Beijing/Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (故宫 (Gùgōng)), located at the centre of Beijing, was the imperial palace of China for five centuries, until the early 20th century. It today houses the Palace Museum, one of China's largest national museums, with an extensive collection based on the former imperial collection.

Administratively, the Forbidden City precinct is part of Dongcheng district, but it is historically distinct and has many sights of its own, so we treat it in a separate article.

The Forbidden City is a very big place with lots to see, a typical visit covering the main palace buildings and the main museum displays will usually take a full day. If you are pressed for time, consider focusing on only the main halls and just a couple of the museum sections.


The name "Forbidden City" comes from the Chinese Zijin Cheng (紫禁城), referring to the rule that no one from outside the court was allowed in without the emperor's permission. Those few caught trespassing could be, and often were, executed on the spot (unless they were one of the invading armies that breached the walls, in which case the emperor was often the one in danger of execution). Since it was the common term at the time Western nations began making contact with China, it is still used in many Western languages. In China today the complex is simply referred to as the Gùgōng (故宫) or the Old Palace.


The Forbidden City viewed from Jingshan Hill.

The Forbidden City is rectangular in shape, surrounded by a moat. It has four gates, the main one being the south gate, Meridian Gate, facing Tiananmen Square. It is situated on Beijing's north-south muncipal axis, between the Dongcheng and Xicheng districts that comprise the city centre.

It occupies 72 hectares (180 acres) of land, though it may seem much larger due to the vast courtyards and the length of time most visitors spend there. On that land are 980 different buildings, containing almost 10,000 rooms (although that estimate may be on the high end). According to UNESCO, the Forbidden City is the largest collection of ancient wooden buildings in the world.

The palace grounds proper are divided into the Outer Court to the south and the Inner Court on the north. The former has the larger courtyards and buildings and was primarily used for ceremonies and other public events; the latter was living quarters, with smaller buildings and the gardens. Today it is also home to the food court, as well.


While the Forbidden City is often seen in the Western imagination of China as the palace of all that country's emperors going back thousands of years, in reality it has only stood since the 15th century C.E.

The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan set the stage for the creation of the Forbidden City when he decided in 1272 that he'd rather have his capital at what came to be known as Khanbaliq (or, in the West, Cambaluc) than the stately pleasure-dome he'd already decreed at Xanadu to the north, in traditionally Mongol territory. His palace was around Lake Taiye, now the Shichahai chain of lakes north of the present Forbidden City, in what he named Dadu, or "great capital". Within a century the Hongwu Emperor had driven the Mongols out and started the Ming dynasty. He ordered the Mongol palaces demolished, renamed the city Beiping ("northern peace") and moved his capital to what is now Nanjing.

That move lasted merely a few decades, an intermission in the millenia of Chinese history. In 1402 Zhu Di, the prince of Beiping, usurped the throne. Proclaiming himself the Yongle ("perpetual happiness") emperor, he moved the capital back to Beiping and began the construction of a grand imperial palace south of the lakes.

A million ordinary laborers, and 100,000 craftsmen, worked for 15 years to complete the palace. Entire whole logs of the phoebe tree were used to make the pillars in many important rooms. The "golden bricks" that still floor some of the major rooms were baked for six months in the ovens to acquire a distinctive metallic ring. Soil excavated to create the moat was piled up just north of the palace, creating Jingshan Park.

So pleased was Zhu Di that he had effectively moved in before 1420, the year the palace was complete. He did not get to enjoy it for too long as the three main halls, including the throne room, burned down less than a year later. It took 23 years before they were rebuilt.

16th century Ming representation of the Forbidden City

All the remaining Ming emperors would sit at the palace, and expand and maintain it. The last one, Chongzhen, fled the palace before invading Manchurians in 1644 and hung himself atop Jingshan Hill. The Manchurians installed themselves as the Qing dynasty, changing some of the names of the buildings slightly, moving from an emphasis on peace and harmony to supremacy and extremity.

They, too, would retain the palace as their seat of power. But that power would not be able to forbid all outsiders from the city, especially in the 19th century as Western nations—and China's traditionally weaker neighbor, Japan—began making inroads into the Empire and establishing colonial enclaves. In 1860, British and French forces occupied it during the Second Opium War. The oft-reviled Empress Dowager Cixi was forced out for a year after the Boxer Rebellion during 1900.

By then, domestic political pressures were also weighing on Cixi and her court. When she passed the throne to her nephew Pu Yi on her death in 1909, it was clear that Imperial China was on its very last legs. Two years later, the Xinhai Revolution established the Republic of China and limited the emperor's sovereignty to the Forbidden City. He and his family retreated to the Inner Court, the traditional living area on the north side of the palace, while the Outer Court was used by the new government. The first museum in the palace was established there in 1914.

Pu Yi began to drop many of the imperial trappings and ceremonies, cutting off his ponytail and sometimes wearing Western attire and bicycling around the palace. Opposition to allowing him to continue living in the palace grew, especially after a 1923 fire that may have been started by the palace eunuchs to cover up their theft of the many works of art in the Forbidden City's collection. The next year warlord Feng Yuxiang took over Beijing and evicted Pu Yi and his family, ending the last vestiges of imperial rule. The Palace Museum was formally established shortly afterwards, and began cataloging the vast holdings still present.

The curators had barely begun doing so when they were faced with the problem of protecting them from a Japanese takeover of China that seemed more and more imminent after 1931. Such works as they had begun to catalog were stored and moved first to Nanjing, then Shanghai, and finally to Western China where they were stored in Sichuan until the war's end in 1945. A few items looted by Japanese forces were recovered in Tianjin.

No sooner had they returned when the order was given to move them again. This time Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the governing Kuomintang, anticipated the possibility of defeat in the civil war with the Communists, which had resumed after both had helped oust the Japanese. The Beijing collections wound up staying put, but most of what was still in Nanjing was taken to the National Palace Museum in Taipei when the Communists won in 1949.

Mao's portrait on Tiananmen Gate, near the Forbidden City

Symbolically, Mao Zedong, leader of the victorious army, proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China in front of the south gate of the Forbidden City. He was the first ruler of a unified mainland China since the Qings had fallen. Although he did not take the title emperor, like them he held great power over China for much of the rest of his life, and the Communist Party he helped found has effectively been the new dynasty ever since, its elite living in the Zhongnanhai compound to the immediate west. His portrait remains on the gate overlooking Tiananmen Square to the south, where all who enter must pass.

What to do with the actual Forbidden City was one of the few issues that Mao did not settle himself. China's isolation from the Western world during the early years of the Cold War greatly limited the former palace's potential as a tourist attraction, and the Communists were unsure of what to do with it otherwise. Some suggested it was a symbol of a feudal, barbaric past that should be destroyed, and proposed replacing it with a park or some other facility reflecting the new regime's commitment to the people. Nothing much came of these, but one of the many thrones was dismantled, and a couple of buildings were altered, in addition to the general neglect the buildings suffered.

The start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 seemed to tip the balance against the Forbidden City. Youths in the Red Guards, committed to a purer and more radical form of communism, destroyed some artifacts in the Hall of Worshipping Ancestors as part of an exhibit of revolutionary mid sculptures. They began organizing to destroy the entire complex and all its contents in the name of liberating China from the "Four Olds" of its traditionalist past, until Premier Zhou Enlai both persuaded some of them to stand down and stationed an army battalion to guard the gates against the rest. They were sealed until passions cooled somewhat in 1971, making the city truly forbidden for those five years.

After the Cultural Revolution ended and Mao died, Deng Xiaoping, himself persecuted during those times, eventually became China's leader. He began instituting free-market reforms and re-opening China to the West. This led to more tourist visits to the Forbidden City. In 1987 it came before the eyes of the world when it was not only inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (later joined by the similar Mukden Palace in Shenyang) but the setting for that year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci's biography of Pu Yi.

Since then it has become an essential stop for every tourist who visits Beijing. In 2005 the Palace Museum began a comprehensive plan to restore every remaining building and structure to their 1912 appearance. It began with repairing the damage caused by the 1923 fire; it is expected to be finished in 2021.



Get in

The Meridian Gate is the visitors' entrance to the Forbidden City.

Entry to the Forbidden City for tourists is only through the south gate (Meridian Gate) - tickets and audio guides are sold on the square before this gate.

The usual way to reach Meridian Gate is from Tiananmen Square: visitors walk 400 m (1,200 ft) down a ceremonial avenue through the Tiananmen gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) and Duanmen gate (Upright Gate), part of what was once known as the Imperial City. Tour buses and other group vehicles are sometimes allowed to park in the lots along this route; if you are visiting the Forbidden City this way you may not have as far to walk.

An alternative is to go through the parks to the west and east of the ceremonial avenue: Zhongshan Park, which was formerly the Imperial Shrine of State, and the Beijing Labouring People's Cultural Hall, which was formerly the Imperial Shrine of Family. All three routes lead you to Meridian Gate Square.

To get to Tiananmen Square by public transport, take Beijing Subway Line 1 to Tiananmen West or Tiananmen East stations, or Beijing Bus routes 1, 2, 10, 52, 59, 82, 90, 99, 120, 126, 203, 205, 210, 728 to Tiananmen / Tiananmen Square. Travelers arriving this way will have to pass through a security checkpoint before being allowed in; on busy days the lines can stretch almost to the subway station exits.

If you are travelling by taxi, due to security restrictions it is usually not possible to get off at Tiananmen itself, so ask the driver to drop you as close to Tiananmen (天安门) as they can.

Exit is through the north gate (Gate of Divine Might) or the east gate. The north gate is on Jingshan Front Street and across the street from the south entrance of Jingshan Park. Bus routes servicing the exit gate are routes 101, 103, 109, 124, 202, 211, 609 and 685 at the Gugong stop. The north gate is convenient for the nearby Imperial gardens of Jingshan Park and Beihai Park (see Xicheng). The east gate is a convenient way to get back to Tiananmen Square or to get to the Wangfujing shopping and food area (see Dongcheng).

Get around

Plan of the Forbidden City. Labels in red are used to refer to locations throughout the article. ---- - – - Approximate dividing line between Inner (north) and Outer (south) Courts. ---- A. Meridian Gate
B. Gate of Divine Might
C. West Glorious Gate
D. East Glorious Gate
E. Corner towers
F. Gate of Supreme Harmony
G. Hall of Supreme Harmony
H. Hall of Military Eminence
J. Hall of Literary Glory
K. Southern Three Places
L. Palace of Heavenly Purity
M. Imperial garden
N. Hall of Mental Cultivation
O. Palace of Tranquil Longevity

The Forbidden City is usually described in two sections. The "Outer Court", in the south, was designed to be where the business of governing the empire was carried out, while the "Inner Palace", in the north, was the home of the Emperor and his family. The buildings are arranged along a central axis, and two subsidiary axes in the east and west.

The usual way to get around the Forbidden City is on foot.

Operating hours

The Forbidden City is open Tuesday through Sunday all year round, and on national holidays that fall on Mondays, and is open every day during the summer vacation period (1 July to 31 August). Hours as follows:

1 April – 31 October: 8:30 to 17:00 Last entry to museum galleries: 16:10 Last tickets are sold at 16:00

Summer vacation (in year 2014: 5 July to 24 August) hours: 8:00 to 17:00 Last entry to museum galleries: 16:10 Last tickets are sold at 16:00

1 November – 31 March: 8:30 to 16:30 Last entry to museum galleries: 15:40 Last tickets are sold at 15:30


1 April – 31 October: ¥60; 1 November – 31 March: ¥40

  1. For entrance to the Treasures Gallery (including the Stone Drum Gallery) and to the Clocks Gallery, additional 10-yuan tickets are required.
  2. Children under 120 cm in height are free of charge.
  3. Special ¥20 tickets are available for students enrolled in Chinese primary and secondary schools and universities with valid student ID or certified letter from the school administrator. This applies to foreign students and students from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, but excludes post-graduate and adult education students. However, it's worth an under-18 showing his/her passport and asking for a student ticket, as it can sometimes work.

Electronic-GPS-enabled audio guides are available after the security gates, prices are ¥20 for Chinese audio guides, ¥40 for foreign language audio guides (over 30 languages available). Many non-native English speakers prefer the English version even over those in their language, since it is narrated by Roger Moore, the English actor famous for playing James Bond during the 1970s and '80s.

Suggested itineraries

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the grand throne room - and crowds of tourists

The usual route for visitors is to follow the central axis, which starts from Meridian Gate and leads through the largest halls and palaces before reaching the Imperial Garden and exit through the Gate of Divine Might. There are various buildings and museum displays to the left and right of this main axis. Even on a full day's visit it would be difficult to see all of these, so it is best to plan ahead of time which you want to see, and take detours from the main axis to see them.

Some suggested itineraries if you are on a tight timetable:

A suggested itinerary if you have a full day:


One of the Emperor's thrones - this one equipped with a desk, for working meetings with his ministers
A "caisson" roof decoration in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity
Fearsome gilded lions guard the Inner Palace
Inside the Porcelain Gallery
The Inner River of the Golden Water meanders through a secluded part of the palace.
One of the Forbidden City's corner towers

Inside the Forbidden City

Outside the forbidden City



Food court near the Hall of Mental Cultivation

While there are some famous restaurants in the Forbidden City precinct (see listings below), dining options are limited in the Forbidden City itself. There are some cafes and kiosks, but the range is limited and prices are high. As gas fires are not permitted within the historical buildings, ready meals and noodles are the main hot food options, along with sandwiches. It is probably better and cheaper to bring your own packed lunch. A new restaurant with 500 covers is reportedly being planned for the Inner Palace area, in addition to the existing food court in the northwest near the Hall of Mental Cultivation.

Restaurants nearby include:



There is no accommodation for visitors inside the Forbidden City, but there are numerous options in the surrounding Dongcheng and Xicheng Districts.


Go next

If, like many visitors, your odyssey through the Forbidden City takes you from south to north and you leave via the latter gate, you may want to visit one of nearby parks and relax before you head back to where you're spending the night. Admission to Jingshan Park, just across Jingshan Front Street, costs ¥2 and gets you to the top of 45-meter (150-foot) Prospect Hill, the highest point in the ancient city of Beijing, built from the earth removed to create the moats. If you don't mind the climb, retracing the steps of the Chongzhen emperor, who hanged himself at the hilltop to end the Ming Dynasty in 1644, you'll get a lovely view over the palace you just spent the last few hours walking through, and (given clear enough weather and minimal smog) Tiananmen Square beyond and much of the rest of central Beijing. The park will be crowded on major tourist days due to its proximity to the North Gate, however.

Up for some more walking after you've refreshed yourself with a drink from one of the trucks outside the North Gate, and you'd rather not climb? Turn left and follow the moat or the street to the main entrance of Beihai Park, 500 m (800 ft) to the west. This much larger park (admission: ¥20) features a large beautiful lake with boats you can rent, restaurants, and the White Pagoda on Qiónghuá Island at the center, which offers a similar view to Jingshan's. It's a little less touristy, and on a nice weekend afternoon you'll find plenty of locals here taking it all in, giving it a similar vibe to Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London.

The Mukden Palace in Shenyang is a lot farther away, but if your journey through China takes you into Manchuria you might want to make arrangements to visit it as well. It was added to the Forbidden City's inscription as a World Heritage Site in 2005, as the other major surviving imperial palace in China. Built by the Qing emperors, who hailed from that region, it was modeled on its Beijing original, but features touches of Manchurian and Tibetan architecture as well.

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