Hue Imperial City, located along the Perfume River, was the center of Vietnamese power from 1802 to 1945 and home to luxurious palaces, residences, theaters, and pavilions for the Nguyen emperors and their families.
The Imperial City, is a square fortress surrounded by brick wall and a defensive moat. Within its 36-hectare grounds, the king constructed palaces for meetings, residences, temples, entertainment, etc. Traditionally, buildings with yellow-tiled roofs were reserved for the emperors, while those with green-tiled roofs were for others. This complex was inspired by the Beijing Forbidden Purple City.
Today, only a small portion of the original 150 structures remain due the ravage of war. In 1993, the site was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Complex of Hue Monuments.
Places to Visit in Hue Imperial City
Ngo Mon Gate
The South Gate of the Imperial City, named Ngo Mon, was originally built by the dynasty founder, Gia Long, in 1804 and was later redesigned by his son in 1833. The gate faces south and has five passageways, with the middle one being reserved for the emperor and currently closed. The left passageway was for literature mandarins and is now open to international visitors, while the right passageway was for military mandarins and is open to domestic tourists. The two remaining passageways were used for imperial guards and for elephants and horses. Some walls still display bullet holes from wars.
The upper part of Ngo Mon Gate is called the “Five-Phoenix Pavilion.” Its roof is tiled in two colors, with yellow tiles reserved for the king’s areas and green tiles for mandarins and guards. The emperor sat under the roof to observe important events or commemorate the country, such as announcing a new calendar or the winners of national examinations. In 1945, the last king, Bao Dai, made his abdication from the pavilion, and his wife, Queen Nam Phuong, was the first woman to stand there.
Thai Hoa Palace
The first royal palace was built by Gia Long, the founder of the dynasty, from February to October 1805 to hold his coronation and later to host meetings with the mandarins twice a month. During these meetings, the civil and military mandarins would stand outside in the courtyard on the right and left, respectively, based on their ranking indicated by three different terraces and two rows of title stones.
The palace, supported by 80 red-lacquered ironwood columns, consists of back-to-back houses. The throne, in red and gilt, is located in the middle of the front house and faces outward. The palace was also used for celebrations of the king’s birthdays, receptions for foreign ambassadors, and as an office in the 1970s and 1980s.
The roof frame above the head of the palace features unique decorations consisting of one picture and one poem, primarily composed by the emperors to praise the peace, prosperity, and unity of the country. These literary works are considered unique, especially compared to Chinese palaces, and have been added to the UNESCO World Documentary Heritage list due to their rich content. In the back hall, visitors can view a digital restoration of the Hue Imperial City and a miniature of the entire enclosure, complete with maps displaying the maximum extent of the Vietnamese territory in the 20th century.
The throne in the center of Thai Hoa Palace, also known as the “Supreme Harmony Palace,” is considered a national treasure and was declared as such by the Prime Minister. The first king to sit on it was the founder Gia Long, while the longest-serving king was Tu Duc who ruled for 36 years. The shortest-serving king was his successor, who only sat on the throne for 3 days. The throne holds high symbolic significance and has never been moved, even during times of war. Film crews traditionally clap their hands and offer prayers for permission before filming it. Today, it is one of a kind.
As you tour the grounds behind Thai Hoa Palace, you’ll come across the first buildings of the Forbidden Purple City, the innermost section of the Imperial City. Huu Vu (on the right) was used by military mandarins during meetings with the emperor, while Ta Vu (on the left) was used by literature mandarins. Meetings were held on the 5th, 15th, 20th, and 25th days of each lunar month. Today, both halls have been converted into exhibitions showcasing Hue’s world heritage sites, souvenir shops, and a fake throne for photos. In the yard, you’ll also find large copper cauldrons cast by the Nguyen lords in the 17th century, symbolizing the power and longevity of the dynasty.
On a higher terrace, you’ll find the foundation of Can Chanh Palace, also known as the Palace of Audience, and four additional palaces located in a row behind it. Only one of these palaces has been restored so far, based on the availability of accurate records. The recently reconstructed corridors, with their reddish hues, are popular spots for taking Instagram photos, along with some old photos taken by the French. To the left of the ongoing restoration is a tennis court where the last king, Bao Dai, used to play.
The To Temple
To Mieu Temple, dedicated to honoring deceased kings. Before 1957, the temple housed altars for 7 emperors, but now it has altars for 10. Three emperors are not honored here due to being dethroned or passing away after abdication. The founder Gia Long’s altar is positioned in the center and the front door is always closed.
Nine Dynastic Urns
The 9 bronze urns were commissioned by King Minh Mang and created by Hue artisans. They symbolize the longevity and strength of the dynasty, with an average weight of 2 tons and a height of 2.4 meters. Each urn features 14 images depicting mountains, rivers, islands, landmarks, weapons, weather, and other aspects of different regions in the country, making the collection an atlas with visual representations and tales behind them.
Dien Tho Palace
Located in the northwest of the Imperial City, this residence is designated for the mothers and grandmothers of the royalty. The main hall was built first in 1804, and it shares its name with the complex as a whole. Behind it is another hall with a yellow-tiled roof that housed the other wives of the king’s father. To counteract the high humidity, the last king Bao Dai built a French-style house nearby for his mother. On the same grounds, visitors can also see the largest front screen in Hue, elegant furniture and household items, a Buddhist temple, a souvenir shop, and a café surrounded by a lotus pond.
Duyet Thi Duong, The Royal Theatre
The Imperial Theatre, located inside the walls of the Forbidden Enclosure was built in 1826 to host performances for the royal family, mandarins, and foreign ambassadors. Vietnamese opera (Tuong) was the most common performance on its stage, with Nha Nhac court music also being played on occasion. Today, the ground floor displays costumes, musical instruments, masks, flags and other items related to the theatre. The emperor sat on the upper floor with his close family and guests, while mandarins sat in front of the stage. The theatre was renovated from 1995 to 2002 and performances resumed in March 2003. Bookings for court music shows can be made for those interested.
Museum of Royal Antiquities
Located outside the walls of the Imperial City, but included in the admission ticket, this museum can be reached by a short walk to 3 Le Truc St or a complimentary buggy ride from the Hien Nhon exit gate. Established in 1923 from a converted palace, it was Hue’s first museum, named after King Khai Dinh, the 12th king. Today, the museum houses over 10,000 artifacts and documents, many of which are on display for visitors. When visiting, guests can see the emperor’s seals, ornate gold objects, elaborate mother-of-pearl furnishings, the king’s ceremonial costume for the Nam Giao esplanade, and instruments used for playing court music, among other items.
Before entering the Imperial City, visitors can take a stroll and view various structures located between the City and the Perfume River. These structures include Nghinh Luong Dinh Pavilion, Phu Van Lau (Pavilion of Edicts), Cua Ngan and Cua Quang Duc Gates in the Citadel, Nine Holy Cannons, the Flag Tower, and Ngo Mon Square. To get more information, check out our comprehensive guide to the Hue Citadel at centralvietnamguide.com/hue-citadel.
There are two ticket counters in the front of Ngo Mon Gate, the Imperial City’s entrance. English-speaking cashiers, price boards, tickets and bills if requested, are all available in each counter. Cash is only accepted, and when visitors would like to exchange other currencies, the cashiers may help.
Hue Imperial City entrance fee is 200,000 VND for adults and visitors above 12 years old, 40,000 VND for teenagers from 7 to 12 years old, and free of charge for smaller ages. This price includes entry to all places to see within the walls of Imperial City and the Museum of Royal Antiquities near its exit. Vietnamese and foreigners pay the same and on some commemoration days, the entrance fee is free to locals, such as Vietnam’s Independence Day.
In addition to tour guides, visitors can choose to travel by themselves with an audio guide. It’s available in 11 languages: English, French, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Korean, Thai, German, Russian, Italian and Portuguese, and 5 sights in Hue. In the Imperial City, the duration is from 150 to 180 minutes. For further information, ask the staff in the ticket counters.
In the summer, Hue Imperial City opens from 6:30 a.m to 5:30 p.m, and in winter 7 a.m to 5 p.m. The counters sell the ticket during the times too, so if you would like to go and see in the afternoon, you should come before 3:30 p.m to avoid missing many things. The last tickets are sold around the closing time.
Spend at least 2 hours in the Hue Imperial City. Many travelers plan a half-day. However, visitors on shuttle buses or in group tours often have a shorter time budget.
Best Time to Visit Hue Imperial City
Dry season in Hue lasts from March to August, and rain from September to the end of February. Typhoon season is from October to January, with heavy rains and potential floods. The best time to visit the Hue Imperial City is from January to February or from August to the end of September. The Imperial City may be closed on typhoon or flood days for visitor safety.