As the seat of power for hundreds of years, Beijing is full of examples of imperial extravagance and architectural design. In no place are these on better display than the Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum or gu gong in Chinese.
This immense complex, with its seemingly endless red and gold buildings, sits at the heart of Beijing and was the home of the emperors and their households, as well as the center of Chinese government, for almost 500 years, from 1420 of the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
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The Palace Museum is massive; it covers an area of approximately 150,000 square meters and is surrounded by a moat 3,800 meters long and 52 meters wide. The complex consists of an impressive 980 buildings, many of which are now open to the public.
Travelers must enter the Palace Museum at the South Gate. Note that before you can enter the Tiananmen area and walk through to the entrance of the Palace Museum, you will need to queue for a security check. You will need your passport to get a ticket and enter the Palace Museum. Starting from October 2, 2017, all visitors to the Forbidden City must book their tickets online. Find out how to buy Forbidden City tickets online here.
Despite its immense size, most visitors stick to the Forbidden City's central axis from the south entrance to the north exit. This route takes around two hours and allows you to take in all of the most magnificent gates and palaces, including the Meridian Gate (wumen), the Gate of Supreme Harmony (taihemen), the Hall of Supreme Harmony (taihedian), the Gate of Heavenly Purity (qianqingmen), the Palace of Heavenly Purity (qianqinggong), the Imperial Garden (yuhuayuan) and the Gate of Divine Prowess (shenwumen). The central axis usually attracts the most visitors and is crowded during peak hours.
Since a lot of the Forbidden City's many halls and palaces may look similar, we've provided a tourist map below to get you acquainted with some of its key sights. Simply click on the icons along the main south-north axis for more information. The complex also features good signage in both English and Chinese, and renting an audio guide will also help explain what you're seeing. If you want to make the most of your visit, we strongly recommend hiring a licensed guide to give you a thorough and informative tour of all the Forbidden City's top sights.
If you have more time and plan on taking any detours from the central axis, we recommend visiting the northeastern corner of the complex, called the Tranquil Longevity Sector, where the Empress Dowager and the many imperial concubines resided. Here, you'll find a well-preserved nine-dragon wall, one of just three of these ancient decorations that remain in China, as well as numerous atmospheric halls and gardens and an impressive, three-story opera house.
Another worthwhile stop is the impressive Hall of Clocks, which features lavish and intricate timepieces that were gifted to Qing emperors by various European leaders and diplomats from the 17th century on. This interesting museum (which costs 10 RMB extra to enter) can be reached by veering off to the right just after walking through the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
Depending on how in-depth you want to go, it can take up to a full day to explore all of the accessible areas in the Forbidden City. If you have a half day or full day to spend exploring the Forbidden City, you can find recommended tour routes and maps at the Palace Museum website.
If you want to beat the crowds, avoid going to the Forbidden City on weekends and Chinese Holidays, and plan your visit for the early morning or the afternoon. Learn more about how to avoid the crowds when traveling in China here.
Bring plenty of water if you are visiting during the summer or early autumn, as it gets rather hot and there is little shade inside. There are places to buy drinks and snacks inside the Palace Museum but expect touristy prices. The gift shops sell good souvenirs at fixed prices. Toilets are adequate and mainly Chinese style.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as you can spend hours just walking around the complex on sometimes uneven stone courtyards.
After touring the Palace Museum, visitors must exit from the North or East Gate. There is no subway station near these two gates, so you will need to opt for a bus or taxi.
Jingshan Park is just opposite the North Gate; we recommend climbing the hill (Coal Hill) inside the park so you can get a bird's-eye view of the Forbidden City after your visit.
There is an accessible tour route for wheelchair users on the eastern side of the central courtyards. You can find the map of the wheelchair friendly route here. Following this route, visitors in wheelchairs can access all of the most magnificent palaces in the Forbidden City. Accessible toilets are also available along this route. There are map and signs showing the accessible route, and you can always ask the staff for additional information or help when you are not sure.
Beyond this accessible route, it would be difficult for wheelchair users to explore other parts of the Forbidden City, since the rest of the complex is full of stairs and high thresholds.
Limited public wheelchairs are also available for rental at no charge at the service center. A deposit of 500 CNY is required and will be returned when you return the wheelchair at the exit.
Opening hours: April-October: 8:30am-5:00pm, last entry at 4:10pm / November-March: 8:30am-4:30pm, last entry at 3:40pm. Closed on Mondays.
Entrance fee: April-October, 60 CNY; November-March, 40 CNY
Ticket for Treasure Gallery/Hall of Clocks: 10 CNY
Average time for this activity: 2 hours