Gu Gong The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City complex is half a millennium old -- the emperors lived here from 1420 to 1923, beginning long before Columbus sailed to the Americas and ending right before Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic -- and the heavy traffic is taking its toll.

It may have been forbidden once, but nowadays nearly seven million visitors a year cross the threshold of this imperial palace, home to an unbroken line of 24 Chinese emperors. Limiting access would be a ticklish proposition for the Chinese government, since most of the visitors are Chinese citizens, getting in touch with their heritage. Many sections may be closed when you visit, due to a massive renovation lasting through 2020.

Still, there's no one must-see section -- it's the scale and harmony of the whole that's so impressive, an irrefutable statement of Chinese imperial might. It's truly the most spectacular palace in China, an immense layout of red-walled buildings topped with glazed vermilion tile and ringed by a wide moat. It was originally built by an army of workers in only 14 years, although after various ransackings and fires, most of what you see today was built in the 17th century under the Qing dynasty. Notice the blue and green tiles trimming several of the up-curled roofs-the Qings were Manchus, and this color reminded them of their native grasslands.

You enter through the Meridian Gate, but before you go farther, check out the largest gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where Mao Tse Tung made his dramatic announcement founding the People's Republic in October 1949. (Look for the giant portrait of Mao hanging above the central door.) The Gate of Supreme Harmony leads into the perfectly symmetrical outer court, with its three grand ceremonial halls, where the emperor conducted official business. Then comes the inner court-the emperor's private residence-which was truly the Forbidden City; only the imperial family (plus a host of concubines and eunuchs) were allowed here. Three elegant palaces face onto the inner court, and at its rear is a marvelous garden of ancient conifers, rockeries, and pavilions.

If you can, venture beyond the central axis, where all the tourists mass, to the quiet maze of pavilions, gardens, courtyards, and theaters on the eastern side. Look for the Hall of Clocks (Zhongbiâo Guân) and the Zhenfei Jîng (Well of the Pearl Concubine), a narrow hole covered by a large circle of stone. Here, a 25-year-old favorite was stuffed down the well as the imperial family fled during the Boxer Rebellion; she'd dared to suggest that the emperor stay to face the mobs. Defying the emperor? Not a good idea.

Contact: North side of Tiananmen Square, across Cháng'an Dàjie, Beijing (tel. 86/10/6513-2255, ext.615).

Where to Stay: Grand Hyatt, Dong Chang'an Jie 1, Dongchéng District (tel. 86/10/8518-1234, Lusong Yuán Binguân, Bânchâng Hútòng 22, Dongchéng District (tel. 86/10/6404-0436;