Our favourite thing about travelling is seeing how people live their daily life. We like exploring smaller, less tourist-y neighbourhoods, eating street food like the locals, and sitting in average cafes just to watch the world go by. But there are some tourist attractions that you feel like you can’t miss, like visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’ An.
So during our recent trip to Beijing, it seemed inevitable to visit the Forbidden City, a complex of ancient palaces used during the Qing dynasty. It’s one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the world, and yet we walked away only giving the experience a 6.5 out of 10. But if we had done things a little different, we think we might have enjoyed our visit a little bit more.
Here are our top tips to make sure your visit to the Forbidden City doesn’t suck:
Prepare for the crowds
There is only one entrance to the Forbidden City, the South Gate, so the crowds waiting to get in are long. Over 14 million tourists visit each year (up to 80,000 per day!) so it’s inevitable. We arrived around 9am, about half an hour after opening, and entered through Tiananmen Square first, and then into the palace complex. The lines, going through security, and walking across the square took us about an hour, but you could cut that time down by getting to the gate from the East or West.
Regardless of the route you take, there will be some amount of gentle pushing and elbowing as you’re bottlenecked through security, and some more as you try to get views of the main buildings. Don’t try to beat it, just consider it part of your Chinese experience. Wear comfy shoes, buy your tickets in advance if you can, and take it all in.
Splurge for the audioguide or tour guide
After spending more time at the Terracotta Warriors than we wanted to on a group tour, we opted to skip the guides and explore the Forbidden City solo.
While we did some pretty basic research in advance and found a podcast/audioguide that seemed to give some short concise information for the main buildings, we still felt like we were missing some context. And while there were English-language plaques at many of the main buildings, they mostly outlined when it was built and which emperor lived there.
We were more interested in what the buildings were used for and the scandalous and mysterious events that happened inside them. So if you’re like us and want to get a deeper understanding of historical context, rather than just stare at similar-looking buildings for two hours, the guide or tour might be for you.
Nothing good happens when you’re travelling with a hungry partner. After more than a handful of very long travel and touring days under our belts, you’d think we’d start preparing accordingly, but we showed up to the Forbidden City with only coffee in our bellies and no other food in our backpacks. This turned out to be disastrous.
Food was expensive (we accidentally paid 40 yuan, or $8 CAD, for a bag of chips), rather insubstantial, and at times hard to find in the 178 acres of the complex. So do yourself a favour, eat breakfast, and bring some good snacks that will keep you going during your 3-4 hour visit
Plan your route
The complex spans over 178 acres, and during the course of our 4 hour visit, we walked over 25k steps, which left us very tired. And as we mentioned, there is only one entrance to the Forbidden City (the South Gate) and only two exits (The North and East Gates), a fact we didn’t know until we were walking zombies, and not in the mood to have an extra 25 minutes added onto our walk home because we couldn’t leave through the West Gate, closer to our hostel.
Plus, we were bummed when some of the most interesting looking buildings on the Forbidden City map were closed to the public. So save yourself the extra steps and disappointment and plan your route ahead of time. Your feet will thank you.
Despite the crowds and sore feet, the Forbidden City still has some beautiful architecture, worthwhile views, and pretty remarkable treasures and artwork. We thoroughly enjoyed the Imperial Garden, seeing the curving rivers running through the courtyards, and checking out some of the smaller palaces. Hopefully with these tips, you will too.
Have you been to the Forbidden City? What was your experience like? Anything we should add to this list? Leave it in the comments below!