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.