Beijing Forbidden City: A Stroll Through History

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Beijing Travels

Exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing was a surreal experience. Until 1912, you could be killed for entering this place without the Emperor’s permission. It was only in 1925 that it was first opened to the public.

The Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Its construction began in 1406 and took 14 years to complete. The largest palace complex in the world, it’s almost a kilometre long from north to south, and 753m from east to west, with over 90 place quarters and courtyards, 980 buildings and over 8,000 rooms!

Pavilion close to the West palaces

A common itinerary is to combine Tian’anmen Square with the Forbidden City, topped off with a climb at Jingshan Park to view the Forbidden City from above. However, I decided to just take a full day to focus on the Forbidden City so that I would have enough time to stroll through as much of its history as possible.

Tickets can be purchased about 7 days in advance via WeChat Forbidden City mini program if you can read Mandarin, but I didn’t have a China mobile number and hence it was not possible to book via WeChat. As a result, I purchased a ticket to the Forbidden City in advance through Viator for S$13.90, two weeks in advance. My passport would be my ticket at the entrance.

Tickets are also available via the official website of the Palace Museum (see Information at end of the article).

(In contrast, for Tian’anmen Square, as it is free, I managed to book a ticket via WeChat mini program)

There is only one entrance for the Forbidden City, which is at the Meridian Gate. I read that queues coming from Tian’anmen Square would be very long, hence I took an alternate route by exiting Tian’anmen East Station at Exit B, then turning left to walk along 南池子大街 until I came to a junction where I could turn left and walk towards the Forbidden City (see route below).

Forbidden City
Walking route from Tian’anmen East metro (take Exit B) to Forbidden City Meridian Gate entrance

There are many entry lines at the Meridian Gate. Just show your passport and the staff would key in your passport number to verify your ticket.

Five Forbidden City things to do

There are so many amazing places within the Forbidden City, that I could name at least 20 of them. To give you a quick sense of what to expect, check out these five landmarks to visit.

1. Meridian Gate: As the main entrance to the Forbidden City, the Meridian Gate gives you an impressive peek into the Forbidden City. In the past, only the emperor was allowed to walk through the central passageway, with the exceptions of the empress during her wedding ceremony, and the top three scholars of the triennial civil service examinations, but now you can do so too.

Forbidden City
Meridian Gate entrance

2. Gate of Supreme Harmony and the 5 bridges: To enter the Gate of Supreme Harmony one had to cross the Golden River by one of the five marble bridges each symbolising a Confucian virtue expected of the emperor’s subjects.

Forbidden City
Gate of Supreme Harmony and the five bridges

3. Hall of Supreme Harmony: This enormous wooden structure was the ceremonial center of imperial power. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the location where emperors hosted their enthronement and wedding ceremonies. Behind it is the Hall of Middle Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.

Forbidden City
Forbidden City Hall of Preserving Harmony (left), Hall of Middle Harmony (middle) and Hall of Supreme Harmony (right)

4. Treasure Museum: For a deeper dive into the Forbidden City’s treasures, I ventured into the Treasure Museum for an additional 10 yuan. Appreciate the exquisite artifacts on display, from fengshui trees to gold to jewellery.

Beautiful fengshui tree at the Treasure Gallery

5. Imperial Gardens and Souvenir Shops: At the Northern end of the Forbidden City, the imperial gardens provide a serene escape with ancient trees, pavilions and the Hill of Accumulated Elegance, offering a glimpse into the emperors’ private moments of reflection. There are many souvenir shops scattered throughout the Forbidden City offering beautiful bookmarks and unique gifts, perfect mementos to carry a piece of China’s imperial history back home.

Hill of Accumulated Elegance

Tips for A Great Visit

  • Be an early bird: To escape the crowds, I recommend arriving early. Along the route to the Meridian Gate, you can indulge in some early morning delights from the street food shops.
  • Wear comfortable shoes: With many steps and cobbled floors, comfortable shoes are a must. Be prepared to walk at least 20,000 steps if you visit the periphery attractions too.
  • Rent an audio guide: Enhance your experience by renting an audio guide, available in multiple languages for a reasonable 40 yuan, no deposit required.
  • Discover hidden gems: Take the time to explore the imperial gardens and delve into the treasures of the Treasure Museum. The extra 10 yuan for the museum is a small price for the enriched experience.
  • Pace yourself: The Forbidden City deserves a full day of exploration. Resist the urge to rush; instead, take breaks at the numerous benches scattered across the site. Cafes offering snacks and drinks provide perfect pit stops to recharge.

Information (source):

Admission to the Forbidden City (known as the Palace Museum):

  • April 1 – October 31 (peak season), 60 yuan / person
  • November 1 – March 31 (low season), 40 yuan / person

Opening hours: 8.30am to 4.30pm (closed on Mondays except for statutory holidays)

  • Morning session: Opening time for admission: 8:30. Check tickets by 12:00 (noon)
  • Afternoon session: Ticket checks start at 11:00 am. Last admission: 15:30

Additional museums within the Forbidden City:

  • The Treasure Gallery: 10 yuan / person
  • The Gallery of Clocks: 10 yuan / person

Check out my other Beijing itineraries!

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