Visiting the Forbidden City – The complete guide

The Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City as seen from Coal to the south.


The residences of kings, sovereigns or emperors that we’re used to seeing in Western countries, though being rich and opulent, are the size of a large palace or at most, especially from pre-Renaissance times, a castle.

In China, starting in the late Medieval period, when the darkness of the Holy Inquisition dominated the scene in Europe, and up until the early years of the 20th century, the emperor lived in a true fortified city constructed entirely around him and designed to allow him to carry out his public functions, and at the same time, take care of his human and personal needs.

In this citadel you could come and go only with the permission of the emperor. Those who disobeyed this rule paid with their life.

This is the origin of the name “Forbidden City” (“Zi Jin Chen”, in Chinese), a historic place, perfectly preserved, that hosted the emperor of the Middle Kingdom for about 500 years, from 1420 up until 1912, when the last emperor was forced to abdicate to the forces of the first Chinese revolution.

From that point on the name was changed to what it is called even today on maps and directions: “Palace Museum”.

The term “Museum” is there to underscore the fact that this is a historic relic and no longer the seat of any political power.

Fortunately, the Forbidden City was spared the pillaging and destruction of other revolutions and invasions of foreigners of the time.

Neither the French, English, or victorious revolutionary troops of Chiang Kai Shek earlier and Mao Zedong after, had the heart to destroy such architectural beauty despite it being the seat and symbol of what they strenuously fought against.

Fortunately, therefore, we can still enjoy this magical and enchanting place.

Its pervasive discreet and charming fascination was recognized in front of the entire world when, in 1987, the site was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, as the largest and best preserved ancient wooden structure system in the world.

Where is it and how much does a ticket cost for the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (or Palace Museum) is found in the exact center of the city of Beijing, across from Tienanmen Square.

You can get there through Line 1 of the metro, getting off at the stop for Tienanmen Square East (or Tienanmen Square West) and following the signs.

Remember to bring your passport because you’ll need it both to pass security controls at the entrance of the square and to get an entrance ticket.

Be careful to not get a ticket for the panoramic terrace over the square (the signs aren’t the clearest); go straight ahead until they ask you for a ticket; the box office is to the right of the entrance.

The total cost is 60 Yuan a person.

Historic framework

Beijing wasn’t always the capital of the Chinese empire; it became such under the Yuan Dynasty (1271 d.C. – 1368 d.C.) by the order of Kublai Khan.

The Yuan Dynasty, fathered by Gengis Khan, was originally from the northern steppes and stuck around for about 100 years, going down in history as the most extensive empire that has ever existed, the Mongol Empire.

Despite their austerity in clothing, for which they were fiercely proud, the Mongols didn’t fail to take notice of the fascinating culture and efficiency of state administration in use by the various kingdoms that then divided China, which, although being fragmented and struggling for supremacy for about 900 years (or the definitive fall of the Han Dynasty in 221 a.d.), preserved a marked cultural and administrative homogeny.

Even the Mongols, like all foreign peoples in the course of history that conquered China, had to accept its cultural and material riches and were exposed to the inexorable process of assimilation that brought them to incorporate the Chinese culture and governmental organization and adopt the bureaucratic structure of power, which was fundamental for running “an empire on which the sun never set””.

Principally for these reasons, the great Khan of the Mongols moved his capital from Karakorum (in the center of modern Mongolia) to Khanbaliq forming the basis for a true imperial city, on which Beijing was later built.

With the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, after a brief period of internal struggles, the Ming Dynasty took power which had its base in the southern regions and its capital in Nanjing.

Soon arose a debate about moving the capital to the north and the area of Beijing was singled out, which was defined by one of the most influential court counselors as an area with superior “Feng Shui”.

After heated arguments on whether or not to move the center of administrative power, the position of Prince Yongle prevailed (who had already been appointed by his father as governor of the area of Beijing) who, moving the capital, sought to free himself from the powerful influence of the nobility that had its base in the south of the country.

From these facts you can understand the origin of the name Beijing, which was given to the city in 1403, in fact, in the earliest years after the establishment of the Ming Dynasty.

The name Beijing (北京) is composed from the union of the words “north” (北, bei) and “capital” (京, jing) and literally means “the capital of the north”; in contrast Nanjing, “the capital of the south” from “south” (南, nan) and “capital” (京,jing).

After having definitively decided to move the center of power to the north and eliminated contrary factions led by his brothers, Prince Yongle, who became the emperor in the meantime, ordered construction to begin on what would be his future residence.

It was for this reason that in 1406 the construction of the Forbidden City began.

Work proceeded quickly and despite its immensity, it was completed in “just” 14 years.

It was at this point, in 1420, right after the completion of the work, that Beijing was officially designated as the new capital under the Ming Dynasty, of which it remains to this day.

During the successive epochs all 24 emperors that resided there (10 belonging to the Ming Dynasty and 14 of the Qing) governed the enormous land from here through imperial edicts guaranteed by the innumerable seals of which they were stamped.

This situation went on until 1912 (the year in which the revolutionary troops of Kuomintang entered into the citadel), when the last emperor (Xuantong) was forced to abdicate at the age of just 6 years old (he was 2 when he came to the throne in 1908).

With the intercession of the new government, run by Sun Yat Sen, he was still allowed to live in his residence inside the interior court until 1924 (up until he became an adult), when he was forced to seek refuge at the Japanese embassy.

He died at 61 years old, on October 17, 1967, of a prostate tumor in a hospital in Beijing, after various ups and downs tied to the second World War, where China mainly fought against Japan, which brought him to occupy an anonymous functionary position in the enormous administrative apparatus of the party.

Memorializing his amazing story is the blockbuster film by Bernardo Bertolucci “The Last Emperor” which was the first film that received official permission to film scenes inside the Forbidden City.

The construction of the Forbidden City

The majority of the citadel was designed by a eunuch named Nguyen An. Even a few years before the beginning of its construction, the emperor sent representatives throughout the empire to gather and choose the best materials, which were then transported to Beijing mainly by river.

The types of wood used includes Elm, Oak, Catalpa, Camphor and Spruce; which were transported a distance of thousands of kilometers. The supplies still continued to come in even after the end of construction in anticipation of eventual repairs.

Although the primary construction material was wood, both the walls and platforms on which they were built required lots of bricks and marble: mugwort marble, which is white and hard with a light green shade and white jade marble.

These marble blocks, some of which weigh 180 tons, could be moved only in winter by throwing water on the road, which once iced over, allowed it to be slid and required an enormous work force that got up to twenty thousand for a single block.

This immense work force was found through obligatory duty, which substituted taxes and used the condemned and inmates as workers with bonds around their necks and feet (at least the handcuffs were removed!).

The bricks were mainly formed of terracotta but other types of bricks and tiles were also used and produced directly on site in Beijing, where some of the lakes there (such as the lake in Taoranting Park), are the fruit of excavations made for the extraction of the sandstone necessary for construction.

The types of roofs, which are true masterpieces, differ greatly and go from the conical form to the more traditional trusses that offer variable descending and inclining curves.

Often, on the edge of the roof, you’ll find rows of animal figures in the shape of lions, dragons, seahorses, roosters and many others of varying sizes depending on the size of the roof.

Under the supervision of Nguyen An, a million workers handled the carpentry, while a hundred thousand specialized artisans took care of the decorations.

The entire structure was designed to perfectly follow the Li Ji (or “Book of Rites”) ascribed to Confucius, and even the bedrooms follow the principles of yin-yang and the five elements, bringing to life the symbolism that was so dear to the rulers of every epoch that conferred an aura of divinity to their absolute power, and as a result, legitimized it.

Even the predominance of the color yellow, the imperial color of the Ming Dynasty, symbolized the five elements and the duality of the yin-yang.

The first resident of the city, the emperor Yongle, was also the first to be interred in the hills above Beijing, or in the famous cemetery complex that hosts the tombs of the Ming emperors, and a little ways away, those of the Qing.

With the establishment of the Qing Dynasty (in 1644), with origins in Manchuria, some changes were made to the citadel due to the different needs and beliefs of the new rulers (which this time came from the north instead of the south), who modified the names of the halls and built new ones.

Other than the walls, all the buildings are built with wood in a typical Chinese architecture.

This made the structure’s primary enemy, which has caused much damage, fire. The 500 years of history of the Forbidden City were marked by continuous fires followed by innumerable renovations and reconstructions.

The first fire took place just 100 days after the enthronement of the first emperor. The buildings we see today are the result of renovations and reconstructions; and perhaps none of the buildings are the original shape of those in 1420, the year in which the work was completed.

To fight fires, large bronze containers were distributed to all the buildings and kept full of water under which they would light a fire in the wintertime to keep the water from freezing and becoming unusable.

Life in the Forbidden City

The emperor represented the apex of a vast bureaucratic structure that he ran, or tried to run, from his residence in the capital.

Since he lacked nothing inside the City, he rarely went out into the real world and this caused, over time, a progressive detachment from reality on the part of the rulers;and the sensation that this magnificent structure had become a golden cage, which led the sovereigns to delegate their royal power to the hands of their closest functionaries.

In fact, despite the fact that the emperor regularly held daily audiences, given the vastness of the empire and the enormous quantity of petitions and requests for his intervention, only the most important documents were brought for his approval while the majority were handled by his functionaries or advisors.

During the Ming epoch the number of administrative officials was about twenty two thousand, chosen according to the official exams based on a knowledge of the four books and five classics written by Confucius.

The government officials that reported directly to the emperor inside the Forbidden City were his 3 great secretaries and his 6 ministers (of Staff, of Rites, of War, of Public Works, of Finance and Punishments).

Also inside the city there were obviously a large number of servants, advisors and functionaries: the eunuchs, or males who voluntarily submitted to castration, having their penis and testicles removed in order to have the opportunity to serve the emperor inside this residence.

These people had to submit to a cruel and complicated operation performed with a metal harpoon and without anesthesia, which at times resulted in death due to the complications that ensued both during the operation itself and especially afterwards, if the healed wound blocked the passage of urine.

Their willingness to submit themselves to such mutilation was considered a sign of their unconditional loyalty; and they were used in great numbers both as spies and as counselors.

Towards the end of the Fifteenth century it has been calculated that their number was around 10 thousand and that their number rose to 70 thousand at the early stages of the Qing Dynasty in 1644.

They were also used as gifts to relatives of the king and deserving high officials, along with silk, gold, silver and jewels.

They became essential for carrying out government affairs as is demonstrated by the fact that by 1453, around the imperial city, they were already 24 agencies specializing in supplying eunuchs.

They had important roles and a strict hierarchy whose head was the Director of Ceremonies, presided over by a eunuch who was responsible for the carrying out of rituals, ceremonial halls and eunuchs and that, in essence, oversaw the very many aspects of life in the Forbidden City.

In fact, under his supervision, numerous departments operated, dividing the running of daily affairs inside the City.

There was the Department of servants and carpenters, which handled all works of construction and restoration, the Department of Imperial clothing, which manufactured clothing for the emperor and his concubines and wives, the Department of baths, which cleaned the baths and restocked the soaps, bathing halls and various basins.

There was even a Department of toilet paper, where the eunuchs produced the millions of sheets of toilet paper required annually. The emperor had a paper that was particularly soft and made of various materials; but the standard was made with straw, wood, oils and lemon and each sheet bore a stamp.

Then there was the Directorate of food and cooking, which prepared and served meals for all and before serving the emperor, as in the films, tasted them to avoid poisoning.

The emperor’s food was served on golden plates or special porcelain (the quality of Ming porcelain is even today unsurpassed and the famous Ming vases cost much more than gold), by eunuchs that followed him around with many different types of foods to be ready to act quickly and on the spot if the emperor wanted to eat.

The food was cultivated in large farms outside the citadel again by eunuchs, which provided a large variety of meat and produce as well as soy sauce, tofu, grain and the mandatory wine.

The eunuchs were also responsible for the imperial pharmacy, which obviously was the best furnished in the kingdom.

Of course they had to have a Department of firemen that, as I already mentioned, always had a delicate and very important job.

It’s no surprise that over time the eunuchs acquired an extraordinary power and toward the end of the Ming Dynasty they controlled the affairs of state, having total control over all communications coming and going to the emperor.

This tendency dwindled during the Qing Dynasty that had, not without reason, recognized in taking away these figures that acted in the shadows the root of the weakening and final fall of the Ming Dynasty.

They didn’t fully manage to carry out their intent and the eunuchs remained, up until the end, diminished figures that still heavily conditioned the choices of the emperors and, looking back, the destiny of the empire.

Despite the city being off limits to ordinary citizens, to foreign diplomats there was granted a certain freedom of entrance, with the Korean and Japanese diplomats enjoying it first and foremost.

The first Westerner to enter the Forbidden City was an Italian.

The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci was received in 1601 by high functionaries (but not the emperor personally) and, knowing Chinese, remained in the court for awhile to instruct the eunuchs about Western technology and astronomy after realizing that there was little interest in his religious ideas in the Orient.

During the Qing Dynasty there was however a large number of Westerners received (Germans, Dutch, French and Italian) as translators and advisors in technological materials.

The role of Western thinkers grew in time to the point where the last emperor even had as a tutor and professor the Scott Reginald Fleming Johnston.

To close this chapter on life in the citadel you can’t help but mention the role that women played, and who from time to time depending on their abilities and cunning, led some of them to exercise a determining influence on the sovereign and even fill the highest role as empress.

During the kingdoms of the Ming Dynasty there were up to 100 “imperial women” and from 2000 to 3000 “serving women”.

These served as bearers of the royal sedan, dancers, musicians, physical therapists, accountants and general serving women.

They were recruited in groups of 40 to 500 based on their merits but also forcibly and at times were released if they got sick or became too old.

Their position strengthened them, allowing them to rise in the palace hierarchy, especially if they gave birth to a male child, which obviously belonged to the emperor since any other male in the city had to be a eunuch.

Obviously this condition created intrigues and competition among the various mothers who did everything to make sure their child would prevail as potential successors or to hold other state positions.

Some emperors wanted their wives to follow them in death and this gave rise to mass executions at times.

When this extreme sacrifice was not required, and at the death of the ruler they managed to get their child on the throne though still a minor, they became tutors and exercised all roles as an actual sovereign.

The most famous was the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908) who conquered absolute power despite her humble origins in 1861, when her son rose to the throne after the death of the emperor.

Initially sharing affairs of state with another empress (the first consort of the defunct emperor), but when she died in 1881, she became the sole ruler.


The citadel has a rectangular shape and covers an area of 72 hectares, extending in a north-south direction for 961 meters and east-west for 753 meters.

Today it contains 980 buildings for a total of 8.886 rooms and is surrounded by a wall that’s 8 meters high and 8.5 meters wide at its base and 6.5 thick at the top.

The walls have the dual function of blocking the view of the common citizen and defense; this last function was reinforced by a moat 6 meters deep and 52 meters wide that circles the citadel.

The imposing structure is subdivided in two main parts: the external court, where the emperor conducted official ceremonies; and the interior court, where his personal quarters were along with his innumerable wives and concubines.

In the interior court, located in the southern section (that is, the side opposite of Tienanmen Square), there are imperial gardens where the emperor could relax.

The external court, as the area designated for ceremonies is characterized by ample open spaces where troops both on foot and horseback could render homage to the emperor with military parades or were celebrated after a victorious campaign.

There are also some public buildings (although it’s better to say “not private”), each with its specific function that were used for certain occasions tied to court ceremonies dictated by the lunar character but could also change name and function according to the emperor.

Visitors enter from the north gate, located on Tienanmen Square, and follow the main way, straight to the interior court to then leave from the south gate beyond the gardens.

The visit

A visit goes from north to south and begins at the ticket counter to the side of the entrance on Tienanmen Square, looking at the large photograph of Mao Zedong on the left.

Remember to follow the signs for the “Palace Museum” because if you look for the “Forbidden City” you’ll never find it.

Once you enter you’ll immediately notice the widths of the internal courts that are around building largely closed to the public.

In reality you can’t enter any of the buildings but, at least you can look inside the most important ones and contemplate the furnishings.

The ones open (or should I say those with free entrance) to the public are along the central path and had a certain importance during various imperial times.

The visitor is not obligated to follow a set course, but can branch off anywhere along the structure. So, even if almost the entire total of visitors stays along the central trail, even on the most crowded days (there’s about 14 million tourists each year) the visit remains pleasant.

Along the main route you’ll find in sequence the buildings named “the Hall of Supreme Harmony” (as soon as you pass the namesake arch that acts as an entrance), the “Hall of Central Harmony”, and the “Hall of Preserving Harmony”.

You move on then to the interior court through the entrance of “heavenly purity” to its namesake hall, followed by the “Hall of Union and Peace”, to the “Hall of Earthly Peace” and imperial gardens.

Besides the ones along the central way there are many other rooms in which you can take a peek; the “Hall of Military Valor” and “Hall of Literary Glory” in the exterior court and the “Hall of Ancestor Worship” and the “Imperial Kitchen” in the interior court are worth a look.

There are about forty buildings that can be visited in all.

Inside the complex, about halfway along the route on the right, you’ll find a restaurant with Chinese food at acceptable prices; it also has a bathroom.


Whether or not you’re interested in Chinese history, I think it’s worth spending at least half a day inside the complex, not just to get your fill of various halls and the precious pieces within them, but also to just sit, apart from the crowds, and imagine seeing the eunuchs, soldiers, generals, diplomats, concubines, empresses and emperors walking around doing their duties.

Cover Photo Credits: Photo by chungking on Depositphotos©

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