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Visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing

by kasiawrites

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 the life at the court of the emperor 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. I couldn’t speak the local language or even follow the nuances I can normally 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. 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.

dragon statue at forbidden city in Beijing

Tourradar

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. 

Tiananmen Square on a smoggy day
woman in front of the gate to the forbidden city

The sky blended with the concrete of the streets and sidewalks. Every image I have seen 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 really.

Ironically, Tiananmen means “gate of heavenly peace.” Today, it is a more peaceful place. In the centre, you’ll find the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Mao’s Mausoleum 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 and 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. The last of them lived here up 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. That 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 really 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 just 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.

dragon statues on the roof of a building at the forbidden city beijing
building and marble gate with intricate designs at forbidden city
colorful details of ceiling panels at the palace museum
courtyard of a traditional chinese house

Visiting the Forbidden City

As you enter the main gate, you find yourself in a massive courtyard. First of the many others within the walls of this compound. The place is enormous and this is just the beginning. Keep in mind that you don’t exit the palace in the same place you enter, like in 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 as well, which are useful 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 design are so captivating; you can literally 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.

people in a large plaza inside the forbidden city

My impressions

The Forbidden City is really a city contained within walls. It is a lot easier to imagine yourself being transported back in time without the 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 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 just to enjoy a quick break.

metal turtle sculpture
woman posing by a ornate pillar overlooking water

Bringing it together

The Forbidden City is located in the heart of Beijing. 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 definitely 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 thought of it!

Visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing | kasiawrites
collage of images from forbidden city in beijing

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    thewonderer86
    16 Mar 2018
    3:30am

    I so understand why you love visiting places like this. How neat to walk in the footsteps of all those emperors. Have you read ‘The Last Empress’ by Anchee Min – it really brings the Forbidden Palace to life.

      kasiawrites
      16 Mar 2018
      11:11am

      I have not read it. Now I want to! Thank you for bringing that to my attention! 🤗 I’m a sucker for old places like that 😍

    wildeyedandwandering
    16 Mar 2018
    4:07am

    Having lived here in Beijing for three years now, I loved reading your perspective as a traveler on this quirky city. It’s an incredible place – intimidating, too. I remember that same culture shock you described. But even after all this time living here, I’m still always a half-step behind – better Mandarin skills only go so far! Thanks for sharing!!!

      kasiawrites
      16 Mar 2018
      11:12am

      Thank you so much! I am always curious to what people think of the destination I write about when they live there 🤗 I hope the pollution is my not always that bad! We were there for 3 days and it was this think fog like effect the whole time 😱

        wildeyedandwandering
        16 Mar 2018
        8:23pm

        Ah, well the pollution has gotten *so* much better these past few years. Still miserable when it hits, but they’re doing great keeping it at bay. Seeing a lot of blue skies this year!

    Anushree
    16 Mar 2018
    4:45am

    Such a nice account. I have never been to China (and don’t think will in the near future) so this was all new and exotic 😀

      kasiawrites
      16 Mar 2018
      11:13am

      I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it 😁

    Mel & Suan
    16 Mar 2018
    9:39am

    It would such an interesting thing to bring the documentaries and historical fiction movies in mandarin to live in English… then you will appreciate it even more!

      kasiawrites
      16 Mar 2018
      11:13am

      That would be simply increadible! 😍😍😍

    Larah
    16 Mar 2018
    9:12pm

    I love this post – and your blog! You remind me of myself a lot tbh!

      kasiawrites
      16 Mar 2018
      10:26pm

      Wow thank you! That’s pretty awesome 👭👊🏼

    SueT唐 梦 琇
    16 Mar 2018
    9:14pm

    As I lived in Beijing for three years I went there quite often with visitors. I loved being there and thoroughly love the history. What an incredible place and seeing it from nearby Jingshan Park for an aerial view was amazing too.

    I took my boss there once and as he has Chinese police protection when in China, we were lucky to have the Forbidden City part closed for us to walk through without anyone else. Only a short visit but managed to get some great photos without people in them (as you managed to do I see – well done)

    I can see why the Chinese would want to photograph you as a lot of the visitors are from other provinces and as you have blonde hair and pale skin, you would be someone they are not used to seeing – so you would be a ‘rock star’ to them to show their friends and relatives back in their local provinces!! Nice post.

      kasiawrites
      16 Mar 2018
      10:31pm

      Oh wow! That must have been exciting to live there! The Forbidden City is so huge! I was getting tired after a while. Would love to be able to go back, especially on a sunny day.

      I think I got some pics with no people because there weren’t as many of them as normal. It was a very bad day for pollution if I recall correctly. Probably deterred some. Lucky for me in the end!

      I wish I was a rock star! I guess my picture could now be hanging in someone’s home now! 🙈 I really hope that’s not true.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post 🤗

        SueT唐 梦 琇
        18 Mar 2018
        7:57pm

        Ah yes that pollution. Don’t miss that.

    ultimatetravel8
    17 Mar 2018
    10:22am

    It looks amazing! I must visit it one day.

      kasiawrites
      17 Mar 2018
      10:22am

      I highly recommend it!

        ultimatetravel8
        17 Mar 2018
        10:24am

        I’ve been to Hong Kong, but didn’t manager to go to the Forbidden City.

          kasiawrites
          17 Mar 2018
          10:26am

          I’ve been to Hong Kong too! Interesting place 👍🏼

            ultimatetravel8
            17 Mar 2018
            10:27am

            You have been nearly everywhere…very lucky!

              kasiawrites
              17 Mar 2018
              10:30am

              Come now! Coming from you! 😀 I think you have been everywhere! So many places I have not been to! Yet 😜

                ultimatetravel8
                17 Mar 2018
                10:32am

                I think we have been around. We should swap destinations next time.

                  kasiawrites
                  17 Mar 2018
                  10:32am

                  And maybe one day we’ll cross paths

    ultimatetravel8
    17 Mar 2018
    10:43am

    We never know! All the best.

    a mindful traveler
    18 Mar 2018
    4:04am

    Definitely a city rich in history. Would love to discover this country one day. 🙂

      kasiawrites
      18 Mar 2018
      11:17am

      For me it was very different than anything else I have ever seen. The Forbidden Palace is really incredible. I hope you get to go one day 🙂

    Jennifer | Stewie Overseas
    25 Mar 2018
    8:52am

    This is so cool! I’ve been to China once, but not Beijing. It’s so close to me, I really should go some day… I loved reading your post and seeing your photos. The Forbidden City looks amazing!

      kasiawrites
      25 Mar 2018
      10:07am

      Thank Jen! You should totally check it out! 👍🏼

    Razel Hollero
    13 May 2018
    11:51pm

    This post of yours is very very amazing. As amazing as the this place. If i have the chance to go to Beijing, this will definitely be on my list. Thank you for sharing! 🙂
    *tho the story of some people are taking pictures of you are quite funny at first. some asians are very fond of people from the western countries. it seems they’re seeing hollywood actors or something haha!*

      kasiawrites
      26 May 2018
      1:05pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, I did feel like a celebrity for a short moment ha ha

    thisramblingwoman
    21 Sep 2019
    10:08am

    Sounds like an amazing trip! I never knew how it had been given the name “forbidden” until reading this. While I suppose the name makes sense, it is underwhelming! That pollution in the sky sure is eerie.

      kasiawrites
      22 Sep 2019
      2:01pm

      Yes, the place itself was amazing. The sheer size of it is overwhelming. But the pollution was unlike anything I have experienced before. Yikes!

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