Visiting The Imperial City Hue (And Is A Guide Worth It?)

Created by Colleen Sims | Updated : 11 July 2024 |

We knew that Hue had an interesting history and the city was ideally located for us, sitting nicely between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.  Imperial City Hue is a UNESCO World Heritage site and highly rated as a destination, so Hue was promptly added to our Vietnam itinerary.

We opted for a walking tour of the Imperial City; read on and we’ll explain the logistics of our visit and why we think using a guide is a great idea.

looking out through the bright red doors from the palace temple to other palace buildings in the Imperial City Hue

Exploring The Citadel And The Imperial City Of Hue

Before we start, are you like me, thinking what is the Citadel, what is the Imperial City and are they different places?  The answer is yes they are different (sort of) but they are both found at the same site.

The Citadel is the fortified wall that surrounds the Imperial City.  The walls are 2 kilometres long in each direction, on every side of the complex and they are surrounded by a moat.  Inside the Citadel (walls) you’ll find the Imperial Residence, the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City as well as several other buildings and spaces and what remains of administrative and military structures.

The site is very large and we recommend that you set aside half day to explore without having to rush.  And accept that you’ll not see everything, but you can discover the most important sights.

Where Is The Citadel And The Imperial City in Hue?

Within the Citadel, the walled fortress, you’ll find the Imperial City and Palace complex.

The Citadel, known as Kinh Thanh Hue, is situated on the northern bank of the Perfume River in the central area of Hue city.

  • Address : Thua Thien Hue, Vietnam
  • Website : The Imperial City website is a little clunky and slow and some of the English translations don’t appear and I think it’s work in progress.

You enter the Imperial City is through the Noon Gate which faces the Flag Tower.  You can see this flag tower across Hue.   

Map of the centre of Hue with the huge Imperial City site marked in apricot

The History Of The Imperial City In Hue

The Imperial City is a huge complex of palaces, temples, walls, gates and gardens but it’s not as old as I had originally thought. In June 1802, after more than a century of war, Nguyen Anh became Emperor and unified Vietnam. His Empire stretched from the Red River Delta in the north (now Hanoi) and the Mekong Delta in the south.  The new Emperor made Hue his capital and construction began on his Citadel and Imperial City in 1803.

The complex was designed to serve as the political, cultural, and religious centre of the Nguyen Dynasty.  The designs were heavily influenced by the Forbidden City in Beijing, China and incorporated both Chinese and Vietnamese architectural elements.

I was surprised to learn that the last Nguyen emperor remained in residence until in 1945 when he was forced to resign by the French Colonialists.  There are photos of this event inside the Pavilion above the Noon Gate.

Abandoned, the buildings fell into disrepair and also suffered incredible damage during both the war of independence from the French and the Americans.  Battles left many buildings in ruin and the Imperial Palace was burned. 

In 1993 the entire site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the buildings that remained were restored and preserved.  Out of the original 160 structures that once existed only 10 remained.  Since that time there has been an ongoing project to restore and protect the site.

The Vietnamese flag flies high above the citadel walls and moat and the entrance to the Imperial city

Logistics For Visiting The Citadel and The Imperial City

Without doubt this is a vast site and having a plan of what to see, will certainly help you make the most of your visit.  Information boards were lacking when we visited and this is where a guide will really help you make the most of your time.

Imperial City Hue Opening Hours

The Citadel and Imperial City are open to visitors year round but hours vary depending on the season. According to the official website the opening hours are :

  • March 16 – October 15 : from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
  • October 16 – March 15 : from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  • The ticket booth opens at the same time but closes 30 minutes earlier

I have read on several different websites (including trip advisor) that it is possible to visit the Imperial City at night.  Indeed on the official website there are special events and festivals which allow visitors to explore in the cool of the evening. 

If this appeals I would recommend that you check with the local tourist office for when you can visit and specifically ask if there are performances at night in the Imperial City or theatre.  Alternatively ask your hotel concierge if they can confirm for you.

Top Tip :  I have read a range of different opening hours for the Imperial City which don’t match with those on the Imperial City website.  My advice is to confirm times and events in advance to ensure your visit goes smoothly.

Where Do You Buy Tickets For The Imperial City 

As you approach the Citadel and Imperial City you will see the flag pole to your left and the mighty walls ahead of you.  Just before the walls and the entrance you’ll see a small hut on the right hand side.  There will always be a queue here but it moves quickly.

The ticket office follows the same opening hours as the Imperial City but closes 30 minutes earlier.

Top Tip : They only accept cash and there is no online option

How Much Are Tickets For The Imperial City?

If you only wish to visit the Imperial City the price currently is :

  • Adults : 200,000 VND
  • Children (7 to 12 years) : 40,000 VND

If you plan on visiting other sites like the Royal Tombs there are combination tickets which will be cheaper.  All the prices are displayed at the ticket booth and our guide explained which option would be preferable for us.

All prices are also shown on the Imperial City Hue website.

Is There An Audio Guide For The Imperial City?

There are audio guides available for a small fee (150,000 VND) at the ticket office.  We didn’t use them but you have the choice of different durations. I read you can opt for a 4 hour tour or a 6 hour tour.

a brightly painted, yet faded arch within the Imperial city

Important Sights In The Imperial City

The Imperial City offers a glimpse into Vietnam’s imperial past.  Regardless that so much has been lost, you’ll still find a rich history and stunning architecture.  Our guide provided a commentary of the major attractions and talked about their use and their historical significance.

Regardless of whether you go alone or with a guide, there are several key sites within the complex that shouldn’t be missed.

Ngo Mon Gate (Noon Gate)

This is the main entrance to the Imperial City.  It features five entrances, topped with an elaborate pavilion.  You can visit the pavilion, used by the emperor for ceremonial purposes and where he abdicated in 1945.

Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony)

This palace was the emperor’s throne room and used for important state ceremonies.  The building is notable for its grand architecture and adorned with intricate lacquer work and regal decorations.

Forbidden Purple City

This was the private residence of the emperor and his family and was restricted to all except a few servants.  Though many structures were damaged during the wars, ongoing restoration efforts have brought some parts back to their former glory.

The Mieu and Hung Mieu Temples

These temples are dedicated to the worship of the Nguyen emperors and their ancestors.  They feature intricate altars, ancestral tablets, and statues of the emperors. The buildings themselves are beautiful and well worth exploring, I loved the light and the shadows made by the doors and windows. Modest dress will be expected and no shoes are allowed inside.

Dien Tho Residence (Residence of Longevity)

This residence was used by the empress dowagers.  It is one of the best-preserved buildings within the complex and showcases the luxurious living quarters and gardens for the royal women.

Royal Theatre (Duyet Thi Duong)

One of the oldest surviving theatres in Vietnam, used for performances for the royal family. Still in use today, visitors can enjoy traditional Vietnamese music and theatrical performances in this historic venue. I didn’t know about the theatre until our tour, if I’d known in advance I would have loved to watch a performance.

The Nine Dynastic Urns

These massive bronze urns are dedicated to different Nguyen emperor and adorned with intricate carvings depicting various landscapes, animals and symbols. The number 9 is a sacred number in Eastern belief and the urns were cast by master craftsmen in 1835 and it took artisans a year to carve.

Hien Lam Pavilion

This tall, three-story pavilion stands as a memorial to the Nguyen Dynasty emperors.  It is the tallest structure in the Imperial City and offers impressive views of the surrounding complex.

Changing Of The Guards

If you’re looking to see a glorious spectacle when you visit Hue then make sure you’re at the Imperial City for 8:30am. Changing of the Guards takes place every morning at the entrance.

interior of the temple within the Imperial city, brightly painted in red and gold

Festivals At The Citadel And Imperial City

There are several festivals throughout the year and they are shown on the Imperial City website.

  • We visited just after the Tet holidays and there were many display and colourful exhibitions.  During the run up to Tet there will be lots of music and folk festivals.
  • Summer Festival with the Shining Capital.  The Hue International Art Festival Week promotes local art as well as typical Vietnamese works.  In 2024 the theme was Cultural Heritage, featuring artists both locally and internationally.
  • Autumn Festival includes the Hue Lantern Festival and Street Unicorn Dance
  • Winter Festival starts with the Hue International Music Week, which includes historical and contemporary art forms.
  • Light Festival which was held in May offers visitors the chance to see the city at night, bathed in light and colour.

These events are listed on the Imperial City Website but I would also recommend that you ask your accommodation to confirm or recommend any events.  We visited some of the art installations during our time in Hue but they weren’t highly visible; we happened to walk by on our first day in town and returned for a closer look.

the buildings were decorated with red and gold lanterns for Tet (Vietnamese New Year)

Can You Join A Guided Tour Of The Imperial City?

Yes!  We did.  Sometimes we like to explore on our own (such as Taragarh Fort at Bundi in India) but for such an important (and huge) UNESCO site like this, we felt a guided tour would offer us much greater insight and ensure that we visited the most important buildings.

It is possible to find a guide when you arrive at the Citadel, but I prefer to do a little research in advance to ensure that I’m getting a great guide and that I’m seeing the sites that I wish to visit and explore. I would recommend that you book ahead; you only need to reserve your spot 24 hours in advance.

Tours are very reasonably priced.  Our go-to choice is very often GuruWalk as the guides are local and really know their stuff.  There is no set fee for GuruWalk but there is a recommended minimum, which is usually 10$.  You’re welcome to give more, especially if the tour group is small and the guide goes above and beyond like ours.

Our tour was scheduled for 3 hours; we did go over this time but the guide seemed happy to keep talking. 

If you prefer to book with more familiar booking sites I would recommend one of the following highly rated guided walks. 

Top Tip :  Your tour price does not include your entrance fee.  You will still need to purchase your ticket when you arrive with cash.  Going with a guide ensures that help is at hand if needed.

Colleen walking through the Imperial City Hue during our guided walk

DIY Or Guided Tour Of The Imperial City?

Whether you opt for a guided walk explore alone is going to be down to personal preference and maybe, budget and timescales.

For this kind of historical monument we chose a guide.  We learned to much more about Vietnam and her history than we would have ever learned from a book or the audio guide. 

I do feel it’s important to research and check reviews of guides and tours in advance.  We’ve seen guides that simply led their group to a building and pointed. I should stress, we’ve never had this with GuruWalk).  But.  Do your research.

Pros Of Visiting With A Guide

  • Expert Knowledge : A guide can provide detailed historical background and context, making the visit more informative
  • Hidden Stories : Guides will often share interesting anecdotes and lesser-known stories that you might miss on a self-guided tour. Some of them are not so much fun like the tales of murder and intrigue which our guide told us and which could have come straight out of the pages of Game of Thrones!
  • Efficient Route : I can’t understate how big this site is.  Your guide will navigate you, ensuring you see all the important landmarks without getting lost. 
  • Local Perspective : Guides will offer insights into local culture, customs, and traditions.  Our guide shared lots of amusing stories about his grandmother which really did enrich our visit.
  • Language : Without doubt a guide will help bridge any language barriers. 
  • Questions : You can ask lots of questions and get immediate answers which helps you make sense of what you’re seeing. 
  • Personal Recommendations:  This is invaluable.  Guides often provide tips on other attractions, and local restaurants.  They’ll tell you the best way to explore and of any special events that may be happening. They will often WhatsApp lots of information after the tour.  We even messaged our guide for a Private Driver recommendation and had a fabulous tour over the Hai Van Pass thanks to his choice. 

Cons Of Visiting With A Guide

  • Cost : Guided tours aren’t free.  GuruWalk at least allows you to pay what you can, but without doubt they are more expensive than touring alone.  And tipping may be expected so it’s worth factoring in this cost.
  • Fixed Schedule : Guides do have a schedule and times and dates may not coincide with your visit.  If you know you want to take a tour and have limited flexibility then book in advance. We missed a great deal in Japan because we did not book ahead!
  • The Group : Unless you book a private tour you do have to follow the pace of the group and some folks ask A LOT of questions. 
  • Less Personal Exploration : It is true that a guide can take the edge off your own discoveries.  Whilst this is a pro if time is short, there are times when I prefer to simply follow my nose; I find this particularly true when wanting to take photos. My advice would be to allow some time at the end of your tour to revisit alone. 

How Long Is The Tour Of The Imperial City?

Most tours range from 2.5 – 3 hours.  I would also allow a little more time to explore alone if you would like to spend longer.  We had one guy leave our tour early as timescales for him were very tight.

It is a large site with a lot to see; I’m pretty sure you could spend a whole day here if you wanted to see every corner.

beautiful shaded terrace with archway into the imperial garden

Tips For Visiting The Imperial City

We visited Hue In February and it was very hot.  There is limited shade in the Imperial City, although the guides were great at finding the best spots.  But make sure you are prepared for a lot of time in the sun.

What To Wear At The Imperial City

It’s probably going to be hot so wear loose fitting, light comfortable clothing BUT do remember that you’ll be visiting temples, so you will need to keep shoulders and knees covered.

You will be walking a lot.  The walking is not fast and you spend a lot of time meandering or standing, so comfortable shoes are a must.

What To Bring

You need very little but the obvious items would include :

  • Sunhat
  • Sunscreen
  • Water (there is a small café on site)
  • Camera
  • Insect Repellent (there are a few ponds and water features within the Imperial City)
  • You’ll need comfortable shoes but it’s worth noting that you will need to remove shoes when entering some buildings.

I’d also recommend a bag, we have a small over the shoulder bag which contains phones, scarf, sunscreen, hat and water and things like paracetamol or anti-histamine and any other emergency first aid items.  It’s a convenient way to carry your things.  It seems like an obvious choice but often we head off and I only take my camera and always regret not having a bag with supplies.

How To Get To The Imperial City In Hue

We took a taxi; we use Grab (it’s an Asian version of Uber).  Our tour started early and we didn’t fancy the 30 minute walk from our hotel.

If you’re happy to walk the Vietnamese flag flies proudly at the entrance of the Imperial City and can be seen from most spots along the river. If you are walking bear in mind that you will probably have to cross the Perfume River first, so ensure your route takes you to one of the city bridges.

colourful tiled dragon at the entrance to one of the imperial palaces

Final Thoughts : Is It Worth Exploring The Imperial City Hue?

Yes, it was so much bigger and better than we anticipated. The Imperial City is a must for anyone visiting Hue.  It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason and whilst it may have suffered terrible damage during the war, it is being painstakingly restored to its formal glory.  And I say again, the site is huge.

Our visit never felt hurried or busy and the time passed quickly.  It was a good idea of our guide, to pause partway for an cold drink in the little on-site café, but if your tour doesn’t allow for this perhaps retrace your steps at the end and take a pause. 

You can visit alone but for a small cost, I would strongly recommend a guided walk and our personal favourite would be GuruWalk

incredibly long corridors and shaded terraces within the Imperial City Hue

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Whenever you travel, you should have a great travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

I’ve ended up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal, Japan and Ireland! Every time my insurance took care of everything. I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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Colleen in Salamanca on the Via de la Plata

Hey I’m Colleen. I’m married to Gerry, we’ve three fabulous kids and been living in France for almost two decades. I fell in love with Spain in the 1980s and I’ve walked 1000s of miles along the Camino de Santiago. Now we’re exploring and walking the world and I can’t wait to share what we’ve learned!

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