Although their size and splendour have been greatly reduced from their heyday in the 18th century, Seoul’s royal palace compounds, in the district of Jongno-gu, provide a glimpse of what it was like to live at the power- ful heart of the old city. The area is also referred to as Gwanghwamun after the majestic gate to the main palace of Gyeongbokgung and the elongated square that has recently been created in front of it.
Save for the odd painted screen and altar, the large palace buildings are mostly empty allowing you to appreciate the Confucian ideals of frugality, simplicity and separation of the sexes in the architecture as well as the gardens.
Between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, stroll around Bukchon (‘north village’) which covers several smaller areas including Samcheong-dong and Gahoe-dong, famous for its traditional houses. Centuries ago this is where the yangban (aristocrats) lived but most estates were divided into plots in the early 20th century to create the smaller hanok you can now view around Gahoe-dong. West of Gyeongbokgung smaller clusters of hanok can be found in Tongui-dong, a popular location for small commercial art galleries.
South of Bukchon are the equally dense and maze-like streets of Insa-dong, one of Seoul’s most tourist friendly areas, packed with craft shops, galleries, traditional teahouses and restaurants.