Now officially titled the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City was China’s imperial palace from the advent of the Ming dynasty in 1420 to the overthrow of its Qing dynasty in 1912. Today, this walled city-within-a-city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the world’s largest palace complex, as well as China’s biggest and best-preserved group of medieval buildings.
Known as the Forbidden City because it was off-limits to ordinary mortals throughout its 500-year-history as an imperial enclave, the palace was largely constructed between 1406 and 1420, and is composed of around 900 buildings—although the actual numbers vary across many sources.
The palace is ringed by a 52-meter moat, and visitors enter through the monumental Meridian Gate, once reserved exclusively for emperors, heading into a vast central courtyard that held audiences of 100,000 people. At the heart of the complex are the three must-see Great Halls: the Halls of Supreme Harmony, Middle Harmony and Preserving Harmony, where the emperors held court, issued laws, hosted banquets and reigned supreme. Set on marble terraces, these lavish halls are filled with dragon carvings, imperial treasures, thrones and other symbols of imperial supremacy.
Beyond the halls, a myriad of other buildings and sights vie for attention, from rich art, ceramics and calligraphy galleries to ornamental gardens, gateways, residential quarters, pavilions and smaller ceremonial halls, right down to a wooden opera house that served as the imperial theater.