The Forbidden City: Not So Forbidden Any More

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The Forbidden City.

Even the name makes you want to know more, doesn't it?

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City — all 7.8 million square feet of it — was built in present-day Beijing, China, between 1406 and 1420 to serve as the seat of Chinese government during the Ming Dynasty. Yes, that's right — this whole sprawling city was built in less than 15 years.

It went on to house 24 Chinese emperors of both the Ming and Qing dynasties and their households over a span of nearly 500 years — all the way up until 1912, when China's last emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated (though he continued to live there until 1924).

The “Forbidden City” is aptly named. When it was home to China's emperors, it was forbidden to the greater population. In fact, commoners were not even permitted to approach the City's moat or defensive walls.

Forbidden City

It's a very different scene these days.

These days, Beijing's Forbidden City isn't so forbidden any more. In fact, today, the palatial wonder is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China, second only, perhaps, to the Great Wall.

While the walls and moats (yes, there are two) still exist, a steady stream of tourists can always be seen entering the City's gates, eager to explore the compound's 980 buildings and acres of walkways.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

And, if you've ever visited the Forbidden City, it's probably not difficult to understand why it draws millions of visitors — both foreign and domestic — each year.

Forbidden City

Today, Beijing's Forbidden City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having gained the distinction in 1987. It's listed by UNESCO as the world's largest palace complex.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Walking through the City — no matter how crowded it is — is pretty awe-inspiring. The colors and architecture are what you probably imagine when you think of “China.” And there's a reason for this — the Forbidden City was the inspiration for similar building techniques across East Asia and beyond.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The colors of the Forbidden City are vibrant reds, blues and greens, with plenty of yellow and gold, as well. Yellow was the color reserved for the emperor, and thus all the buildings have roofs of yellow-gold tile.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

If you look closely at some of the eaves on the roofs of buildings, you'll see little figurines lined up there. The number of figures denotes the building's importance; the more little statues, the more important the building.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China
This building on the left was more important than the one on the right.

Many of the buildings — palaces in and of themselves — come with some pretty impressive-sounding names, too. The Hall of Supreme Harmony. The Palace of Heavenly Purity. The Hall of Mental Cultivation. The Palace of Earthly Tranquility. … Kind of makes “The White House” pale in comparison, doesn't it?

Hall of Preserving Harmony, Beijing, Forbidden City, China
Throne in the Hall of Preserving Harmony

Well, actually, the Forbidden City makes a lot of things pale in comparison. While Beijing has evolved into a modern city with a booming economy, the city of the emperors still manages to outshine it. Part of what I love about old cities is the ability to walk out the door of a modern hotel, cross the street, and enter into something like this — ancient, beautiful, and full of centuries worth of history.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China

And if you're looking for slightly more modern Chinese history, be sure to either enter or exit the Forbidden City via Tiananmen Gate, which connects to the infamous Tiananmen Square. This is the gate adorned with a large photo of communist leader Mao Zedong, and might be one of the most photographed buildings in the entire City.

Tiananmen Gate, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China
Tiananmen Square

Even though you may have to wade through crowds at the Forbidden City during the high season, I still highly recommend visiting the site if you're in Beijing. Avoid the large group tous, and either do an audio tour or just go it on your own.

In the end, the swarm of tourists is there for a reason — because this really is a place worth exploring in China.

Beijing drum tower, China
Drum tower near Tiananmen Square

Have you been to the Forbidden City before? If so, what was your experience like?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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34 Comments on “The Forbidden City: Not So Forbidden Any More

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  1. Great Photos of Forbidden City! Nowadays, Forbidden CIty has welcoming thousands of visitors daily and result in the Forbidden CIty to be no more Forbidden. However, the area in the Forbidden City where vistitors can go around is just a very small portion of the actual area of the ancient palace. Anyway, it is really magnificent, on both its size and its design.

    This looks AMAZING. I can’t wait to get there someday. =)

      It is definitely worth experiencing! Though I can definitely recommend visiting in the off-season, when there aren’t so many huge groups moving through the site at the same time.

    Nice shots and info. China travelers might also enjoy these quick (2:37) slideshows I’ve made from a 2008 trip to China:

    50Fotos — Beijing & The Great Wall, China

    50Fotos — Xian & Terracotta Warriors, China

    50Fotos — Yangtze River & Three Gorges Dam, China

    50Fotos — Guilin & Li River, China

    50Fotos — Chengdu & Giant Pandas, China

    50Fotos — Hong Kong, China

    50Fotos — Children of China

    Love the photos! I feel like I’m there in China’s Forbidden City. Great post.

      Thanks, Leslie! That’s definitely what I was going for — making you feel like you’re there. So I’m happy to know I succeeded!

    WOW there are a lot more people than when I went back in 2007! Crazy!

      Actually, this WAS in 2007! November, 2007, to be exact. I was traveling with a large group (a marching band of about 100), so a lot of the people you see in my shots are my fellow band members!

    The forbidden city was amazing to visit but we chose the hottest day of the year to visit – ouch.

      I remember your post on it! And I remember being very glad that I visited in late fall, when it was much, much cooler. But I’m glad you guys were still able to enjoy it, despite the heat and tons of tourists!

    Ah the Forbidden City. I had the pleasure of going there 4 times during my year in China with people visiting me and such. The size of it always blows my mind, not to mention the insane amount of people that come to visit it.

    The thing about all those people walking around the Forbidden City is that most of them aren’t even Beijingers. They are families that have saved up for a long long time to take their family to the heart of Beijing to see this and to really experience the country’s history. It’s amazing.

    I personally loved the Temple of Heaven more because it was much more peaceful, but I’ll never forget the Forbidden City. I also just like things that make me feel I’m resisting authority when I got to them haha. 😛

    Thanks for sharing the photos and taking me back to my time in China!

      I’m glad I could bring back some good memories for you!

      And I did notice while traveling around China (in both Shanghai and Beijing) that most of the tourists we saw were Chinese themselves. But I think it’s great that they travel to see their own country. More people need to do that!

    Wow! These pictures took me back to watching Curse of the Golden Flower – the most expensive Chinese film to date also filmed in the Forbidden City. I always wondered where it was filmed….

      The Forbidden City certainly would be a pretty epic location to film a movie!

    great shots, man what a colorfull place!

      Thanks, Greg! And yes, it’s so colorful! Glad you liked the post.

    Great photos Amanda, I really like the architectural details.

      Thanks, Ayngelina. I don’t think it’s tough to get some good shots here, though. There’s SO MUCH to photograph.

    never been there, but would love to go! what names too- want to LIVE in a place called “The Hall of Supreme Harmony” 🙂

      Well, I’m sure you could just rename your apartment or house! Haha.

    So this is unrelated to the entry (although my folks loved the Forbidden City and I’m now very keen to check it out someday) – but while traveling NZ I couldn’t help but hearken back to your entries on the country. Next time I go back I totally intend to follow in your LOTR footsteps 🙂

      Aww, you thought of my blog while in NZ? That’s awesome. If ever you need tips of geeky LOTR stuff, just let me know!

      But back on subject… you should definitely check out the Forbidden City if ever you find yourself in Beijing.

    Nice photos! I remember going here back in 2004. It was in the middle of summer and absolutely packed with tourists. Did you find the Starbucks? I thought that was American Imperialism at its best.


      I’ve actually heard they removed the Starbucks! People were so angry about it being there that they closed it down a few years ago. I don’t think it was there when I was in Beijing.

      I went in November, and while there were some crowds, it wasn’t packed to where you couldn’t move. Same with the Great Wall. So I’d definitely recommend going in the off-season!

    Ever since seeing the movie “The Last Emperor” I have always wanted to go and visit the forbidden city myself one day. Definitely looks like a place where you want to go as early as possible to avoid being surrounded by lots of other tourists.

      Either go early, or go in the off-season. Or, just don’t follow the “typical” tourist path that all the tour groups take through the city. If you simply take a different route than everyone else, you won’t run into those huge crowds!

    Been there twice, loved it! But the Summer Palace is definitely my fave of the 2. 🙂

      I just can’t get over how HUGE it is! It’s so impressive.

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