The Forbidden City, the world’s largest royal palace complex, is a truly unique and special place. No longer is entry punished by pain of death, so anyone-with a ticket- can come see it now. Visiting it can be intimidating though, for a variety of reasons; it sees thousands of tourists every day, Beijing’s weather and smog are notorious, and the language barrier inherent in visiting China is difficult to overcome. Fortunately, we have a guide that can help you make this once in a lifetime opportunity a reality.
When to Visit
The Forbidden City is a must-see highlight for almost every first-time visitor in Beijing, as well as many who are visiting China for the first time.
The Forbidden City is visited by 14,000,000 tourists annually. That’s an average of over 38,000 tourists a day, the following guidelines will help you avoid getting lost in the massive crowds.
Go During Low Season
The best time to visit is low season in order to avoid crowds and have some hope of decent weather. In the winter months, Beijing drops down to minus -4 degrees on average, but expect it to feel more like -10 to -20 with the biting wind chill that rips through city. In the summer, Beijing hits a balmy 27 degrees, which is compounded by muggy humidity and a scorching sun. Avoiding the summer and winter seasons is recommended, but not totally necessary.
The low tourist season lasts from late March to early June, and then again from late August to late November. During this this two-part season there are not many Chinese holidays, and the weather is not at its seasonal extremes.
Go on Weekdays
Avoid holidays and weekends, this can’t be stressed enough. During
national day break in 2010, more than 122,000 people visited- on a single day. The official capacity of the complex is only 60,000.
Go Early in the Morning
The Forbidden City officially opens to visitors at 08:30 AM. This means that potential visitors who want to avoid crowds should arrive around 08:00 AM. Visitors arriving early can queue in front of the Meridian Gate (currently used as the only entrance gate). Upon opening by staff, the first in line will be granted first entrance.
Highlights of the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City’s fabled 9,999 rooms may seem overwhelming at first. Particularly, tourists who have tight schedules or who wish to visit every highlight may need to streamline their visits and see that which interests them most.
It’s impossible to list all of the sights the vast palace complex has to offer in anything shorter than a book, but following, you will find some of the main highlights listed.
Gate of Supreme Harmony
After entering the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate, the first place you will cross the pavilion with 5 bridges and find the Gate of Supreme Harmony. This place was the center of ceremonial activities in the Forbidden City. It is composed of three parts: the West Corner Gate, The East Corner Gate, and the Central Gate.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony -including all gates and the rooms within the superstructure- was an important area for the meeting of government ministers, and also served to store some of the emperor’s goods.
Hall of Central Harmony
This Hall was used as a resting lounge by the emperor between various ceremonies. Emperors of many dynasties would come here between imperial duties in order to relax.
Within, visitors can see the opulence which with the emperor surrounded himself. Golden upholstry, statues, incense burners, and more helped the emperor prepare himself for his next activities.
Hall of Preserving Harmony
This hall provided an important function in imperial Emperors Chinese History
. It was used by the emperors to prepare for and practice various imperial ceremonies, and also as the place of the highest examination in the land for scholars, which the emperor himself would personally invigilate.
Every three years, the emperor would personally preside over the top 10 scholars in China taking Imperial Palace Examination here. This examination had a lasting impact on China- being a major tool to improve its bureaucracy through merit- and the world at large. East Asian and Western examination systems have since been using practices formed in this hall.
Gate of Heavenly Purity
Exiting the Outer Court, you will cross through the Gate of Heavenly Purity and enter the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.
The Gate of Heavenly Purity was once only to be entered by China’s most important individuals: the emperor and his family, powerful ministers and officials, and the eunuch servants who tended to them.
Before this gate, ministers would wait for the emperor on their knees. When the Emperor arrived, he would sit upon a temporary throne, hear his officials, and issue his own rulings. Additionally, at this gate, written royal decrees were promulgated.
Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union
Also called the Hall of Heavenly Union, this hall’s name comes from the I Ching, and the words symbolize peace and harmony through the whole nation.
This hall contains two rather unique attractions within the Forbidden City.
Big Chime Clock
A three-tiered enormous clock can be found here. Constructed out of wood and 5 meters in height, it still chimes- as it has for the last 200 years.
Possibly the only well preserved water clock in existence, this bronze Clepsydra dates back to 1745. This type of clock was invented in China of 3,000 years ago and uses dripping water to track time.
This artifact is truly a window into history.
Palace of Heavenly Purity
This palace served as the empress’ residence during the Ming Dynasty. It was also the bridal suite of the emperor and empress. Lucky red doors with auspicious Chinese characters, high lamps, and a bed canopy emblazoned with 100 playing children all make up the happy décor of the imperial bridal suite. The furnishings of the bridal suite can still be seen as they were left after the grand marriage of emperor Guangxu.
The Palace of Earthly Tranquility was also used for shamanic rituals and sacrifices by the Manchu people. Giant cauldrons can be seen in some rooms, which were used for cooking sacrificial meats.
The Imperial Garden is another huge area within the complex. The gardens themselves contain colorful stone pathways, ancient trees over 400 years old, pagodas sculptures, and buildings. The Hall of Imperial Peace, Mountain of Accumulated Excellence, colored stone pathway, and the 4 seasons pavilions are all highlights of the Royal Gardens alone. The Pavilion of Myriad Springs, and the Pavilion of 1000 Autumns are particularly noted for their architectural beauty.
Avoiding the Crowds
The Forbidden City isn’t so forbidden anymore. Seeing close to 40,000 people on average per diem, it’s easy to get lost in the multitudes. However, a crafty visitor can see the city without getting pushed around by noisy, inconsiderate tourists by following a few guidelines.
Show Up Early
Arrive before the complex opens and queue in the front. When the gates open, you will be the first inside.
Come During the Off-Season
Avoid Chinese holidays- particularly National Day, from the 1st to the 7th of October. Avoid weekends.
The last week of July is the lowest season for the Forbidden City. If you happen to be in Beijing then, that would be a great time to visit.
Do Some Research
If you know what you want to see before you arrive, you can go directly there, avoiding the huge crowds following around flag-toting tour guides.
Follow a South-North Route
The only entrance gates are in the south, and the exit gates are in the north. Following a path from north to south will keep you going in a more-or-less direct line that will result in you not having to weave your way through tourists groups .
The palaces and halls listed above in the “Highlights” section are listed south to north, so following them in the order they are listed in the article will streamline your Forbidden City visit.
In case you forgot and need a reminder, a good route to follow to see the highlights of this vast complex is the following:
I. Outer Court
Gate of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony
II. Inner Court
Gate of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, Palace of Heavenly Purity
III. Royal Gardens
Pavilion of Myriad Springs, Pavilion of 1000 Autumns, Hall of Imperial Peace
This route will take you through the main highlights, and if you arrive early, you can get in before the crowds.
However, you may want to sleep in, or see something else. In that case, you can still follow a south-north route, but try taking the east or west route through the city. You can see the other palaces that lined the city, the city walls and guard towers, and the numerous museum exhibits that are off the meridian path.
Buy a Ticket in Advance
If you purchase a ticket on line or through a tour agency. This way you can avoid the huge ticket lines and make sure that you are guaranteed the earliest possible entry.
Hidden Secrets of the Forbidden City
If you are looking for a deeper understanding of imperial China, or you simply want to see a part of the Forbidden City that is out of the ordinary, here is a list of some of the less-visited, halls and galleries, and their functions within the city. Most of these locations can be found off the central axis, along the east of or west walls of the city.
Palace of Compassion and Tranquility
Where the emperor’s wives lived.
Hall of Literary Profundity
The royal library.
Palace of Prolonging Happiness (Crystal Palace)
The only Western-style building, was never finished.
The Hall of Ancestral Offerings
Contains the Clocks gallery.
The Palace of Tranquil Longevity
Contains the Treasures Gallery (there are over 1 million pieces of treasure within the forbidden city, even after looting by various armies and the communist revolution).
The Hall of Military Eminence
Contains the Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery.
The Hall of Literary Glory
Contains the Porcelain and Ceramics Gallery
After exiting the Forbidden City, climb up the steep stairs of Jingshang Hill to the park, and see a beautiful view of the whole city from above.
In-depth Forbidden City Tour with China Travel
Take your time to enjoy the 4-Day Beijing Essence and In-depth Forbidden City Tour with China Travel:
- Our English-speaking expert guide will lead you to explore this largest imperial palace in the world and give you comprehensive explanations with pictures.
- You will see all highlights and discover the hidden history of Chinese imperial life.
- This in-depth Forbidden City tour takes about 3 hours while common Forbidden City tour only lasts about 2 hours.
- In the afternoon, you’ll visit corner watchtower to have a bird's eye view of the Forbidden City.
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