The Forbidden City is probably China’s most famous museum, and second only to the Great Wall as a tourist attraction. For nearly 500 years the 10m high walls have housed the Ming and Qing emperors up until 1911. It was opened to the public in 1925 and made a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.
In July 2011, the ticket office at the north gate (Gate of Divine Might, Shenwu Men) was closed, and visitors can only enter through the south gate (Meridian Gate, Wumen) and leave from the Gate of Divine Might.
Entrance tickets are 60rmb in the summer and 40rmb in the winter. If you’re severely short on funds it’s possible to enter the first courtyard for a taster before reaching the ticket office. Some other exhibits such as treasury or the Tian An Men Gate, where you can stand on the balcony above the portrait of Chairman Mao require additional tickets, usually about 10-15rmb each.
There are bag security checks and x-rays, although these seemed far more rigorous for Chinese visitors than those from overseas. In certain areas, bags have to be left in a cloakroom.
Major areas do have signs with historical information in Chinese and English, but these are a little sparse, so it’s worth hiring a guide, an audio guide or taking a (guide) book with you.
The audio guides are small boxes worn around the neck and come in 40 different languages. I was told it was narrated by Sir Roger Moore, but ours had a lady providing the commentary. An audio guide costs 40rmb, plus a 100rmb deposit and is available from the tour guide service at the Meridian Gate or the Gate of Divine Might.
This is also an easy place to find a human tour guide, although have a brief chat first to establish their proficiency in your language.
Alternatively, here are two printable guides:
You won’t be the only person there. On busy holidays, visitor numbers are limited to 80,000/day. Over the course of a year, 8 million people pass through the gates. Go early or late if you want to avoid the crowds. Gates open at 8.30am and the last visitors are admitted at 4pm.
Take water. Drinks inside are massively expensive. A small bottle of water in the first courtyard is about 7rmb (as opposed to the usual 2rmb), rising to 15rmb further inside. A not-very-good coffee or milkshake is nearer 35rmb. There used to be a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, but it was closed by public demand.
Dress comfortably – there’s not that much shade (and what there is tends to be full of school groups) so dress cool and take sunscreen or a parasol. Sensible shoes are also worthwhile as you may be walking for 3-4 hours, and be prepared to marvel at the number of people wandering the cobbled courtyards in 4-inch heels.
If it all gets too much, there are lots of cooler rooms off to the side, such as the Treasury. Many people walk the 961m straight through the middle from front to back, so these are less visited and it’s possible to get a brief respite from the crowds.
The easiest way to get there is via the subway. The Forbidden City is at the Tiananmen East or West stop on the Line 1 (the red one)
Taxis can’t stop right outside the south gate on Chang’an Avenue. Get dropped off slightly to the side of Tiananmen Square, and make the short walk through the underpass.
When exiting the Forbidden City, skip the touts and stationary taxis right outside the north gate, as they’ll charge a hefty waiting fee. Walk left or right (ideally towards the sun so you can get a photo of the turrents and 52m wide moat) then round the first corner and stand in the shade whilst you hail a cab.
Alternatively from the Gate of Divine Might, cross the street and go to Jingshan Park and climb the small central hill for some panoramic views over the Forbidden City and the rest of Beijing.