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Once home to China’s emperors, the Forbidden City was the very heart of the country for five centuries and even now exerts a powerful pull on the nation’s psyche. So called because an unauthorised visit to the palace would result in instant death, it’s the best-preserved collection of ancient architecture in China and is absolutely unmissable.

Originally laid out by Emperor Yongle between 1406 and 1420 with the help of a mere million labourers, the complex is so vast - 800 buildings with 9,000 rooms spread out over 720,000 sq metres - that a full-time restoration squad is continuously repainting and repairing. It's estimated that it would take 10 years to do a full renovation.

Most of the buildings visitors see today, though, date back to the 18th Century. Fire was always a threat to the wooden palace and blazes were frequent, with the main culprits being wayward fireworks displays and knocked-over lanterns, as well as the odd angry eunuch. Scattered around the complex are the bronze vats that contained the water kept on hand to put out fires.

But the palace isn't just a collection of buildings. It is actually a huge museum with the largest collection of imperial treasures in the country, including the superb Dragon Throne the emperor sat on and Buddhas bedecked with almost every precious metal and gemstone imaginable.

Despite being looted by the Japanese and the Nationalists last century, there are still so many artefacts that only a fraction can be shown at any one time. Most can be found in the pavilions and side buildings that act as mini-museums, with rotating displays of exhibits.

Equally enchanting are the courtyards that separate the buildings. They are fine places to contemplate the splendour of the palace and the lives of its inhabitants. Fourteen Ming and 10 Qing emperors called the Forbidden City home and the intrigue, scandal and drama that went on here has inspired countless films and books.

The imperial family were catered for by vast armies of servants - cooks, concubines, eunuchs, officials and soldiers - who pampered them while also scheming to improve their own positions. Unsurprisingly, many emperors were insulated by the luxury they lived in and knew little of the dire conditions endured by most ordinary Chinese outside the palace walls. It was that isolation that caused their downfall.

For 500 years commoners were prohibited from entering the Forbidden City. Now, anyone willing to pay the entrance fee can experience this extraordinary palace. It was initially built under the auspices of Emperor Yongle between 1406 and 1420. Until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, this sprawling complex was the seat of Chinese government.

Despite the fact that only around half the complex is open to visitors, it is still so vast that you could easily spend several days exploring it.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the palace's biggest and most important structure. This was the site of the imperial court's grandest events, including coronations and royal birthdays. Inside the hall, the throne is guarded by two luduan (mythical beasts who can detect if a person is lying).

The Hall of Middle Harmony was a kind of backstage area where the emperor stopped to compose himself and consult with ministers before entering the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Used for state banquets and later for imperial examinations is the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Behind the hall, a 17m marble carriageway carved with dragons leads up to the entrance. The royals' former living quarters are at the back of the palace grounds.

The emperor resided in the Palace of Heavenly Purity until the mid-Qing dynasty when it became an audience hall in which ambassadors and other luminaries were received. The empress's digs were in the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity.

On the western and eastern sides of the Forbidden City are an assortment of libraries, temples, theatres and gardens. Make sure you visit the Hall of Jewellery, and do not miss the Clocks & Watches Gallery. The gallery boasts a dazzling array of timepieces, many of which were gifts to the Qing emperors from abroad. At the northern end of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden, a classical Chinese garden with 7,000 sq metres of fine landscaping, including rockeries, walkways, pavilions and ancient - carbuncular and deformed - cypresses.

© Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Beijing's once Forbidden City’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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