Beijing – Forbidden City

Forbidden City is not only the top attraction in Beijing and China but also the world’s most visited site. Imperial City was the domain of 24 Ming and Qing dynasty emperors before becoming the Palace Museum in 1925. Within 180 acres are nearly 1,000 historical and gorgeous structures. Use this travel guide to enjoy your self-guided tour.

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1 Description of Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Forbidden City is the must see attraction in Beijing. Constructed in the early 15th century, this former home to 24 emperors showcases almost 1,000 exquisite examples of Chinese palatial architecture. From 1420 until 1912, you could not enter the property without permission from the emperor. But after the end of the Qing dynasty, the 180 acre complex opened in 1925 as the Palace Museum. Now this UNESCO World Heritage Site welcomes about 16 million visitors a year, making it the world’s number one tourist attraction. One beautiful example of why Forbidden City is so popular is this view of the Gate of Supreme Harmony with marble balustrades reflecting on Inner Golden Water River. On the right are the Gate of Manifest Virtue (Zhaode men) and the Lofty Pavilion (Chong lou)

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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2 Tips for Visiting Forbidden City in Beijing, China

This travel guide describes the Forbidden City including its history and major structures. Photos are aligned in order of your self-guided walking tour. Be aware China does not allow access to Google-based websites like Encircle Photos. So print this guide and map (using the printer icon) in advance of your trip. The entrance is at Meridian Gate and not the Jingshan Front Street address listed in most Internet sites (the latter is the exit). Although the Palace Museum admits up to 80,000 people daily, you can miss out if you show up in late afternoon during peak tourism season or after 3:30 on any day. Arriving early in the morning (opens at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday) is the best way to avoid the crowds and savor the experience for at least three to four hours. The Forbidden City is encircled by a moat. This tree-lined promenade along Beichizi Street and Donghuamen Road means you are only a few steps away from entering the Forbidden City.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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3 Southeast Corner Tower at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

The moat around the Forbidden City is a rectangle measuring over 2.3 miles long and 20 feet deep. Protecting the four corners are towers called Jiao lou. This is the Southwest Corner Tower on your approach to Meridian Gate. The original wooden defenses were constructed within three months during 1420. The intricate, 72 ridge roofline is patterned after the Pavilion of Prince Teng, constructed in Nanchang, China in 653 AD. Tengwang Pavilion is one of the Three Great Towers of southern China.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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4 Meridian Gate at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Located behind Tiananmen Square is the southern and main entrance to Forbidden City. The name Meridian Gate is derived from the word for the longitudinal circle around the earth. Emperors believed they were the Sons of Heaven and therefore should live at the center of the universe. In Chinese, it is called Wumen. This impressive structure with five towers – this central one is tallest at 124 feet – was part of the original construction ending in 1420. Feel privileged when you walk through the middle of its five portals. For hundreds of years, this entry was reserved for the emperor. The empress was only allowed to walk along Imperial Way on her wedding day.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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5 History of Emperors at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

In 1402, when Zhu Di became Yongle Emperor, the third ruler of the Ming dynasty, he moved the capital city from Nanjing to Beiping (today’s Beijing) and began building the Forbidden City in 1406. Construction by one million laborers required 14 years. 13 additional Ming emperors occupied Zijin Cheng (Purple Forbidden City) until Chongzhen Emperor was overthrown in 1644 and committed suicide. After a brief occupation by the Shun dynasty, the Imperial Chinese Dragon Throne was captured by Manchus forces and Shunzhi Emperor was declared the new ruler of China at the age of six. 10 Qing dynasty emperors and their government resided at the Forbidden City for 268 years, interrupted twice by occupation of foreign troops. In 1912, the imperial dynasty was defeated during the Xinhai Revolution (Chinese Revolution of 1911), marking the beginning of the Republic of China. Puyi, China’s last emperor, was allowed to remain in the Inner Court until 1924. The following year, it became the Palace Museum. The photo shows two of the five Inner Golden Water Bridges with the Gate of Supreme Harmony in the background.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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6 Gate of Supreme Harmony at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

After passing through the Meridian Gate, you enter the Outer Court. This section, also called the Front Court, encompasses the southern half of Forbidden City and includes a 2.5 acre courtyard. After crossing over the Inner Golden Water River, the first building is the Gate of Supreme Harmony. When it was built in 1420, Taihe men was named the Gate of Venerating Heaven (Fengtian men). This is where the emperor held morning court during the Ming dynasty. In the corner stands one of two Chinese Guardian Lions. The shí shī protected imperial palaces since the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). This lion is male, evident by his paw on an orb representing dominance over the earth.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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7 Hall of Supreme Harmony Courtyard at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

The largest open square in the Outer Court awaits you after leaving the Gate of Supreme Harmony. It is surrounded by eight structures with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the center. From right to left are: Belvedere of Embodying Benevolence (Tiren ge), the Left-wing Gate (Zuo yimen) and Middle Left Gate (Zhongzuo men). These two gates lead to the courtyard of the Middle Harmony Pavilion. Surveying this view is the moment most people begin to recognize the magnitude of the Forbidden City. The former Imperial City consists of 90 palaces, 980 buildings and an incredible 8,704 rooms.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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8 Belvedere of Embodying Benevolence at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Forbidden City’s major buildings are positioned along a central, south-north axis. So, in the interest of exploring the major landmarks, or if you are short of time, your inclination is to race along a straight line and overlook the myriad of architectural treasures on the fringes. Belvedere of Embodying Benevolence is a great example of what you will miss. When originally constructed during the 15th century (since rebuilt twice), Belvedere was named Civil Pavilion (Wen lou). Emperor Kangxi, the fourth in the Qing dynasty reign (1661 – 1722), conducted poetry contests here. Tiren Ge was later used as an Imperial Household Department storehouse.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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9 Hall of Supreme Harmony at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

The Hall of Supreme Harmony stands an impressive 114 feet, the tallest building during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties. Perched atop a three-tiered marble terrace enhances its majestic presence as the centerpiece of the Outer Court. Originally called Fengtian Palace, this was one of the first structures built at the Forbidden City in 1406. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has been rebuilt several times, the last in 1695 during the reign of Kangxi Emperor (1661 – 1722). It remains the largest wooden structure in China. Accenting Taihe dian are 18 large bronze incense burners (dings). In China, incense is called xiang. Only the most fragrant and expensive foreign incense would please the emperors.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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10 Hall of Supreme Harmony Profile at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

The Hall of Supreme Harmony was used to host lavish ceremonies such as weddings and enthronements. In the Ming dynasty, this is also where the emperor held court. The vermillion façade consists of eleven bays with diamond-shaped lattice windows. It is supported by 72 pillars and on the floor are 4,718 tiles. Inside is a sandalwood throne used during the Qing dynasty. It is called the Dragon Throne because the mythical beast was considered the symbol of the emperor’s imperial and omnipotent power. Surrounding the throne are more dragon images – including on the caisson ceiling – showcased among six pillars covered by gilded lacquer. Taihe dian is sometimes referred to as the Hall of Gold Throne.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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11 Two Great Halls in Outer Court at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Sharing the elevated, Outer Court platform with the Hall of Supreme Harmony are two additional structures. Collectively, they are called the Three Great Halls. On the right is the Hall of Central Harmony. The single-eave, square-shaped pavilion was originally called the Hall of the Splendid Canopy (Huagai dian) when constructed in the early 15th century. The Ming dynasty emperors used the facility as a staging area before imperial ceremonies. Zhonghe dian was rebuilt in 1627. Adjacent is the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The emperor used Baohe dian to dress and prepare for receiving homage by quest. Most impressive is the three-tiered staircase leading up to the halls.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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12 Houyou Men Gate at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

At the base of the stairs on both sides of the Three Great Halls is a small gate. They are the transition between the Outer and Inner Courts. This Rear Right Gate (Houyou men) is on the west side. Notice the water spouts shaped as dragons. They are designed to channel and drain rainwater. In Chinese mythology, the dragon (lóng or lung) has auspicious powers over water, rainfall and floods. There are 1,412 of these marble dragon heads surrounding the grand terrace at the core of the Outer Court. Curiously, the dragons in the corners do not have a water spout in their mouth.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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13 Gate of Heavenly Purity at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Before leaving the terrace of the Three Great Halls, you get a commanding view of the Gate of Heavenly Purity facing the 722 foot long Qianqing men Square. This is the demarcation between the Outer Court and the Inner Court or Back Palace. This northern section of the Forbidden City was reserved as the residence for the emperor plus his family and concubines. Gate of Heavenly Purity is perched on a five foot, white marble platform. During the Qing dynasty, several emperors conducted morning court here from 1644 until 1861. This reconstruction from 1655 replaced early versions destroyed by fire.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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14 Hall of Preserving Harmony Dragons at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Leading up to the Hall of Preserving Harmony is a dual staircase. In the center are elaborate carvings of dragons frolicking with pearl, a symbol of good luck and protector of the throne. Pairs of dragons also represent God and the emperor. This 250 ton slab measures over 54 feet long. The marble-like stone used throughout the Forbidden City was from a quarry at Mount Fang (Fang Shan) over 40 miles away. Each slab was arduously carried to the site by laborers using work animals and then carved by hundreds of artisans.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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15 Lions at Gate of Heavenly Purity at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

At the entrance of the Gate of Heavenly Purity is a pair of bronze, gilded lions. Apparently they differ from the typical guardian lions because their ears point down versus stand up. The reason is they are not meant to protect against evil and intruders. Instead, these lions were a reminder to female members of the imperial family not to interfere with the official proceedings conducted in the Outer Court.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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16 Palace of Heavenly Purity at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

With a height over 65 feet, the largest structure within the Inner Court is the Palace of Heavenly Purity. It was modeled after but smaller than the more revered Hall of Supreme Harmony. Qianqing gong was the Emperor’s living and sleeping quarters from 1420 until 1722. It was also common to have the emperor’s remains lie in repose here for a couple of days prior to interment. Notice the huge gilded vats. There are 308 of them around the Forbidden City. Each contained 200 gallons of water. They were used to fight fires, a constant threat among the wooden buildings.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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17 Palace of Heavenly Purity Throne at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

In the center of the Palace of Heavenly Purity is the lavish throne room. Notice the gilded wood panel etched with pairs of dragons playing with a pearl and topped with dragon carvings. The plaque over the throne reads, “Justice and Brightness.” These words were crafted by Yongzheng Emperor, the fifth ruler of the Qing dynasty. During his short reign from 1722 – 1735, he was a strong advocate for government reformation, religious freedom and prosperity. It was traditional for an emperor to write the name of his successor behind this plaque to be revealed upon his death.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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18 Grain Measure at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

This bronze, gilded, urn-shaped device in front of the Palace of Heavenly Purity is an 18th century facsimile of a grain measure used during the Han dynasty (221 BC – 220 AD). The exact measurements of the jialiang were used to standardize weights and measures across China.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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19 Bronze Turtle at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

You will notice several bronze turtles during your tour of Forbidden City. Some people believe Chinese script was derived from the markings on the back of a tortoise. They symbolize longevity, power and the universe. As one of China’s four great mythological animals, the Black Tortoise or Warrior (Xuánwǔ) rules the North in the Chinese constellation. Turtles were also often used to support the memorial tablets of emperors.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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20 Halls of Union and Earthly Tranquility at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

These are two of the three largest structures within the Inner Court. On the right is the Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union, meaning the intersection of heaven and earth. Also called the Hall of Union, this square, modest building with a single roof was used by the empress to host annual celebrations among the princes and their wives. Jiaotai dian now displays 25 seals of the Qing dynasty. Next to it is the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. This was the living quarters of the empress during the Ming dynasty. Later it was subdivided into an altar plus postnuptial rooms. A recently married emperor and empress would spend their first few days together in this bridal suite.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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21 Hall of Imperial Peace at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Worshipers prayed to Zhenwudadi, the god of water, inside of the Hall of Imperial Peace for protection against fire. When you see this structure (Qin’andian) on its Xumi marble base, you have entered the northernmost point of Forbidden City known as Imperial Garden. Within the three acres of Yuhuayuan is a colored mosaic walkway flowing among ancient trees, flowering plants, sculpted bushes, arranged rocks, statues, terraces and 20 pavilions. This was the private sanctuary for the emperor and his family.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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22 400 Year Old Lianli Tree at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

Growing in front of the Hall of Imperial Peace (Qin’andian) is the Lianli Cypress. The intertwined branches of two, 400 year old trees are also called the Consort Pine. They symbolize the everlasting harmony between the emperor and empress. Locals affectionately call it the Wedding Tree. The recently engaged come to pray for a happy and long marriage. There is always a long line of couples – both believers and tourists – waiting to photograph themselves in a tender embrace.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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23 Incense Burner at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

A 13 foot, bronze incense burner stands on tripod legs near the entrance of the Hall of Imperial Peace. Notice the bas-reliefs around the six openings for the smoke. They are a common visual at the Forbidden City of two dragons playing with a pearl. It was traditional for the emperor to burn incense while praying to the heavens at the start of each season. Several emperors also favored the smell of incense during their leisure time in the Imperial Garden.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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24 Springtime Pavilion at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

There are 16 pavilions arranged in perfect symmetry around the core of the Imperial Garden. Four of them are devoted to the seasons. The most famous is the Pavilion of Myriad Springtimes located on the west side. It is also called the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Springs or Wanchunting in Chinese.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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25 Autumn Pavilion at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

On the east side of the garden is the Autumn Pavilion. Qianqiuting has the identical design of the Springtime Pavilion. Both structures have a multifaceted base representing the earth with a conical roof symbolizing heaven. Near the top is a glazed pot with a colorful bas-relief of mythical creatures flanked by two dragon sculptures. These pavilions were created during the early 15th century and then rebuilt in 1535.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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26 Autumn Pavilion Ceiling at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

The ceiling inside of the Pavilion of One Thousand Autumns is superb. The richly colored support beams frame a square, octagon and then concentric circles with motifs characteristic of Ming dynasty pottery. Protruding from the dome is a finely-carved wooden dragon.

Meridian Gate, Dongcheng Qu, Donghuamen Rd, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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27 Pavilion at Jingshan Park Overlooking Forbidden City in Beijing, China

To the north of Forbidden City is the 57 acre Jingshan Park. This artificial highland (called both Coal Hill and Prospect Hill) was created in the early 15th century with soil excavated while constructing the Imperial Palace and surrounding moat. Built on each of its five peaks during the mid-18th century is a pavilion. The highest one – Wanchun Pavilion or Ten Thousand Spring Pavilion – has a commanding view of Forbidden City. You will feel like you should wave to the gawkers as you are leaving the Palace Museum.

4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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28 Northeast Corner Tower at Forbidden City in Beijing, China

You will exit Forbidden City through the northern Gate of Devine Prowess. Originally called Black Tortoise Gate, Shénwǔmén was the main portal for palace servants. As you walk along Jingshan Front Street, you will remember the splendor you saw at the Imperial Museum while regretting you only experienced a fraction of the complex. Now look back and savor one last look at the Forbidden City as a Corner Tower (Jiao lou) becomes a silhouette in the setting sun. This is one travel day you will never forget.

4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100006
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