Our day started on a train and similar to our last sleeper train experience, I was up at the crack of dawn unable to fall back asleep… starting what would be a fairly long day. Luckily we didn’t have to worry too much about organizing our trip as this day was our 2nd tour and was organized for us.
About the Tour:
I didn’t book this tour through a website or by happening upon someone’s page but instead was referred to the tour guide Lisa from a friend who had previously visited Beijing. The cost was the most affordable I saw comparing to online prices for a private tour and the biggest benefit was since we had a private car for the day, we didn’t have to worry about what to do with our luggage while we explored the city. While we didn’t get to meet Lisa personally (she had a family emergency) we did have a great tour with one of her associates. Our stops would be the Summer Palace and Forbidden City and would only end up taking about half a day. If you are wanting to book with Lisa, send me a message and I will give you her contact information.
Pickup: We arrived at the South Beijing Rail station right around 9AM and were met right outside our gate by our tour guide for the day. He had excellent English (the best we encountered on our whole trip) and seemed very knowledgeable as he lead us to the car park where we met our private driver who was also very nice. We hopped in and had about a 1 hour drive to the Summer Palace for our first stop. (Traffic was pretty rough)
Once at the Summer Palace, our guide stood in line and bought our tickets for us which was nice, and we headed in. We were unfortunately visiting on a Saturday so it was VERY busy.
The first couple of buildings we passed were beautiful but hard to admire around all the people. Our guide however made up for it by giving us interesting information on the symbology used in the ancient architecture, which would be helpful throughout the day. (ie. How to tell the difference between the female and male lions at the temple gates) He also explained Feng shui to us as both the Summer Palace and Forbidden City incorporate that into their design.
The giant cauldron of bronze was also used for fire safety measures which I found interesting.
Visiting the Summer Palace on your own:
1. By Subway: take line 4 and get off at Beigongmen and exist from D- it is a 3 min walk to the N palace gate.
2. Entrance fee to the park is cheaper but does not include going into any of the buildings. See pricing info and hours below:
As we walked around the giant complex that is the Summer Palace, it was interesting to learn how it was all designed and built for just the Emperor and the Empress.. and for only a few days out of the year.
The lake is completely man made and most of the soil makes up the hill on which the temple sits. Despite the crowds, as we moved around the lake, I started to really enjoy this place. It was just. so. Beautiful. And I found myself wishing we HADN’T taken a tour here so we could’ve spent more time hunting out the quite spaces to site and relax, or renting a boat to paddle around the water. But alas, we had one day to see the sites, so a tour was what we were left with.
The famous 17 arch bridge crossing a section of the lake
The History of the Summer Palace
It was originally built in 1750, by the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and was called “the Garden of Clear Ripples” In 1860, it was destroyed by the Anglo-French Allied Forces and rebuild in 1886. It was again destroyed in 1900 by the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers. In 1912, it was rebuilt as one of the final acts of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). In 1924, it was opened to the public as a tourist attraction and was made an official UNESCO site in 1998.
The layout of the Summer Palace follows the same format as the other imperial palaces in China with the front court buildings serving as the Emperor’s business and ceremonial spaces and the area towards the rear of the court being mostly gardens, relaxing spaces, and living quarters.
We left lakeside and headed for the world’s longest covered promenade: The Long Corridor. While the lake was beautiful, I can’t even begin to explain the beauty that is the long corridor. It stretches on for 2,388 feet/ 728 meters ALMOST HALF A MILE with 273 crossbeam sections. And if the sheer length and colors of this corridor don’t strike your fancy, the over 10,000 paintings of landscapes and folk lore that line the ceiling and side pillars definitely will.
While walking the corridor, you forget the crowds and for a moment, picture yourself an Empress walking a path only meant for you.
Beautiful colors along the ceiling covering every inch of wood
Unfortunately both my husband and our tour guide felt like marathoning this section so I didn’t get to spend nearly the amount of time I would’ve liked photographing it, but word to the wise, save your photos for the second half of the corridor. A LOT less people and quieter space for contemplation and photos.
A beautiful gate section about halfway along the corridor and about where the crowds thinned out.
Closeup of one of the thousands of paintings.
After the long corridor, the last truly spectacular architecture is the Marble Boat. The boat served as a sort of living room for the Empress alone to read and relax in. It was originally built on a base of stone with a wood structure in 1755 but was burned down in 1860. It was restored in 1893 in a new 2 story structure, still made out of wood, but this time painted to imitate marble throughout. Each floor also encompassed a large mirror that would reflect the water around it to further along the feeling of serenity.
After the Marble boat it is a pleasant walk back to the exit passing a few small parks and over some scenic bridges. Our private car and driver picked us up close to the exit and we had about an hour drive to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
There are only a few entrances to the square as you are required to go through security checkpoints to even enter but once you are in, the space is huge and is in fact the 7th largest city square in the world. The world Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace” as the square serves as a gate to the Forbidden City on the Northern side. One the other 4 sides are the Great Hall of the People, National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong who proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in that very square on October 1,1949. (Tip: Don’t visit Beijing on Oct 1 as our guide told us it is one of the few federal holidays, and the crowds that amass at Tiananmen square are huge, hotels sell out, and people sleep within the square.
There is a Monument to the People’s heroes erected in the square that we checked out before heading to the Forbidden City. There are huge tunnel underpasses to the city from the square and you have to cross from bridges to enter as well. The crowds were very thick here which made it a little miserable, but again… we were here on a Saturday.
The crowds were very thick here which made it a little miserable, but again… we were here on a Saturday. After yet another security checkpoint and our guide showing our tickets, we made into the inner city.
Feng shui is again another important part of the design of the Forbidden City. The moat, and a few small pools near the entrance make up the southern ‘water’ requirement. Then Jinshan hill to the north makes up the hill requirement. Additionally there are temples in each direction N,E,S,W.
The moat itself is 170 feet (52m) wide and 20 feet (6m) deep. (most of the earth excavated from the moat went towards building up Jinshan hill to the North) In addition to the moat, the city is completely walled in by a 22 ft wide wall that is 32 feet (10m) high. Quite the defenses which makes entering the city even more impressive.
Standing in front of the Hall Of Supreme Harmony (the most important building in the Forbidden City)
The first set of buildings (the outer court) our guider referred to as the “governing” buildings as important business and government officials were allowed into these buildings to conduct their business with the Emperor. These buildings also included the main ceremonial halls, the first being the one used for coronations that contained the golden Dragon Throne and is known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The second building directly behind it would be the hall of Central and is where the Emperor would rest, practice speeches, and prepare for sacrifice rites before departing for the Temple of Heaven. The last great hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony which was used for banquets.
Fun Facts about the Forbidden City:
1. The Forbidden City consists of more than 90 palaces and courtyards: 980 buildings… over 8,728 rooms
2. The Forbidden city is the world’s LARGEST palace at 7,750,000 sq feet which is over 3 times larger than the Louvre in France. (also for comparison the Vatican only measures at 1,443,569 sq feet.
3. Originally it was called the “Purple Forbidden city” and is now simply referred to as the “Former Palace” in China.
4. The city took 14 years to complete and was finished in 1420.
5. It took over 1,000,000 workers with more than 100,000 of them being craftsmen
6. It was the home of 24 emperors — 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty and served as the Imperial palace of China for 492 years.
7. It has not had an Emperor in residence since 1912 and has been a museum since 1925.
Details outside one of the ceremonial halls
Looking toward the Northern inner court where the imperial family lived with Jinshan Park in the background
The second half of buildings (the inner court) were the more private living quarters for the Empress, Emperor, and his many concubines. On the outside, these buildings are virtually identical but there is an addition of a garden that boasted a lot of the same cool boulders/ rocks as the Summer Palace. (said to come from a sacred lake in the south of China.)
A female lion (always on the left) standing guard at the entrance of a hall.
Points of Interest in the Forbidden City include:
A clocks Gallery
The Treasures Gallery
A Porcelain and Ceramics Gallery
A Bronzeware Gallery
All the other architectural details everywhere!
The crowds largely thinned once we were in the city, but our guide still rushed us quite a bit. All in all I doubt we spent more than 1.5 hours within the walls which was a little disappointing for me as a photographer. We learned plenty and I enjoyed all the stories and history bits but I would’ve liked more time to wander for sure since there are so many little gardens, galleries, and rooms you CAN see. We mostly just made a straight line through, only checking out one of the galleries for a living quarter.
The carpentry and colors of the buildings are largely symbolic with yellow and red being regarded as a symbol of good fortune and yellow a symbol of supreme power. (yellow was only used by the imperial family) There’s even small animal carvings in rows along the ridge line of the halls were used to differentiate the importance of the buildings. For example, there are 9 animals along the Hall of Supreme Harmony (the most important building) and 7 animals on the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (where the Empress lived)
Exit through the Northern gate looking across the moat.
How to visit the Forbidden City on your own:
Take Subway Line 1 and get off at the Tiananmen West station (Exit B) (more direct to the Meridian Gate at entrance to the city) OR you can take Subway Line 2 and get off at Qianmen Station (Exit A) and walk through Tiananmen square.
Most visit the Forbidden City through the Tiananmen and Meridian gate and work their way N. When exiting through the N Gate of Divine Prowess only bus options are readily available with the subway being a good walk away. (Or just book your hotel in the close vicinity and walk to it!)
Ticket price is 60 CNY April-October and 40 CNY Nov-March. The Treasure gallery, clock, and watch gallery all cost an extra CNY 10 each
If you are in Beijing the day before you wish to visit, it is highly recommended to purchase your ticket the day before (as tickets DO sell out) and you can purchase tickets at a ticket window near the Meridian Gate. If you have Chinese friends or speak Chinese, you can purchase tickets online though a book website.
You need to show your passport when buying tickets and will have to show your passport with your ticket when you visit.
Opening hours: CLOSED ON MONDAYS!!! See hours below:
One of the many government buildings in the area
Once we exited out the Northern gate we walked a short ways away to a spot our driver could pick us back up, then it was only 5 minutes to our hotel where our tour was complete and we were able to check in. It was only about 2 or so but we were exhausted. (likely from another night on a train) so we ended up eating the snacks we’d bought from the train and hadn’t eaten yet for lunch and napped a while until the day cooled off.
After our nap we headed out for a walk around the area passing a beautiful cathedral.
We ventured back over to the Wangfujing shopping area ( a pleasant walk from our hotel) to do some more souvenir shopping with our last night and grab some dinner.
As the sun started setting, we wandered back toward the Forbidden City wall to walk along the outside moat and follow that back to our hotel. The area was quiet and peaceful and it was fun to see people actually fishing in the moat.
The moat makes for awesome photos in the evening!
Quiet shops opposite the moat and Forbidden City as we walked north.
The North gate at sunset
Looking down the moat at the East corner watch tower.
We had a short 5-10 minute walk back to our hotel and called it a day.
Day 8 costs: Breakfast/lunch snacks from store previous day Tour: $218.62 for 2 people on a private tour Mcdonalds dinner/dessert: $5.38