China certainly doesn’t lack in spectacular and majestic monuments, many steeped in history dating back through multiple dynasties. The Forbidden City, or 紫禁城 (Zǐjinchéng), is no exception. Read on for the ins and outs and a bit of the history, or check out my quick, at-a-glance guide to visiting at the bottom of this post!
The construction of The Gùgōng （故宫）or “Former Palace” began in 1406 under the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and took over a million workers fourteen years to complete. And no wonder it took a while – the City consists of around 980 buildings, made up of a total of 9999 rooms, and includes a huge watchtower in each of the four corners, a tapering 10 metre high defensive wall and a 52 metre wide moat surrounding the whole plot. Over the years, 24 emperors have ruled China from behind the walls of the Palace. The City was built on a north-south axis, which marks the central axis for the whole of Beijing (although it has now been shown to be approximately two degrees off, supposedly to align with the Yuan dynasty’s other capital, Xanadu (more commonly known as Shangdu)).
To the south of The Forbidden City lies Tian’anmen Square, connected by the grand Tian’anmen Tower (The Gate of Heavenly Peace). Adorned with a huge portrait of Chairman Mao and plaques reading “中华人民共和国万岁” (Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó wànsuì, “Long Live the People’s Republic of China”) and “世界人民大团结万岁” (Shìjiè rénmín dà tuánjié wànsuì, “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples”), this gate marks the entrance to the Imperial City. Through the arches of this Gate leads on to the Meridian Gate, the enormous winged U-shaped gate pictured below.
The grandeur of these structures is incredible, you just feel so tiny walking through these huge arches, knowing that hundreds of years ago these areas were reserved solely for the most important people of the country. Nowadays, in this courtyard you will find the ticket booths, audio guide hire and such. Entry varies; during the winter and spring (November – March) it costs ￥40, and in the busier months (April – October) it will cost you ￥60. Audio headphone-based guides are available for ￥40. I would definitely recommend grabbing one of these if you don’t have a guide of any form – on my first trip in 2014 we had a few students from the university with us (I visited as part of a study trip) and they were awesome but I don’t feel like I knew a whole lot about what I was looking at as we walked round. On the second trip, my best friend and I paid for these, and it was sooo useful. You can follow various routes marked out on the back of the guide, or make your own way round as the audio guide has GPS tracking so you will still hear the right piece of information. There are some very interesting (and quite dark) stories surrounding the Palace, which makes for a educational trip!
The decoration is outstanding. Gorgeous blue, yellow and green paintings cover the eaves and brackets of the Palaces, and the yellow of the roofs symbolises respect in Chinese culture. The red walls and pillars represent the emperor’s hopes for stability throughout the nation. The colours look particularly vibrant and bright as elements of the Palace are continuously being carefully restored – the team who look after the complex use tons of super clever new technology to analyse the exact colour and materials used back when it was first created. Pretty amazing stuff.
The most spectacular building of them all is The Hall of Supreme Harmony. Rising about 30 metres, this was the grandest Hall in the City and reserved for ceremonial occasions and holding court. Inside sits the Dragon Throne, a unique seat adorned with dragons and surrounded by golden pillars. The use of the dragon is said to symbolise the “divinity business” of the Emperors, and would also used to decorate robes and any royal monuments throughout the country. Even if you visit at a quiet time, you may have to worm your way through the crowds to get a better look inside.
On past the Hall of Supreme Harmony you will find the Hall of Central Harmony, used by the Emperors for preparing before any ceremonies and resting during them when it all got a bit much. Here you can view the Qing-dynasty sedan chairs – the Emperors would be moved around the City in these large chairs. The final Hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony which hosted banquets and rehearsals. The Halls supposedly decrease in grandeur each time, but they are all still incredibly spectacular and beautiful to us mere commoners.
The aforementioned areas all make up the “Outer Court”, used solely for ceremonial purposes. What follows this is the “Inner Court”, which played the role of the Emperor’s living and working quarters, and home for his family. Not all of the area is accessible to the public, but you can stroll around the three Halls – the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which served as the Emperor’s home, representing the ‘Yang’, the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, which housed the Empress and represented the ‘Yin’, and the Hall of Union, which lies in the middle of the two Palaces and acted as the place that Yin and Yang came together and created harmony. You can explore more of the side streets and smaller buildings surrounding these Halls, and I would definitely recommend this if you have the audio guide.
You may come across these giant gold pots – which were situated near the buildings and supposedly would have been filled with water to put out fires (as all the buildings were made of wood) although how they would be lifted is beyond me! Obviously weren’t a great help mind you, given that the Hall of Supreme Harmony alone was destroyed by fire no less than seven times!
Last stop before the exit is the Imperial Garden, the small but spectacular gardens with a million and one perfect places for cute couple photos, and tall twisting trees which is a stark difference to the big open courtyards throughout the rest of the City.
There is soooo much more I could write about this incredible historic place, but I would literally be writing an essay. You really can’t visit Beijing without stopping by, it’s one of the most iconic Chinese landmarks and really does live up to the hype. I would 100% recommend investing in an audio guide and going with only one or two people, or even alone, rather than a big group, so you can explore at my own pace. For around a tenner, it’s a bargain trip, and can be a very educational one as well! Plus the location means that you could easily incorporate it into a day of sightseeing – check out Tian’anmen Square beforehand, and visit the surrounding hutong streets afterwards to grab a bite to eat. Be prepared to have your photo taken a lot, either by people trying to do it subtly or by people wanting photos with you, especially if you have a look which isn’t particularly common in China – just go with it, it’s mostly cute middle aged ladies from far out provinces who aren’t used to seeing Westerners, and they are nothing but lovely and very complimentary!
The easiest way to get to Forbidden City/Tian’anmen Square is by subway – take Line 1 (the red line) and exit at either Tian’anmen East or Tian’anmen West (right in the centre, and there’s a cute helpful lil’ picture on the subway map to help you find it).
April 1st – October 31st: ￥60
November 1st – March 31st: ￥40
April 1st – October 31st: 8:30 to 17:00
November 1st – March 31st: 8:30 to 16:30
There are toilets, cash machines, a few food & drink points and shops selling all kinds of trinkets throughout the City.
The City has recommendations for full day, half day and two hour tours, which you can print from their website and take with you. Or you can pick up an audio guide tour from the main entrance for ￥40.
I hope this post has inspired everyone to visit the amazing Forbidden City on their China adventure! Have you visited before? What did you think? What are your tips and tricks for navigating this incredible landmark?
All photographs used in this post were taken by myself and all rights are my own.