A travel guide to the Forbidden City – home of the Chinese emperors and now a museum.
Have you heard of the Forbidden City of the Chinese Emperors? A city-like palace where no male, but the Emperor himself, was allowed after nightfall? So huge, that it’s impossible to see either end – no matter where you stand?
The Forbidden City in Beijing was, for more than 400 years, the political, cultural and spiritual center of Asia. During centuries upon centuries, the Chinese emperors exerted their absolute power of China and all dependent states from here. Like so many others I’ve seen the movie “The Last Emperor”. Of course, I have seen Mao’s portrait hanging high up on the walls of the entrance to the Forbidden City – maybe the most iconic image of China. The whole concept of a city secluded behind high walls and forbidden to all males thrilled me from the early days of my childhood. It took, however, more than 30 years till my dream of seeing this UNESCO World Heritage site finally became true.
I could list a lot of excuses for not visiting earlier here, none of them truly valid, but instead, I’ll try to express how far off my expectations were from the real thing. I knew the Forbidden City was big – 180 acres to be precise. The Vatican is 110 acres. Are they similar in size? Not at all! Where the Vatican is intricate, the Forbidden City is mind-blowing. A megalomaniac human effort that, despite having spent a fair amount of time there, still escapes me! A day, I want to be quite honest with you, is not enough to explore its cultural riches.
Also in terms of walk length, I could name anything even faintly similar. I’ve been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg home to the Russian tsars. Now art galleries stretching an estimated 24 Kilometers fill up the palace – yet even that cannot compare to the Forbidden City.
Entering the Forbidden City in Beijing
With a palace as big as the Forbidden City you might assume there are a couple of entrances and exits. There is, however, just one way in open for tourists and that starts on the Tiananmen Square. Basically, you walk through right below Mao’s benevolent smile (well one arch to the right to be precise – wouldn’t want to invite blasphemy).
Like so many others on that day, that is where I started my tour. Once through, a sweeping square opened up in front of me. A square so big some European palaces would easily fit in. It involuntarily made me think: “Finally I reached my goal, finally I am inside the Forbidden City”. But god was I wrong! In the distance, a couple of hundred meters away, I saw a big palace looming over a bright red wall. A blue device below the roof, I was quite certain, indicated that this must be the Hall of Utmost Celestial Harmony or some such name. In fact, I would learn later, this was just the smallest of gatehouses before the actual entrance – just to give you the first sense of scale!
So there I was, thinking what not and gaping like the worst first-time traveler. Cursing Beijing’s constantly overcast smog-sky, I moved on gripping my camera tightly. After this first gate, another huge courtyard followed. This one was yet bigger and home to the tourist office and the ticket booths of the Forbidden City. Being one of the few white (and blond on top of that) tourists, a loudly fought contest among the local tourist guides started over me: “Sir. Private tour – only for you! Sir, Sir….”. I more or less ignored them as best as I could and got my lone ticket. Much to my disbelief, there were no real queues or any prolonged wait.
Along with my ticket for 60 Yuan, I got a map of the Forbidden City. It told me like I will tell you now, that the gate ahead with its three tunneling arches was the actual entrance. It is called the Meridian Gate, but that helps little in the way of explaining the need for an entrance that big. Then again thoughts like that will lead you nowhere inside the Forbidden City. You just have to accept that everything is bigger than anywhere else in the world.
Truth be told, that really could be said about the rest of China. If you doubt me, then you should check out this China itinerary to get a good impression what greatness you can expect.
Through the Meridian Gate into the actual Forbidden City
Behind the Meridian Gate, the once forbidden grounds of the Imperial Palace start in earnest. Due to big walls blocking the view to the sides, you will not notice crossing the huge moat surrounding the whole Forbidden City. Behind the gate follows another square. This one is yet bigger and intersected by a canal called the “Inner Golden Water River”. An average of 40.000 thousand tourists visit the Palace Museum, how the Forbidden City is officially called, each day and already the thick stream of humanity dwindled down to almost a trickle. The main paths are still lively but glancing to the sides little to no traffic can be seen. Quite astonishing, if you think about it, and another indication of how big the Forbidden City really is!
Five Bridges reach across the artificial River and invite me to explore the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Visiting the Forbidden City you will soon notice that every structure here is Gate of this and Harmony of that. While you will probably not be able to remember everything, much like I, it still serves as a constant reminder that the Chinese Emperors reached for more when building the Forbidden City. It was not only the worldly center but also the spiritual center of an empire spanning the whole Asian continent.
Before the Gate of Supreme Harmony rise 2 giant bronze lions. A couple of meters high, these well-aged fellows certainly serve as impressive guardians to the splendor beyond. For a time, the audio guide informs me, the morning audience of the emperor used to be held here. Impressed, and already struggling to take in all details, I walk onwards.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony
Through the awnings of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, I spot the culmination of Chinese palatial architecture: The Hall of Supreme Harmony. Said to be the largest wooden structure in China, this is where the Emperors of the Qing and Ming Dynasty held their coronation ceremonies, weddings, and investitures!
Before the Hall of Supreme Harmony, another courtyard stretches – seemingly to the horizon and back. All sense of scale, if not proportion, must have eluded the Chinese emperors when constructing the Forbidden City. The sheer size of the open space in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony will make you feel smaller than an ant. Quite possibly that was its sole intent.
A huge golden throne hides within. I must admit, though, that I had expected something more spectacular. While all walls and pillars are richly decorated, the throne itself fails to impress me. In a way, it really boils down to an ornate seat raised on a dais with some faded tapestries spread around it. Speaking solely for myself, it is the architecture of the Forbidden City, not its interiors, creating the unique atmosphere of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The tour through the Forbidden City continues
The Hall of Supreme Harmony might be the biggest structure that you will see the Forbidden City, but it marks by no means the end of your tour. In fact, it only highlights the beginning. Following the spacious throne room yet more courtyards, gates, and palaces present themselves to me on the central axis. I reached the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony next. Those two Halls stand in close proximity and mark the end of the Outer Court.
The Inner Court was where the true power seat of the Chinese Emperors was located. All halls, gates, and palaces you have seen so far on my pictures were mostly for ceremonial purposes only – the living and working rooms of the Qing Emperors were yet more secluded. They do not, however, look very much different. They may me smaller, but they are still on the central axis and they still keep to the pattern courtyard, palace, gate, courtyard, palace. In fact, the only difference I could make out were some golden shrines flanking the palaces of the Inner Court.
Also quite lovely were the many structures marking the corners of each courtyard – terraced tiles and sweeping rooftops everywhere you look!
Glancing to the sides of the wide open courtyards you will pass by more impressive structures and gates. Like the Gate of Auspicious Harmony seen on the pictures above. If you ask me, these Emperors should have decided for a bit more variation in their naming. It’s really hard to keep track!
The Hall of Heavenly Purity (not Harmony for a change!) will mark the center of the inner court. Here is where the emperor had his quarters – separated from the empress. As you can see, the only real difference between the other palaces and gates lies in a number of bays and height. The audio guide made sure to list some other aspects, I almost instantly forgot.
That is not to say, in fact, that the Forbidden City is boring. I at least very much enjoyed walking along the north-south axis! Besides, after the Inner Court follows the Imperial Garden. Inside this garden, you might have guessed, lies another palace (Hall of Imperial Peace). Flanking the Hall are two lovely pavilions. Partially hidden behind high cedars, I’d like to believe these were tea houses. The names are quite lovely as well: Hall of Myriad Springtimes and Pavilion of One Thousand Autumns – makes you wonder what happened to summer and winter!
With this ceremonial garden ends the kilometer long central axis of the Forbidden City. You will then pass the inner wall and enter the outer palace grounds. Along that will be located tons of souvenir shops and quite a lot of restaurants as well.
The end of the central axis of the Forbidden City
Now you have basically two choices. You can either call it a day, end your stay at the Forbidden City a day, and move on to the Jingshan Park. The Jingshan Park is a huge artificial hill, said to be constructed entirely from the soil excavated when digging the moat around the Forbidden City. From here you will have a lovely view over the whole Palace grounds and Beijing. Know then, that you have not seen a third of the Forbidden City by then and you will not be able to enter again.
Instead, you can turn to the right or the left and follow the maze of the red walls. Every single door will open into another smaller courtyard. In days past these were the living Quarters of concubines, princes and other members of the Imperial Household.
These days a Museum hides in every one of them. Gold, jade, porcelain – the collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing are stunning and worth their own visit. For the sake of brevity, I shall only tell you, that another entire day will be needed to explore these enticing museums.
Another Inner Court inside the Forbidden City: The Palace of Tranquil Longevity
To the west of the central axis hides, still within the Forbidden City, another Inner Court. Built by an emperor as a retreat after his retirement, you will enter the Palace of Tranquil Longevity through more gates – yet on a slightly smaller scale.
To give you some sense of time – by now I was roughly 6 hours walking inside the Forbidden City. So it almost struck me as a physical blow when I noticed that here another day of exploration waited for me.
The Palace of Tranquil Longevity is most famous for its Nine-Dragon Screen. To be fair, this tile-glazed mural is huge but really could not impress me with its details. It looks pretty, but so does outstanding craftsmanship.
I ended my tour here and went back to my hotel (I stayed at the Aman Resort at the Summer Palace). It was slowly getting darker by now. I was, to say the least, quite tired already. My feet, sore from the cumbersome cobbles of the Forbidden City, mechanically prodded onwards, but my mind was already clogged with too much megalomaniac input.Looking at the big keeps located in the corners of the outer wall of the Forbidden City, I realize that I still have not even seen half of it.
Last thoughts on the Forbidden City in Beijing
Did the Forbidden City hold true to its promise of a once in a lifetime experience? Quite frankly it surpassed my expectations. It is hard to comprehend how big it really is – even on your second visit. I’ve seen the Vatican, I’ve seen Versailles, I’ve seen the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, I’ve seen the Pyramids and I have seen probably every other imperial piece of architecture around the world – nothing can compare! In all honesty, I can say – everyone should visit the Forbidden City in Beijing at least once!
To me at least it seemed as if the little dragon gargoyles on each roof were whispering: “One day you shall return and explore the rest of us!”
So how do you feel about the Forbidden City? Have you been there already or plan to go? Tell me your thoughts in the comment section below!