Beijing’s Forbidden City is perhaps the most famous museum in China, and only second to the Great Wall as a tourist destination. For over 500 years, the 10 meters high red walls have housed the Qing and Ming emperors up until 1911. The Forbidden City was opened for public visitation in 1925, and it was made a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987. Today, the halls, pavilions, gardens, and over one million treasures are visited by millions of tourists every year.
The Forbidden City is also known as the Palace Museum, and is located at the heart of Beijing, north of Tiananmen Square. But don’t be misguided by “museum” in its official name. The site is nothing like a standard museum where the treasures are housed inside glass enclosures and visitors are filed along from room to room. At the palace museum, a visit is similar to taking a very long walk along enormous plazas broken up by peeks into different residential and official buildings where the court and their minions lived and ruled.
The Forbidden City was constructed from 1406 to1430 by the third Ming Emperor, Yongle, as he moved from his capital Nanjing to Beijing. Exactly 24 Qing and Ming emperors lived and ruled from the palace successively until 1911 after the Qing Dynasty collapsed. The last emperor, Puyi lived inside the inner parts of the courtyard until 1924 when he was expelled. Afterwards, a committee took control of the palace, organized the millions of treasures, and opened the Museum to the public on 10th October 1925.
What You’ll See
• The Museum is surrounded by 10m walls with a 52m wide moat
• Each of the sides has a gate. Tourists have the option to enter through the Wu men (southern meridian gate) and exiting through the Shenwu men (northern gate of Spiritual Valor)
• The site covers 720,000 square meters, measuring 753m from east to west and 961m from north to south
• There are multiple galleries that display portions of the imperial treasure trove.
• There are 70 halls and palaces, which total 9,999 rooms. These comprise the palace that spans a north-south axis.
• Audio guides are available in multiple languages at the meridian gate and at the gate of divine prowess. Renting requires leaving a deposit, which you’ll get back once you turn in the audio guide as you exit.
• Snacks, Gift shops, bookstores are available. There used to be a Starbucks on the southeastern corner of the Hall of preserving Harmony, though it has now been replaced by a local restaurant.
• There’s a bag check at the Wu men (meridian gate). However, you will have to go all the way back to get it at the end of your trip.
• The Archery Pavilion has an Information Centre (Jian Ting)
Tips for Visitors
• Entrance tickets: In the summer they’re 60rmb and 40rmb in winter. In case you’re severely short on funds, you can choose to enter the first courtyard for a taster before you reach the ticketing office. Other exhibits like the Tian An Men Gate or the treasury where you stand at a balcony above chairman Mao’s portrait require additional tickets, which usually go for 10 to 15rmb each.
• Bag security checks and x-rays are done at the gates, though they generally seemed more rigorous for the local Chinese visitors than for overseas tourists. In some areas, bags have to be left in the cloakroom.
• Most areas do have signs with the historical information written in Chinese and English, but such areas are a bit sparse. As such, it’s worth hiring a guide or renting out an audio guide. You can also take a guide book with you.
• Audio guides come in 40 different languages, and are usually small boxes you can put around your neck. The audio guide will cost you around 40rmb, plus a refundable 100rmb deposit. The audio books are available from the tour service at the Gate of Divine Might and the Meridian Gate.
• Finding a human tour guide is fairly easy, but it’s recommended that you do a brief chat first to find out if they are proficient enough in your language.
• Don’t forget that you won’t be the only people there. On the busy holidays, the number of visitors are limited to 80,000 a day. In a year, about 8 million people come to visit. So if you want to avoid the crowds, go early or late. Gates usually open at 8.30 am and the last visitors admitted at 4.00pm.
• Bring your own water and drinks. Inside the courtyards, drinks are massively expensive. In the first courtyard, a small bottle of water will cost you 7rmb (instead of the usual 2rmb) and the price will rise up to 15rmb further inside. A not-so-good milkshake or coffee will go for about 35rmb.
• Dress comfortably. Since there’s not much shade available inside, be sure to dress cool, and take a parasol or sunscreen. Sensible shoes will be also worthwhile, as you may be walking for 3 or more hours. Be prepared to marvel at the people wandering around these cobbled courtyards in 4 inch heels.
• In case the going gets too much, the sides usually have lots of cooler rooms, such as the Treasury. Since many people walk from the front to back through the 961m straight middle, these areas are less visited and you can get a brief respite from the crowds.
• The subway is the easiest way to get there. Taxis are not allowed to stop outside the southern gate along the Chang’an Avenue. If you take a taxi, get dropped off slightly to the side of Tiananmen Square, and walk through the underpass.
• As you exit the Forbidden City, skip the stationary taxis and touts right outside the north gate. These usually charge a hefty waiting fee. Walk right or left, essentially towards the sun. This way, you’ll get a photo of the 52m wide moat and the turrents. Go round the first corner, and stand in the shade while you hail a cab.