This post was last updated on June 13th, 2020 at 02:59 pm
The Forbidden City is one of the most famous highlights of Beijing. The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 followed by the Temple of Heaven. In China, the Forbidden City is also referred to as Gugong (Imperial Palace) or Zijin Cheng, formerly known as Zi Jin Cheng.
It is the best-preserved building from China and also the largest palace complex in the world. The city was the place from which the emperors ruled the Ming and the Qing Dynasty. The Forbidden City has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1987.
- The Forbidden City is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the low season (November 1 – March 31) and from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the high season (April 1 – October 31). The entrance gates are open up to 50 minutes before closing time. The forbidden city is closed on Mondays.
- Entry to the Forbidden City costs 50 Chinese Yuan (US$7) in the low season (November 1 – March 31) and 60 Chinese Yuan (US$8.50) in the high season (April 1 – October 31). Within the Forbidden City are two more attractions, the Clock Exhibition and the Imperial Treasures, each requiring a separate 10 Chinese Yuan (US$1.40) ticket. These can be purchased at the entrances to the respective attractions.
- The Forbidden City in Mandarin Chinese: 故宫. You can show it to a taxi driver or you can practice your Mandarin Chinese.
Map of the Forbidden City
Below you can find a map of the Forbidden City. Most people will enter the Imperial Palace at the bottom of this map, near Tiananmen Square. In this article, we will describe all of these highlights in detail for you.
A. Meridian gate
B. Hall of Military Eminence
C. Hall of Literary Glory
D. Gate of Supreme Harmony
E. Hall of Supreme Harmony
F. Hall of Central Harmony
G. Hall of Preserving Harmony
H. Gate of Heavenly Purity
I. Palace of Heavenly Purity
J. Hall of Union
K. Palace of Earthly Tranquility
L. Hall of Mental Cultivation
M. Clock and Watch Gallery
N. Palace of Tranquil Longevity
O. Imperial Garden
P. Gate of Divine Might
You will find countless buildings in the Forbidden City, each with its own story and style. There are almost too many to mention. It is best to admire these beautiful buildings in real life instead of looking at pictures. You can easily spend a day wandering around squares, temples, houses, and residences. You can choose to explore the Forbidden City with a guide (or audio guide). You can also do well without it. Whatever you do; follow the map above and visit the following points!
Mandarin Chinese: 午门 / Wumén
The Meridian Gate is the entrance to the Forbidden City. As the name suggests, the 37-meter Meridian Gate is the tallest and most imposing of all gates. From this gate, the Chinese emperor inspected his troops before they went on a warpath and looked at the prisoners of war after they returned. The gate was also used to pronounce imperial edicts. Furthermore, in the pavilions on the top of the protruding parts of the gate were bells and drums to announce that the Emperor would leave the Forbidden City.
There are three entrances in the center of the gate. The middle one was almost exclusive to the emperor himself. The Empress was only allowed to use the gate once in her life, on her wedding day. The three best students of the triennial Chinese state exams were also allowed to use the gate after the emperor received them.
The smaller gate on the left was for the imperial family and the gate on the right for the ministers. The two gates at the ends of the Meridian Gate were intended for junior officials. The common people were not allowed to enter at all, which is why the palace is called the Forbidden City.
There’s a park within the Forbidden City adjacent to the square behind the Meridian Gate. After the Meridian Gate, you enter a large square with five beautifully decorated bridges over a small stream, or the Golden Water Flow, which flows through the Forbidden City from northwest to southeast. The middle bridge was again exclusively for the emperor himself, the other for family, ministers, and junior officials.
You can go in different directions on this square. On the left and right you have two gates facing each other, each with a landmark behind it, the Hall of Martial Valor, and the Hall of Literary Glory.
Hall of Military Eminence
Mandarin Chinese: 武英殿 / Wuyīngdiàn
In the square after the Meridian Gate, you can see the Gate of Prosperous Harmony (熙和门 / Xīhémen) on the left. Follow the road and signs to the Painting Gallery until you reach the Hall of Military Eminence. After the construction of the Forbidden City was completed at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the emperors initially performed much of their work in this building.
Later they moved this to the Hall of Literary Glory on the other side of the square and religious ceremonies were performed in the Hall of Military Eminence. Later, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the hall was used as a printing house and bookshop. Today, the hall houses paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
It is only open if the temperature and humidity cannot affect the paintings, which in practice means that the exhibition is open every September, October, and early November.
Hall of Literary Glory
Mandarin Chinese: 文化殿 / Wénhuàdiàn
On the right side of the square, after passing the Meridian Gate, you’ll see the Hall of Literary Glory which is a building complex similar to the Hall of Military Eminence. During the Ming Dynasty, the Crown Prince was educated here on Chinese literature, and during the subsequent Qing Dynasty, it turned into a place where the emperors, along with the country’s major intellectuals, exchanged their findings on Classical Chinese literature.
Today, the Hall of Literary Glory hosts an exhibition of pottery that is freely accessible and open all year round. Behind the Hall of Military Eminence on the west side, and behind the Hall of Literary Glory on the east side, are two more gateways to the Forbidden City. These are the Gate of Western Flowering (西华门 / Xīhuámén） and the Gate of Eastern Flowering (东华门 / Dōnghuámén), but they are not open to the public. From here it is also possible to view the corner towers of the palace wall.
Gate of Supreme Harmony
Mandarin Chinese: 太和门 / Tàihémén
Back on the square behind the Meridian Gate with the five marble bridges, you will find another large gate on the north side, the Gate of Supreme Harmony. This is the main entrance to the part of the Forbidden City where ceremonies and the reception of important guests took place. The weddings of the emperors were also celebrated here.
The gate has three entrances, one in the middle for the emperor himself, the other for the family, and the ministers. On either side of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, there are two smaller gates, used by those who were lower in rank. In front of the gate, you will find two bronze lions, several of which you will find in the Forbidden City.
The lion on the right always has his paw on a globe, indicating that imperial power would extend all over the world. The lioness on the left has her paw on a cub, symbolizing a fertile imperial family. After passing the Gate of Supreme Harmony, you will arrive at the largest square within the Forbidden City, containing the three largest and most impressive buildings. From south to north these are the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Mandarin Chinese: 太和殿 / Tàihédiàn
The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest and most lavishly decorated of the three halls, and it has the largest imperial throne. It was here, sitting on his throne, where the Chinese emperor received important guests from all over, and even outside, the empire. The appointment of new emperors, the emperor’s birthday, Chinese New Year, and ceremonies in honor of the generals of the Chinese army were also celebrated here exuberantly.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the tallest building in the Forbidden City, is built on a high marble platform and surrounded by bronze ships from all eighteen provinces known to China at the time.
The open entrance also contains bronze statues of a crane and a turtle, which would prove that the Chinese empire would exist forever. Inside, the hall is richly decorated with many dragons that also symbolized imperial power. Although it is not possible to enter the hall, you can view the golden dragon throne from a distance. Another attraction is the huge marble bas-relief at the steps to the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
This is an extension of the Imperial Road, the marble path that runs through the center of the Forbidden City and even part of it through Beijing, which only the Emperor himself could enter. The carved relief in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony and a similar sculpture on the back of Hall of Preserving Harmony depict dragons.
There’s a very famous story about these sculptures. They were prepared far away from Beijing and in the winter, they were shoved to the Forbidden City over a specially constructed ice road. In total, 15,000 workers were involved in the making of these two reliefs.
Hall of Central Harmony
Mandarin Chinese: 中和殿 / Zhōnghédiàn
Of the three large imperial halls, the hall in the middle, the Hall of Central Harmony, is the smallest. It is a fairly empty hall with only a large throne in the middle. The hall was intended for the emperor to prepare for major ceremonies in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Even if he was tired or no longer interested in the ceremonies, he retired to this hall. In addition, the emperor prepared his visits to the out-of-town temples here.
Hall of Preserving Harmony
Mandarin Chinese: 保和殿 / Baohédiàn
The northernmost hall on the same marble platform in the center of the square is the Hall of Preserving Harmony. This hall resembles the Hall of Supreme Harmony but is slightly smaller. Just like in the other two halls there is also a throne here. It was used to practice for the great ceremonies and the emperor was also able to change clothes here. So it was basically the imperial dressing room!
During the later Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), this hall was also used for banquets, for example during the Chinese New Year, and the best students had to take their Chinese state exams here.
The roofs of many other buildings in the Forbidden City are clearly visible from the platform on which these three halls are located. You will notice that almost all roofs are golden yellow in color; the color of the emperor. Behind the wall, east of the platform, you will see the Southern Three Buildings (南三所 / Nánsānsuo) whose roofs are green. This complex, which is otherwise closed to the public, was the residence of the Crown Prince.
Together with the three large halls described above, the Hall of Military Eminence and the Hall of Literary were part of what was called the outer court within the Forbidden City. This was where the interaction between the emperor and the outside world took place. The northern and more built-up part of the Forbidden City, the inner courtyard, was where the emperor was usually found.
Gate of Heavenly Purity
Mandarin Chinese: 乾清门 / Qiánqīngmen
Since the Forbidden City is filled with gates, it is not surprising that there is another gate at the front of the courtyard, in this case, the Gate of Heavenly Purity. The gate itself is like any other, again with three entrances for the emperor, for the emperor’s family, and for the ministers, but some minor details do distinguish it from the others.
Unlike the other bronze lions in the palace, the two guarding the Gate of Heavenly Purity have their ears hanging down. This was to remind the hundreds of women at the Emperor’s disposal, even in the inner part of the palace, that they should not interfere in state affairs.
Furthermore, the huge water barrels that you can see here, unlike most others, are gold plated. The purpose of these more than three hundred barrels scattered throughout the Forbidden City was to have water available in the event of a fire. If you go through this gate, you will arrive at the inner part of the imperial palace.
You can also choose to turn left or right in front of the Gate of Heavenly Purity and first visit the other parts of the Forbidden City, where the main attractions are the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Clock and Watch Gallery, the Palace of Tranquil Longevity and the Imperial Garden. Most of the other buildings in this part of the Forbidden City are small courtyards where the Emperor lived with his family and concubines.
Today, many of these courtyards are used as exhibitions of more than a million surviving works of art. But first, we continue behind the Gate of Heavenly Purity. Just like there are three large halls on a marble platform on the largest square of the outer court of the Forbidden City, there are also three buildings on a marble platform on the largest square of the courtyard, resembling those in the outer court. These are the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union, and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility.
Palace of Heavenly Purity
Mandarin Chinese: 乾清宫 / Qiánqīnggōng
From the Gate of Heavenly Purity, you can reach the Palace of Heavenly Purity via an elevated marble road. This building resembles a smaller version of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the outer court, and during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and early Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), this was the actual residence of the Emperor. He had several bedrooms here with a total of 27 beds at his disposal, of which he randomly chose one to sleep on each night.
It was also here where the Emperor spoke to his ministers, read, stamped, and signed documents. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Emperor Yongzheng moved his sleeping place elsewhere in the Forbidden City, after which this palace became the meeting room for the Emperor’s Grand Council. The emperor also had a throne in this building.
An interesting detail is a placard above the throne with the text 正大光明 (zhèngdà guāngmíng) on it, which means Justice and Honor. A small box was hidden behind this placard, containing a letter in which the emperor named one of his sons to succeed him. If this name matched the name on a letter that the emperor always carried, the son became the next emperor of China.
Hall of Union
Mandarin Chinese: 交泰殿 / Jiāotàidiàn
The Hall of Union is a smaller version of the Hall of Central Harmony in the outer court. This hall had a number of functions. During the Chinese empire, just like in modern China, many documents were stamped, and the most important 25 stamps of the emperor were kept here. In addition, the time for the Forbidden City was kept in this hall by means of a nearly six-meter-high mechanical clock and several water clocks. In addition, this hall was also the location where the empress was allowed to celebrate her birthday.
Palace of Earthly Tranquility
Mandarin Chinese: 坤宁宫 / Kūnnínggōng
The Palace of Earthly Tranquility is a smaller version of the Hall of Conservative Harmony. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), this was the residence of the Empress, where the Emperor could visit her. After the emperor moved to other halls within the Forbidden City in the early eighteenth century, the empress moved as well, and with the exception of a few rooms for their wedding night, this small palace took on a religious function.
Hall of Mental Cultivation
Mandarin Chinese: 养心殿 / Yang xīndiàn
To the left of the Gate of Heavenly Purity, so before entering the square with the three halls above, there’s another large complex of buildings called the Hall of Mental Cultivation. In Chinese, it has a slightly less full-bodied name. From the early eighteenth century, this was the actual residence of the emperor.
This was because Emperor Yongzhen did not want to live in the same building from which Emperor Kangxi, his father, had ruled China for 60 years after taking the throne. It was also in this hall where, in 1912 after the Chinese Empire fell, the declaration that the imperial family abdicated, was signed.
Clock and Watch Gallery
Mandarin Chinese: 钟表馆 / Zhōngbiaoguan
On the right side of the Gate of Heavenly Purity, you will find many halls with exhibitions of pottery, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and many other works of art. It would be too much to describe them all here, but perhaps one of the most interesting is an exhibition with hundreds of clocks and watches.
Many clocks are made in China, but the Chinese emperor also received many as gifts from European countries over the centuries. Some clocks are real technical masterpieces. The exhibition can be found in what was previously the Hall for Ancestry Worship (奉先殿 / Fèngxiāndiàn).
The entrance to the clock and watch exhibition is on the north side of the fairly large square that you will find when you turn right before the Gate of Heavenly Purity. It is also one of the two attractions within the Forbidden City for which you have to pay a separate entrance fee of 10 Chinese Yuan (US1.40).
Palace of Tranquil Longevity
Mandarin Chinese: 宁寿宫 / Níngshòugōng
Immediately to the east of the Clock and Watch Gallery, you’ll see another interesting building complex, namely the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. Built by Emperor Qianlong in the eighteenth century, it is a smaller version of the Forbidden City. It has its own city wall, gates, an outer court with large halls, and an inner court with smaller living areas, temples, and gardens.
Opposite the main entrance on the south side, where you will come out when you cross the square south of the Clock and Watch Gallery exhibition, you will find the Screen of Nine Dragons (九龙壁 / Jiulóngbì). This is an almost 30-meter long wall that consists of 270 glazed tiles that together represent nine dragons. The dragon was the symbol of the emperor in ancient China.
Once inside the Palace of Tranquil Longevity, you will first see a few halls with many paintings. There is also a large theater where many performances were given, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century when regent Cixi was in power. In addition, there is a small garden with some temples. Behind this part of the small palace, there are three halls containing the Imperial Treasures.
These are utensils made of gold, silver, or other precious metals, the imperial crown, precious clothing, sculptures, and much more. This is the other attraction within the Forbidden City for which you have to pay a separate entrance fee of 10 Chinese Yuan (US$1.40).
Mandarin Chinese: 御花园 / Yùhuāyuán
Near the north exit of the Forbidden City is the last major attraction, the Imperial Garden. Although it’s very small compared to the gardens of the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace, for example, the gardeners of the Forbidden City have done their utmost to achieve as much variation as possible on a tiny surface. The result is well worth a look.
In total there are almost twenty small pavilions, ancient trees and each corner of the garden represents one of the four seasons. If you can find a free seat somewhere, it’s a good location to take a break from all that walking through the Forbidden City.
Gate of Divine Might
Mandarin Chinese: 神武门 / Shénwumén
Although less imposing than the many gates in the southern part of the Forbidden City, the Gate of Divine Might is still an interesting gate to see. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) this exit was still called the Gate of the Black Turtle, but since its Chinese pronunciation is similar to the birth name of Emperor Kangxi, the name was changed in the seventeenth century.
It forms the north exit of the Imperial Palace, after which you can either take a special bus back to the main entrance, or walk further to see the other nearby attractions such as Jingshan Park, Beihai Park, or even further to the Hutongs, Houhai, and the Drum and Bell Towers.
History of the Forbidden City
The history of the Forbidden City goes back more than 600 years to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A still young emperor called Yongle, after taking power in 1402, decided that the capital of the Chinese empire should be moved from Nanjing in the south to Beijing in the north. In Chinese, the names of the two cities also mean Southern Capital and Northern Capital.
Before that, Beijing had also served as the capital of the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and the Mongol empire at the same time. However, the remains of the city did not impress Emperor Yongle, so he commissioned a huge city wall, new Drum and Bell Towers, a large temple, and an enormous imperial palace; the Forbidden City.
Building the Forbidden City was a daunting task that took a total of 14 years to complete. The wood for the pillars of the nearly a thousand buildings came all the way from the tropical jungles in the south of China. Most tiles, stones, and marble were prepared in a quarry seventy kilometers south of Beijing. These were then pushed over the ice in the winter and rolled over tree trunks in the summer.
The tiles inside the main halls were cooked for months in special ovens in Suzhou, southern China, for their smooth texture and golden yellow color. All in all, it was a daunting task and the history books show that it involved more than a million workers and more than a hundred thousand craftsmen.
As with many other historical buildings in Beijing, symbolism played an important role in the Forbidden City. For example, the actual name of the Forbidden City is the Purple Forbidden City (紫禁城 / Zijinchéng). This refers to the color of the North Star, which was the center of the abode of the Emperor of the Gods who ruled all heavenly things.
The Chinese emperor, the representative of heaven on earth, lived in a purple city from which he ruled all worldly things. This is also why the walls of the Forbidden City are painted purple (although everyone would call it red nowadays). The five elementary colors of ancient Chinese philosophy are also reflected in the Forbidden City, namely in the white marble, the black stones, the yellow roofs, the red pillars, and the blue sky (although with today’s air pollution this is better-called brown-gray ish).
Furthermore, all buildings line an imaginary axis from north to south, always facing south and facing away from the aggressive barbarians, savage spirits, and bitter cold that visited China from the north every so often. Finally, the Forbidden City also integrated with the rest of Beijing, with the Imperial City circling the palace, the system of city walls and temples, and later even the tombs of the emperors as an extension of the Forbidden City.
Once completed in 1420, the gigantic palace functioned as the capital of the Chinese empire for more than 500 years and was home to a total of 24 Chinese emperors. Initially, this was under the Ming Dynasty, but after they were driven out by a peasant uprising in 1644, the Manchus, who had an empire northeast of China, took power and formed the Qing Dynasty.
Although the Manchus took over almost all of the existing Chinese culture and administrative structures, there are still some traces of this seizure of power in the Forbidden City. For example, on many signs, the names of buildings and gates within the palace are in both Chinese and Manchu, and also the names themselves have often been changed into something with peace or harmony in it, indicating the harmony between the Chinese and Manchus.
During the heyday of the Qing Dynasty, the Forbidden City was inhabited by about ten thousand Chinese. The most famous of these were perhaps the eunuchs, the thousands of officials whose penis and testicles were cut off because the Emperor wanted to be sure that his offspring would be conceived by himself. The concubines were another well-known group because, in addition to the empress, some emperors kept hundreds of women for his own entertainment.
Like every dynasty, the Qing dynasty also collapsed. This happened in 1912. Puyi, the last emperor of China and only six years old at the time, had his mother sign the statement that the imperial family abdicated, but the agreement included that the emperor and his entourage would continue to live in the Forbidden City.
This was until 1924, after which the palace turned into a museum that it still is today. However, many of the imperial treasures were lost during the twentieth century. Initially by evil eunuchs who smuggled them out of the palace, then during the Japanese occupation and the subsequent Chinese Civil War, and finally during the period of communism after leader Mao Zedong ordered to destroy all old things.
It has only been a few years since great efforts have been made to restore the palace to the state it was during the empire. A restoration project was started in 2005 and should be completed in 2020.
Fun Fact: Never Look the Emperor in His Eyes
A special fact is that the Forbidden City was built high at the time. The reason for this was that the people should never look the emperor in the eye. For the same reason, the emperor was always carried around on a chair. No one except the emperor, his family, and the emperor’s servants were allowed into the city.
As a result, ten meters high walls were built around the complex, with a gate on each side. There is also a six-kilometer-long canal around the city to keep visitors at a distance.
How to Get to the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is easy to reach. It is located in the middle of the city near Tiananmen Square. Every taxi driver will know it, but keep in mind that no taxis are allowed to stop in front of the entrance so you will have to walk a bit. The Forbidden City can also be reached by metro. Take line 1 to Tiananmen East Station and then take exit A, or go to Tiananmen West Station on the same line and then take exit B.
You will easily recognize the Gate of Heavenly Peace with the great portrait of Mao Zedong. You go through this gate and the next. You will then arrive at an elongated square with an even larger gate at the end. This is the entrance to the Forbidden City.
There is also a rear entrance, but it is slightly more challenging to reach. If you leave the Forbidden City at the back, remember that there is no metro station here and that you will have to find your way back by taxi, bus, or on foot. If you want to go back to Tiananmen Square, where the main entrance is and where you can retake the metro, a special bus, line 1 (专 1 线), runs around the Forbidden City from the back entrance.
If you want to go to Wangfujing, the busy shopping street where many hotels are located, you can take another bus; line 2 (专2路).
Best Time to Visit the Forbidden City
Of course, you always want good weather when you’re traveling. That is why it is useful to check the current forecast for The Forbidden City in advance so as not to be overtaken by bad weather conditions. Do you want to know more about the climate and weather in The Forbidden City? Below you will find the average temperature and rainfall per month, so you know whether you should count on rain or sunshine and whether it is cold or warm. This way you are always prepared for a trip and you can avoid the rainy season.
The average temperature and rainfall in the Forbidden City:
Early morning is the best time to explore the Forbidden City. Large groups of tourists usually arrive at the end of the morning. The ticket office where you can buy entrance tickets closes daily at 4 p.m. (between November and March it closes at 3.30 p.m.).
Traveling to The Forbidden City is considered safe. Just to be sure you should always be careful, especially with the on-going Coronavirus crisis.
The Forbidden City is very busy during the following Chinese holidays:
- January 29th to 31st – Chinese New Year.
- October 1st – National Day.