The centuries-old heart of Seoul revolves around these once-regal quarters of palaces. Between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, Bukchon covers several smaller areas, including Samcheong-dong, and Gahoe-dong, famous for its traditional hanok (wooden homes). West of Gyeongbokgung, Seochon is an increasingly popular area for casual wanderings between galleries, cafes and boutiques. South of Bukchon are the equally maze-like and gallery-filled streets of Insa-dong, and the newly hip hanok area of Ikseon-dong.
The focus of the area – and for many visitors, of the whole city – is Seoul’s royal palace compounds, which need at least half a day each to do them justice. Although their size and splendour have been greatly reduced from their heyday in the 18th century, the compounds, in the district of Jongno-gu, provide a glimpse of what it was like to live at the powerful heart of the old city. 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. The area is referred to as Gwanghwamun after the majestic gate to the main palace of Gyeongbokgung and the elongated square in front of it.
If you want to see hanok (traditional Korean houses) in a real-life neighbourhood, Bukchon, the area between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, makes for a pleasant hour, or more if you stop off in a teahouse. 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. For more clusters of hanok in a trendy setting head to Seochon west of Gyeongbokgung; or to Inkseon-dong, one of Seoul’s most tourist-friendly areas, for a compact maze of small streets filled with traditional teahouses, restaurants, galleries and craft stores.
- Gyeongbokgung Admiring the scale and artistry of the largest of Seoul’s palaces, fronted by the grand gateway Gwanghwamun, where you can watch the changing of the guard.
- Changdeokgung Discovering Huwon, the serene traditional garden secreted behind the most beautiful of Seoul's five main palaces.
- Bukchon Hanok Village, Stepping back in time in the picturesque maze of the city’s densest cluster of traditional-style homes.
- Jogye-sa Learning about Buddhism at one of Seoul’s most active temples and epicentre of the spectacular Lotus Lantern Festival in May.
- Arario Museum in SPACE Browsing an impressive collection of contemporary art.
If you plan to visit all four of Seoul’s palaces – Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung and Deoksugung – and the shrine Jongmyo, you can save some money by buying a combined ticket (₩10,000) valid for up to three months. The ticket is sold at each of the palaces and also covers entry to Huwon at Changdeokgung.