As nonchalance creeps into my travels, I find myself in a battle to find a way to love every new moment on the road. I arrived in China and there was so much to explore. But also, since I live on the road, like a spider building a web, my thoughts spiraled: “Is this worth my time? Could I be eating food right now? I mean really, how is this different than the 25 other palaces I’ve seen in the past two-and-a-half years since I started traveling full time?”
But hello, China! Visiting the Forbidden City is an absolute given when traveling through Beijing. Even though I had done little research prior to my trip, I knew that I could arrive in the city, hire a guide (or use my guidebook in this case), and learn the deep history, quirky architectural nuances, and modern meaning of the Forbidden City.
First Impressions: Arriving in Beijing’s Fascinating Forbidden City
Even though I take a decidedly more laissez faire approach to travel now, there was never a question I would leave the warmth of my hostel and reserve a full day for sightseeing around Beijing with my friends (who had traveled all the way from Florida to hang ou!). We all donned many layers of cold-weather gear to face the whipping March winds that surge through the wide, open courtyards in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
We had a bit of a miss for the first hour—we got lost, which is par for the course for me—and we had some hilarious back-and-forth discussions where we all admitted that the Forbidden City was smaller and altogether less than we had anticipated.
Turns out we had arrived through the workers section.
The actual Forbidden City was just next door. Which we realized when we saw a glittering, gilded temple just over the wall that outshone the handful of woefully unadorned buildings we had just photographed for an hour—whoops!
Quickly exiting the workers section, we made our way inside the actual Forbidden City. Naturally, that’s where we found hordes of other tourists queuing for tickets and shuffling through the elaborate arched doorways.
You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you’re thrust by pulsing crowds into a huge square crowned by beautifully named Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Suddenly it hit me. In front of me was China’s iconic Forbidden City. The very one that I had curiously studied while perusing the pages of National Geographic magazines as a child. Built in the 15th century by the third Ming emperor, Yongle, the emperors ruled from this palace all the way until 1911.
How to Explore the Forbidden City
Instead of hiring a guide, we three decided to take a self-guided tour of the grounds. Using a guidebook, we could snake our way through each area at our leisure, reading the history of each building and discussing among ourselves. Had any of us been history or architecture buffs, hiring a guide would have been a good idea, but if you have an app or guidebook with key facts, that’s probably sufficient for most travelers.
Enjoy the Small Details
Relieved to see ornate beauty unfolding as we walked deeper into the grounds, we began a slow and methodical study of the buildings and architecture. As we walked further into the city, I spotted an endless number of tiny, intriguing details on every building. The Palaces themselves, as structures, are quite similar. But little details—colors and designs, and symbolic whirls—make the Forbidden City truly worth a wander. It’s this aspect of a place that I most remember in all of my travels to amazing, historic sites. The colorful flakes of marble carved into the Taj Mahal and the snubbed-out faces of dancing figures at Angkor Wat tell an intriguing and altogether more intimate story of a place.
Cater to Your Interests
Embracing my own interests these past few years—rather than caving to the prescribed traditional tourist experiences—continually defines my travels. So as we looked, I took notice of fine cracks in the carvings near the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. Even visiting one of the top tourist attractions in Beijing, there are no true “must sees”—instead there are parts of the temple better suited to different interests, and by visiting things that align with your interests, the entire experience becomes infinitely more memorable.
Delight in Uncommon Stories
Huge bronze vats flank the major palace buildings. Although we could have walked right by them, instead I overhead a guide explain their significance and stopped to admire the passage of time marked in the weathered black streaks marring the bright bronze hue. Each vat always contained liquid water that could be used to extinguish palace fires in bygone days. The Chinese deeply feared fire in previous centuries, and rightly so! According to UNESCO, the Forbidden City houses the world’s largest collection of wooden structures—so these vats stored water and throughout the freezing winters the Chinese maintained a fire under the vats to keep the water liquid, otherwise a fire could have ravaged the city in mere minutes.
When in Asia, Find the Gardens
Next up on our route was a trip through the palace gardens—a little wonderland and a fun surprise to happen upon after several hours of museums and endless architecture. The gardens presented an aesthetic wonderland of flowers, trees, rock gardens, and small pagodas.
We had moderate luck for spring bounties—cherry blossoms were about two weeks from full bloom, but we managed to glimpse and experience a small slice of China’s colorful spring beauty.
Find Where Culture and History Intersect
This is the point where I have to shout out that the Forbidden City may, in fact, possess the most gorgeous and lyrical naming system in the world. Buildings in the Forbidden City include:
- The Palace of Heavenly Purity
- The Hall of Mental Cultivation
- The Gate of Divine Might
- The Hall of Literary Glory
With such pretty names, we were torn about which ones to leave off of our itinerary, because the Forbidden City is enormous and even the most ardent and enthusiastic palace lovers will, eventually, hit Palace fatigue. Once we felt we had seen the highlights, however, it was time to find a better vantage point on it all.
Where to Find Panoramic Views of the Forbidden City
With a final spurt of energy, we spied a high viewpoint at the park crowning the Forbidden City. After hours wandering and sightseeing inside the Forbidden City, we wanted a change of pace. A hot ear of steamed corn from a street food vendor filled our bellies enough to continue onward—note that this is not the tastiest food choice in Beijing.
From the base, it was an easy hike up the nearby hill in Jingshan Park for panoramic views over Beijing and a gorgeous aerial view of the tourist madness down below. The entire Forbidden City stretches just ahead and it was fun to pick out the sections of the city and places we had just explored.
A Side-Trip to the Temple of Heaven
Exhausted and hungry (questionably-tasty corn can really only go so far in satiating hunger), we found delicious, steaming dumplings at a hole-in-the-wall spot nearby before crowning our day of sightseeing with the Temple of Heaven. This makes an side-trip addition to a half-day of exploring China’s Forbidden City and it is unskippable. Although you might have temple fatigue, the Temple of Heaven is unique and really quite beautiful. Plus it only needs a quick visit to see the highlights and it’s a much faster visit than the Forbidden City.
Through it all, even with the iconic shots of the Temple of Heaven, and the Palace of Supreme Harmony, I’m glad I took five extra minutes to revel in my geek-tasticness and enjoy the little details on the water cisterns. Travel is about more than seeing everything, it’s about taking things in and allowing curiosity to guide you! :)
Quick Tips: Visiting the Forbidden City, Beijing
Where: The Forbidden City is located directly across from Tiananmen Square. Enter via the front entrance—you can enter from the back too, but you should start at the front gate, the Meridian Gate, so you can exit through the Gate of Divine Might and walk across the street to Jingshan Park for panoramic views. If you don’t plan to visit Jingshan Park, then starting very early morning at the south gate is an effective way to avoid crowds.
When: It’s closed most Mondays, but otherwise the is open Forbidden City every day at 8:30 a.m. Go early to avoid some of the tour buses that drop off hordes of tourists all day long. Or visit in the early afternoon—last entry tickets sold at 3:30 p.m. in winter (4 p.m. in summer). For the sake of your photos, and your sanity, go early, or go late. If arriving late, note that only 80,000 tickets are available each day and they may sell out if you don’t book ahead of time. The site that sells tickets online is in Chinese, or you can Google and find an intermediary selling them—you can book up to 10 days in advance.
How: The Forbidden City is off of the Red Line 1 on Beijing’s highly effective metro system. Use the Tiananmen East or West stop on the metro line (Tian’anmenxi or Tian’anmendong), once you exit, you can’t miss the entrance. The entrance fee is currently ¥40 in the winter and ¥60 in the summer. book online ahead of time to skip the queues and guarantee entry.
Learn: You have options for exploring! Although you could just wander the site, it’s an overwhelming string of corridors and buildings. Instead, either book a guide when you arrive, or you can join a day tour you find online. There are also audio guides available when you buy your ticket—do this if you’ve arrived with nothing else to help you give the site context. Lastly, you can use something like your Lonely Planet Beijing for some context, but it’s actually best for how to navigate details (we used ours for transport and planning tips of our entire China trip, but preferred other guides for more detailed historical information). You could also download this fascinating e-guide, which offers a very thorough and visual journey to accompany you through your self-guided walking tour.
Bring: You must bring your passport to enter. Although some nationalities can use other types of ID cards, I wouldn’t bet on it. Wear comfy shoes and bring weather-appropriate clothing. Even in the freezing cold, we had bright sunshine and needed sunscreen and hats. You are allowed to bring water and your own snacks (and you should!)
Additional Travel Tips: The Northeast turrets are among the best photo spots within the city, and hiking in Jingshan Park on a clear day (one with less smog), will also yield pretty views. Don’t check your bag upon entering or it’s a looong walk back for it at the end. And don’t forget to pack a travel adapter for China so you can charge your electronics!