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How to Visit the Forbidden City — for Discerning Travelers

The Forbidden City and its moatThe Forbidden City and its moat

The Forbidden City is a palace complex in the center of Beijing. It is the largest imperial palace in the world. A visit to the ‘Palace Museum’ can be a wondrous time, or frustrating and exhausting because of its large scale.

Follow our tips and advice to make your trip more relaxing and enjoyable. Alternatively, you could contact our travel advisors for a tailor-made trip to Beijing including the palace.

What to See in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City consists of 980 buildings with more than 8,700 rooms, and holds extensive collections of relics. We recommend you include in your tour the main halls, the priceless collections, and some spots with interesting legends and anecdotes.

6 Popular Halls and Our 4 Recommendations

The six halls on the central line of the complex are the most popular and the most important. Most tour groups only go through these six halls plus a visit to the imperial garden at the end of the tour.

We understand you may hate the idea of only scratching the surface of the palace’s mysteries and getting caught in the milling crowds.

We recommend these less-visited halls to the sides of the central axis, for a deeper understanding of the history and culture, and to avoid crowds.

  • Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Dian) was the emperor's bedchamber and office.
  • Palace of Compassion and Tranquility (Cining Gong) was where wives of the emperors lived.
  • Hall of Literary Profundity (Wenyuan Ge), the only building covered by a green roof, was the royal library.
  • Palace of Prolonging Happiness (Yanxi Gong), also known as "Crystal Palace", is the only Western-style building, preserved in its unfinished state.

Our 4-Day Emperor Tour offer travelers the opportunity to explore these hidden halls and the history and stories behind them.

5 Exhibitions — Explore the Extravagance of the Emperors

A palace treasure in the Forbidden CityA palace treasure in the Forbidden City

There are more than a million works of art in the Palace Museum collections, including ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, and bronzes.

A visit to some of these collection halls will allow you to have a glimpse of the luxurious life of the palace in centuries gone by.

The main exhibitions are:

  • The Clocks Gallery in the Hall of Ancestral Offerings (Fengxian Dian)
  • The Treasures Gallery in the Palace of Tranquil Longevity (Ningshou Gong)
  • The Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery in the Hall of Military Eminence (Wuying Dian)
  • The Porcelain and Ceramics Gallery in the Hall of Literary Glory (Wenhua Dian)
  • Bronzeware Gallery in the Palace of Celestial Favor (Chengqian Dian)

A Hilltop View — Marvel at the Magnitude of the Complex

A Forbidden City view from Jingshan ParkEnjoy an elevated view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park.

We advise you to add a literal overview of the ‘Crimson Palace’ complex, an opportunity overlooked by most travelers or tour groups. Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the palace from Jingshan Park, and marvel at its scale and integrated fengshui design.

Most sweeping Forbidden City photos, which may have inspired you on social media, are taken from Jingshan Park.

Our specialists have explored all the facets of the Forbidden City and uncovered the best things to see. They can use their first-hand knowledge to help you decide where to go and what to see, and help create an unique tour for you.

Recommended Palace Tour Routes

We understand that, after a long journey to get to Beijing, you probably won’t want to rush through the museum in only 2 hours. Allow half a day if you want to travel at an enjoyable pace, or learn more about the imperial palace.

The Standard Tour Route

The emperor's throne in the Forbidden CitySee what the emperor's throne looks like in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The 2-hour route follows the central axis to see the largest, but nevertheless similar, six halls along with some museum displays to the left and right of this main axis, and a garden at the end.

This briefest of tours can give you a quick snapshot of the Forbidden City. Expect to be overrun by herds of tourists, getting bogged down or driven aside by the fight-to-the-front, as you try to catch a glimpse of what the timeworn commentary and Chinese cacophony is about.

A Refreshing Half-Day Itinerary: Escape to the Tranquil Side Halls

Want to stay away from the noisy parts of the regular tourist route? Desire to go deep into the history and culture of the Forbidden City? Our half-day itinerary is a great option.

The Forbidden City side hallsEscape from the noisy parts of the regular tourist route and follow an experienced guide to explore the tranquil side halls.

It includes the must-see main palaces (at times when the crowds part) and some lesser known ones, built in different styles and serving different functions, priceless displays, and the bird’s eye view from Jingshan (aptly named ‘Scenery Hill’).

The Best Times to Visit and Ways to Avoid Crowds

The peak travel season for the Forbidden City is from April to October; the low season is from November to March.

From our experience, the best time to visit the Forbidden City is from mid-October to the end of November. This short autumn season boasts comfortable temperatures and fewer crowds.

The Forbidden City is always more crowded during weekends and Chinese public holidays such as National Day Holiday (October 1–7) and Labor Day Holiday (May 1–3).

To avoid crowds, we suggest that you:

  • Try to arrive either at the 8.30am opening time or in the afternoon, after 2pm.
  • Visit during the winter low season, if the dry and cold weather and greatest smog levels wouldn’t detract too much from your experience.
  • Try to avoid the central axis, which is often crammed with large Chinese tour groups.

Travel with us to skip the lines at the entrance, and avoid the rat-race-route.

Expertly Guided or Self Guided? — Make the Expert Choice

Visiting the Forbidden City with China Highlights' expertOur guide shows pictures or videos on his iPad to help customers to have a better understanding of the Forbidden City.

A knowledgeable and well-spoken guide is essential. A good guide will help you discover the stories and culture behind the imperial halls, making your trip more fun and inspiring.

This review from TripAdvisor sums it up quite well:

“Without her (the guide), I think I would have been walking around aimless. So much to see and take in, it is gargantuan and gets a bit samey.”Aisling B, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Three options are available: rent an audio guide, hire a guide at the museum, or have a private guide included in your private tour (as we do).

A private guide is recommended for the best quality experience. He/she can answer your questions, navigate the crowds, and lead you to the best spots for photos.

Practical Travel Tips

  • 1. The Palace Museum limits its daily number of visitors to no more than 80, 000. Tickets are usually sold out every day in the high season. So try to arrange your tickets in advance.
  • 2. Enjoy a private tour in which your tickets are included. Save your time avoid lining up to purchase tickets.
  • 3. Wear comfortable walking shoes! You will be walking or standing for at least 2 hours. Think warmth in winter; breathable in summer. Heel-less sandals are seen as disrespectful.
  • 4. Remember to take your passport for ticket booking and the security check.
  • 5. For the best experience do some background reading first, and maybe watch a movies like the The Last Emperor.
  • 6. If visiting in summer, bring a cap, sunglasses and sun screen for sun protection as the outdoor parts of the museum offer little shade.
  • 7. Food and drink: Restaurants, cafes, and kiosks in the museum are limited in variety, and prices are high. It is probably better and cheaper to bring your own snacks and water. Or select a nearby restaurant for your meal when you finish your trip.
  • 8. A free luggage storage service is available at both the entrance and exit.
  • 9. Stroller and wheelchair rentals: limited number and deposit required.
  • 10. Disabled-friendly facilities: The museum is designed to be friendly to wheelchair users, with barrier-free access.

Discover More Hidden Secrets of the Forbidden City with Us

The Forbidden CityTravel with our expert tour designers and guides to discover more hidden secrets of the Forbidden City.

If you are seeking a real journey of discovery, a private tour with a knowledgeable guide is the best option.

Having explored the Forbidden City at least 50 times each, our local guides are familiar with every corner of the Palace Museum. They are skilled at making your trip informative and enjoyable.

Tell us your requirements and one of our specialists will be in touch to plan a unique trip for you.

Here are some sample itineraries for your inspiration: