Forbidden City Private Walking Tour in Beijing

Forbidden City Private Walking Tour in Beijing

Legend says the Forbidden City contains 9999½ rooms. While that number may be a "slight" exaggeration, the vast spaces and myriad nested courtyards do make the Forbidden City one of the most daunting – and fascinating – sites in China’s capital. Home to 24 emperors between 1420 and 1924, the Forbidden City - known as the Palace Museum - offers discerning travelers an opportunity to plunge headlong into imperial power and symbolism.

During this private walking tour with a trained sinologist (historian of China), you will get a basic overview of this immense and complicated site, while time will be allowed to strategically dig deeper into a few themes of imperial history.

Entry tickets to the Forbidden City are included in the tour price.

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Tour/Activity Details


3 hours


9:00 am & 1:00 pm - Tuesday through Sunday

5 Days Minimum Advance Booking Required. You must provide each person's passport number and full name during the ordering process. Tour does not include hotel pickup. Rates are per group in US dollars. Please order online or call to order or for more information.



Your tour begins at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, built in 1420 as part of the original palace design envisioned by the Ming Emperor Zhu Di. Here you will encounter one of main themes of this walk: how successive emperors dealt with the vast, multiethnic Chinese empire. In this case, consider the Manchus who gave the gate its name, but which translates more accurately from the Manchu as "Gate of Heavenly Pacification,” suggestive of how the Manchus considered “China” to be just one, albeit very large, part of their continental empire.

From here you and your guide will dive into the Forbidden City properly. Much of your time will focus on the sequence of courtyards and pavilions, each carefully located and designed to connote imperial power. Envision how many of these pavilions, now empty and shuttered, would have housed the offices of busy and harried scholars and bureaucrats shuttling paper and orders between their desks and the “Great Within” - each keenly aware of the distance between the door of their office and the seat of power, reflective of the relative influence of their ministry or department.

Depending on the interests of the group, your guide may discuss the symbolism of architecture and orientation, paying particular attention to how the courtyards are arranged around the all-important North-South Axis which ran from the imperial throne through the succession of gates and yards and finally out through the southernmost gate of the city and into the emperor’s realm. It is the same axis which, extended north, meets the Drum and Bell Tower a few thousand meters away from the back gate of the Palace complex and, as of 2002, continues even further northward through the middle of the Olympic Green, site of the 2008 Summer Games, and blending Olympic tradition with the symbolic power of imperial geomancy.

Your walk will eventually go through the Gate of Supreme Harmony and into the massive courtyard where the emperor’s civilian and military officials would line up according to rank and position facing the main throne room, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest structure in the Forbidden City that sits atop at 21-foot raised platform. Remodeled in 2008 using plans drawn by the Kangxi Emperor in the 17th century, this is the centerpiece of the Palace complex and provides a sounding board for discussing the role of the emperor through successive dynasties. While the interior requires the imagination to envision the lustrous textiles, wreaths of incense smoke and opulent décor - all sadly gone - the structure itself with its intricate carvings, exquisite hand painted ceilings and walls, is a marvel of imperial architecture and design. Though seldom used except for the highest of state occasions, few structures in Beijing give one the same sense of imperial grandeur and power.

Depending on time, the seminar may include either or both of the “Outer Palaces” - The Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony...the latter a banquet hall used for the final round of the imperial civil service examinations that provide a good place to talk about social structures and how the promise of possible elevation into the civil service corps served to incentivize subjects and dissuade revolt.

Other possible inclusions are the famous Cinnabar Stone Staircase, the quieter courtyards of the Eastern Palaces and recently renovated Ningshou Palace, taking the group off the well-trod tourist path for the chance to see a side of the Forbidden City often overlooked.

Before leaving, the tour will visit the Inner Palaces, where the Ming Emperors resided, and Hall of Mental Cultivation, where the last several generations of Manchu rulers – including the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi – lived, worked and held court. These chambers, cozier and on a much more "human" scale than the great pavilions of the Inner Palace, also still house the furnishings and day-to-day household objects of the last emperor and empresses. While the style could be described as “Manchu Frumpy,” given the dearth of other authentic recreations of palace material culture, this glimpse into the past is something not to be missed. It also provides an opportunity to speak a bit about how the Qing Empire was run in the last century or so of imperial rule, with the Grand Council, the emperor’s "kitchen cabinet," comprised of the three or four highest and most trusted officials, worked just outside the gate in a low rise, relatively unobtrusive dwelling with the yawn-inducing moniker of “Office of Military Finance,” attempting to obscure the all-important functions of those who worked there. While Cixi has been demonized for decades, your guide can also talk about how this rather remarkable - albeit ruthless - woman orchestrated her nearly half-century hold on power.

By the time you exit out the back door of the Palace, you'll emerge with a strong understanding of how imperial rule worked historically in China and the role of the Forbidden City in solidifying that rule. You'll know how to distinguish the most important dynasties and have some understanding of the historical context that underlay the Communist revolution of the 20th century.

5 Days Minimum Advance Booking Required. You must provide each person's passport number and full name during the ordering process. Tour does not include hotel pickup. Rates are per group in US dollars. Please order online or call to order or for more information.

Cancellation Policy

There are no refunds. All sales are final.

Change policy

If changes are allowed on a tour or activity, a $20.00 per reservation change fee will be applied for any change to a reservation. Please note that some tours and activities do not allow any changes. Date changes can only be made only if we can confirm availability on the new date. While we cannot guarantee any changes can be made, all change requests must be submitted a minimum of 24 hours prior to the tour departure and must be handled on an individual basis through our Reservations Center.

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<< October 2017 >>

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October 28, 2017

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