I’ve visited the Forbidden City over a half dozen times in the course of my visits and sojourn in Beijing. Here are a few ideas to make your visit more enjoyable.
- Start your visit by going to JinShan Park on the northern side of the Forbidden City. You can hike up to the top of the man made hill to a large pavilion that houses a large golden Buddha. From here you can look down into and across the Forbidden City. Make sure you also go to the opposite side and look towards the DiAnMen gate as well as the Drum and Bell Tower. This view gives you an appreciation for the Chinese sense of cardinality as the entire set of buildings and gates line up perfectly along the north-south axis. You also get a sense for the size of the Forbidden City. When your down inside wandering through its many mazes and corridors its easy to to loose a sense of its size.
- Enter from the Northern Gate. This is not the traditional entrance. As such its less crowded. Especially if you enter at opening time you’ll have a lot more freedom to walk around than if you fight the lines and crowds at the Southern entrance. This northern end of the city is the garden and living quarters. The ancient cyprus trees are impressive for their size and the way they have been cared for; many patched with boards and propped up with supports. There are many small corridors and walkways. Its possible even with all the crowds to actually at times be completely alone. Especially in the side corridors that run the length of this upper complex. In general if you want to get away from the crowds, just head to the left or right side areas of the city and you’ll find solitude.
- As you enter the Northern Gate keep an eye out for the tour guides. They might even find you. If you don’t see them outside, just inside the ticket gate is a courtyard and you can rent audio guides there (which I’ve never done) and you can also find guides there. They are relatively inexpensive by US standards, around 100-150 rmb ($15-20 USD) and they will greatly enhance your experience. Filling you in on the details of life in the courtyard and much of the symbolism.
- As you exit the northern living quarters you come into the middle section of the Forbidden City. This is a very large open courtyard that is filled with large halls of worship and thrones. These halls and the center land that leads from the next to the next are very crowded. There will be myriads of crowds of tourist groups all wearing matching hats and following their tour guide with their colored flag and little loudspeaker hooked to their belts. These main halls are worth seeing, especially the large marble carvings of dragons set in the middle of the large stair cases that lead up and down to the pavilions the halls stand upon. But again to avoid the crowds or to experience a few quieter moments, just stay to the left or right. You can walk across the courtyards or along the walkways on the edge of the large plaza. Here you’ll find 5% of the people. These courtyards are separated by very large gates and the central gate will be a zoo and the side gates will have hardly anyone.
- Make sure that you stop and set in the benches and soak up a sense of the place. Especially in the northern section with its many corridors and maze like buildings. You’ll find small enclosures with almost no people and you can sit and relax and ponder what it must have been like to seen this place at the height of its glory.
- As you exit the Southern Gate you have a very large set of outer courtyards to go through before you reach the TianAnMen Gate (The Gate of Heavenly Peace) that sits opposite ChangAn avenue from TianAnMen square. Its worth buying a ticket to climb to the top to overlook the square. You’ll have to check your bags first though as they don’t allow you to take them up on top of the Gate. It was here on this gate before a crowd of tens of thousands that Mao in 1949 stood and said : “Today the Chinese People have stood up”.
Well that’s it. I’d love to hear your tips for enjoying the Forbidden City and I’ll more if I think of any.