forbidden city

Visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing

As a history buff, I was thrilled to visit Beijing when I went to China. With over 3,000 years of history, this is the oldest place I have ever been to! Being that I love architecture and history, you can understand my excitement about visiting the Forbidden City.

The former home of Chinese emperors is a massive complex of buildings, open spaces and intricate designs. You can spend a lot of time just walking around and imagining what life at the emperor’s court was like.

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The lure of the Orient

China was by far the most exotic place I have ever been to. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where I didn’t blend in. It was unlikely that I would be mistaken for a local, and I couldn’t speak the local language or even follow the nuances I generally pick up when I’m in a foreign land.

It was weird, and I expected as much. What I didn’t expect was the attention my presence generated. People would stop and want to take pictures with me, and others just blatantly photographed me without even asking for permission. It was amusing at first but became intrusive as time went by. They clearly thought I was someone important. How disappointed they must have been when they realized I wasn’t.

Looking back, I must have been just as exotic to the Chinese as their culture and country were to me. I marvelled at the architecture, so different from what I’m used to, yet similar in many ways. How did the ancient Chinese live? What were their days like? It was all so intriguing.

forbidden city
A statue at the Forbidden City.

Tiananmen Square

Before visiting the Forbidden City, you find yourself in Tiananmen Square as that is the way to enter. We were there on a very polluted day, so everything was coated in gray. 

forbidden city
forbidden city

The sky blended with the concrete of the streets and sidewalks. Every image of this place – the tanks, the army, the massacre – was coming back to me as I stood there, watching the very different place it is today. It felt strange and eerie, to say the least—a dark tourism moment.

Ironically, Tiananmen means “gate of heavenly peace.” Today, it is a more peaceful place. You’ll find the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Mao’s Mausoleum in the centre, where you can see his body on display. Flanking the square are many government buildings and museums.

The entrance to the Palace Museum complex is through a big red wall that dates back to the Ming dynasty. On it hangs Mao’s portrait, which is probably one of the most recognizable images of Beijing.

What is the Forbidden City?

The Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum, dates back to 1420. It was home to 24 Chinese Ming and Qing emperors for centuries, and the last of them lived here until 1924. It was only in 1949 that the Forbidden City opened to the public.

If you have wondered where the name “forbidden” comes from, you are not alone. As it was the home of the emperors and their court, regular folks were forbidden from entering, which gave the palace its name. Not as dramatic as I imagined.

This royal palace is unlike any other I have ever seen. It is very different in style, structure and functionality from other royal homes turned museums. The Forbidden City is a complex of buildings surrounded by courtyards, plazas and intricate walls. You are walking from one place to the next instead of being inside one large building.

Those that ruled China and their underlings lived and worked in this elaborate complex of buildings and courtyards.  You can imagine them gliding across the stone walkways from one elegant building to the next. Running seems less dignified, although I’m sure there were times when that was required.

forbidden city
forbidden city
forbidden city
forbidden city

Visiting the Forbidden City

As you enter the main gate, you find yourself in a massive courtyard, the first of the many others within the walls of this compound. The place is enormous, and this is just the beginning. Remember that you don’t exit the palace in the same place you enter, like many other places. The visit can take hours, so it’s probably a good idea not to leave anything here. That way, you don’t have to backtrack to come back.

We didn’t do a tour, which probably would have been a lot more informative than trying to do this on your own. I believe there are audio guides available, which are helpful if you want to know more about what buildings were used for and who used them.

I will admit that the Forbidden City is overwhelming. The sheer size of the place is impressive. The intricate details in the design are captivating; you can stay there for hours just looking around you. After all, you are walking on the paths walked by emperors of centuries gone by.  I don’t know about you, but that is so cool.

forbidden city

My impressions

The Forbidden City is a city contained within walls. It is much easier to imagine yourself being transported back in time without modern distractions like cars and skyscrapers. Well, once you can block out all the people around you, that is. It gives you a glimpse into a time of imperial China.

I noticed that there are no massive gardens here, so common in the European design of royal residences. However, the Imperial Gardens, quite impressive in their own right, are closer to the living quarters of the emperors. Definitely worth checking out, even to enjoy a quick break.

forbidden city
forbidden city

Bringing it together

The Forbidden City is located in the heart of Beijing, and it has beaten strong for centuries, no matter who ruled over it. As much as the city is changing, this part of it remains the same. It’s a fascinating throwback to a different time and, for me, a very different culture. Visiting the Forbidden City is an example of that.

I am still fascinated by this place: the history, the architecture. I have seen numerous documentaries about it, and now I can say that I’ve been there.

Have you ever been to Beijing? Did you visit the Forbidden City? Let me know what you think of it!

forbidden city
forbidden city

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