Travel bucket list idea:
Built in the early 15th century, the Forbidden City is a vast palace complex of regal halls, ceremonial courtyards, gardens and living quarters, that served as the home of Chinese emperors and their households for 500 years. Behind its vermilion walls was a closed-off world of antique ritual and intrigue, where the ‘Son of Heaven’ was tended to by an army of servants, eunuchs and concubines.
Today the palace complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s largest collection of heritage wooden buildings. Officially called the Palace Museum, many of the rooms have been given over to museum exhibits of imperial treasures, from priceless ceramics to Qing-dynasty furniture.
Its central location, historic importance and architectural beauty make this Beijing’s most popular site of interest for tourists.
Among the hundreds of buildings in the Forbidden City, the central Hall of Supreme Harmony is impossible to miss – it’s the largest building in the complex! Inside is the Dragon Throne used for the most important state occasions. The Hall sits on a triple-tiered terrace that mimics the Chinese character for a king.
Mao Zedong’s portrait hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, right at the entrance to the Forbidden City, on the spot where he declared the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Getting there & doing it
Ticket sales are online only, and with daily visitor numbers capped it is important to buy them in advance. Unfortunately, the official ticket website is only in Chinese, but there is a workaround – you can book your tickets using Trip.com, the popular hotels and flight booking website. Prices are the same as at the official ticket website. Your passport – effectively your ticket – will be scanned at the front entrance.
Official signage at the Forbidden City is limited, and many captions are in Chinese only. Exploring with a tour guide will help shed light on palace life and its colourful occupants. Local guides mill about the entrance, but expert-led organised tours (see recommendations below) are better and will also ensure you get a ticket.
Note – the Forbidden City is separated from Tiananmen Square by the Dongchangan Dajie thoroughfare – an underground walkway connects these two attractions.
When to do it
It’s open all year round, Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Mondays.
Weekday early mornings or late afternoons are best, before or after the tourist hordes descend. Much of your time will be spent outdoors, so ideally visit in spring or autumn.
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The great civilisations of the past have left a legacy of constructions that still stand out and inspire. Built without the wonders of 20th-century technology, many are also monumental feats of engineering; others offer such grace and beauty, that they’ll literally take your breath away.