The Forbidden City (aka Palace Museum) is one of China’s most impressive monuments and among the world’s most glorious palace complexes. Unveiled in 1420, it is the former lavish home of Chinese emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. For almost 500 years access was restricted to emperors, their royal courts, and government officials, but since 1925 it has been open to tourists, and in 2017 welcomed 17 million visitors. Here’s some curious facts about China’s busiest single-site attraction.

It is the Largest Imperial Palace in the World

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Occupying some 7.7 million square feet, the Forbidden City is the biggest imperial palace on the planet. For comparison, Vatican City covers 4.7 million square feet. There’s 980 individual buildings, which are home to almost 9,000 rooms. Among the buildings are 90 palaces and courtyards. There are two distinct areas: The Inner Court served as the emperor’s residence, while the Outer Court was for ceremonial events. A 32-feet-high defensive wall protects the entire complex, around which is a 171-foot-wide moat.

According to a survey conducted in 1925, the palace is home to nearly 1.9 million artifacts. This is made up of everything from calligraphy, ceramics, and paintings to gold and silverware, literary works, and religious icons. In the Hall of Happy Longevity is Jade Hill, a 7.3-feet-high and 120,000-pound piece of carved jade.

It was the Home of 24 Chinese Emperors

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Two dozen emperors ruled the palace-city during its five centuries of imperial control. Among them were 14 from the Ming dynasty and 10 from the Qing dynasty. Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor, and third emperor of the Ming dynasty, laid the foundations for the palace when he moved his capital to Beijing from Nanjing. The last ruling emperor was Puyi. Despite abdicating in 1912, he was allowed to remain in the Inner Court. He was eventually expelled in 1924 after a coup lead by Feng Yuxiang seized control of the city.

There are No Trees in the Ceremonial Outer Court

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While the residential Inner Court is a leafy area, the Outer Court is completely devoid of trees. Although concrete evidence as to why this is has yet to be discovered, there are some theories. One suggests that vegetation would have given invaders places to hide behind and obscured the views of those protecting the palace. Another idea is that trees could have distracted the attention of those present to observe the emperor during public ceremonies.

Cats Guard the Palace and Keep it Clean

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The city of Beijing is rife with stray cats, and there’s been a presence inside the complex ever since its inauguration. Some of the current felines are possibly direct descendants of the first cats to call the palace home in the 1400s. In 2014, palace officials reported the neutering of 180 cats. They are fed, given vaccines, and allowed to enter the buildings when temperatures drop. At night the cats patrol the city and keep it free of rats.

You Can Visit the Palace Without a Visa

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Since 2017, Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei have operated a 144-hour visa-free program for international tourists arriving by air, ship, and train. This means that it’s possible to spend six days exploring the Forbidden City, and the other fascinating attractions of China’s capital, without the need to apply for a visa beforehand. Visitors are required to provide proof of onward travel upon arrival. Here’s how the visa program works.

Find out more and plan your trip to the Forbidden City here.