Seoul’s largest royal palace is an icon of the city and attracts the lion's share of visitors. The grand buildings once housed scholars, eunuchs, concubines, soldiers and servants. Today the museums and dramatic changing-of-the-guard ceremony make for an absorbing afternoon or full day.
Originally built by King Taejo in 1395, Gyeongbokgung served as the principal royal residence until 1592, when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasion. It lay in ruins for nearly 300 years until Heungseon Daewongun, regent and father of King Gojong, started to rebuild it in 1865. Gojong moved in during 1868, but the expensive rebuilding project bankrupted the government.
During Japanese colonial rule, the front section of the palace was again destroyed in order to build the enormous Japanese Government General Building. This was itself demolished in the 1990s to enable Gwanghwamun to be rebuilt in the form you see today.
The palace’s impressive main gate, Gwanghwamun, restored in 2010, is flanked by stone carvings of haechi, mythical lion-like creatures traditionally set to protect the palace against fire; they never really did work and, appearances to the contrary, are superfluous today as the gate is now a painted concrete rather than wood structure.
Moving across the palace’s broad front courtyard, you pass through a second gate, Heungnyemun, and over a small artificial stream (for good feng shui a palace should have water in front and a mountain to the rear, which in this case is Bukaksan) to face the ornate two-storey Geunjeongjeon. In this impressive throne hall kings were crowned, met foreign envoys and conducted affairs of state.
West of Geunjeongjeon is Gyeonghoeru, a large pavilion resting on 48 pillars and overlooking an artificial lake with two small islands. State banquets were held inside and royals went boating on the pond.
Living Quarters & Gardens
A series of smaller meeting halls precede the king’s living quarters, Gangyeongjeon, behind which are Gyotaejeon, those of the queen. Next you'll come to the terraced garden, Amisan; the red-brick chimneys decorated with longevity symbols on the garden’s top terrace were used to release smoke from the palace's ondol (underfloor heating) system.
Symbolically located on the eastern side of the grounds (where the sun rises) is Donggun, the living quarters for the crown prince. To the rear, King Gojong built more halls for his own personal use and an ornamental pond with Hyangwonjeong, an attractive hexagonal pavilion on an island.
Museums Within the Palace
The National Palace Museum of Korea, to the left just inside Gwanghwamun, has royal artefacts that highlight the wonderful artistic skills of the Joseon era – royal seals, illustrations of court ceremonies, and the gold-embroidered hanbok (traditional clothing) and exquisite hairpins worn by the queens and princesses. Note this museum closes on a different day to the palace.
In a separate section in the northeast of the grounds is the excellent National Folk Museum of Korea. It has three main exhibition halls covering the history of the Korean people, the agricultural way of life and the life of yangban (aristocrats) during the Joseon era. Among the many interesting exhibits is an amazingly colourful funeral bier – these were used to give the deceased a great send-off.
On the approach to the museum is an open-air exhibition of historical buildings and structures, including a street of buildings styled as they would have been in the early 20th century. Also here is the separate National Children’s Museum and play area.
- National Folk Museum
- National Palace Museum
Sidebar: Tours & Ceremonies
An audio commentary and a free guided tour (in English at 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm) are available to learn more about the palace. At the National Folk Museum of Korea the English guided tours start at 10.30am and 2.30pm, while at the National Palace Museum of Korea, the tour is at 3pm. Changing of the guard ceremonies beside Gwanghwamun occur every hour, on the hour between 10am and 4pm.
Sidebar: Queen Min’s Assassination
In the early hours of 8 October 1895, Gyeongbokgung was the scene of a dramatic moment in Korean history. Japanese assassins broke into the palace and murdered Empress Myeongseong (Queen Min), one of the most powerful figures at that time in Korea. She was targeted because of her attempts to modernise Korea and protect its independence. After her body was burnt, it is said only one finger survived the fire. Later 56 individuals were arrested but not one was convicted for the murder.
- Unlike most sights in the city, Gyeongbokgung is closed on Tuesdays. It can be useful to visit on Mondays when most other palaces, museums and galleries are closed.
- Book well ahead for the excellent Starlight Tour, which includes a night-time visit to 10 locations in the palace and a Korean royal court banquet plus a live performance of traditional Korean music. Tickets, available from early March, must be bought in advance online (www.ticket.auction.co.kr).
Take a Break
Exit the palace to its east side where you can get a ringside seat of the jumbo gimbap being made at Chosun Gimbap, one of the best-value feeds in the city.
Feel lofty after leaving the royal palace with terrace views overlooking the area to the east at Wood and Brick with a coffee or good set-menu European lunch.
Walking from slightly further Gwanghwamun station makes for a grand approach to the palace along the square.
Subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung station, Exit 5 or to Anguk station, Exit 1; Line 5 to Gwanghwamun station, Exit 2.
Seoul's most monumental royal palace.
The most beautiful of Seoul’s four main palaces, World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung was originally built in the early 15th century as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung. Following the destruction of both palaces during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, Changdeokgung was rebuilt and became the primary royal residence until 1872. It remained in use well into the 20th century.
Visiting the Palace
All visits are by one-hour guided tours that run in English at 10.15am and 1.15pm; if you just want to see the sights, tours in Korean are at 9.30am, 11.30am and 3.30pm. To also see the palace's Secret Garden, Huwon, join English tours at 10.30am, 11.30am and 2.30pm (also 3.30pm February to November). Come early (or reserve online) as the Huwon tours are restricted to 50 people at a time.
Try to book well ahead for the worthwhile monthly Moonlight Tours (April to May, and August to October), limited to 100 people and costing ₩30,000. Buy tickets online at Auction (www.ticket.auction.co.kr) or call 02-1566 1369 (English).
Enter through the imposing gate Donhwamun (dating from 1608), turn right and cross over the stone bridge (built in 1414) – note the guardian animals carved on its sides. On the left is the beautiful main palace building, Injeongjeon. It sits in harmony with the paved courtyard, the open corridors and the trees behind it.
Next door are the government office buildings, including one with a blue-tiled roof. Further on are the private living quarters of the royal family. Peering inside the partially furnished rooms, you can feel what these Joseon palaces were like in their heyday – bustling beehives buzzing round the king, full of gossip, intrigue and whispering.
Round the back is a terraced garden with decorative ondol chimneys. Over on the right is something completely different – Nakseonjae, built by King Heonjong (r 1834–49) in an austere Confucian style using unpainted wood. Royal descendants lived here until 1989.
The Secret Garden
Walk through the dense woodland and suddenly you come across a serene glade. The Huwon is a beautiful vista of pavilions on the edge of a square lily pond, with other halls and a two-storey library. The board out the front, written by King Jeongjo, means ‘Gather the Universe’. Joseon kings relaxed, studied and wrote poems in this tranquil setting.
Further on are a couple more ponds and Yeongyeongdang, originally built in 1828 as a place for the crown prince to study. Ongnyucheon is a brook at the back of the garden where there’s a huge rock, Soyoam, with three Chinese characters inscribed on it by King Injo in 1636 – ong-nyu-cheon, which means ‘jade flowing stream’ – and a poem composed in Chinese characters by King Sukjong in 1690.
- Book well in advance for the evening Moonlight Tours in warmer months.
- Huwon is a must-see, so it is worth reserving tickets online for the obligatory guided tour. On the day, there is a separate, usually shorter, queue for internet-reserved ticket pick-up.
- Set aside at least three hours to take it all in, including Huwon.
- There are lots of exposed areas, so use adequate sun protection in summer.
Take a Break
It's a pleasant walk between Changdeokgung and Insadong, or to Gyeongbokgung via Bukchon Hanok Village.
Subway Line 3 to Anguk station, Exit 3.
Beautiful palace hiding a secret garden.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon (North Village), covering the area between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, is home to around 900 hanok, Seoul’s largest concentration of these traditional Korean homes. Although super-touristy in parts, the streets here are a pleasure to aimlessly wander and get lost in, admiring the buildings’ patterned walls and tiled roofs contrasting with the modern city in the distance.
Bukchon Information & Events
To find out more about the area head first to the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center, which has a small exhibition about hanok and is housed, appropriately enough, in a hanok.
With three days' advance notice you can arrange a free guided tour of the area with a volunteer from Seoul City Walking Tours. Free maps and leaflets about the area can also be picked up from Bukchon Tourist Information Center.
Note that massed tour groups swamp Bukchon every weekend, particularly during the middle hours of the day; avoid the crowds by visiting early in the morning or later in the evening.
Inside the Hanok
Given the throng of tourists and the number of hanok that now house commercial businesses, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this region was once a residential area and still remains so in parts.
For a critical take on the contemporary history and development of Bukchon see www.kahoidong.com. The site is run by David Kilburn, who lives with his wife in one of the most traditional of hanok in Gahoe-dong, the most picturesque – and thus busiest – part of Bukchon.
Despite being zoned as a residential area, several hanok here are open to the public. Simsimheon, meaning ‘House Where the Heart is Found’, is a modern hanok that was rebuilt using traditional methods on the site of two older ones. Entry includes tea, which is sipped overlooking the internal garden. It's also possible to stay in a family home turned guesthouse.
Craft & Art Museums & Workshops
There are several places in Bukchon where you can learn about the traditional crafts still practised in this area or view private collections of arts and crafts.
Gahoe Minhwa Workshop is both a hanok museum and cultural centre with a treasure trove of amulets and folk paintings. You can attend workshops in traditional painting and take away your efforts as a print or a T-shirt.
If traditional knotting techniques are your thing, then attend classes to make ornaments such as tassels and thread jewellery at the hanok of the Dong-Lim Knot Workshop.
- Bukchon Traditional Culture Center
- Gahoe Minhwa Workshop
- Dong-Lim Knot Workshop
- You will see people holding signs to be respectful and keep quiet in the Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a residential area where people still live.
- The area is quite a maze. Set aside time to get blissfully lost. There are roving tourist information officials dressed in red with useful maps.
Take a Break
It's best to explore the area on foot between the two royal palaces of Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung.
Subway Line 3 to Anguk station, Exit 3.
Neighbourhoods with fascinating traditional homes.
As interesting for the dense woodland as for its royal artefacts, World Heritage–listed Jongmyo contains the 'spirit tablets' of the Joseon kings and queens and loyal government officials. Special holes bored into the wood tablets are said to house the royal spirits. The Confucian shrine is equally famous for its ceremony Jongmyo Daeje, considered the oldest complete ceremony in the world.
Near the entrance to Jongmyo are two ponds, both square (representing earth) with a round island (representing the heavens). In the middle of the main path you’ll notice triple stone paths; one is for the king, the other for the crown prince and the raised middle section for the spirits.
The stately main shrine, Jeongjeon, constructed in 1395, is fronted by a large stone-flagged courtyard. Inside are 49 royal spirit tablets in 19 small windowless rooms which are usually locked.
On the right-hand side of the main entrance is Gonsindang, which houses the spirit tablets of 83 meritorious subjects. They served their kings well and were rewarded with their spirit tablets sharing the royal compound – the highest honour they could hope for. On the left side are shrines to Chilsa, the seven gods who aid kings.
The smaller shrine, Yeongnyeongjeon (Hall of Eternal Peace), built in 1421, has 34 spirit tablets of lesser kings in six rooms. These include four ancestors of King Taejo (the founder of the Joseon dynasty) who were made kings posthumously. Behind this building a footbridge leads over to Changgyeonggung.
On the first Sunday in May the Yi clan, descendants of the Joseon kings, make lavish offerings of food and drink to the spirits of their royal ancestors. Starting at 11.30am with a procession from Gwanghwamun Sq to the shrine, the ceremony culminates seven hours later at the main shrine Jeongjeon.
- Being a ceremonial site built on ideas, not just a set of handsome buildings, taking a free one-hour guided tour in English here is worthwhile to make sense of it all. Tours are available weekdays at 10am, noon, 2pm and 4pm.
- If you are visiting Seoul at the start of May, try to time it to coincide with Jongmyo Daeje. The ceremony is a majestic public event with a reenactment of a king seated in a royal palanquin, flanked by a procession of guards and military officials.
Take a Break
Subway Line 1, 3 or 5 to Jongno 3-ga, Exit 11.
Stately shrine housing royal spirits.
The headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has the largest hall of worship in Seoul, decorated with murals from Buddha’s life and carved floral latticework doors. The temple compound, always a hive of activity, really comes alive during the city’s spectacular Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday in late April or May, and is a great place to learn a little about Buddhist practice.
Inside Daeungjeon (대웅전; Worship Hall) at Jogye-sa are three giant gilded Buddha statues: on the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the centre is the historical Buddha, who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha, with a medicine bowl in his hand. The small 15th-century Buddha in the glass case was the main Buddha statue before he was replaced by the much larger ones in 2006. On the right-hand side is a guardian altar with lots of fierce-looking guardians in the painting behind, and on the left side is the altar used for memorial services.
Believers who enter the temple bow three times, touching their forehead to the ground – once for Buddha, once for the dharma (teaching) and once for the sangha (monks), 20 of whom serve in this temple.
Behind Daeungjeon is the modern Geuknakjeon (Paradise Hall) dedicated to Amitabha Buddha; funeral services, dharma talks and other prayer services are held here.
On the left side of the compound is the octagonal 10-storey stupa in which is enshrined a relic of Buddha brought to Korea in 1913 by a Sri Lankan monk.
Beomjongru (Brahma Bell Pavilion) houses a drum to summon earthbound animals, a wooden fish-shaped gong to summon aquatic beings, a metal cloud-shaped gong to summon birds and a large bronze bell to summon underground creatures. The bell is rung 28 times at 4am and 33 times at 6pm.
Also within the grounds is the Central Buddhist Museum displaying regularly changing exhibitions relating to the religion. Attached to the museum is a tea shop and gift shop. There is also a small diner at the rear of the grounds serving very simple vegetarian dishes.
Temple Life Programs
Near the main entrance, the Jogye-sa Information Center for Foreigners is staffed by English-speaking guides. Drop by here to make a booking for the Temple Life program (₩30,000; 1pm to 4pm Saturday), which includes a temple tour, meditation practice, lotus-lantern and prayer-bead making, woodblock printing, painting and a tea ceremony. An overnight templestay can also be arranged here.
To find out more about Buddhism or book a Templestay program elsewhere in Seoul or Korea, the Templestay Information Center is just across the street from Jogye-sa. Along the street you’ll also find many shops selling monks’ robes, prayer beads, lanterns and the like.
- Temple Life program
- Even if you can't quite visit during the wonderful Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday, the weeks leading up to it are abuzz with activity and you might be lucky enough to catch dance and singing rehearsals at the temple.
- The colourful lantern decorations here are some of the city's most photogenic. Make space on your camera.
Take a Break
There is a small vegetarian dining hall at the rear of Jogye-sa. No signs in English, but there's an English menu of simple Korean dishes with unlimited rice. A food ticket must be bought from the adjacent office for ₩4000.
You have to reserve in advance but it's worth it for the subtly flavoured vegetarian dishes at Balwoo Gongyang.
Subway Line 3 to Anguk, Exit 6.
Epicentre of Korean Buddhism.
This stream cutting through the city is a rare sight in the metropolis and one that instantly relaxes Seoulites with its greenery, and places to stop alongside landscaped walkways to enjoy the trickling water, whisper sweet nothings or hop across footbridges. There are a variety of public artworks, such as murals and the oversized pink-and-blue shell entitled Spring in Cheong-gye Plaza.
Walking beside the stream is a useful, peaceful way to move between sights such as Gwangjang Market, Dongdaemun and Insa-dong.
Roughly US$384 million was spent to remove a neglected raised highway and reveal the stream underneath. What seems like the original clear waters of the 5.8km of this beautiful stream is actually liquid pumped in at great expense from upstream, making it a not-so environmentally friendly water feature.
Between the Gwang-gyo and Jangton-gyo bridges is a 192m wall mural of painted tiles depicting King Jeongjo visiting his father’s tomb in Hwaseong (Suwon) in 1785. Continue on past Dongdaemun and you’ll eventually reach the Cheong-gye-cheon Museum.
- Cheong-gye Plaza
- Mural of King Jeongjo’s royal parade
- Walking beside the stream
- It's safe to stroll along the stream day or night. If you love to walk, using it as a landmark makes it hard to get lost as you traverse downtown.
- Look out for grey heron – yes, animals still exist in the city and these long-necked birds are attracted to the fish in the stream.
Take a Break
Cheong-gye-cheon is long and is often entered at the Cheong-gye Plaza, its official entryway, or from places such as Gwangjang Market.
Subway Line 5 to Gwanghwamun, Exit 5 for Cheong-gye Plaza.
Seoul's relaxing reborn city stream.