Forbidden City (Palace Museum) in Beijing: Facts, History, Travel Tips

Palace Museum, in Beijing, museum housed in the main buildings of the former Imperial Palaces (see also Forbidden City). It exhibits valuable objects from Chinese history.

Palace Museum, in Beijing, museum housed in the main buildings of the former Imperial Palaces (see also Forbidden City). It exhibits valuable objects from Chinese history. Named one of China’s UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1987, the Forbidden City is probably ​China’s most well-known museum. Its famous red walls housed Ming and Qing emperors for nearly 500 years. Now the halls, gardens, pavilions and nearly one million treasures are visited and viewed by millions of tourists each year.

What You’ll See

Forbidden City (Palace Museum) in Beijing
PHOTO: ISTOCK (Forbidden City Palace Museum in Beijing

Don’t be misguided by the word “museum” in the official name. You will not be visiting anything like a standard museum where treasures are housed within glass boxes and visitors file along from room to room.

A Visit to the Palace Museum is more like a very long walk from one enormous plaza to another enormous plaza broken up by peeks into different official and residential buildings where the court and their minions ruled and lived. The Forbidden City is located in the heart of Beijing, directly north of ​Tiananmen Square.

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History of the Forbidden City

Forbidden city history
Forbidden city history

The Forbidden City was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the last two to rule China. Twenty-four emperors lived here at different times, over nearly 500 years. Construction began in 1406 by decree of Emperor Yongle and lasted for 15 years. Millions of Chinese workers used material shipped in from all over China to create a palace only slightly less grand than that of the Jade Emperor himself (the supreme ruler of heaven in Chinese folklore).

In 1644 with a military takeover and fire, the Qing dynasty seized control of the Forbidden City. Control of the palace switched hands several times during the Second Opium War and Boxer Rebellion before the Qing finally reoccupied it. The last Qing emperor, Puyi, was forced out by the new Republic of China government in 1924, and the Palace Museum opened to the public the following year.

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Architecture

Forbidden City Palace Museum
Forbidden City Palace Museum

The Forbidden City was built in the exact center of ancient Beijing, in the style of feudal Chinese architecture. A giant rectangle, it spans 152 acres and contains 980 buildings (most of them from the Qing dynasty era). Within the complex lies the Imperial City, and within that the Outer City and Inner City. The whole complex is surrounded by a 26-foot high wall with a moat below it.

The major palaces, halls, and pavilions within were built on a North-South axis, known as the “central axis.” Symmetry was a major consideration in planning and building, and all of the palaces were based on ideas taken from the Book of Changes, a traditional Chinese Confucian text championing the concept of union between humans and nature. In addition to rammed earth and marble, wood was one of the major elements used throughout, especially in the construction of the pavilions.

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Significant Aspects

Forbidden City Palace Museum
PHOTO: ISTOCK (Forbidden City)

An old myth claims the Forbidden City has 9,999 rooms. The Chinese believed that the Jade Emperor had a heavenly palace containing 10,000 houses. Thus, to show the emperor’s god-like status, during construction, he ordered the number of rooms to be just under that of the Jade Emperor.

To further exemplify this connection with Heaven, the color yellow and the number nine was heavily utilized in the design as well. Yellow was considered to be a holy color (due to the Yellow River), reserved for royalty. This is why most of the Forbidden City’s roofs are painted yellow. Nine was thought to be a divine number in ancient China, as the word for “nine” and “forever” sound similar in Chinese. Look for groupings of nine throughout the complex, such as the nine doornails on each door or the Nine-Dragon Wall.

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Features

Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
PHOTO: iStock (Forbidden City) Museum
  • Surrounded by 10m high walls and a 52m wide moat
  • Measures 961m from north to south and 753k from east to west, covering 720,000 square meters
  • Each side has one gate. Tourists today enter through the southern Meridian Gate (Wu men) and exit through the northern Gate of Spiritual Valor (Shenwu men).
  • 70 halls and palaces, totaling 9,999 rooms comprise the palace which spans a north-south axis
  • Multiple galleries displaying portions of the imperial treasure trove

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Services

Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
PHOTO: istock (The Palace Museum)
  • Audio guides in multiple languages are available at the Meridian Gate (Wu men) and the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shenwu men). Rental requires a deposit which you get back when you turn in our audio guide at the exit.
  • Bag check at Meridian Gate, Wumen (but you’ll have to go all the way back to get it at the end of your trip).
  • Gift shops, bookstores, snacks (there used to be a Starbucks, located in the southeastern corner of the Hall of Preserving Harmony but it’s been replaced by something local)
  • Information Center in the Archery Pavilion (Jian Ting)

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Essential Information

  • Public buses that stop at the Forbidden City: 1, 4, 20, 52, 57, 101, 103, 109, 111
  • Metro stops: Tian’anmenxi or Tian’anmendong on the East-West line
  • Opening hours: Daily all year (closes slightly earlier in winter)
  • Recommended time for visit: at least three hours.

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Forbidden City Visiting Tips

Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
PHOTO: istock (The Palace Museum Forbidden City In Beijing)
  • Visitors enter the Forbidden City from Tian’anmen Square through the big red wall with Mao’s portrait hung on it. This is the southern end of the palace and you’ll walk the length of the compound to the northern end. It’s not a round-trip visit but rather a long exploration through the compound. Consider that when meeting people or checking bags. If you need to get back to Tian’anmen Square after your visit, it will be another long walk (or short cab ride) back.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and think about sun protection. The walk itself, with nominal stops to look at buildings, will probably take you 2-3 hours. There is little opportunity to sit down and rest and very little shade.
  • Consider going on a guided tour. You’ll get a lot more out of your experience if you know what all the buildings were for and what happened in them. Otherwise, it’s just a series of similar buildings separated by long walks through big plazas.
  • If you haven’t come with a guided tour, consider an audio tour. Even though you’ll feel like you’re passing all opportunities to rent one of these, hold out for the Roger Moore narrated audio guide. It’s worth it.
  • As you enter through the Meridian Gate, be on the lookout for shops selling a lovely map of the Imperial Palace. If you would like a nice souvenir, grab this now. Unlike 99% of other souvenirs in China, where you see the same things time after time, you will only ever see this map in the shop that is located at the beginning of the tour of the Forbidden City.

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