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.