For full Beijing itinerary suggestions, see this post.
For tips on how to plan your trip to China, see this post
How to get there
The route for a visit of the Forbidden city goes from South to the North simply because you are only allowed to enter from South and exit from the North side of the city.
If you are coming after visiting the Tiananmen square, you will have to cross the street through underground passage. The passage will be on your left, towards the west.
You can also come to the city from the Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West metro stations located nearby.
While planning my trip, I was rather confused about what to visit, as I like planning everything in advance and not missing the things I want to see. People kept saying, that you won’t be able to see everything anyway, so you have to choose. I didn’t want to just visit the major buildings, so I looked for the most comprehensive map of the area I could find.
This map from TravelChinaGuide seemed like the most comprehensive and it helped quite a lot.
You can buy tickets at the Forbidden city itself. All Chinese have to have online tickets in advance and only foreigners are allowed to buy them on the spot. But one thing we didn’t realize was that to get to the ticket booth, which isn’t indicated here, you will have to go through several gates. That confused us quite a lot, as I expected to find ticket office somewhere at the very entrance. But we passed three gates and still didn’t see the ticket booth. So we found a guard and showed him the Google translate with the question on how to find the booth. Apparently, we still had to pass a big courtyard, before we got to the ticket booth on our right-hand sight. The booth is next to the security check, so you shouldn’t worry, as you won’t easily miss it, just keep in mind that it isn’t at the very entrance, you should pass several gates and courtyards to get there.
Don’t forget to bring your passport, as it is your ticket. I guess the only English phrase the people at the palace know is: “passport is your ticket” 😊. The tickets cost 60 yuans and 20 – for the students. I also wanted to get the tickets for the clock museum and treasury (10 yuans each), but I couldn’t make them understand. But don’t worry, you can get these tickets inside as well. Just make sure to be at these ticket offices before 3.30 pm, as they close early, while the two museums close at 4pm, an hour before the whole site closes at 5pm. In winter they close even earlier, as the city closing time is 4.30pm.
How much time do you need?
It depends how much of the City you want to see. If you follow the route below and want to see most of the things around, it will take you from 4 hour to the whole day, depending on your pace. We did spend the whole day there, entered at about 9.30 and exited by about 4.45 pm and headed up the Jingshan park to see the views over the forbidden city.
I won’t tell you the history of the palaces, as you can read in numerous places that the City was built at the beginning of the 15th century and that it was forbidden for the commoners to enter, that’s how it got its name. I will just give you my observations and a guide on how to visit it.
We entered the Meridian gate at about 9.30am. The crowds at that time was manageable. There was no queue at the tickets booth and we passed the security check quickly. However, an hour later far more people, and especially tour groups arrived. So, as other travel guides suggest, arriving early will really give you some time with a bit less crowds. This is the photo of the security queues and how crowded it got already after 10pm.
To get a good picture of the gate of Supreme Harmony and of the water bridges, after you pass the Meridian Gate, you should go to the left or right of it, where you will find less people and will actually be able to breathe 😊
Another way to hide from the crowds time after time is to go to the smaller buildings on the right and left of the main courtyards. It gets quite suffocating, after being here for a while with so many people. So, do check out the Hall of the Literary glory (see on the map on the right side of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. We did like it and there were very few people around.
Around those side buildings, you will find many people walking around in the traditional outfits. I am not sure, if they are paid by the administration to do so, or if they just are there for photoshoots. Either way, you can get photos of them without a problem, if you ask.
We also climbed up the Meridian gate. It has some nice views, if you have time and energy to do so.
Next, we followed the main route passing the Halls of Supreme Harmony, Central Harmony and Preserved Harmony. The first was the main site for celebrations held during the Qing dynasty.
The smaller building behind – the Hall of Central Harmony was the site, where the emperor stayed the night before the celebration and where he met the high-ranking persons.
All the halls are closed off and you aren’t able to enter them. You can only get a peek inside, if you manage through all the huge tourist groups. But the exterior is beautiful, so you can sit and marvel at these amazing buildings.
Btw, do look at the roofs. In the corners you will see a number of dragons preceded by the Emperor sitting on a dragon.
Apparently, the roof eaves and the number of them tells you the importance of the building and the people living in it. The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10 eaves (I didn’t count them, just read about this 😊
The Clock museum and Treasury (buy tickets separately)
After passing the Gate of Preserved Harmony, I suggest to go to your right and to visit Hall for Ancestral Worship, where the clock museum is located. You can buy the tickets in front of the Hall entrance and they cost 10 yuans (or you can buy tickets in advance at the main ticket office). As I mentioned this ticket booth and the museum close earlier than the City closing time, so be here early.
Next, do visit the Treasury. It really is worth your time and the additional 10 yuans (you can buy the ticket at the entrance or at the main ticket office). When you enter, you will find the Nine dragon screen. Then you can enter the halls to marvel at the interesting golden and silver, marble and coral and other valuable objects from the Imperial times.
Do go through the whole length of the treasury. The Hall of pleasant sounds houses the theatre stage built in the 18th century. Also visit the Hall of Joyful Longevity and the Qianlong garden.
Do wonder around these buildings, enter the small places, you will find some nice corridors and pavilions, which may be less crowded.
After you exit on the North-East side, head to visit the six Eastern palaces, the passages are the most interesting for me here.
After this get into the main courtyards again to visit the Inner court. The Hall of Heavenly Purity was the residence of emperors, before moving it to the Hall of Mental Cultivation. After this, you will see the Halls of Celestial and Terestrial Union and Earthly Tranquility.
The Hall of Mental Cultivation, where the emperors resided (after the residence was moved from the Hall of Heavenly Purity), is located on the west side of the main courtyards. It was under renovation, when we visited in 2019. It should be reopened by the end of 2020, as far as I understood.
Finish your visit by wondering around the Imperial garden. Unlike the tranquil and cute gardens, you will find in some places in Suzhou, for instance, this is an extremely crowded, loud and small place. But you will still get an idea of how a traditional Chinese garden looked like with its many symbols, such as pavilions, water, stones, round gates.
What to do next
As I mentioned above, you can’t exit from the South. You have to finish your visit in the North side of the City. After exiting the Gate of Divine Prowess, it would be rather difficult to find any transport to leave the area. The nearest metro stations are quite a long walk away and figuring out the routes of the buses is really complicated, as there is no English information online or on the spot.
I suggest heading up the Jingshan park hill. Most photos of the full view of Forbidden City you will see everywhere, like this one below, are shot from here.
For this, you will have to cross the street. You will find the underground passage on your left after exiting the city. The Jingshan park tickets cost 2 yuans and the climb of over 300 stairs is definitely worth it. Find the rest of the information about visiting the park and other sites in Beijing here.