No visit to South Korea should skip the Five Royal Palaces in Seoul. Of course, if you only have 3 days or even 4 days in Seoul, you might find it hard to visit all the palaces, you might want to know beforehand which one to choose.
This comprehensive guide will help you make the best choice, introduce you to a short history of each palace, show you some pictures and allow you to make your perfect itinerary.
While all palaces are relatively close to one another, it might get challenging to visit all in one day or even a short stay.
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Visiting the Five Palaces in Seoul
A map and useful information
As you can see from the map, the 6 palaces are relatively close to one another, all set in Seoul’s city center. If you are passionate about history or simply want to learn about South Korea’s past, choose to step inside a few of the palaces.
Entrance fees aren’t too high, and if you choose to wear a hanbok you will have free admission.
Seoul City Pass is another option for when you won’t be traveling outside of the capital city and want to see the palaces. It offers free unlimited transportation for 24, 48, or 72-hour, along with free entry to 40+ attractions and discounts to over 60 attractions, including the most important palaces.
The best time to visit the palaces is during spring or fall because that’s when you will have the chance to take beautiful pictures. However, the other seasons are nice as well, even though winter gets really cold, and summer hot and humid.
Unlike the Cantonese Chinese names that I easily memorized when we lived in Hong Kong, I had difficulties learning the Korean ones after moving to Seoul. And inevitably, Gyeongbokgung was one of the first place names I came across. However, once I realized that the names are a combination of words, things got a lot easier.
‘Gyeong’ can mean Brilliance, Honor, Respect. In Sino-Korean could also mean ‘Capital City. ‘Bok’ usually means Fortune, while ‘Gung’ means Palace. So by naming it Gyeongbok, the government expressed its desire for a bright future.
Constructed in 1395 AD by the first Joseon king, Taejo, its name was devised by an influential minister called Jeong Dojeon. It was the kingdom’s main palace complex, housing the royal household and most of the government.
Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed during the 1592 – 1598 Japanese invasion of Korea. There are conflicting accounts of the events.
Some sources state that Gyeongbokgung was set ablaze by locals, enraged by the King’s actions: he fled the capital to escape the advancing Japanese, leaving its inhabitants to the conquerers’ mercy.
Other sources seem to indicate Japanese responsibility for the destruction. Ozeki, one of the Japanese commanders, described arriving at the now-abandoned palace in his diary and noted its amazing beauty. Ozeki’s account implies that Gyeongbok wasn’t damaged when the Japanese entered the city.
Irrespective of who was to blame for the disaster, the palace complex was left in ruins for the following three centuries.
Eventually, the palace was rebuilt and expanded in 1867, regaining its status as a symbol of Korean national identity. However, after Japanese agents assassinated Empress Myeongseong in 1895, her husband, Emperor Gojong, left the palace; the Royal family never returned.
The complex was destroyed yet again; the responsibility clearly rests on the Japanese shoulders this time. Japan finally conquered Korea in 1910, annexing it to the Japanese Empire by force. During the period, the conquerors attempted an aggressive Japanization of the peninsula; erasing national symbols was part of these efforts.
In 1915, under the pretext of organizing an Industrial Exhibition at the site, the Japanese government systematically demolished 90% of Gyeongbokgung. Furthermore, they built the Japanese General Government Building at the site, trying to eradicate any vestiges of previous Korean independence.
Finally, in 1989, the Korean government initiated a 40 years plan of rebuilding hundreds of monuments and buildings destroyed during the Japanese occupation. As a result, in 1995, the Korean authorities demolished the former Japanese General Government Building, restoring and reconstructing circa 40% of the complex. The authorities plan to fully restore Gyeongbok to its pre-occupation levels in the following decade.
Walking through the complex today while admiring the many visitors dressed in traditional clothing, one wouldn’t guess the place’s violent history.
We loved visiting the palace’s Secret Garden; sitting by the pond can easily transport you to a world without worries. The majestic mountain in the background adds to the serene atmosphere. Furthermore, if you are lucky to visit during the cherry blossom season, you will have the chance of taking great Instagramable pictures.
If you enjoy military history, there is a changing of the guard ceremony; it happens several times a day, at pre-determined hours – you should time your visit accordingly. But if you have the chance, nothing beats visiting Gyeongbok (and the other Seoul palaces and Buchan Hanok village) while dressed in traditional hanbok.
Not only can you enter for free at Gyeongbok while wearing it, but you might be requested to pose for pictures by the local ladies. For some reason, Koreans love to take photos of foreigners dressed in traditional Korean clothing; I never felt like a superstar before this experience.
Adults (ages 19-64): 3,000 won / Groups (10 people or more): 2,400 won
Children (ages 7-18): 1,500 won / Groups (10 people or more): 1,200 won
Free on the last Wednesday of the month and while wearing a hanbok.
Address: 161, Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Gyeongbokgung Station (Seoul Subway Line 3) and Exit 5.
Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3) and Exit 1.
The Palace of Prospering Virtue, known in Korean as Changdeokgung, was the favorite palace of many Joseon rulers. Moreover, it was the site of the royal court during two out of the three centuries that passed between Gyeongbukgung’s first destruction and its eventual reconstruction in 1868.
Changdeok stands out compared to Gyeongbukgung because its buildings blend in with the natural topography instead of dominating it; its construction style retains elements of the previous Three Kingdoms period of Korean history. Actually, the palace was built specifically to replace Gyeongbuk.
One note before going into the details: according to Joseon tradition, newly crowned kings changed their names similar to the practice of Catholic Popes (e.g., the current Pope Francis was Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he ascended to the Papacy; the first Joseon ruler, King Taejo was Yi-Seonggye before being crowned). Also, in Korean naming tradition, the first name is the family name (Yi is the family name of Yi Seonggye).
King Taejong (born Yi Bangwon), the third ruler of the Joseon dynasty, was reluctant to reside at Gyeongbuk because he had bad memories of the place.
Gyeongbuk was the brainchild of Jeong Dojeon, the first official to hold the Yeonguijeong position, a kind of Prime Minister of Joseon.
Jeong Dojeon envisaged a kingdom run by ministers, with the king having a ceremonial role. However, Prince Yi Bangwon, King Taejo’s fifth son and heir-apparent believed that the Monarch should have absolute power over state affairs.
Given their fundamentally diverging views, Jeong Dojeon convinced the founder of the Joseon dynasty, King Taejo, to appoint his eighth son, Yi Bangseok, as his successor instead of Yi Bangwon.
Enraged, Yi Bangwon raided Gyeongbuk palace, killing Jeong Dojeon and some of the other princes, his own half-brothers, in the process. Saddened by the events, King Taejo abdicated and, eventually, Yi Bangwon ascended to the throne as King Taejong.
Understandably, Taejong preferred constructing a new palace rather than living in the place he committed fratricide.
Today circa 30% of the pre-Japanese structure remains; the site has been a UNESCO World Heritage monument since 1997.
Apart from the impressive historical buildings, today’s main points of attraction are Changdeok’s gardens.
The Huwon, or Rear Garden, was originally constructed for the use of the royal family and palace women. The lotus pond is surrounded by hundreds of different trees and plant species; some trees are more than 300 years old. The Jade Stream area contains a U-shaped water channel initially used for floating wine cups; there is a small waterfall above it.
The Gemuwon, or Forbidden Garden, was destined for the exclusive use of the king. Today, many Koreans call it Biwon, or Secret Garden.
One popular historical K-drama, ‘The Jewel in the Palace,’ was mostly filmed at Changdeokgung.
Adults (ages 25-64): 3,000 won / Group (over 10 people): 2,400 won / Youth ( ages 7-18): 1500 won
Students (ages 24 and under): Free (* Except for foreign visitors)
On the last Wednesday of the month, and when wearing a hanbok dress, the entrance is free.
Address: 99, Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Subway: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 3.
Initially named the Suganggung, Changgyeonggung is one of the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul.
Built-in the mid 15th century, the palace was severely damaged during the 16th-century Japanese invasion. Rebuilt and enlarged by successive Joseon kings, Changgyeonggung was systematically torn apart by the 20th-century Japanese administration. The palace complex was destroyed to make room for a park, a botanical garden, and a zoo. After independence and the Korean War, the South Korean government decided to rebuild many iconic buildings and monuments of the past, including the Five Grand Palaces.
Today’s visitors can visit several renovated halls, such as the main hall (Myeongjeong) and the council hall (Munjeong). In addition, Sungmudang hall and Haminjeong pavilion witnessed many important state meetings and official banquets, while Gyeongchunjeon hall was where kings Jeongjo and Heongjong were born. Tongmyeongjeon hall was the main residence of the king and his royal family.
If you tire of visiting the many halls and courtyards, you can always rest by the two ponds called Chundangji.
Adults : 1,000 won / Group (over 10 people): 800 won / Youth ( ages 7-18): 500 won
On the last Wednesday of the month, and when wearing a hanbok dress, the entrance is free. Closed on Mondays.
Address: 185, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 창경궁로 185)
Subway: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 3.
Deoksugung Palace, also known as Gyeongungung, Deoksugung Palace, or Deoksu Palace, is one of my favorite palatial complexes built by Joseon in Seoul; maybe because we spent a pleasant afternoon on its grounds, wearing the hanboks, immersing ourselves in Korea’s rich history.
The blend of traditional Korean and European architecture makes it unique among the Joseon-era compounds.
In a bid to modernize the country, one of the last Joseon rulers installed electricity in Deoksugung in 1900 and erected a modern pavilion combining both Western and Korean elements, the Jaeonggwanheong. However, during the Japanese occupation, it was transformed into a cafeteria.
Moreover, a European-style, stone palatial building was commissioned, the Seokjojeon. The building was designed by the British architect John Reginald Harding in the Neo-Renaissance style. A typical European garden complements the Seokjojeon. Today, it houses the Korean Empire History Hall.
The Seokjojeon West Building is a later addition; it was opened in 1938 as the House of Yi Art Museum. It continues to serve as the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
A word of caution, though: it is said that any couple who walks the Deoksugung Stonewall walkway is fated to break up. You have been warned!
Entrance ticket fee: Adult: 1,000 won ; Children: 500 won
Address: 100-120 99 Sejong-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul
Subway: City Hall Station (subway line 1) exit 2
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Constructed in the 17th century, Gyeonghuigung served as the different kings’ secondary palace for most of its existence. Over time, the complex was expanded to such an extent that it became connected to Deoksugung palace by a bridge.
Unfortunately, most buildings were destroyed by fires in the 19th-century during the reigns of King Sunjo and King Gojong. The Japanese administration dismantled what remained of Gyeonghuigung, erecting a school for Japanese citizens on the site.
Given South Korea’s administration’s plans to reclaim the symbols of the past, reconstruction of Gyeonghuigung began in the 1990s. Alas, years of neglect made total rehabilitation impossible; as of today, only 1/3 of the initial complex could be recovered.
Tourists can marvel at the exhibits of the Seoul Museum of History located on Gyeonghuigung grounds. Moreover, the Seoul Museum of Arts has a secondary building on the site.
Since 2009, Gyeonghuigung also hosted a unique modern building: the Prada Transformer. As its name suggests, the Transform can change its shape depending on the function it serves one day, it can be a fashion exhibition, the next, it could transform into a movie theater.
Entrance ticket fee: free
Address: 45, Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 새문안로 45)
Subway: Seodaemun or Gwangwamun Subway stations, Line 5
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