Time Out's ultimate guide to Beijing's Forbidden City

Our step-by-step breakdown of Beijing's Forbidden City

It's the jewel in our city's crown, its geographical centre and historical heart, our poster boy and the cover girl to countless guidebooks. While term 'unmissable' is bandied around fairly lightly, there's no doubt that Beijing's Forbidden City, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, is worthy of such a title. Put simply, no trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the imperial abode.

Construction on this extravagant complex began under the Yongle Emperor of Ming in 1406, following the moving of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. It is said to have taken over one million workers sixteen years to complete the job, and over the next 500 years it would serve as the imperial abode for 24 rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties and their entourage. Its 980 different rooms now house the Palace Museum – the world’s most visited museum – which welcomes nearly 15 million curious guests each year.

The sprawling palace has a footprint of around 180 acres and is home to nearly two million cultural relics, including priceless ceramics, bronzewares and jades, not to mention stunning ancient architecture; the scale of the museum is astonishing, so you’ll do well to see everything in one trip.

Whether you've got an hour, two, four or more, you're sure to spot something fresh and fascinating at every turn, so pop on your Chinese history thinking caps and follow us through from front to back, side to side, and everything in between.
1
The Gate of Heavenly Peace (天安门)

The Gate of Heavenly Peace (天安门)

While it’s not actually part of the Forbidden City, the iconic Gate of Heavenly Peace – the Tian'anmen that gives the famous square its name – is the logical starting point for your visit, and probably the hottest tourist photo spot in the whole city.

Note the five arched gates – the central and largest portal was reserved exclusively for the emperor, while his family and subordinate officials would come and go via the side gates, according to their rank. Grab your snap with Mao Zedong’s famous portrait, and proceed through the far right entrance.

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Meridian Gate (午门)

Meridian Gate (午门)

Once you’ve passed through the Duanmen (端门) and picked up your tickets (40RMB) from the office, you’ll need to make your way to the Meridian Gate (午门) – the imposing, U-shaped entrance to the Forbidden City, and the tallest gate in the complex. 

Emperors would be seated in the central portion of the tower to receive returning (and hopefully victorious) troops, while his ministers and entourage would watch on from the flanks. Other functions included the judging of criminals and prisoners from up on high, and as a space for banquets and announcements during festivals.

Head up the gate to take in the emperor’s view; the building now houses temporary exhibitions throughout the year.

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The first courtyard

The first courtyard

You’ve now arrived in the first courtyard before the Forbidden City’s Outer Court. The five pathways for imperial procession continue here, with five ornate marble bridges passing over the bow-shaped Golden Stream and continuing towards the Gate of Supreme Harmony. 

If you’re pressed for time, continue north to this gate and along the Central Axis; if you’re exploring at a more leisurely pace, then take a sidestep to the east, and head up the city’s walls.

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City walls

City walls

You’ll soon realise that the central route through the Palace Museum that takes in the big name attractions is an extremely well-trodden path, taken by a continuous flow of visitors – as many as 80,000 a day. However, veering off to the side galleries offers some surprisingly peaceful getaways, as well as the chance to see some of the complex’s hidden gems.

Walk along the south eastern section of the Forbidden City’s outer walls to get a lofty view across its sea of yellow rooftops, out over the surrounding moat and a peek into some of the less-restored areas that are still off-limits to visitors. On clearer days, you'll also be able to see as far as the mountains in the west, and towards the skyscrapers of the Central Business District in the east.

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The Hall of Literary Brilliance (文化殿)

The Hall of Literary Brilliance (文化殿)

After descending from the walls, head for the Ceramics Gallery in the darkened Hall of Literary Brilliance, which is home to a careful curation of around 400 of the finest pieces from the collections of Ming and Qing emperors. The exhibits also explain the 10,000-year development of the ceramic art in China.

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The Pavilion of Literary Profundity (文渊阁)

The Pavilion of Literary Profundity (文渊阁)

Tucked away behind the The Hall of Literary Brilliance and the Ceramics Gallery is one the intriguing anomalies of the Imperial Palace. Built in 1776 during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, the Pavilion of Literary Profundity’s black roof and green paint job are a shift from the usual burgundies and yellows, and the structure looks a little rickety compared to its peers. 

The building served as one of many libraries within the city, housing records and various other literary works for the emperor, his ministers and scholars to enrich themselves with.

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The Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门)

The Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门)

Returning to the first courtyard, it’s now time to delve into the belly of the city, beginning with the Gate of Supreme Harmony. It is here that Ming emperors held morning court sessions with their officials, and where leaders would look out over audiences gathered for special ceremonies, including weddings.

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Guardian lions

Guardian lions

Like many gates and halls throughout the complex, he Gate of Supreme Harmony, is flanked by two impressive guardian lions – a common feature of important buildings across Asia – though these two are among the most intimidating.


The right-hand, male lion has a paw on a globe, signifying the emperor’s position as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and his supremacy over tianxia (天下) – all beneath heaven. To the left, his female counterpart paws at a lion cub, representing the prosperity and fertility of the imperial family.

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The Outer Court (外朝)

The Outer Court (外朝)

Passing through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, you arrive inside the Outer Court, the largest courtyard in the whole complex. Here, you will encounter two of the city’s most prominent architectural features for the first time: the many dragon head-shaped spouts and the large metal water vats that are dotted throughout the complex. 

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Dragon head spouts

Dragon head spouts

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Water vats

Water vats

Throughout the Forbidden City’s history as the imperial residence, it was plagued by fires, and many of the structures within its walls were partially or completely destroyed at some point, before being rebuilt, including the magnificent Hall of Supreme Harmony which lies ahead of you.

Often weighing as much as two tonnes, these vats served as fire extinguishers that would be tipped in the event of fire, though their dousing often proved futile as fires raged.

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The Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿)

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿)

As its raised position upon a three-tiered foundation and its ornate decoration suggest, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the most important structure in the imperial city, hosting coronation ceremonies and the emperor’s birthday celebrations, among other festivities.

It’s the first of the Three Great Halls, and you’ll need to hustle with the gathering crowd to get a look at its stunning centrepiece – the golden Dragon Throne, where the emperor would sit before his officials and visitors who were required to kneel before him and bow, forehead to the floor.

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The Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿)

The Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿)

After passing the second of the Great Halls – the Hall of Middle Harmony, a kind of backstage rest area for the emperor at his ceremonies – you’ll reach the Hall of Preserving Harmony. It was here that scholars took the imperial examinations to qualify for officialdom, and where emperors often held banquets.

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The Forbidden City's largest carving

The Forbidden City's largest carving

At the rear of the Hall of Preserving Harmony is one of the Forbidden City’s most impressive feats of craftsmanship and human innovation. Emperors rarely walked around their palace, instead being transported by carriage, and, by now, you may have noticed the intricately carved ramps that front each gate and hall, allowing for easy passage as his minions carried him on his way.

This 16-metre long carriageway was carved from a single piece of stone that was quarried in the city's southwestern Fangshan district, before being remarkably transported in the depths of Beijing winter, taking 28 days to be slid along a 30-kilometre man-made ice path.

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The Gate of Heavenly Purity (乾清门)

The Gate of Heavenly Purity (乾清门)

You’ve now reached the Gate of Heavenly Purity, the entrance to the Inner Court. This was the most exclusive area of the complex, which served as the residential quarters for the emperor and his entourage.
 
If you’re in express mode, continue through the gate along the Central Axis; if not, head to the east, for some deeper cuts, beginning with the Clock and Watch Gallery and the Treasure Gallery.

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The Clock and Watch Gallery

The Clock and Watch Gallery

It seems that emperors of the later Qing dynasty had a penchant for collecting lavish timepieces, and this 200-strong collection, housed in the Hall of Ancestral Worship (奉先殿), shows off some of the most eccentric clocks and watches you’ll ever see. Many were gifts from abroad, while others are fine examples of Chinese clock craft. You’ll need to purchase an additional ticket (10RMB) for this special exhibition.


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The Treasure Gallery

The Treasure Gallery

Also requiring an additional fee (10RMB) is the Treasure Gallery, beginning just to the south of the Clock and Watch exhibition. It’s a worthwhile walk through several buildings in the far northeastern corner of the Palace Museum, and is home to many priceless jewels, carvings, clothing and other imperial effects.

If you're feeling exhausted by this point, that's fair enough. Fortunately, once you've passed the next few sights, the small courtyard gardens at the northern tip of the ticketed Treasure Gallery are some of the quietest spots for relaxation in the whole museum, on a path less trodden by the tour groups who hug the Central Axis.

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Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁)

Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁)

Just to the right as you enter the Treasure Gallery is the intricately adorned Nine Dragon Screen. Among the Forbidden City’s most impressive artworks, it’s also one of the most popular attractions.

Stretching over 29 metres, its nine beasts of yellow, white, blue and purple are all unique in design, and make up one of the Three Great Nine Dragon Screens of China (the others are in Beijing’s Beihai Park and Datong, Shanxi province). The number nine has long had associations with power in Chinese culture, and this seems an appropriately powerful decoration, whose beasts were believed to serve as guards against wandering spirits and ghosts at the entrance to an imperial residence.

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The Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds (畅音阁)

The Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds (畅音阁)

Pocketed away further to the north is another of the complex’s hidden gems – the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, a spectacular three-tiered opera stage where the emperor and his esteemed guests enjoyed private spectacles. It is now surrounded by a gallery of musical artefacts, including scores, lyric sheets and vinyl records of the emperor’s favourite grooves.


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The Hall of Joyful Longevity (乐寿堂)

The Hall of Joyful Longevity (乐寿堂)

Continuing to the northern extremity of the eastern wing, you’ll reach the Hall of Joyful Longevity, home to an exhibition of wonderfully carved and wonderfully huge jades, some of which are among the largest ever excavated. It was also the residence of Empress Dowager Cixi, during her later years.

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The Eastern Palaces (东六宫)

The Eastern Palaces (东六宫)

Returning southward, you will pass the Six Eastern Palaces, which were the walled residences of empresses and concubines throughout both the Ming and Qing dynasty. Each court has its own quirks, and they now host different exhibitions of thousands of gold and silver, bronze, jade and porcelain artefacts. 

22
The Palace of Prolonging Happiness (延禧宫)

The Palace of Prolonging Happiness (延禧宫)

Perhaps the most curious building within the Forbidden City’s walls, the Western-style Palace of Prolonging Happiness is an architectural oddity found in possibly the last place you’d ever expect to see such a structure. It’s also had one of the most eventful histories of any building here.

Originally, way back in 1420, the palace conformed to the Forbidden City dress code, but met a fiery end in 1845. It remained in ruin until 1909, when work began on the Western structure you see today; the initial concept was to create a 'crystal palace', whose glass walls were filled with water and an assortment of aquatic life – so, essentially, a three-storey fish tank – but given budget restrictions, the project was abandoned. In 1917, the palace was also hit by a falling bomb during an air strike.

After all these twists and turns, the 'Prolonging Happiness' title doesn’t seem so fitting, but it’s certainly one of the most intriguing structures within the walls. Its surrounding galleries now host temporary exhibitions.

23
The Inner Court (内廷)

The Inner Court (内廷)

It’s time to head southwards to the Gate of Heavenly Purity again, and back onto the Central Axis. While Ming emperors held their morning courts at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, their Qing counterparts chose to shorten their commute, meeting with officials to handle state affairs much closer to their residential quarters, here at the Gate of Heavenly Purity.

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The Palace of Heavenly Purity (乾清宫)

The Palace of Heavenly Purity (乾清宫)

After passing through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, you’ll reach its partnering palace, which served as the imperial bedroom for the majority of emperors. It’s a scaled-down and decoratively toned-down version of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, but its functions extended beyond sleeping; deceased emperors would have their coffins placed in here for a few days following their deaths, and it also was the venue for numerous ceremonies and banquets.

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The Hall of Union (交泰殿)

The Hall of Union (交泰殿)

Continue to the Hall of Union at the rear. This smaller structure’s position between the palaces of Heavenly Purity and Earthly Tranquility is significant, representing the balance and union between heaven and earth that the Emperor, as the 'Son of Heaven', brought to the world. It contains an impressive 300-year-old, six-metre-tall water clock.

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The Palace of Earthly Tranquility (坤寧宮)

The Palace of Earthly Tranquility (坤寧宮)

During the Ming dynasty, the last of the Inner Court’s central halls was the empress’ living quarters, though its function changed with the arrival of Qing, later serving as the bridal chamber for emperors and their newlywed empresses. Other rooms of the palace were used to make sacrificial offerings to deities, as well as housing the eunuchs who served and guarded the empresses.

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The Western Palaces (西六宫)

The Western Palaces (西六宫)

If you’re not feeling completely palaced out by now, head towards the Six Western Palaces. These abodes of empresses and concubines are some of the most untouched structures in the entire Forbidden City, having remained largely intact since their construction in the 15th century, and have some wonderful furnishings on display. The Empress Dowager Cixi spent most of her life in these quarters.

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The Imperial Garden (御花园)

The Imperial Garden (御花园)

Reaching the northern tip of the palace, the Imperial Garden is a pleasant finish to your exploration. Of course, a trip to the world’s most visited museum is never going to be particularly quiet, but strolling round this wonderfully landscaped area, you still get a feel for what would have been a zone of tranquility for weary emperors. 

Covering around 12,000 square metres, the vast yard contains pavilions, various sculptures, 400-year-old trees, immense rock features and plentiful shaded spots.

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The moat

The moat

After exiting through the back door – the Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门– shirk your way through the crowd of peddlers offering hutong tours, selfie sticks and other tourist treats (or traps), and head towards the northwestern corner of the complex. 

From here, you can get a further feel for the sheer size of the imperial palace, by looking back south along its surrounding moat. 3,800 metres long and 52 metres wide, it provided further dissuasion to any chancers who wished to try their luck at entering under the watchful eye of the guards who manned the corner towers.

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Onto Jingshan Park?

Onto Jingshan Park?

Congratulations! You’ve successfully made it through the Forbidden City and done an awful lot of walking in the process. What better way to reward yourself than with even more walking up a man-made hill?

The heights of Jingshan Park used to be the imperial family’s private garden, and are a great follow-up to a trip around the palace; reach the crowning pavilion for spectacular views across the Forbidden City, and see just how much ground you managed to cover. Keep your fingers crossed for smogless blue skies, because Beijing sure looks beautiful from up there.

Getting there

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Time Out's alternative tourist guide

Time Out's alternative tourist guide

Do you have G20-dodging Hangzhou friends in town this weekend? Odds are you do. If you don't fancy taking visitors to the Forbidden City for the tenth time, have a look at some of the suggestions in Time Out's alternative tourist guide – and thank us later. 

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