix Tower (Wǔfèng Lóu;五凤楼). At each end of the central tower great bells and drums are kept. Used as signals of the emperor’s departure back then, the bells were rung when he swung left to the Temple of Heaven, while the drums were struck to announce his walk to the Ancestral Temple (Workers’ Cultural Palace) to the right.
Hall of Literary Brilliance (Wénhuá Diàn; 文华殿)
When you first enter the courtyard from the Meridian Gate you can veer off to the right and cross through the Gate of Mutual Harmony (Xiéhé Mén;协和门) to find the Hall of Literary Brilliance. This little I-shaped complex is where you’ll find the great Ceramics Gallery with over 400 pottery relics in the front and the Hall of Observing Sincerity and Esteem (Zhǔjìng Diàn;主敬殿) in the back. A Ming Dynasty creation, the Hall of Literary Brilliance served as the main hall of the prince.
Hall of Martial Valor ( Wǔyīng Diàn 武英殿)
Accross the courtyard from the Hall of Literary Brilliance and through the western Gate of Glorious Harmony (Xīhé Mén;熙和门), the Hall of Martial Valor is worth a few minutes of your time as well. Also an I-shaped design, in the back you can “get respectful” in the Hall of Respectful Thoughts (Jìngsī Diàn;敬思殿). More importantly this area features a solid Calligraphy and Painting Gallery that displays rare works of the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties, as well as many masterpieces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
Gate of Supreme Harmony ( Tàihé Mén 太和门)
Towering over the northern extreme of the Outer Court, the Gate of Supreme Harmony is guarded on either side by two bronze lions; the male has his paw on a sphere and represents the global power of the emperor, while the female caresses a cub and symbolizes a fruitful imperial family. This beautiful gate leads to the massive Outer Court on its north side, but before you head through don’t miss the awesome engraved stele in the center of the gate’s front stairway. The emperor was carried over this giant stone slab in a sedan chair by his immediate servants, and anyone else who tried had their head lopped off. On your way to Taihe Men you’ll cross the five Golden River Bridges (Jīnshuǐ Qiáo; 金水桥), beautiful marble bridges that span the Golden River (Jīnshuǐ Hé ; 金水河).
Three Great Halls
Hall of Supreme Harmony ( Tàihé Diàn 太和殿)
Mounted on a great marble terrace at the head of a 30,000 sq m (322,917 sq ft) courtyard, the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest of the Three Great Halls. Built in 1406 and painstakingly restored in the 17th century, the 35 m (115 ft) tall hall was a grand symbol of imperial power and was the highest structure in the Ming and Qing empires. Audiences of over 100,000 chubby eunuchs, robe-clad servants, and self-assured officials gathered for birthdays, coronations, and military appointments in the massive courtyard, whose lack of trees was to ensure that nothing stood higher than the emperor as he perched on the hall’s lofty marble balcony. A total of 72 pillars in six rows support the roof, and it is considered the largest timber framework in China.
Hall of Central Harmony ( Zhōnghé Diàn 中和殿)
The smallest of the Three Great Halls, the Hall of Central Harmony marks the center-point of the Forbidden City. Serving as the emperor’s rehearsal and meeting headquarters, it was here that he would use the hall’s harmonizing energy to practice speeches, receive dignitaries, and prepare for his ritualistic journey to the Temple of Heaven.
Hall of Preserving Harmony ( Bǎohé Diàn 保和殿)
Standing at the northern end of the three-tiered marble terrace shared by the Three Great Halls, the Hall of Preserving Harmony is similar in style but slightly smaller than the southern Hall of Supreme Harmony. The original 1420 construction was lost in a 1625 fire but quickly rebuilt the same year. Originally functioning as a sort of changing station for the Ming Emperors, it was here that they donned their ritual garments prior to the coronation of an empress or crown prince. The Qing Dynasty later refit the building as a banquet hall where the emperor would entertain his bride and her family, as well as provincial governors, Mongol princes, and civil and military officials. Thundering its way up the central stairway on the back side of the hall is the marble imperial carriageway, a 16.5 m- (54 ft)-long by 3 m- (10 ft)-wide stone relief of nine dragons dancing with pearls. The emperor would take a little servant-powered sedan-chair ride up this giant stone, much like the one outside the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Weighing in at 250 tons, it took 20,000 men, thousands of mules and horses, and two months to drag, push, pull and wedge the massive stele over the ice road to the city.
Gate of Heavenly Purity ( Qiánqīng Mén 乾清门)
Also named the Gate of Celestial Purity, the Gate of Heavenly Purity divides the Inner Court and the Outer Court and serves as the main entrance to the imperial household inside the Inner Court. Two bronze lions guard this entrance to the most private of imperial spheres. Note that the flopped-over, closed ears on these lions differ from all the others in the Forbidden City, reminding discontent concubines and gossipy court ladies that heads would literally roll if their ears perked up too close to this area of official affairs.
Palace of Heavenly Purity ( Qiánqīng Gōng 乾清宫)
The largest structure in the Inner Court, the Palace of Heavenly Purity is a smaller reproduction of the Hall of Supreme Harmony and even features mini versions of the hall’s furniture. Initially, the palace served as living quarters for all the Ming and two Qing emperors, as well as a private retreat for official meetings. Signing documents and interviewing ministers and envoys were all part of the fun, and the palace eventually evolved to hold banquets. Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) twice courted the nation’s male 60-somethings here with the “Banquet for a Thousand Seniors.”
Palace of Earthly Tranquility ( Kūnníng Gōng 坤宁宫)
Site of grand Spring Festival celebrations, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility was originally the Ming Dynasty’s imperial living quarters, and later became the nuptial chambers for the emperors and empresses of the Qing Dynasty. The two east side rooms, known as the East Warmth Chamber, were the bridal suite for the emperor and empress. Painted on the wall and on hanging lamps were the Chinese characters of “double happiness” (囍). Side rooms were designated for sacrificial rituals, which were held twice a day during Manchurian rule.
Palace of Gathered Elegance ( Chǔxiù Gōng 储秀宫)
One of the Six Western Palaces in the Inner Court, Chuxiugong was the living residence of concubines during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In 1852, the Empress Dowager Cixi lived here when she gave birth to Emperor Tongzhi. Initially, Cixi lived in the Palace of Eternal Spring ( Chángchūn Gōng 长春宫) and later moved to Chuxiugong in celebration of her 50th birthday. Check out the garden, which boasts a wall that is essentially a giant birthday card with inscriptions from offials wishing Cixi well on her Golden Jubilee.
Imperial Garden & Others
Imperial Garden ( Yù Huāyuán 御花园)
Located outside of the Gate of Terrestrial Tranquility, the resplendent imperial garden is peppered with several charming little pavilions and one very large incense burner; it would probably be relaxing if there weren’t so many people here all the time. It was constructed during the Ming Dynasty in 1417, and its rectangular shape covers approximately 12,000 sq m (129,167 sq ft). This was a private retreat for the imperial family and is a typical example of Chinese imperial garden landscaping. There are around twenty structures in all, each of a different style. Keep an eye out for the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shénwǔ Mén 神武门) and the Gate of Loyal Obedience (Shùnzhēn Mén 顺贞门), where elephant statues awkwardly break their legs to kowtow before the emperor.
The Forbidden City palace complex is littered with plenty of interesting side tidbits. Play “I-spy” and see how many of these objects you can spot:
- fire-preventative copper and brass cauldrons
- palace protecting guardian lions
- water draining dragon-head spouts
- roof guardians on the upturned corners of the building eaves
- incense breathing bronze turtles
- masterful sundials that dot the complex grounds
What do you do with that 46 m (151 ft) high pile of dirt left over from building the Forbidden City moat? Build a park with it and call it Jingshan Park (Jǐngshān Gōngyuán; 景山公园). Sitting just outside the northern gate of the Forbidden City on the centerline of Beijing, Jingshan Park is one of the coolest artificial hills you’ll ever come across and one of the best parks in the city.
It was built by Emperor Yongle, and you’ve got to hand it to the guy, he sure knows how to make a big pile of dirt feel special. Jingshan consists of five individual peaks, which are each capped with an elegant pavilion. The highest elevated point in the city, Jingshan’s main peak provides an unmatched panoramic view of the Forbidden City and the surrounding hutongs. In its dynastic heyday, this park was used for officials looking to kick back, and now it’s your turn. The five peaks of Jingshan draw the approximate historical axis of central old Beijing.
1. The Meridian Gate (Wǔ Mén; 午门)
2. Inner Golden Water Bridges (Nèi Jīnshuǐ Qiáo; 内金水桥)
3. Gate of Glorious Harmony (Xīhé Mén; 熙和门)
4. Gate of Mutual Harmony (Xiéhé Mén; 协和门)
5. Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tàihé Mén; 太和门)
6. Gate of Correct Conduct (Zhēndù Mén; 贞度门)
7. Gate of Manifest Virtue (Zhāodé Mén; 昭德门)
8. The Loft Pavilion (Chóng Lóu; 崇楼)
9. Belvedere of Spreading Righteousness (Hóngyì Gé; 弘义阁)
10. Belvedere of Embodying Benevolence (Tǐrén Gé; 体仁阁)
11. Right-wing Gate (Yòuyì Mén; 右翼门)
12. Left-wing Gate (Zuǒyì Mén; 左翼门)
13. Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tàihé Diàn; 太和殿)
14. Middle Right Gate (Zhōngyòu Mén; 中右门)
15. Middle Left Gate (Zhōngzuǒ Mén; 中左门)
16. Hall of Central Harmony (Zhōnghé Diàn; 中和殿)
17. Hall of Preserving Harmony (Bǎohé Diàn; 保和殿)
18. Rear Right Gate (Hòuyòu Mén; 后右门)
19. Rear Left Gate (Hòuzuǒ Mén; 后左门)
20. Gate of Thriving Imperial Clan (Lóngzōng Mén; 隆宗门)
21. Gate of Good Fortune (Jǐngyùn Mén; 景运门)
22. Gate of Martial Valor (Wǔyīng Mén; 武英门)
23. Hall of Martial Valor (Wǔyīng Diàn; 武英殿)
24. Hall of Respectful Thoughts (Jìngsī Diàn; 敬思殿)
25. Gate of Literary Brilliance (Wénhuá Mén; 文华门)
26. Hall of Literary Brilliance (Wénhuá Diàn; 文华殿)
27. Hall of Observing Sincerity and Esteem (Zhǔjìng Diàn; 主敬殿)
28. Gate of Heavenly Purity (Qiánqīng Mén; 乾清门)
29. Gate of Lunar Essence (Yuèhuá Mén; 月华门)
30. Gate of Solar Essence (Rìjīng Mén; 日精门)
31. Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qiánqīng Gōng; 乾清宫)
32. Hall of Union (Jiāotài Diàn; 交泰殿)
33. Gate of Flourishing Blessings (Lóngfú Mén; 隆福门)
34. Gate of Auspicious Harmony (Jǐnghé Mén; 景和门)
35. Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kūnníng Gōng; 坤宁宫)
36. Gate of Earthly Tranquility (Kūnníng Mén; 坤宁门)
37. The Imperial Garden (Yù Huāyuán; 御花园)
38. Pavilion of One Thousand Autumns (Qiānqiū Tíng; 千秋亭)
39. Pavilion of Myriad Springtimes (Wànchūn Tíng; 万春亭)
40. Hall of Imperial Peace (Qīn’ān Diàn; 钦安殿)
41. Gate of Loyal Obedience (Shùnzhēn Mén; 顺贞门)
42. Gate of Divine Prowess (Shénwǔ Mén; 神武门)
43. Gate of Compassion and Tranquility (Cíníng Mén; 慈宁门)
44. Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (Cíníng Gōng; 慈宁宫)
45. Grand Hall for Worshipping Buddha (Dàfó Táng; 大佛堂)
46. Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yǎngxīn Diàn; 养心殿)
47. Hall of the Supreme Principle (Tàijí Diàn; 太极殿)
48. Palace of Eternal Longevity (Yǒngshòu Gōng; 永寿宫)
49. Palace of Eternal Spring (Chángchūn Gōng; 长春宫)
50. Palace of Earthly Honor (Yìkūn Gōng; 翊坤宫)
51. Palace of Universal Happiness (Xiánfú Gōng; 咸福宫)
52. Palace of Gathered Elegance (Chǔxiù Gōng; 储秀宫)
53. Belvedere of Raining Flowers (Yǔhuā Gé; 雨花阁)
54. Hall for Abstinence (Zhāi Gōng; 斋宫)
55. Hall of Sincere Solemnity (Chéngsù Diàn; 诚肃殿)
56. Palace of Great Benevolence (Jǐngrén Gōng; 景仁宫)
57. Palace of Prolonging Happiness (Yánxǐ Gōng; 延禧宫)
58. Palace of Celestial Favor (Chéngqián Gōng; 承乾宫)
59. Gate of Eternal Harmony (Yǒnghé Gōng; 永和宫)
60. Palace of Accumulated Purity (Zhōngcuì Gōng; 钟粹宫)
61. Palace of Great Brilliance (Jǐngyáng Gōng; 景阳宫)
62. Gate of Hall for Ancestral Worship (Fèngxiān Mén; 奉先门)
63. Hall for Ancestral Worship (Fèngxiān Diàn; 奉先殿)
64. Numinous Firmament Treasure Hall (Tiānqióng Bǎodiàn; 天穹宝殿)
65. Archery Pavilion (Jiàn Tíng; 箭亭)
66. Nine-dragon Screen (Jiǔlóng Bì; 九龙壁)
67. Gate of Imperial Supremacy (Huángjí Mén; 皇极门)
68. Gate of Tranquil Longevity (Níngshòu Mén; 宁寿门)
69. Hall of Imperial Supremacy (Huángjí Diàn; 皇极殿)
70. Palace of Tranquil Longevity (Níngshòu Gōng; 宁寿宫)
71. Gate of Spiritual Cultivation (Yǎngxìng Mén; 养性门)
72. Hall of Spiritual Cultivation (Yǎngxìng Diàn; 养性殿)
73. Hall of Joyful Longevity (Lèshòu táng; 乐寿堂)
74. Bower of Well-nourished Harmony (Yíhé Xuān; 颐和轩)
75. Belvedere of Auspicious Fortune (Jǐngqí Gé; 景祺阁)
76. Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds (Chàngyīn Gé; 畅音阁)
77. The Corner Tower (Jiǎo Lóu; 角楼)
78. West Prosperity Gate (Xīhuá Mén; 西华门)
79. East Prosperity Gate (Dōnghuá Mén; 东华门)
The Forbidden City is massive, and choosing where to go can be a bit daunting. To help smooth your decision, we have provided three sample itineraries, depending on your time, that reference to our numbered map.
Two-hour tour: 1→5→9→11→13→16→17→28→31→32→35→37→42
Half-day tour: 1→25-27→5→13→16→17→62→63→31→32→35→46→52→36→39→40→42
Full-day tour: 1→22-24→25→27→13→16→17→31→32→35→46→51→60→54→63→62→66-75→42