Exploring and Getting Trapped Inside Beijing’s Forbidden City

“We literally just want to walk through this gate and then we are there. I can see it from here! Why can’t we just walk through? Where are we meant to go? We just begged that guy at that gate to let us through to here… now we have to sneak back in? Or buy a ticket again? Where is an EXIT SIGN?!”

From the above statement, you can tell I was a little cranky… it had been a long, long, hot day in Beijing, our first day exploring the city. We’d had grand plans that day for what we wanted to see – The Forbidden City, Tian’namen Square across the road, and the National Museum of China just nearby. However, it was now 4.30PM and we found ourselves trapped – trapped inside Beijing’s Forbidden City and seemingly unable to exit…

Let’s go back to the beginning shall we?

Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we set off early that morning for our first sightseeing stop of the day – the Forbidden City, more commonly known today as the Palace Museum. The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world, and home to China’s best preserved building. It spans 74 hectares, and is surrounded by a 52 metre wide moat. It’s impressive to say the least.

A panorama of the Forbidden City.
A panorama of the Forbidden City.

Despite the fact that our hostel was a mere 2.6 km away from the Forbidden City, and we were just a 5 minute walk from the nearest subway stop, it took 3 line changes and nearly 45 minutes to make our way to the Forbidden City. We then had to line up for a security bag check to be allowed into the complex – another 25 minutes. Completely overwhelmed by how many people there were, we eventually found the ticket office, lined up for tickets and then lined up for a second security check to get inside the palace walls.

It took over two hours from leaving our hostel to finally getting inside the Forbidden City.

Somewhat exhausted after a rather trying morning, we made our way inside to begin our explorations. We decided to loosely follow the walking guide suggested by the Lonely Planet. We’d visit the various museums and exhibition halls on the eastern side of the complex, before reaching the North Gate and turning back around and coming through the middle of the complex to visit the various temples and gates – then back out the way we came in and across the road to Tian’namen Square.
– Note: This plan is flawed, as I’ll explain later…

It’s hard to describe the Forbidden City. The complex is so, so big – you just can’t take it all in. As you arrive in one courtyard – able to hold tens of thousands of people, the main temple at the northern end – you can’t begin to imagine the palace in it’s heyday. Then you move onto the next courtyard – even bigger than the first, with an even larger temple, the pagoda style rooftops of the surrounding buildings a bright orange-yellow in the sun. Then you notice the ornate details of the rooftops, the beams painted in stunning designs of red, blue and jade green – it’s completely mesmerising.

One of many courtyards of the Forbidden City.
One of many courtyards of the Forbidden City.
Up close details of the pagoda rooftops.
Up close details of the pagoda rooftops.

We found ourselves skulking along the outskirts of the palace, where there was a little shade – a slight respite from the glaringly hot sun. We escaped into the Ceramics Museum, where there was air-conditioning… oh, and also one of the largest Ceramics collections in the world, containing over 320,000 pieces…

Details of the ceiling inside the Ceramics Museum.
Details of the ceiling inside the Ceramics Museum.

We explored the less busier Palace of Peace and Longevity, in the north-eastern part of the Forbidden City – the palace was like a mini version of the Forbidden City as a whole, containing many museum exhibitions and galleries. There was an additional payment required for this section, but we thought it was well worth it. The ceramic glazed ‘Nine Dragon Screen’ – one of only three left in China was stunning, as were the treasury halls showing precious stones, jewellery, headwear and clothing. My favourite building in this part of the complex, was the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies – a three storey opera house, complete with trapdoors on the stage and displays of costumes and scripts!

The Nine Dragon Screen.
The Nine Dragon Screen.
The Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies - can you see the trapdoors?
The Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies – can you see the trapdoors?

Once we reached the northern end of the complex, we turned around to head back towards the start, passing by the magnificent halls and corresponding gates and courtyards on the way through. Each of one the great halls were used for different purposes, like the receiving of guests, preparation of speeches, ceremonial occasions, coronations and more.

Each hall ini the Forbidden City had two lion statues at the entrance. The male lion has his paw on a globe – symbolising the Emperor’s power. The female lion has her paw on a lion cub – symbolising the Emperor’s fertility.

The most magnificent of these halls is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the biggest and most important hall in all of the Forbidden City. Standing at over 30 metres tall, this is where the emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasties held wedding ceremonies and coronations, and is spectacularly decorated with gold and dragon motifs.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony - the grandest of the halls in the Forbidden City.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony – the grandest of the halls in the Forbidden City.

By the time we’d explored the last of the halls in the outer court, we’d been walking around the Forbidden City in the hot sun for about 5 hours. The day was quickly escaping us, and we were yet to pop over to Tian’anmen Square or the Museum. We made our way back to the Meridian Gate exit, only to be ushered towards the East Gate exit – unable to walk through.

Exiting through the East Gate, we walked along the moat outside the Palace walls, entering back into the complex and towards the Southern entrance, where Tian’anmen Square was located just across the road. But, we couldn’t cross. We couldn’t exit. We could pay to go up to a viewpoint – but that still wouldn’t get us there. We tried to communicate to the guards that we simply wanted to cross the road – after all, this was the same entrance we’d come through that morning – but now, the gates were closed, and the officers kept gesturing east.

After floundering around for more than half an hour, trying to find a way out – there’s literally no signage anywhere – we came to realise that the Forbidden city is designed so that you enter south – and exit north, or east. We’d basically done a 360, and had to backtrack all the way back out along the moat and towards the East Gate, AGAIN – where we’d just come from. From there, it was around a 1.5 kilometre walk through vendors to get back to the subway stop we’d arrived at that morning. It took more than an hour to finally exit the Forbidden City and to be on the right side of the walls to cross the road and visit Tian’anmen Square!

Somewhat pooped and sunburnt, we slowly trudged down the stairs to the subway station, took the exit to pop up on the right side of the road and went through two security checks to be able to check out Tian’anmen Square – the world’s largest public square, at 440 000 square metres. It was quite a surreal place to visit – there were hordes of police and snipers in the area, dozens of fire extinguishers and you’d NEVER seen so many security cameras – every light post had half a dozen pointing in different directions and I’m sure there were plenty more that we couldn’t see. Needless to say, we came, we saw, we took an obligatory selfie, and we left!

Tian'anmen Square, Beijing - you've never seen so much security in your life!
Tian’anmen Square, Beijing – you’ve never seen so much security in your life!

We never made it to the National Museum – the time it took to get to the Forbidden City, plus the enormity of the complex – and getting trapped inside – chewed up most of our day! It was a lesson learned – that when in China, not to over-plan your day! Commuting, dealing with crowds, and getting lost is all part of the parcel of exploring this country – but trust us, every frustration is totally worth it!

The Forbidden City is mind-blowing!
The Forbidden City is mind-blowing!


  • How do I get to the Forbidden City?
    The Forbidden City can be reached by either Tian’anmen East or Tian’anmen West Subway Stations – both are an equal distance from the entrance. You’ll have to pass through security twice – once from the roadside, and then again after you’ve purchased your tickets and before entering through the Meridien Gate.
  • Admission rules for the Palace Museum.
    Admission rules for the Palace Museum.

    How much does it cost to visit the Forbidden City?
    Tickets are currently priced at 60 RMB per adult – you will need your passport to purchase tickets, as all names are recorded. I didn’t have mine on me, but Mike did and was able to buy tickets under his name – don’t forget!
    Food and beverages are available inside the Forbidden City, but the stalls are few and the crowds can be huge so its worth bringing along your own snacks.

  • Extra tips for visiting the Forbidden City:
    We like to make mistakes, so that we can help you not too! As we learnt, entrance is through the south gate and you can exit via the east or the north gate – NOT back out the way you came. Factor this in when planning out your exploration route.The majority of the Forbidden City is completely open with little shade/cover so depending on the weather, bring a hat and sunscreen or an umbrella if its raining.It is possible to rent an audio guide to get a deeper understanding of the palace and what each of the buildings was used for. We rented one (40 RMB) however unlike a typical audio guide where you key in the number that corresponds to the sign at the sight you’re currently visiting – the audio guides here have no buttons other than pause, and work via GPS – that is, an inbuilt receiver in the guide determines out what location you’re at, and then starts its spiel. This was incredibly frustrating as A) 90% of the time it didn’t work at all B) when it did work, it was not getting the location right and therefore feeding through the wrong information and C) sometimes you just don’t want to listen to everything, but there’s no way to skip ahead… Don’t waste your money, and read the signs instead.
    If you’re planning to visit Tian’anmen Square (located just opposite the south gate) on the same day, we’d suggest visiting this FIRST, and then moving onto the Forbidden City. Trust us.

Have you visited the Forbidden City? Do you have any extra tips for visiting this spectacular sight? Please share them in the comments!

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Exploring & Getting Trapped Inside The Forbidden City

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