Sometimes the biggest surprises are under your nose. Just east of Tian'an Men stands the only example of an imperial ancestral hall (zu miao) remaining in China; here are grand imperial edifices in a sleepy, atmospheric setting. Laid out in accordance with the ancient principle from the Rites of Zhou, "ancestors to the left, land to the right" (zuo zu you she), the wooden tablets (paiwei) that represented the ancestors of the imperial house were housed to the left of the Forbidden City (the land was offered its due at the Altar of Land and Grain, housed in Zhongshan Gongyuan to the west). Beyond the Halberd Gate (Ji Men), untouched since it was constructed in 1420, the three main buildings are lined up on a central axis. Sacrifices to the ancestors took place in the southernmost building (Xiang Dian). This is one of only four buildings in Beijing to stand on a three-tiered platform, a hint that it was the most sacred site in imperial Beijing. Mao renamed it the Workers' Cultural Palace (Laodong Renmin Wenhua Gong), and the wooden tablets were pilfered during the Cultural Revolution. The workers have moved on, and the complex is largely deserted. Once you reach the moat at the northern end of the complex, turn left. Immediately opposite is Zhongshan Gongyuan; to the right stands Wu Men and the Forbidden City. Infinitely preferable to running the souvenir vendor gauntlet north from Tian'an Men, entering the Forbidden City from Tai Miao may be the best ¥2 you'll ever spend.
East of Tian'an Men, Dong Cheng Qu. tel. 010/6525-2189. June-Sept 6:30am-8:30pm; Oct-May 7am-8:30pm. Admission ¥2; admission to bell exhibit ¥10. Metro: Tian'an Men Dong.