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.