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Visiting The Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing

Part 2 of our 10 day backpacking trip to Beijing.

In part 1 of our Guide on Budget Backpacking in Beijing, we got some great views of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park, trekked the Great Wall and came down again on a toboggan sled.  We visited South Luogu Alley, to check out one of Beijing's old Hutongs and found some spiritual healing in the Lama Buddhist temple.

In this part, we finally make it into the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Qianmen Street.  We check out the Temple of Heaven and hop on a metro to the Summer Palace in the North.  And Darryl comes face to face with Chairman Mao in his Mausoleum.

Day 6: The Forbidden City (故宫)

Fortunately, not so forbidden any longer.. Now one of Beijing's most popular tourist attractions.

The Forbidden Palace

The Forbidden City (故宫) was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty – a span of almost 500 years. It's also referred to as ‘Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang', but we try to use just ‘Forbidden City' to keep it short!

The Forbidden City served not only as the home of 24 emperors but as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. The City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and listed as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world by UNESCO.

You can view our video ‘Our Year of Travelling in 2013' below, it features some footage of The Forbidden City:

It was built in 1406-1420 and covers 74 hectares. It is surrounded by a 52 metre wide moat and a 10 metre high wall, and consists of 980 buildings with more than 8700 rooms. That is a lot to look at so you will need your walking shoes, a lot of water, some suncream and maybe an umbrella. There are plenty of places to buy ice cream and water, and also a few food outlets, within the city and surprisingly they are not really overpriced.

Tickets are on sale just before the entrance gates, there are 3 tickets available: the Forbidden City, Treasure Gallery and Clock and Watch Gallery. Make sure you purchase the right one/s! There is an audio guide available by the Ticket booth but to be honest we didn't find it particularly good. However, if you don't get it or a Tour Guide, you will be relying solely on the very sparsely placed plaques for any information.

We arrived around lunchtime on a very hot day and spent until closing time wandering around the city (and getting a bit lost around the Inner Court). If you hang around until the end of the day – they start making announcements that they are closing 30 minutes before hand – you can get some good shots with very few, in any, people in them. Something nearly impossible to do at any other time.

How to get to The Forbidden City:

Get onto Subway Line 1 (Red) and get off at either Tiananmen East or West metro stations.  From there it's pretty easy, just follow all the signs and you will soon be at the Gates to the city.

Address in English / Chinese: The Palace Museum, Dongcheng (4号 东华门路景山前街)

Guide Fees: Audio Guide 40 RMB, Tour Guides are also available

Entrance Fee: 60 RMB, Clock Exhibition Hall 10 RMB, Hall of Jewellery 10 RMB

Day 7: Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場)

Perhaps the most closely guarded public space in the world, just watch what you are doing.

How to get to Tiananmen Square in Beijing for Backpackers

Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場) is the world's third largest city square, located in the centre of Beijing. The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People's Heroes occupy the centre of the square.

The square is heavily monitored by police, both uniformed and plain clothed.  You must go through security points to enter the square so although it is very large, you can't just stroll in at any point.

To the north of the square, across the road, lies Tiananmen Gate, the square's namesake, with a large portrait of Mao Zedong prominently displayed.  If you pass through the gate, you are on your way to The Forbidden City.

How to get to Tiananmen Square:

Get onto Subway Line 1 (Red) and get off at either Tiananmen East or West metro stations.  It is signposted well when you exit the turnstiles.

Address in English / Chinese: West Chang'an Avenue, Dongcheng (中国北京市北京东城区广场东侧路天安门广场)

Entrance Fee: Free, but if you misbehave it could cost a lot more!

Day 8: Qianmen Street (前门)

They bulldozed the old Hutong down to make way for an exact replica.. Understand that logic!

Qianmen Road is a great shopping destination in central Beijing

Qianmen Street (前门) is located to the south of Tiananmen Square and Jianlou (The Archery Tower) and has over 500 years of history dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was called Zhengyangmen Street during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and finally got the present name in 1965.

Sad to say though, any history it now has will be ‘Established 2008', which is when the old hutongs were bulldozed to make way for a new style shopping street in the old Hutong style.  However, the street is very nice and has many things to buy which are reasonably priced, like most Chinese tourist attractions.  I (Darryl) bought some traditional thousand layer cotton sole shoes from the ‘Time Honoured Brand' Nei Lian Sheng shop and we wandered into many of the other stores selling anything from Chinese tea to chopsticks.  It has the usual faces of Chinese shopping districts such as Zara, H&M, Costa Coffee, Starbucks & Haagen-Dazs.

How to get to Qianmen Street:

If you want to visit the street, get to Qianmen Metro and walk out of either B or C exit and take the subways across the road.  There is an old style tram that takes you from the top of the street to the bottom and costs 20 RMB each way (otherwise takes 10 minutes to walk from top to bottom).

Address in English / Chinese: Qianmen Street, Dongcheng (中国北京市北京东城区前门大街)

Entrance Fee: Free

Day 9: Temple of Heaven (天坛)

Heaven on another level, be prepared for large crowds and queues for taking mediocre photos of nothing.

Visit the Temple of Heaven in Beijing backpacker or not.

The Temple of Heaven (天坛), or Altar of Heaven, is a complex of buildings that the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties visited for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for a good harvest. The principle building, the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvest, is made entirely of wood.

As with most imperial buildings in Beijing, it was affected by the numerous wars/rebellions/revolutions but luckily managed to not be destroyed by fire. However, it did suffer serious damage and the temple was desecrated during the Boxer Rebellion.

Unfortunately for our photos we went on a smoggy day, it was still just as hot as any other day though.

How to get to The Temple of Heaven:

Take Subway Line 5 (Purple) to Tiantan Dongmen metro station.  Then directions are everywhere.

Address in English / Chinese: No. 2 Tian Tan Dong Li, Chongwen (中国北京东城区天坛)

Entrance Fee: 35RMB ($5)

Day 10 (Morning): Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (毛主席纪念堂)

Stare Chairman Mao in the face.. He won't look back at you *promise*.

Even Chairman Mao couldn't be saved from becoming a tourist attraction

Darryl went to visit the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong on his own because I wasn't that bothered, plus I didn't want to get up that early.

The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (毛主席纪念堂) is located at the far side of Tiananmen Square just by Qianmen metro station. Be up early to ensure you get a good spot in the queue and be in and out in under an hour. I got there around 7:45 and the queue wrapped around most of the building. However, as it was morning still, the air was cool the queue continually was moving and from the moment of entering the queue to exiting the building took no more than 45 minutes.

Upon entering the Mausoleum you first go through security where last checks are made to valuables you are carrying upon yourself. No ID checks were made on the day I visited, but regardless – as a foreigner you need your passport with you at all times in China! Take nothing with you but your passport, travel money and a bottle of drink. Anything else and you may risk being kicked out of line to put it all in a locker and start the process all over again! Chinese tourists seemed to be taking everything in with them, purses, cellphones, etc.. and getting through but don't risk it as it's not worth being kicked out of line!

When you enter the building you get signalled to be silent and walk 2-by-2 around either left or right in front of a statue of Mao where flowers can be laid to pay respects. Then after walking through another smaller empty passageway come to the room where Mao is laid in rest. It's a dark room, with a glass box room in the centre with 2 security personnel standing guard inside over Mao's body. Mao's face looks much as he did when alive albeit a bit more white and plastic now! After this, you are quickly outside again where you can buy souvenirs.

How to see Chairman Mao's Embalmed Body:

Get onto Subway Line 1 (Red) and get off at either Tiananmen East or West metro stations. Walk through Tiananmen Square and you will see the line, get in at the back and wait your turn.

Address in English / Chinese: Tiananmen Square (天安门广场人民英雄纪念碑南面)

Entrance Fee: Free (very backpacker budget friendly, just remember not to take a photo.. Notice Googling it doesn't even bring up a single photo?)

Day 10 (Afternoon): Summer Palace (颐和园)

A nice little retreat that gets you away from Beijing's stifling air pollution for a few hours.

Backpacking in Beijing Summer Palace Attraction

The Tower of Buddhist Incense

The Summer Palace (颐和园) is about a half hour metro ride from central Beijing. It was originally constructed in 1750 as an imperial garden and was once a summer resort for the imperial household. The original structures were destroyed in 1860 by Anglo-French Allied Forces, rebuilt a few years later only to be ransacked during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 by the Eight-Power Allied Force. It was restored a few years later in 1903. The Summer Palace is considered to be the grandest garden in China and was added to the World Culture Heritage List in 1998.

The Summer Palace was the last attraction on our Beijing list which meant we were a bit tired of attractions and we really didn't pick the best time to go. It was a very hot Sunday which meant that it was PACKED. It's similar to how Brighton Beach (or similar) are whenever there's a heat wave. Like Hell. If it hadn't been so hot and so packed I think we would have appreciated it more and seen more. It was far from a relaxing experience. It was clear though that it must have been a very quiet, calm and idyllic place to visit and a cooler alternative to The Forbidden City.

How to get to The Summer Palace:

Jump on the metro to Xiyuan Metro Station on Subway Line 4 (Blue).  Exit at point C2 and continue north along the road, until Tongqing Street.  Walking up this street will lead you to the entrance / ticket office.

Address in English / Chinese: 19 Xinjian Gongmen (中国北京市北京海淀区颐和园)

Entrance Fee: 60 RMB ($10)

That concludes our 2 part series on Backpacking on a Budget in Beijing.  Read our first part of this guide A Budget Backpackers Guide to Beijing.


  • We mostly bought Combined tickets which included the entrance fee and the extras within the grounds. You can buy tickets just for entrance which are cheaper and depending on the attraction, you can buy tickets for the extras once inside if you change your mind. Combined tickets don't really save you that much money (the Chinese don't seem to have offers like at home), but it's just easier to queue once and know you can get in to everything.
  • Ticket prices are also for during peak season, if you go during off-peak season tickets are likely to be up to 20 RMB cheaper.

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