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.

Changdeokgung

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.

Huwon

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.

Changgyeonggung

Separated from Changdeokgung to the west by a perimeter wall, Changgyeonggung (창경궁) tends to split visitors into two camps – those who marvel at its history and the relatively natural beauty of its interior, which is far greener than Seoul’s other palaces, and those who feel that there’s a little less to see.

King Sejong built Changgyeonggung in 1418 as a resting place for his father, the recently abdicated King Taejong. At its peak the palace had a far greater number of buildings than are visible today, but these were to suffer badly from fires and during the Japanese invasions. Almost the whole of the complex burned down in the Japanese attacks of 1592, and then again during a devastating inferno in 1830, two events that sandwiched the murder of a crown prince by his father. When the Japanese returned in 1907, they turned much of the palace into Korea’s first amusement park, and included a botanical garden, kindergarten and zoo, as well as a museum – the red brick exterior and pointed steel roof were very much in keeping with the Japanese style of the time, and pictures of this can still be seen around the palace entrance. The building and zoo themselves were tolerated for nearly a century before finally being ripped down in 1983, whereas the botanical garden still remains today.

Considering its turbulent history, the palace is a markedly relaxed place to wander around. The buildings themselves are nowhere near as polished as those in the Gyeongbok or Changdeok palaces, which helps accentuate their validity; the history of each structure is chronicled on information boards. Be sure to look for Myeongjeongjeon, the oldest main hall of any of Seoul’s palaces – it was built in 1616, and somehow escaped the fires that followed. From here, a number of paths wind their way to a pond at the north of the complex, many of which are highly beautiful, with some full of scent from herbs planted along the way. Near the pond are a couple of herb gardens, while also visible are the white-painted lattices of the Japanese-built botanical garden. If you still have energy left you can head to the far southwest of the complex, where a footbridge crosses over to Jongmyo shrine.

The murder of Crown Prince Sado

In 1762, a sinister event occurred in the grounds of Changgyeonggung, one whose story is, for some reason, omitted from the information boards that dot the palace grounds – a royal murder. A young prince named Sado was heir to the throne of King Yeongjo, but had been born mentally ill, with a rather unfortunate habit of killing people unnecessarily. Fearing dire consequences if the nation’s power were placed into his son’s hands, Yeongjo escorted Sado to Seonninmun, a gate on the eastern side of the palace, and ordered him to climb into a rice casket; his son obeyed, was locked in, and starved to death. Sado’s wife, Hyegyong, held the secret until after Yeongjo’s death in 1776, at which point she spilled the beans in a book, Hanjungnok (published in English as The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong). Sado’s son Jeongjo became king on the death of Yeongjo, and built Hwaseong fortress in Suwon to house his father’s remains. Jeongjo went on to become one of Korea’s most respected rulers.

Gyeongbokgung

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.

The Palace

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

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).

Insadong

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.

Insadonggil

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.

Insadong tearooms

Insadonggil and its surrounding alleyways are studded with tearooms, typically of a traditional or quirky style. You’ll be paying W5000 or more for a cup, but most come away feeling that they’ve got value for money – these are high-quality products made with natural ingredients, and are likely to come with a small plate of traditional Korean sweets. See Korean tea varieties for some of the teas available; of particular interest are the yak-cha – these dark, bitter, medicinal teas taste just like a Chinese pharmacy smells, and are perfect for chasing away coughs or colds.

Jongmyo

Along with the palace of Gyeongbokgung, the construction of Jongmyo shrine (종묘) was on King Taejo’s manifesto as he kicked off the Joseon dynasty in 1392. He decreed that dead kings and queens would be honoured here in true Confucian style, with a series of ancestral rites. These ceremonies were performed five times a year, once each season, with an extra one on the winter solstice, when the ruling king would pay his respects to those who died before him by bowing profusely, and explaining pertinent national issues to their spirit tablets. These wooden blocks, in which deceased royalty were believed to reside, are still stored in large wooden buildings that were said to be the biggest in Asia at the time of their construction. Jeongjeon was the first, but such was the length of the Joseon dynasty that another building – Yeongnyeongjeon – had to be added. Though the courtyards are open – take the opportunity to walk on the raised paths that were once reserved for kings – the buildings themselves remain locked for most of the year. The one exception to this is on the first Sunday in May, which is the day of Jongmyo Daeje, a long, solemn ceremony (9am–3pm) followed by traditional court dances – an absolute must-see.

On exiting the shrine from the main entrance, you’ll find yourself in Jongmyo Park, one of the most atmospheric areas in Seoul – on warm days it’s full of old men selling calligraphy, drinking soju and playing baduk (a Korean board game similar to Go). Find a spot to sit, close your eyes and listen to the wooden clack of a thousand game pieces.

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.

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.

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.

The palace

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.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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