Palace, home, seat of government, and a testament to the tenacity of Chinese builders—the Forbidden City was where emperors once lived and ruled. Commoners could only come by invitation or servitude (hence the name). The Forbidden City was very much tied to the Chinese conceptions of Heaven, divinely endowed leaders, and extreme respect. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 14 million people visit it a year, and luckily, you can enter sans royal invitation.
The complex and buildings of the Forbidden City invoke a sense of imperialism. It begins as soon as a visitor enters through the Meridian Gate, and builds as they walk through the open, massive courtyards and imposing palaces along the central axis pathway. The innumerable treasures within—sculpture, calligraphy, rare books, oracle bones, woodwork, paintings, ivory, and gold, beckon visitors even further into a world of intrigue and history. The treasures housed here are a collection known as the “Palace Museum.” Each of the dynasties that ruled China for 4,000 years had its own royal art collections. Each emperor would add to the collection he or she inherited from the previous ruler, all the while aiming to grow and outdo the predecessor’s art trove.
The Forbidden City is one of the hallmarks of Beijing and Chinese history and culture. If you do only one other thing besides seeing the Great Wall in Beijing, this should be it.
The Forbidden City was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the last two to rule China. Twenty-four emperors lived here at different times, over nearly 500 years. Construction began in 1406 by decree of Emperor Yongle and lasted for 15 years. Millions of Chinese workers used material shipped in from all over China to create a palace only slightly less grand than that of the Jade Emperor himself (the supreme ruler of heaven in Chinese folklore).
In 1644 with a military takeover and fire, the Qing dynasty seized control of the Forbidden City. Control of the palace switched hands several times during the Second Opium War and Boxer Rebellion before the Qing finally reoccupied it. The last Qing emperor, Puyi, was forced out by the new Republic of China government in 1924, and the Palace Museum opened to the public the following year.
The Forbidden City was built in the exact center of ancient Beijing, in the style of feudal Chinese architecture. A giant rectangle, it spans 152 acres and contains 980 buildings (most of them from the Qing dynasty era). Within the complex lies the Imperial City, and within that the Outer City and Inner City. The whole complex is surrounded by a 26-foot high wall with a moat below it.
The major palaces, halls, and pavilions within were built on a North-South axis, known as the “central axis.” Symmetry was a major consideration in planning and building, and all of the palaces were based on ideas taken from the Book of Changes, a traditional Chinese Confucian text championing the concept of union between humans and nature. In addition to rammed earth and marble, wood was one of the major elements used throughout, especially in the construction of the pavilions.
An old myth claims the Forbidden City has 9,999 rooms. The Chinese believed that the Jade Emperor had a heavenly palace containing 10,000 houses. Thus, to show the emperor’s god-like status, during construction, he ordered the number of rooms to be just under that of the Jade Emperor.
To further exemplify this connection with Heaven, the color yellow and the number nine was heavily utilized in the design as well. Yellow was considered to be a holy color (due to the Yellow River), reserved for royalty. This is why most of the Forbidden City’s roofs are painted yellow. Nine was thought to be a divine number in ancient China, as the word for “nine” and “forever” sound similar in Chinese. Look for groupings of nine throughout the complex, such as the nine doornails on each door or the Nine-Dragon Wall.
- Bus: 1, 4, 20, 52, 57, 101, 103, 109, or 111
- Subway stops: Tian'anmenxi or Tian'anmendong on the East-West line
Tips for Visiting
- Book your tickets in advance, as a limited number are sold each day.
- Plan to spend a minimum of three hours here. However, some visitors opt for two days to explore.
- Visit in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid crowds. Arrive by 8:10 a.m. to beat the tour groups, and wait 20 minutes until the gate opens.
- The last week of August is generally the lowest week of tourism at the Forbidden City. If possible, go then and stay well-hydrated in the heat.
- Arrive well-rested, with good walking shoes, sunscreen, water, and a hat. There is not much shade between buildings, and crowds can be massive, especially if you are walking along the central axis.
- If you have time, leave the central axis path to walk along the wall and see some aerial views.