The area of central Seoul bounded by the five grand palaces is by far the most interesting in the city. During the Joseon dynasty, which ruled over the Korean peninsula from 1392 to 1910, each of the palaces at one time served as the country’s seat of power, and no visit to Seoul would be complete without a visit to at least one or two. By far the most visited is Gyeongbokgung, the oldest of the group, though nearby Changdeokgung is the only one to have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Literally a stone’s throw away across a perimeter wall is Changgyeonggung, which probably has the most interesting history of the five, as well as the most natural setting, while further south are the smaller pair of Gyeonghuigung and Deoksugung. Note that the suffix -gung means palace, and once it’s removed you’re left with the two-syllable name of the complex.
While visits to only one or two of the palaces should suffice, there’s much more to see in the area, from the trinkets and teashops on Insadonggil to the more laid-back areas of Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok Village, the former studded with galleries, the latter with traditional hanok buildings. Also in the area, just north of Gyeongbokgung, is Cheongwadae, the official residence of the Korean president.
One popular itinerary is to start the day at Gyeongbokgung and take in the on-site museums before heading to Insadonggil for a traditional Korean meal and a cup of tea; energy thus restored, you can then visit one or two nearby galleries and shop at the stalls, or the nearby palace of Changdeokgung, before taking a well-earned rest at Tapgol Park.Read More
The undisputed hub of Korea’s tourist scene, INSADONG (인사동) is a city district whose tight lattice of streets is full to the brim with art galleries, shops, tearooms and traditional restaurants – you could quite happily spend most of the day here. The appeal of the area lies in simply strolling around and taking it all in – most of the commerce is pleasingly traditional, not only at the restaurants, but also in the galleries, which display a fusion of old and contemporary styles very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the place. Should such delights bring out your artistic muse, there are numerous shops selling paints, brushes and handmade paper.
Insadong’s action is centred on Insadonggil (인사동길), the area’s main street, which despite being cramped and people-packed is still open to traffic – be careful when walking here, as Korean taxis tend to be a law unto themselves. The one exception is Sunday, when the street is closed to vehicles; unless the weather’s bad, you’ll are likely to see music and dance performances or a traditional parade. At the northern end of the street – take exit six from Anguk station, walk up the main street for a few minutes and then turn left – there are a couple of tourist information booths, as well as the interesting Ssamziegil building, a spiralling complex of trendy trinket shops with a rooftop market. Tiny side streets branch off Insadonggil as you head south along the road, most of which are lined with traditional Korean restaurants. Continuing south, the street segues into the more Westernized buildings of “regular” Seoul; look out for the Starbucks on the southern reaches of the road, which was the scene of traditionalist protests when it opened – it made a slight concession by having its name spelt in hangeul. Insadonggil finishes at small Tapgol Park (탑골 공원), where a huge, stunning Joseon-era stone pagoda grandly titled “National Treasure Number Two” sits resplendent inside. Sadly, though, its beauty is marred by the ugly glass box that has been placed around it for protection.
North of Anguk station
North of Anguk station
North of Anguk subway station, and between the palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, lie Samcheongdong (삼청동) and Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌 한옥 마을), two of the city’s most characterful areas. Like Insadong, Samcheongdong is crammed with quirky restaurants, cafés and galleries. Though most of the area remains charming and relaxed, one particular street has become rather popular; heading off from Gyeongbokgun’s northeastern corner, and a five-minute walk from the palace’s eastern exit, Samcheongdonggil has an almost European air to it, its side streets snaking uphill in a manner reminiscent of Naples or Lisbon. A few of the cafés and galleries spill over into Bukchon Hanok Village, an area characterized by the prevalence of traditional wooden hanok buildings – these once covered the whole country, but most were torn down during Korea’s economic revolution and replaced with row upon row of fifteen-storey blocks. The city council spared this area the wrecking ball, and as a result there’s some delightful walking to be done among its quiet lanes, where tiny restaurants, tearooms and comic book shops line the streets, and children play games on mini arcade machines, creating a pleasant air of indifference hard to find in the capital; a few of the buildings have even been converted into guesthouses.
While Gyeongbokgung plays to the crowd, its smaller neighbour Changdeokgung (창덕궁) is the choice of palace connoisseurs. Completed in 1412 and home to royalty as recently as 1910, this is the best-preserved palace in Seoul, and has been put on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Entry here is regulated to a far greater degree than the other palaces, and for most of the week you’ll have no option but to join a tour. Though the information is interesting, you really can’t beat the freedom of exploring the palace by yourself; to do this you will need to come on a Thursday from April to October, and pay more.
The suitably impressive throne room is without doubt the most regal-looking of any Seoul palace – light from outside is filtered through paper doors and windows, bathing in a dim glow the elaborate wooden beam structure, as well as the throne and its folding-screen backdrop. From here you’ll be led past a number of buildings pertaining to the various kings that used the palace, some of which still have the original furniture inside. One building even contains vehicles used by King Sunjong, the Daimler and Cadillac looking more than a little incongruous in their palatial setting. Sunjong was the last ruler of the Joseon dynasty, and held the throne from 1907 until his country’s annexation by the Japanese in 1910; his lineage still continues today, though claims are contested, and the “royals” have no regal rights, claims or titles. Further on you’ll come to Nakseondae. Built during the reign of King Heonjong (ruled 1834–49), the building’s Qing-style latticed doors and arched pavilion reveal Heonjong’s taste for foreign cultures; without the paint and decoration typical of Korean palace buildings, the colours of the bare wood are ignited during sunset. Look out for the circular sliding door inside – Star Trek in a Korean palace.
Changdeokgung’s highlight is Huwon (후원), the “Secret Garden”. Approached on a suitably mysterious path, the garden is concealed by an arch of leaves. In the centre of the garden is a lotus pond, one of Seoul’s most-photographed sights, and alive with colourful flowers in late June or early July. A small building overlooking the pond served as a library and study room, and the tiny gates blocking the entrance path were used as an interesting checking mechanism by the king – needing to crouch to pass through, he’d be reminded of his duty to be humble. This is the last stop on the tour, and most visitors take the opportunity to relax here awhile before exiting the complex.
Most visitors will start their tour at Gwanghwamun (광화문), the palace’s southern gate. Entering through the first courtyard you’ll see Geunjeongjeon (근정전), the palace’s former throne room, looming ahead. Despite being the largest wooden structure in the country, this two-level construction remains surprisingly graceful, the corners of its gently sloping roof home to lines of tiny guardian figurines. The central path leading up to the building was once used only by the king, but the best views of its interior are actually from the sides – from here you’ll see the golden dragons on the hall ceiling, as well as the throne itself, backed by its traditional folding screen.
After Geunjeongjeon you can take one of a number of routes around the complex. To the east of the throne room are the buildings that once housed crown princes, deliberately placed here to give these regal pups the day’s first light, while behind is Gangnyeongjeon (강녕전), the former living quarters of the king and queen, furnished with replica furniture. Also worth seeking out is Jagyeongjeon (자경전), a building backed by a beautiful stone wall, and chimneys decorated with animal figures. West of the throne room is Gyeonghoeru (경회루), a colossal pavilion looking out over a tranquil lotus pond that was a favourite with artists in regal times, and remains so today. The pond was used both for leisure and as a ready source of water for the fires that regularly broke out around the palace (an unfortunate by-product of heating buildings with burning wood or charcoal under the floor), while the pavilion itself was once a place for banquets and civil service examinations. North of the throne room, and right at the back of the complex, are a few buildings constructed in 1888 during the rule of King Gojong to house books and works of art. These structures were designed in the Chinese style that was the height of fashion at the time, and are markedly different from any other structures around the palace.
National Folk Museum
National Folk Museum
Inside the palace complex is the National Folk Museum (국립 민속 박물관). Although huge, there’s only one level, stuffed with dioramas and explanations of Korean ways of life long since gone, from old fishing and farming practices to clothing worn during the Three Kingdoms era. The free folk performances outside the museum are well worth watching.