There are at least as many ways to visit the Forbidden City as there are rooms, and that’s 9,999½. Why the fraction? According to Chinese numerology, a 10,000-room palace would belong only to the celestial emperor. Here on earth, Gugong, as it’s called in Chinese (literally “former palace”) served as the royal crash pad to 24 Ming and Qing emperors between 1420 and 1924. No one could access these grounds without permission from the emperor, which makes the Forbidden City your most compelling entrée to imperial Chinese intrigue. An orientation before you dive in: Come as early as possible—gates open at 8:30 a.m.—and only on weekdays (except Monday, when it’s closed). We recommend one of two strategies for your visit, both of which cover the greatest hits, from the Hall of Supreme Harmony (used for state occasions) to the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (where emperors and empresses spent their wedding nights). Prefer to move at your own pace but want the backstory on what you’re seeing? Opt for the Palace Museum’s official audio guide, narrated by none other than 007 himself, Roger Moore. Alternatively, we also love Context Travel’s intimate, scholar-led three-hour morning tours. Their fascination with this bygone metropolis and its illustrious inhabitants rubs off on us every time. If you planned your trip for a Wednesday, we suggest you conclude the outing with the newly launched lunchtime cooking class at Black Sesame Kitchen on Zhonglao Hutong, just 10 minutes on foot from the southern exit of this imperial maze (call ahead and someone will guide you down the alley to their charming siheyuan courtyard). Eat what you create, or let the professionals do wok duty by joining one of the nightly 10-course communal dinners paired with two wines (RMB300 per person). Hungry for more? We devoured owner Jen Lin-Liu’s autobiographical Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.
Located directly behind the Forbidden City, take Jingshan Front Street to Wusi Street and then turn left at Jiaolou Hotel to put you on Zhonglao Hutong. The private courtyard of Black Sesame Kitchen is found directly after you pass a small park to your right.
THE FORBIDDEN CITY: Changan Dajie; 86-(0)10-6513-1892; dpm.org.cn
CONTEXT TRAVEL: 1-800-691-6036; contexttravel.com/city/beijing
BLACK SESAME KITCHEN: 28 Zhonglao Hutong; 86-(0)1369-147-4408; blacksesamekitchen.com