The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum, is the largest preserved historical palace in the world. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist attraction in Beijing, China. 980 buildings occupy the grounds, which measure 180 acres. The palace is surrounded by a 28-foot high wall and 171-foot wide moat.
Initial construction took place from 1406 to 1420, involving the labor of more than one million workers. The Imperial Palace served as the primary residence to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, from 1420 to 1912, a span of nearly 500 years.
Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, management of the Forbidden City was transferred to the Palace Museum. While no longer operating as an imperial palace, the site maintains an important role in the public psyche as a testament to China’s great history and dominance within Asia. Improvements made in advance of the 2008 Olympics have made a large portion of the grounds accessible to all, including wheelchair users.
Location & Transportation
The Forbidden City is located at the center of Beijing, directly across the street and to the North of Tiananmen Square. The most convenient form of transportation for wheelchair users is via wheelchair accessible taxi.
Use of the Beijing subway system is also possible, with two nearby stations offering various levels of accessibility. The Tiananmen West subway station, served by Line 1, has an entrance located within 5 minutes walk of the Forbidden City’s main entrance, at the Tiananmen Gate. Wheelchair users will be required to utilize a special stair lift, which slowly moves up/down the station’s stairway railings. Once inside the station, easy roll-on/roll-off access is available to the subway trains. The Zhushikou station, located approximately 1.5 miles from the Tiananmen Gate, was built more recently and offers greater access to wheelchairs via elevators. It is served by line 10.
The palace is separated from Tiananmen Square by the high-traffic West Chang’an Avenue. Pedestrians and wheelchair users should utilize the underground tunnel to cross the street. Access points to the tunnel are located at the Northwest Corner of Tiananmen Square and the Southwest Corner of the sidewalk in front of the Tiananmen Gate. Wheelchair access ramps are visibly marked on both sides. The ramps are steep, but have raised ridges that slow the roll of wheelchairs and provide footing for pedestrians. It will be a bumpy ride, but is safe for both manual and powered wheelchairs.
Entrance, Admission to the Forbidden City
Pictured above is the Tiananmen Gate, easily recognizable and featuring a portrait of the notorious Chinese leader Mao Zedong. This gate is the de facto entrance to the Forbidden City, and can be reached via a bridge crossing the city’s moat. Through this gate is a large courtyard containing ticket booths and restrooms. Admission is available for 40 or 60 RMB, depending on the time of year. Tickets can be purchased online or at the ticket booths. Admission may be provided to visitors with disabilities free of charge, but there is no guarantee.
If you plan to visit during the National Day Holiday (October 1-7) or on a weekend, it is recommended to arrive early. These are high attendance days and a maximum of 80,000 tickets are sold per day.
At the end of the courtyard sites the Meridian Gate, the entrance to the imperial palace grounds. Visitors will go through a security inspection and ticket validation prior to passing through the Meridian Gate. Wheelchair users may receive a pat down inspection, though this is not always the case.
Accessibility: Forbidden City Wheelchair Access
The Forbidden City is so named because access was once restricted only to the Emperor, his family, senior officials and servants. The palace walls and surrounding moat served as a line of demarcation, separating the powerful and divine royalty from a nation of peasants. With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the palace was opened to the public for the first time in history. Until recently, though, its architecture permitted access only to the able-bodied.
In preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, investments in accessibility were made to the palace grounds and a limited number of its structures. During my July 2015 visit, I discovered the following accessible accommodations:
- A smoothed wheelchair access route/pathway, on the Eastern side of the grounds. Some cobblestone areas still make for a (very) bumpy roll.
- A map clearly marking the wheelchair accessible pathways and buildings.
- Ramps, allowing wheelchair users to roll across the raised thresholds of the palace’s various gates.
Of the small number of buildings with interiors open to the public, only a handful offer step-free access. Large staircases lead to many of the most popular buildings, including the picturesque Hall of Supreme Harmony. Despite these limitations, wheelchair users can still take in the magnificent 15th century architecture.
One structure accessible to wheelchairs is the Palace of Heavenly Purity. Access inside the throne room is not permitted, but visitors can view it from across the barricades. Inside the Palace of Heavenly Purity is one of the three golden thrones situated throughout the Forbidden City. Its ornate design attracts many tourists, so crowds will be heavy. Patience in navigating the mass of people is key.
The Hall of Clocks and Watches features timepieces from around the world. At any given time, nearly 200 clocks, both large and small, are on display. All come from the Qing Dynasty collection. The majority were manufactured in England, France, Japan and Switzerland, but a small number were made in China.
The display is located within the Palace of Dedication, which was constructed in 1656. It was once used as a place for prayer and the memorialization of the Emperors’ ancestors. The building features stunning architecture which relies heavily on marble and wood construction.
On the Northeast corner of the Imperial Garden is an artificial rock formation complete, Gathering Beauty Hill. The formation is immaculate in its design and is complete with a cave. Sitting at its top is the Imperial View Pavilion. The pavilion was used by the Emperors, who would climb the mountain of rock during festivals. From this towering vantage point, they would enjoy the scenery with the royal family.
The pathways throughout the Imperial Garden are wheelchair accessible. The Imperial View Pavilion is closed to the public, but can be seen from the ground below.
Concluding your visit
There is a single exit at the Gate of Divine Might, on the Northern end of the Forbidden City. The most direct path through the center of the palace grounds is roughly 1.25 miles. You will have walked (or rolled) at least 1.25 miles by the time you exit the palace. If utilizing a power wheelchair, be mindful of your battery level.
If you have taken a private taxi to the Forbidden City, you should arrange to be picked up at the palace’s exit. If you have taken the subway, it is a long walk back to the accessible stations mentioned earlier:
Tiananmen West Station (Line 1): 1.35 miles
Zhushikou Station (Line 10): 3 miles
To return to Tiananmen Square or one of the nearby subway stations after your visit has concluded, you will need to take the streets/sidewalks which run alongside the Forbidden City. These pathways are in a generally positive state of repair and will allow for a smooth wheelchair roll.
If crossing West Chang’an Avenue to access Tiananmen Square or to return to the Zhushikou subway station, be sure to utilize the pedestrian tunnel which crosses beneath the street.
Have you visited the Forbidden City? If so, share details of your experience and any tips you have to offer in the comments below!