The glorious palace of Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) is, with good reason, the most popular tourist sight in the city, and a focal point of the country as a whole. The place is absorbing, and the chance to stroll the dusty paths between its delicate tile-roofed buildings is one of the most enjoyable experiences Seoul has to offer. Gyeongbokgung was ground zero for Seoul’s emergence as a place of power, having been built to house the royal family of the embryonic Joseon dynasty, shortly after they transferred their capital here in 1392. The complex has witnessed fires, repeated destruction and even a royal assassination, but careful reconstruction means that the regal atmosphere of old is still palpable, aided no end by the suitably majestic crags of Bugaksan to the north. A large historical complex with excellent on-site museums, it can easily eat up the best part of a day.
Try to time your visit to coincide with the colourful changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place outside the main entrance at 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm daily except Monday. There are free English-language tours of the grounds at 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm, although the complex has information boards all over the place, and most visitors choose to go it alone.
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.
A history of Gyeongbokgung
A history of Gyeongbokgung
Gyeongbokgung’s construction was ordered by King Taejo in 1394, and the “Palace of Shining Happiness” held the regal throne for over two hundred years. At its peak, the palace housed over four hundred buildings within its vaguely rectangular perimeter walls, but most were burned down during the Japanese invasions in the 1590s. However, though few Koreans will admit to it, the invaders were not directly to blame – the arsonists were actually a group of local slaves, angered by their living and working conditions. The palace was only rebuilt following the coronation of child-king Gojong in 1863, but the Japanese were to invade again shortly afterwards, forcibly opening up Korea to foreign trade, and slowly ratcheting up their standing on the peninsula.
In 1895 Empress Myeongseong, one of Gojong’s wives and an obstacle to the Japanese – who refer to her as “Queen Min” – was assassinated in the Gyeongbokgung grounds, a shady tale told in countless movies and soap operas, and a precursor to the full-scale Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. During the occupation, which ended with World War II in 1945, the Japanese used Gyeongbokgung for police interrogation and torture, and made numerous changes to the building in an apparent effort to destroy Korean pride. The front gate, Gwanghwamun, was moved to the east of the complex, destroying the north–south geometric principles followed during the palace’s creation, while a Japanese command post was built in the sacred first courtyard in a shape identical to the Japanese written character for “sun” (日). One interesting suggestion – and one certainly not beyond the scope of Japanese thinking at that time – is that Bukhansan mountain to the north resembled the character for “big” (大) and City Hall to the south that of “root” (本), thereby emblazoning Seoul’s most prominent points with the three characters that made up the name of the Empire of the Rising Sun (大日本).