Along with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City (Zǐjìn Chéng, 紫禁城), or "former palace" (Gù Gōng, 故宫), is one of the must-see sights in Beijing. In the afternoon sunshine, the red walls and golden roof tiles cast a glow across the vast courtyards of this symbol of China's mighty imperial past.
If pressed for time, try to spend at least half a day exploring; if you have more time, consider return trips—the Forbidden City's stately spaces and myriad treasures are best lingered over.
Try to avoid weekends and holidays when crowds peak. If you're in a hurry, opting for a Forbidden City tour with a guide can help you understand the significance of what you're seeing; if you have time, you might choose to explore on your own with a guidebook.
The world's largest palace complex, the Forbidden City covers 720,000 sq m (861,113 sq yd). The southern Tian'an Gate (Tiān'ān Mén, 天安门) serves as the main entrance, though technically the Meridian Gate (Wǔ Mén, 午门) is the entrance to the Forbidden City while Tian'an Gate is considered the entrance to the entire Imperial City (Huáng Chéng, 皇城). Beyond the Meridian Gate, a vast courtyard extends toward the Gate of Supreme Harmony (Tàihé Mén, 太和门).
Thereafter, the complex is divided into two sections: the Inner Court's imperial living quarters and the Outer Court. The Outer Court begins with the massive Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tàihé Diàn, 太和殿), China's largest wooden structure.
This was a key site for the imperial court, where the highest-level official business took place, including ceremonies like the enthronement of the Crown Prince, the Emperor's birthday celebration and imperial marriages.
The hall is decorated with thousands of dragons, a traditional symbol of imperial power. Beyond lies the Midway Hall of Harmony (Zhōnghé Diàn, 中和殿), where the emperor prepared for public appearances. It was also used by the Emperor to take up agricultural matters—a crucial responsibility in times when poor harvests and the specter of famine could threaten imperial legitimacy.
The Inner Court truly begins with the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qiánqīng Gōng, 乾锟藉宫), where the emperor, his concubines and eunuchs lived (eunuchs were deemed harmless around the emperor's consorts, though they often proved dangerous when it came to court intrigue and power games).
During the Ming Dynasty, the Empress lived in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (Kūnníng Gōng, 坤宁宫), with the Hall of Union (Jiāotài Diàn, 交泰殿) standing between their quarters.
Finally, the Imperial Gardens (Yù Huāyuán, 御花园) lie beyond the Inner Court buildings, consisting of exquisitely landscaped grounds and more important structures, including the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yǎngxīn Diàn, 养心殿), which replaced the Hall of Heavenly Purity as the imperial residence during the 18th century, and the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (Níngshòu Gōng, 宁寿宫). A number of imperial artifacts are on view in various locations throughout the Forbidden City. Note that many buildings are sometimes being renovated and not everything is open to the public.