Image by Abe Yoffe 500px Images

Ringed by 3.5km of scarlet citadel walls at the very heart of Běijīng, the Unesco-listed Forbidden City is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings, and the largest palace complex in the world. Steeped in stultifying ritual and Byzantine regal protocol, this other-worldly palace was the reclusive home to two dynasties of imperial rule, sharing 900-plus buildings with a retinue of eunuchs, servants and concubines, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911.

'Forbidden City' is an approximation of the Chinese 紫禁城 (Zǐjìn Chéng), a poetic moniker that also references the colour purple and the cosmically significant North Star, the ‘celestial seat’ of the emperor. But officially, it's called the Palace Museum (故宫博物馆; Gùgōng Bówùguǎn), a public institution established in 1925 after Puyi, the last emperor, was evicted from the Inner Court. Most Chinese people simply call it Gù Gōng (故宫; Ancient Palace).

Official tour guides are available from ¥200 to ¥400 depending on how much ground you want to cover (inclusive for up to five people), but the automatically activated audio tours are cheaper (¥40; more than 40 languages) and more reliable. Restaurants, a cafe, toilets and even ATMs can be found within the palace grounds. Wheelchairs (¥500 deposit) are free to use, as are pushchairs/strollers (¥300 deposit). Allow yourself the best part of a day for exploration or several trips if you’re an enthusiast.

Due to the sheer scale of the Forbidden City, restoration is an ongoing endeavour, with ambitious plans to have 80% of the palace open to visitors by 2020 (in 2002, when the current restoration program began, only about 30% was accessible). In 2015, sections of the perimeter wall walkway opened, offering aerial views over the south of the complex. A year later, the Royal Icehouse saw the light of day, housing a restaurant that offers noodles and simple meals. Being a museum, exhibits come and go; check the regularly updated website to find out what's on.

Entrance

In former ages the penalty for uninvited admission was severe, although mere mortals wouldn't have even got close; the Imperial City girdled the Forbidden City with yet another set of huge walls cut through with four heavily guarded gates (including the Gate of Heavenly Peace, home to Mao's portrait). These days, tourists enter through the Meridian Gate, a massive U-shaped portal at the south end of the complex, which in former times was reserved for the use of the emperor. Gongs and bells would sound imperial comings and goings, while lesser mortals used lesser gates: the military used the west gate, civilians the east gate and servants the north gate. The emperor also reviewed his armies from here, passed judgement on prisoners, announced the new year’s calendar and oversaw the flogging of troublesome ministers. Up top is the Meridian Gate Gallery, which hosts temporary cultural exhibitions for both traditional Chinese arts and from abroad.

Through the Meridian Gate, you pass into a vast courtyard and cross the Golden Stream (金水; Jīn Shuǐ) – shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges – on your way to the magnificent Gate of Supreme Harmony. This space could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people. Turn left here for access to the perimeter wall.

First Side Galleries

Before you pass through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to reach the Forbidden City’s star attractions, veer off to the east and west of the huge courtyard to visit the Calligraphy and Painting Gallery inside the Hall of Martial Valor and the particularly good Ceramics Gallery, housed inside the creaking Hall of Literary Glory.

Three Great Halls

Raised on a three-tier marble terrace (mimicking the Chinese character 王, Wáng, meaning king) are the Three Great Halls, the glorious heart of the Forbidden City. The recently restored Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City. Built in the 15th century and restored in the 17th century, it was used for ceremonial occasions, such as the emperor’s birthday, the nomination of military leaders and coronations. Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is a richly decorated Dragon Throne (龙椅; Lóngyǐ), from which the emperor would preside over trembling officials. The entire court had to touch the floor nine times with their foreheads (the custom known as kowtowing) in the emperor’s presence. At the back of the throne is a carved Xumishan, the Buddhist paradise, signifying the throne’s supremacy. Look out for an innocuous plinth displaying a bronze, boxy object called a Jiā liàng. It’s a measure used to portion five standard unit sizes of grain, a prosaic reminder that here was the absolute crux of Chinese power, ruling over a vast empire.

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the smaller Hall of Central Harmony which was used as the emperor’s transit lounge. Here he would make last-minute preparations, rehearse speeches and receive close ministers. On display are two Qing dynasty sedan chairs, the emperor’s mode of transport around the Forbidden City. The last of the Qing emperors, Puyi, used a bicycle and altered a few features of the palace grounds to make it easier to get around.

The third of the Great Halls is the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for banquets and later for imperial examinations. The hall has no support pillars. To its rear is a 250-tonne marble imperial carriageway embellished with carved dragons and clouds, crafted elsewhere and conveyed into Běijīng on a temporary road made of ice. The emperor would have been carried aloft over this scene in his sedan chair as he ascended or descended the terrace. The outer housing surrounding the Three Great Halls was used for storing gold, silver, silks, carpets and other treasures.

A string of side halls on the eastern and western flanks of the Three Great Halls usually, but not always, house a series of excellent exhibitions, ranging from scientific instruments and articles of daily use to objects presented to the emperor by visiting dignitaries. One contains an interesting diorama of the whole complex.

Lesser Central Halls

The basic configuration of the Three Great Halls is echoed by the next group of buildings. Smaller in scale, these buildings were more important in terms of real power, which in China traditionally lies at the back door.

The first structure is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a residence of Ming and early Qing emperors, and later an audience hall for receiving foreign envoys and high officials.

Immediately behind it is the Hall of Union, which contains a clepsydra – a water clock made in 1745 with five bronze vessels and a calibrated scale. There’s also a mechanical clock built in 1797 and a collection of imperial jade seals on display. The Palace of Earthly Tranquillity was the imperial couple’s bridal chamber and the centre of operations for the palace harem.

Imperial Garden

At the northern end of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden, a classical Chinese garden with 7000 sq metres of fine landscaping, including rockeries, walkways, pavilions and ancient cypresses. Before you reach the Gate of Divine Prowess, the Forbidden City’s north exit, and Shùnzhēn Gate, which leads to it, note the pair of bronze elephants whose front knees bend in an anatomically impossible fashion, in deference to imperial power.

Treasure Gallery

In the northeastern corner of the complex is a mini Forbidden City known as the Treasure Gallery, or Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity (宁寿全宫; Níng Shǒu Quán Gōng). During the Ming dynasty, the Empress Dowager and the imperial concubines lived here. Today it comprises several atmospheric halls, pavilions, gardens and courtyard buildings that hold a collection of fine museums.

The complex is entered from the south – not far from the unmissable Clock Exhibition Hall. Just inside the entrance, you’ll find a beautiful glazed Nine Dragon Screen, one of only three of its type left in China.

From there you work your way north, exploring a number of peaceful halls and courtyards before popping out at the northern end of the Forbidden City. On route, seek out the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, a three-storey wooden opera house, which was the palace’s largest theatre. Note the trap doors that allowed actors to make dramatic stage entrances.

Western & Eastern Palaces

A dozen smaller palace courtyards lie to the west and east of the three lesser central halls. It was in these smaller courtyard buildings that most of the emperors actually lived and many of the buildings, particularly those to the west, are decked out in imperial furniture. Those that are open to the public have cultural exhibitions displaying anything from temple musical instruments to ceremonial bronze vessels and ceramics.

Other Attractions

Previously off-limits areas of the palace are opening all the time, such as the Garden of Compassion and Tranquility in the western half of the complex, a place where empress dowagers and their consorts worshipped the Buddha, and now home to a display of religious artefacts. Set within Dōnghuámén, the Forbidden City's east gate, is a very good exhibition on ancient architecture.