My first experience of the Forbidden City was not IRL but rather through the eyes of the famous Italian film master, Bernardo Bertolucci.

His spell-bindingly beautiful 1987 movie, The Last Emperor, carried viewers into the heart of what’s now known as the Palace Museum. And I felt like I was right there alongside the actors for every exotic and otherworldly scene that unfolded on the big screen.

This is China’s most prized palace, Beijing’s foremost cultural treasure and, to top it all off, a UNESCO World Heritage site, too. So whenever I find myself in Beijing, the chance to actually tread within a place steeped in such lore is something I always find time for in my schedule. And I’m not alone, of course. The Forbidden City, also referred to as the Palace Museum, is one of the most visited museums in the world, drawing some 15 million people each year to bask in the sumptuous grandeur of China’s erstwhile emperors in a setting that spans across 180 acres. First constructed in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty, it is the largest palace complex in the world. But touring the Palace Museum can feel like a bespoke experience, if you follow my lead.

Between the crowds and the sheer scope of the compound, a visit here can seem daunting, to say the least. So I was all the more pleased on my recent visit to have the educated and entertaining company of an expert guide to curate for me fascinating sites. My guide from Rosewood Beijing took me along for a cultural and historical journey through many places I’d missed during previous visits. And the difference in my experience this time around was like being in the front row at a favorite concert compared to listening from out in the lobby.

As you arrive at the palace, take a moment and try to imagine that there was a time when the entire complex was accessible only by the Emperor and his entourage of family members, concubines, and eunuchs. Even in our modern and privileged times, it’s almost impossible to envision an era of such exclusivity. But to get a grasp of the sheer size of the palace, at least, numbers can help. By the latest count, my guide told me, there are some 8,707 rooms here. And just like at the Versailles Palace in France, only a fraction of those rooms are actually open for the public to explore. The Forbidden Palace, I learned, is twice the size of the Vatican and was built by the hands of an estimated one million laborers.

Together with my guide from Rosewood Beijing, we entered the complex through Tiananmen Square and the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This is the port of entry that makes the biggest and boldest impression, to be sure, and where I recommend you launch your own visit, too. From there, we set about exploring endless corridors and numerous elegant rooms that were the stomping grounds of former royalty, feasting our eyes on such treasures as rare jade artifacts and golden hair pins and marveling at the sight of the very throne upon which every Ming Dynasty Emperor rested his laurels.

The collection of historical Chinese artifacts here is among the the most expansive in the world, and spans thousands of years of the country’s history. And the opulence and splendor that was—and still is—within attractions like the Hall of Clocks and Watches and the Gallery of Treasures simply takes your breath away. So give yourself plenty of time here and dig deep with the assistance of a guide’s lead to edit down the quintessential sights. Experiencing the Forbidden City this way feels like a door magically opening on an era frozen in time.

And once you exit the Forbidden City and emerge back into all the excitement of modern day Beijing, you may find yourself longing for another look at the city’s storied past. And that’s when I’ll point you to my favorite overlook in all of Beijing at Jingshan Park, an imperial landscape garden and peaceful public space dotted with sparkling lakes and ancient buildings that’s right there in the middle of the city. From the hilltop Ten Thousand Spring Pavilion here, you can gaze down over the entirety of the Forbidden City, far below, imagining that the snaking lines of visitors are walking in the footsteps of those long-gone emperors of the past. – Vanessa Hong

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