For the first time in nearly a century, Beijing’s Forbidden City opens at night

(CNN) — For the first time in 94 years, Beijing’s Palace Museum, commonly known as the Forbidden City, opened its doors to the public after dark — and with spectacular results.

The special event, taking place February 19-20, forms part of Beijing’s Lantern Festival celebration, which marks the end of the Lunar New Year holiday.

The Forbidden City normally closes to tourists at around 4:30 p.m. in the winter and 5 p.m. in the summer. Until this week, few — save for VIP state guests, such as US President Donald Trump in 2017 — have been granted the privilege of seeing this incredible landmark at night.

On Tuesday night, about 3,000 lucky visitors entered the Forbidden City’s gates to take in the dramatic displays, which include lantern shows, symphony orchestra performances and projections of ancient Chinese paintings.

Among them was Zhang Zhifu, a 77-year-old public security volunteer who received a free ticket from the government as a token of gratitude for her volunteer work.

“I grew up in Beijing and I visit the Forbidden City every year, but I’ve never got to see it at night until today,” Zhang tells CNN Travel.

Holding a Chinese national flag in her hand, Zhang says she appreciates the government’s gesture.

“Not everyone can come. I heard it is extremely difficult to get the ticket. It is truly an honor to be granted this special privilege.”

Zhang says her family and friends were anxiously waiting for her to update her social media account.

“My grandchildren are interested in the pictures their boring old grandma will take for a change.” laughs Zhang.

‘There will be more events like this’

Despite the chilly winter night — and not having a ticket — visitors crowded the perimeter of the ancient imperial palace to get a glimpse of the light show on its first night.

“For 2,000 years there’s been the tradition featuring lights during the Chinese Lantern Festival, which is an extension of the Lunar New Year,” Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum, tells CNN Travel.

“We want to pass on that tradition and light up the ancient architecture to give people more festival experiences. Tonight is a trial. If the feedback is positive, there will be more events like this.”

The feedback has been quick. Discussion of the Forbidden City’s new look lit up social media following Tuesday’s display. And, unsurprisingly, there’s been some criticism, too.

“The LED show is too tacky. Is the emperor having a disco night?” says one comment on Weibo.

“I’m so disappointed. I had such high hope of the Palace Museum’s aesthetical standard. The dazzling LED lights don’t fit the atmosphere of the elegance of the Forbidden City,” says another.

Completed in 1420, the Forbidden City was the home of emperors and served as the political center of China for over 500 years.

Back in the day, celebrating the Lantern Festival in the Forbidden City was a tradition reserved for Imperial families.

But concerns about protecting the landmark’s ancient architecture — which is mostly made of wood — from fire hazards arose and the tradition died out.

Festival organizers planning this year’s Lantern Festival event are using LED lights rather than traditional paper lanterns and red candles, reports local media.

With the museum being a cultural icon featured countless times in Chinese TV series and novels, news of the evening visits led some enthusiastic fans to let their imaginations run wild.

“I wonder if people will come across exciting ghostly shadows on the ancient walls.” one person jokingly wrote on Weibo.

Tickets for the tour — which were available free online — were snapped up almost immediately. The Palace Museum’s official website temporarily crashed at midnight on Sunday due to the overload of visits.

Only certain sections of the Forbidden City are open to the public during this week’s nighttime tour.

These include the Meridian Gate exhibition hall, the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the East Wall and the Gate of Divine Might.

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