The universally accepted symbol for the length and grandeur of Chinese civilization is undoubtedly the Great Wall, but the Forbidden City is more immediately impressive. A 720,000-sq.-m (7,750,016-sq.-ft.) complex of red-walled buildings and pavilions topped by a sea of glazed vermilion tile, it dwarfs nearby Tian'an Men Square and is by far the largest and most intricate imperial palace in China. The palace receives more visitors than any other attraction in the country (over seven million a year, the government says), and has been praised in Western travel literature ever since the first Europeans laid eyes on it in the late 1500s. Yet despite the flood of superlatives and exaggerated statistics that inevitably go into its description, it is impervious to an excess of hype, and it is large and compelling enough to draw repeat visits from even the most jaded travelers. Make more time for it than you think you'll need.

The palace, most commonly referred to in Chinese as Gu Gong (Former Palace), is on the north side of Tian'an Men Square across Chang'an Dajie (tel. 010/6513-2255; It is best approached on foot or via metro (Tian'an Men Dong), as taxis are not allowed to stop in front. The palace is open daily from 8:30am to 5pm during summer and from 8:30am to 4:30pm in winter; last tickets are sold an hour before the doors close. Regular admission (men piao) in summer costs ¥60, dropping to ¥40 in winter. Various exhibition halls and gardens inside the palace charge additional fees, usually ¥10. All-inclusive tickets (lian piao) had been discontinued at press time, perhaps in an effort to increase revenues, but it's always possible these will be reinstated. Tip: If you have a little more time, it is highly recommended that you approach the entrance at Wu Men (Meridian Gate) via Tai Miao to the east, and avoid the gauntlet of tiresome touts and tacky souvenir stalls.

Ticket counters are marked on either side as you approach. Audio tours in several languages (¥40 plus ¥100 deposit) are available at the gate itself, through the door to the right. Those looking to spend more money can hire "English"-speaking tour guides on the other side of the gate (¥200 for a 1-hr. tour, ¥300 for 1 1/2 hr., ¥400 for 2 1/2 hr.). The tour-guide booth also provides wheelchairs and strollers free of charge, with a ¥500 deposit. Note: Only the central route through the palace is wheelchair-accessible, and steeply so.

Background & Layout

Sourcing of materials for the original buildings began in 1406, during the reign of the Yongle emperor, and construction was completed in 1420. Much of it was designed by a eunuch from Annam (now Vietnam), Nguyen An, but without improvements to the Grand Canal, construction would have been impossible -- timber came from as far away as Sichuan, and logs took up to 4 years to reach the capital. The Yuan palace was demolished to make way for the Forbidden City, but the lakes created during the Jin (1122-1215) were retained and expanded. Between 1420 and 1923, the palace was home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The last of these was Aisin-Gioro Puyi, who was forced to abdicate in 1912 but remained in the palace until 1924.

The Forbidden City is arranged along a north-south meridian, aligned on the Pole Star. The Qing court was unimpressed when the barbarians designated Greenwich Royal Observatory as the source of the prime meridian in 1885; they believed the Imperial Way marked the center of the temporal world. Major halls open to the south. Farthest south and in the center is the symmetrical outer court, dominated by immense ceremonial halls where the emperor conducted official business. Beyond the outer court and surrounding it on both sides is the inner court, a series of smaller buildings and gardens that served as living quarters. During the Ming, only eunuchs were allowed to pass between the two courts, enhancing their power.

The palace has been ransacked and parts destroyed by fire several times over the centuries, so most of the existing buildings date from the Qing rather than the Ming. The original complex was said to contain 9,999 rooms, testament to the Chinese love of the number nine, and also to an unusual counting method. The square space between columns is counted as a room (jian), so the largest building, Taihe Dian, counts as 55 rooms. Using the Western method of counting, there are now 980 rooms. Only half of the complex is open to visitors (expected to increase to 70% after repairs are completed in 2020; see "The Big Makeover," below), but this still leaves plenty to see.

The Entrance Gates

Taihe Men (Gate of Great Harmony) -- Immediately inside the Meridian Gate entrance is a wide courtyard with five marble bridges spanning the Jin He (Golden River), followed by Taihe Men. Ming emperors came here to consult with their ministers; this function moved farther inside under the Qing.

Wu Men (Meridian Gate) -- Built in 1420 and last restored in 1801, Wu Men is the actual entrance to the Forbidden City. The emperor would sit atop the gate to receive prisoners of war, flanked by a battalion of imperial guards clad in full battle armor. The prisoners, clad in chains and red cloth, knelt in the courtyard while charges were read before the emperor confirmed they would be taken to the marketplace for execution. The order would be repeated first by two, then four, then eight officers, until the entire battalion was thundering the edict in unison. The watchtowers extending out either side of the gate (que) are an expression of imperial power. This style was prevalent during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220); this is the only example from the Ming and Qing. The trees leading up to this gate are recent additions. Originally no trees were planted along the Imperial Way, stretching over 2km (1 1/4 miles) from Da Qing Men (now demolished) to Qianqing Men (Gate of Heavenly Purity) in the Inner Court, as according to the "five processes" (wu xing), wood (green) subdues earth (yellow), the element associated with the emperor (hence the yellow glazed tiles).

The Outer Court (Qian Chao)

Baohe Dian (Hall of Preserving Harmony) -- This last hall, supported by only a few columns, is where the highest level of imperial examinations was held until the exams were suspended in 1901 and abolished in 1905. To the southwest, you can spy Wenyuan Ge (the former Imperial Archive), easily recognized by its black-tiled roof with green trim. (Black is associated with water, which, it was hoped, would protect the building from fire.) At the rear is an impressive carved marble slab weighing about 180 tons; during the reign of the Wanli emperor (1573-1620), 20,000 men spent 28 days dragging it to this position from Fangshan, roughly 50km (31 miles) to the southwest.

The Inner Court (Nei Ting)

During the Ming, only the emperor, his family, his concubines, and the palace eunuchs (who numbered 1,500 at the end of the Qing dynasty) were allowed in this section. It begins with the Qianqing Men (Gate of Heavenly Purity), directly north of the Baohe Dian, fronted by a magnificent pair of bronze lions and flanked by a Ba Zi Yingbi (a screen wall in the shape of the character for "eight"), both warning nonroyals not to stray inside. Beyond are three palaces designed to mirror the three halls of the Outer Court.

The first of these is the Qianqing Gong (Palace of Heavenly Purity), where the emperors lived until Yongzheng decided to move to the western side of the palace in the 1720s. Beyond is Jiaotai Dian (Hall of Union), containing the throne of the empress and 25 boxes that once contained the Qing imperial seals. A considerable expansion on eight seals used during the Qin dynasty, the number 25 was chosen because it is the sum of all single-digit odd numbers. Next is the more interesting Kunning Gong (Palace of Earthly Tranquillity), a Manchu-style bedchamber where a nervous Puyi was expected to spend his wedding night before he fled to more comfortable rooms elsewhere.

At the rear of the inner court is the elaborate Yu Huayuan (Imperial Garden), a marvelous scattering of ancient conifers, rockeries, and pavilions, largely unchanged since it was built in the Ming dynasty. The crags allowed court ladies, who spent their lives inside the Inner Court, a glimpse of the world outside. Puyi's British tutor, Reginald Fleming Johnston, lived in the Yangxin Zhai, the first building on the west side of the garden (now a tea shop).

From behind the mountain, you can exit the palace through the Shenwu Men (Gate of Martial Spirit) and continue on to Jing Shan and/or Bei Hai Park. Those with time to spare, however, should take the opportunity to explore less-visited sections on either side of the central path.

Western Axis

Most of this area is in a state of heavy disrepair, but a few restored buildings are open to visitors. Most notable among these is the Yangxin Dian (Hall of Mental Cultivation), southwest of the Imperial Garden. The reviled Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled China for much of the late Qing period, made decisions on behalf of her infant nephew, the Guangxu emperor, from behind a screen in the east room. This is also where emperors lived after Yongzheng moved out of the Qianqing Gong.

Eastern Axis

This side tends to be peaceful and quiet even when other sections are crowded. Entrance costs ¥10 and requires purchase of useless overshoe slippers, which quickly disintegrate (¥2). The most convenient ticket booth is 5 minutes' walk southwest of the Qianqing Men, opposite Jiulong Bi (Nine Dragon Screen), a 3.5m-high (11-ft.) wall covered in striking glazed-tile dragons depicted frolicking above a frothing sea, built to protect the Qianlong emperor from prying eyes and malevolent spirits (that are able to move only in straight lines). The Qianlong emperor (reign 1736-95) abdicated at the age of 85, and this section was built for his retirement, although he never really moved in, continuing to "mentor" his son while living in the Yangxin Dian, a practice later adopted by Empress Dowager Cixi, who also partially took up residence here in 1894.

Zhenbao Guan (Hall of Jewelry), just north of the ticket booth, has all 25 of the Qing imperial seals, ornate swords, and bejeweled minipagodas -- evidence that the Qing emperors were devoted to Tibetan Buddhism. One of the highlights is the secluded Ningshou Gong Huayuan ★★★, where the Qianlong emperor was meant to spend his retirement. Water was directed along a snakelike trough carved in the floor of the main pavilion. A cup of wine would be floated down the miniature stream, and the person nearest wherever it stopped would have to compose a poem, or drink the wine. The Qianlong emperor, whose personal compendium of verse ran to a modest 50,000 poems, was seldom short of words.

East of the garden is the Changyin Ge, sometimes called Cixi's Theater, an elaborate green-tiled three-tiered structure with trapdoors and hidden passageways to allow movement between stages. Farther north is sumptuous Leshou Tang, built entirely from sandalwood, where the Qianlong emperor would read, surrounded by poems and paintings composed by loyal ministers set into the walls and framed by blue cloisonné tablets. Cixi slept in the room to the west. The following hall, Yihe Xuan, is not a good place to bring friends from Mongolia or Xinjiang. The west wall has an essay justifying the Qianlong emperor's decision to colonize the latter, while the east wall has a poem celebrating the invasion of Mongolia. In the far northeastern corner is Zhen Fei Jing (Well of the Pearl Concubine), a surprisingly narrow hole covered by a large circle of stone. The Pearl Concubine, one of the Guangxu emperor's favorites, was 25 when Cixi had her stuffed down the well by a eunuch as they were fleeing in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. According to most accounts, Cixi was miffed at the girl's insistence that Guangxu stay and take responsibility for the imperial family's support of the Boxers.

Also worth seeing is the Hall of Clocks (Zhongbiao Guan), a collection of timepieces, many of them gifts to the emperors from European envoys. Entrance to the exhibit costs ¥10.

The Big Makeover

An immense $75-million renovation of the Forbidden City, the largest in 90 years, will be completed in two phases (the first by 2008, the second by 2020). Work began on halls and gardens in the closed western sections of the palace in 2002. Effort was concentrated on opening the Wuying Dian (Hall of Valiance and Heroism) in the southwest corner of the palace; the Jianfu Gong Huayuan (Garden of the Palace of Building Happiness) in the northwest; and then the Cining Huayuan (Garden of Love and Tranquillity) next to the Taihe Dian. Wuying Dian, formerly the site of the Imperial printing press, should be open when you arrive, displaying a collection of Buddhist sutras, palace records, and calligraphy. Also slated to reopen is Jianfu Gong Huayuan, which has undergone an ambitious restoration as the entire section was devastated by fire in 1923. Cining Gong (the Palace of Compassion and Tranquillity) should be open by early 2010 and will display a collection of Buddhist sculptures. Shoukang Gong (the Palace of Longevity and Good Health) will be under restoration for all of 2010. At press time, officials were still uncertain about when Shoukang Gong would reopen to the public.

On the other side of the palace, within the northern section of the Ningshou Gong Huayuan, a remarkable building is undergoing restoration with assistance from the World Cultural Heritage Foundation. Qianlong commissioned the European Jesuit painters in his employ to create large-scale trompe l'oeil paintings, which were used both in the Forbidden City and in the Yuan Ming Yuan. Juanqin Zhai, an elaborately constructed private opera house, houses the best remaining examples of these paintings, including a stunning image of a wisteria trellis, almost certainly painted by Italian master Castiglione.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.