Beijing is a fascinating city where tradition and progress often merge together blending the lines of the past, present, and future.
In the center of Beijing lies the Forbidden City, an impressive imperial complex that was once the epicenter of ancient China for over 500 years surviving wars, fires, destruction and the reign of 24 different emperors.
Although the last dynasty in China ended at the turn of the 20th century, the Forbidden Palace still stands strong keeping China’s history alive and accessible to visitors from all over the world.
Here is our guide covering everything you need to know to visit the Forbidden City on your own, or as part of a tour group:
- Why Is It Called The Forbidden City
- Where Is The Forbidden City Located
- How To Get There
- Entrance Fees
- Opening Hours
- Tours Of The Forbidden City
- What To See On Your Own
- My Visit
- Other Tips
Why Is It Called The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is an old Chinese imperial complex surrounded by giant defense walls that in ancient times prevented “commoners” and enemies from entering it. Only select government officials, emperor, his wives, and palace staff were allowed inside this complex earning it the name “Forbidden City”.
For centuries most of the important political decisions that shaped China took place within the Forbidden City walls, yet most Chinese people had never stepped inside this city nor did they know what the emperor looked like.
The imperial governing system existed in China for over 2000 years. The Forbidden City was built to serve as the capital city for the last 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Even as the modern city grew around it in the 20th century, the Forbidden Palace remained cemented in its traditional values while new streets, neighborhoods, and buildings expanded outside of its walls.
Eventually, the imperial system collapsed and the last emperor left the Forbidden Palace in 1924 after the Chinese government transitioned away from the imperial system into a socialist republic. Soon after it was decided that Forbidden Palace would be open to the general public as the Palace Museum.
Where Is The Forbidden City Located
The Forbidden City is located in the center of Beijing. The site’s central location and ease of accessibility make it super easy for locals and foreigners to visit it alike.
The Forbidden City can receive up to 80,000 visitors a day and over 16 million visitors annually making it one of the most popular landmarks in the world.
The layout of the Forbidden City is shaped like a symmetrical rectangle with the entrance gate located in the south and the exit gate in the north. The entrance gate is called the Meridian gate and it is located right next to Tiananmen Square.
How To Get There
The Forbidden City is one of the easiest attractions to visit in Beijing. Lots of public transportation options lead there but the metro is by far the easiest way to get around Beijing. The Forbidden City is located right next to the Metro line 1, exit Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East.
The first time I took the metro in Beijing it seemed pretty intimidating, but once you do it, it’s actually quite easy.
Pretty much everything in Beijing is connected by the underground metro system. These metros run every few minutes so getting anywhere by metro compared to cabs or buses is often much faster, especially during rush hour.
Before you leave your hotel, look up the Forbidden City on Apple Maps and select “Transit”. Apple Maps will tell you exactly where the closest metro station is located, which metro to take, which exit to get off on and where to walk after.
Once you get to the metro station you will need to go through a quick security check and buy a metro ticket. It usually costs a few Yuan (less than $1) and can be purchased from an automated ticket booth. You will need to swipe your ticket through a gate when entering the metro and exiting – so make sure to hold on to your ticket until the end of the trip.
From metro Line 1, it’s a short walk to the Meridian entrance gate into the Forbidden City.
Getting There: Metro Line 1, exit Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East.
The entrance ticket for the Forbidden City costs 60 Yuan ($8 USD) per person in the busy season from April to October.
The entrance ticket costs 40 Yuan ($4 USD) in the slow season from November to March.
Entrance tickets can be purchased right outside of the Forbidden City entrance gate. Cash is the most convenient way to pay for entrance tickets as a tourist so I always recommend to bring cash to pay for small things like this.
Depending on the season you might have to wait in a line to get the entrance ticket especially if you go between 11 am – 2 pm at the peak visiting time.
Make sure to bring along your passport on your visit to the Forbidden City. Many of the major attractions in China will require to see your passport in order to issue you a ticket.
Summer Ticket: 60 Yuan ($8 USD)
Winter Ticket: 40 Yuan ($4 USD)
In the busy season (April to October) the Forbidden City is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm.
In the slower season (November to March) the Forbidden City is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
This is by far the busiest attraction in Beijing and it gets super crowded, especially in the summer. I highly recommend going as early as possible, preferably right after it opens.
If you go in the summer, a big thing to consider is the weather. Weather in the summer and early fall in Beijing can get extremely hot especially in the middle of the day. If you plan to visit the Forbidden City Palace Museum in the summer, make sure to bring along plenty of water and a hat to protect you from the sun.
It takes about 3-4 hours to walk through the Forbidden City and see most of the major highlights. All of the traffic within this imperial complex travels from south to north and you can’t exactly leave quickly if you need to, so make sure to set aside plenty of time to see it.
Summer Opening Hours: 8:30 am to 5 pm
Winter Opening Hours: 8:30 am to 4:30 pm
Tours Of The Forbidden City
I’ve been to the Forbidden City twice, once on my own and once with a guided tour. Whether you’re thinking about getting a guide or going on your own, you’re guaranteed a memorable experience either way.
Usually, I like going to places on my own because I can set my own pace and I tend to take a lot of stops for photos. Thankfully the layout of the Forbidden City is pretty straight forward traveling from south to north along the central axis so getting around on your own is pretty easy.
There are quite a few information plaques throughout the Forbidden City in English explaining more about its history. You can also rent an audio guide that will tell you more about each of the major attractions as you walk through this complex.
The second time I visited the Forbidden City I decided to sign up with a tour company. I received a lot of recommendations for the Beijing Postcards tour “A Crash Course To The Forbidden City” from local expats that live in Beijing.
A guided tour is a great option if you want to learn more about the history of the Forbidden City or if it’s your first time in Beijing and visiting a place on your own just feels a bit intimidating (believe me, we’ve all been there).
Beijing Postcards tour was super fun and they took care of everything for us. They set a meeting point, bought our tickets, took us to all the highlights and told us a lot of interesting stories about imperial China and life in the Forbidden City.
The Beijing Postcards company usually has a tour of the Forbidden Palace once a week. If none of these tours fall within your visiting dates, Get Your Guide is another great option that has tours almost daily.
The main difference between these two groups is that the Beijing Postcards tour company is run by historians that studied ancient Chinese history and they will dive into detailed stories that you won’t likely hear anywhere else. The Get Your Guide tours are usually put together by locals and the information shared on these tours is a bit more general but still very informative.
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What To See On Your Own
The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex and consists of almost 1000 buildings. If you’re planning a visit there, you should set aside at least 3-4 hours to explore this city grounds.
It’s impossible to see everything in a single visit but there are certainly a few highlights and must-see spots that you should check out on your visit, especially if you plan to go on your own.
The Forbidden City imperial palace is divided into a southern part and northern part. The southern part is where most of the temples and praying halls are located. This is where the emperor would conduct ceremonial and political matters.
The northern part is where residential housing is located. This is where the emperor, empress, concubines, palace maids, servants, and eunuchs would live.
There is only one entrance gate going into the Forbidden City that is located right after Tiananmen Square. All visitors have to enter through the Meridian Gate and typically make their way north while stopping at these attractions:
- The Golden Water Bridges
- Hall Of Supreme Harmony
- Hall Of Preserving Harmony
- Palace Of Heavenly Purity
- Imperial Garden
After touring the Forbidden City I highly recommend taking 30 minutes to visit the Jingshan Park across the street that offers incredible panoramic views of Beijing. This was actually one of my favorite spots in Beijing and you can even see the entire Forbidden City from up top.
On my first visit, I took the traditional route and visited all of the above-listed highlights from the south entrance going north.
On my second visit, I took a tour with the Beijing Postcards tour group and we ventured into different parts of the Forbidden City that often get overlooked by visitors.
On my tour with Beijing Postcards, we started at the Zhongshan Park before entering the palace complex. Zhongshan Park carries a lot of historical significance because it was the first public space where women and men could interact after the imperial ruling ended in 1912. Before men and women at the Forbidden Palace were usually separated and now they had a common space to meet, talk and get to know each other. This park also has some of the original trees that were planted when the Forbidden City was first built.
Next, we entered the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate but instead of going straight we took a right turn and walked up to the top of the Forbidden City defense wall. This wall kept all commoners and enemies out of the Forbidden City and was once guarded by 15,000 soldiers.
We walked on top of the wall passing a few elaborate watch towers and spent some time in the History Archives room that holds a lot of artifacts from ancient China. After we backtracked to the Meridian gate and continued our visit along the center of the complex.
The Meridian Gate is the biggest and most elaborate gate in this complex, but Forbidden City has multiple gates within it separating the different areas. These gates consist of the main passageway that only the emperor was allowed to use and smaller doors on the side for everyone else to pass through.
The entire Forbidden City was built with outstanding craftsmanship and detail. It is said that it took over 1 million workers to build this city and the buildings within it. Forbidden City was entirely built out of wood in a traditional Chinese style without using any nails to withstand earthquakes. But because this complex was built out of wood it was very prone to fires that spread fast and were extremely destructive.
After entering the main plaza we stopped by the Golden Water Bridges, a man-made river inside the palace grounds made of detailed marble statues and decorations.
At the end of the main courtyard is the Hall Of Supreme Harmony where the emperor dealt with his imperial and political responsibilities. During ancient times the emperor was always super paranoid of being assassinated so this hall is filled with giant incense cauldrons that were used to burn incense and create smoke so people couldn’t clearly see where the emperor was sitting. Usually, people were not allowed to address or look at the emperor and strict punishment like prison or beating would be given to those who disobeyed.
Next, we passed the Hall Of Preserving Harmony that was used to hold contests for selecting new government officials. Then we headed into the northern part of the city that was used as the residential quarters.
The northern part of the Forbidden City is where the emperor, his wife, and mistresses resided along with maids and male servants called eunuchs. The women that lived in Forbidden Palace were not allowed to leave the northern section and in ancient times it was an honor and common practice to have women’s feet bound so they couldn’t walk far. Ancient China had so many unique traditions and rules that we may not completely understand these days, but are really fascinating to visitors.
Our tour guides also told us a lot of interesting stories about eunuchs. They were the only men allowed in the Forbidden City beside the guards. Essentially these eunuchs were brought to the Forbidden City as boys by poor families, castrated and turned into loyal male servants for the emperor (totally Game Of Throne vibes, am I right?!). The emperor would trust and rely on the eunuchs so much that some of them became more powerful than government officials or males from rich families.
One of the biggest buildings in the northern section is the Palace Of Heavenly Purity where the emperor resided and took care of state affairs.
Overall the emperor’s main quarters inside were kept simple compared to the rest of the palace. It was believed that simple housing would keep the emperor grounded and focused on imperial matters. Interestingly, the emperor was also often kept in a semi-hungry state, despite the fact that the Forbidden City palace had over 300 cooks. This was all done so the emperor wouldn’t be distracted and kept his mind clear.
All the way north inside the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden. This garden is filled with unique trees and rock formations and was meant to serve as a quiet place for the emperor to get away and relax. This imperial garden is very beautiful but not quite as impressive as the one at the Summer Palace.
From here we took the north gate exit and walked to the Jingshan Park across the street.
Jingshan Park is separate from The Forbidden City but I highly recommend taking 30 extra minutes to explore this park. A quick hike to the top of the Jingshan Park will provide you with one of the best panoramic views in Beijing especially overlooking the Forbidden City. This viewpoint was my favorite in all of Beijing and I even returned another morning to shoot a sunrise here.
Overall my tour with the Beijing Postcards group was super entertaining and it was clear how much the guides enjoyed what they do. The tour was 4 hours long and ended at 1 pm, just in time for lunch. This tour is great for those who want to learn more about the Forbidden City’s history and hear some fascinating stories about what life at this palace was like.
Before you head out to the Forbidden City, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The Forbidden City imperial complex is enormously big so you’ll be doing A LOT of walking. Make sure to wear comfy clothing and shoes since many of the surfaces at this palace are uneven.
- If you go in the summer, note that the weather can get really hot and sunny. I highly recommend bringing extra water, a hat, and sunscreen.
- Touring the Forbidden City takes 3-4 hours so bring along snacks or lunch.
- I always bring along a portable charger in case my phone battery dies, especially when I’m gone all day long. You don’t want to get stuck in Beijing without being able to look up directions or a place to go eat at after.
- Whenever I visit any of the major attractions in China I always bring along my passport. You will need to show your passport at most major attractions and historical landmarks in order to get a ticket.
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for landscape and building shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Wasabi Power battery charger and extra battery pack
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
Looking for other interesting things to do around Beijing? Don’t forget to check out our other Beijing posts below:
- Guide To Visiting Summer Palace In Beijing
- Tips For Visiting Temple Of Heaven In Beijing
- Guide To Hiking & Camping On The Great Wall Of China
Planning your trip to China and looking for a place to stay in Beijing? Browse all the top Beijing hotel deals below!
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