Here is the thing about The Forbidden City. It is unlike the European castles that I have visited, which can pack more opulence in a square foot than the eye can take in. What is truly overwhelming is the way that open space and size has been used create the feeling of power.
The Forbidden City sits in the heart of Beijing. Built between 1410 and 1420 it was the home to 24 emperors up until the 1912, when the Emperor Puyi resigned. The grounds cover 180 acres, (which is 10 times the size of the Palace of Versailles) and consists of 9,999 rooms. The reason for this number is that it is said the heaven has 10,000 rooms, and the Emperor's palace could come close to heaven, but not match it. It was called The Forbidden City because the only people allowed into it inner reaches were the Emperor, his concubines and the eunuchs who guarded them.
Most people (and tour groups) start their visit by entering through the Tiananmen Gate, under the watchful gaze of Mao Zedong.
Once through, you are in a tree lined courtyard leading up to the Meridian Gate - the true entrance to the Forbidden City. Here is a chance to catch your breath. If you are on a tour you probably have spent the past hour or so in Tiananmen Square. So sit under a tree and watch the parade of people passing by.
The Forbidden City unfolds like a Russian maroushka doll. You will pass through many gates and courtyards on the way to emperor's palace. This in itself was both security and and a way to intimidate those who came to the court on business.
Once you have your tickets you cross through the Meridian Gate and enter a courtyard bisected by The Golden Stream.
To the left and right are smaller gates leading off to smaller pavilions, many of which now act as museum of imperial treasures. Also (to the right) through the Gate of Blending Harmony are toilet facilities, but be warned, here, as in most of China these are "squat toilets".
You might notice that the gates are 10-20 feet above the ground level of the courtyard. This is true throughout the palace, so be prepared for climbing up and down stairs and ramps.
Through the Gate of Supreme Harmony you enter the heart of the Forbidden City. Here three pavilions sit along the north-south axis,The Hall of Supreme Harmony, The Hall of Central Harmony and The Hall of Preserving Harmony. The halls were ceremonial seat of the emperors' governments. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the official throne room and the place where many official ceremonial activities happened.
My trip took place during a national holiday, and the Forbidden City was packed. It was impossible to get anywhere near the pavilions in this section of the Forbidden City, so I took a different path, walking around the edges of the pavilions. Away from the worst of the crowds, it was interesting to see some of the engineering that went into building the this palace. The three pavilions sit up on a raised platform, probably 30 or so feet high. The platform is tiered and its height represents the primacy of the emperor's position in society.
At the north end of the tier is The Large Stone Carving. Over 16 meters long, and 3 meters wide, this was the path the emperor's sedan chair would take to the throne. No one else was allowed to walk over this path.
Beyond the Halls of Harmony is the Gate of Heavenly Purity which led to the living quarters of the emperor and his concubines. On either side of the gate are bronze lions.
On the right is a male lion with an orb under foot. This represents the power of the emperor. On the left is a female lion with a cub under her foot representing continuing life and future generations.
The palace is filled with artistic flourishes throughout. Carved stone, painted walls, and corners of roofs have carved dragons and lions.
If you exit the living quarters to either side you will find an area with small paths that used to be servants quarters. Today they house museums and little surprises of beauty.
The last bit if the palace on the standard tour is Imperial Garden.
Leaving the Forbidden City through its northern most gate - The Gate of Divine Prowess, you will probably have a bit of a walk to get back to your tour bus. The walk is along the moat that protects the Forbidden City.
As you walk along there are many street vendors. Be careful here, Some of the goods are poorly made, and two members of our group were given a 20 rouble (33 cents) note as change instead of a 20 Yuan note ($3.15).
Some final notes -
If you are on a tour, you will probably have only about 1.5 hours in the Forbidden City. This makes your visit really rushed. I could have used 2-3 more hours and I wish that I had free time to go back.
One thing that China has learned is how to market. The Forbidden City is filled with "Museum Stores." Each one sells different goods. So don't spend all of your money in the first, and don't buy heavy things until the end of your tour.
Your tour guide might tell you not to buy here. They might tell you that they are going to take you to a market where you can get things cheaper. This would be "The Pearl Market." I would be very careful there. The goods are mostly counterfeit and expectation is that you will bargain down the price. I felt that I received very good quality at the Forbidden City and I am very happy with those purchases.