A walk through Seoul’s Palaces
South Korea has a rich history of tradition and royalty, particularly in Seoul over the centuries, — and with royalty come palaces. Plural. Seoul has five palaces within the dense urban area: Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, and Gyeonghuigung. Do even just a little bit of sight-seeing research and you’re bound to stumble upon these palaces along with hundreds of reviews marveling at their beauty. That’s what happened to me when I was preparing to visit Seoul. Being from the US, a country completely lacking palaces and royalty, Seoul’s palaces captivated me. I resolved to visit as many as possible over my time in Seoul, rain or shine, day or night.
Well, that’s exactly what happened. Rain and shine, day and night — and I have fallen in love with Seoul’s palaces. Everything about these estates honors tradition. For one, visitors enter for free if they wear traditional clothing, called hanbok. For another, organizations have taken immense care to authentically maintain and restore the buildings. Plus, the sites have ample signs in English, so I could easily appreciate the significance of the locations.
Most importantly though, Seoul’s palaces contain an unrivaled element of mystique and surprise.
Deoksugung Palace: an amazing wonder on a rainy night
Situated in the middle of Seoul, Deoksugung seems to exist on a parallel reality. This palace literally sits smack in the middle of the city hall, main plaza, and financial district. The site is so central that I accidentally wandered into it on my way back one evening. I wanted to see the “I Seoul U” sign at Seoul Plaza only to turn and find a beautiful archway entrance. Curious, I wandered in.
Just inside, I found a sign explaining a bit about Deoksugung which means “palace of virtuous longevity.” Though the palace grounds have shrunk over time, it has remained a significant place of government since the late-1400s. The grounds of Deoksugung span only a small area. Unlike the other palaces, it has a mix of traditional Korean architecture and a few Western-style halls built in the 20th century.
As I wandered, a light rain began. Near the main hall, a helpful security guard pointed out the “King’s Path,” a particular walkway reserved only for the king. Anyone else caught walking here used to face the death penalty. Though preserving the history of this practice, the death penalty no longer applies. So I walked the king’s path, awe-struck at the splendor of Deoksugung and the royalty who had previously occupied it.
This was only a small taste of Seoul’s palace — a rich, flavourful taste but only a taste.
Changgyeonggung Palace: an endearing spot on a sunny day
Having enjoyed my visit to Deoksugung so much, I began intentionally planning to visit more of Seoul’s palaces. Being a frugal college student, I planned my visits over Chuseok, the Korean Harvest Festival similar to the US Thanksgiving. Over Chuseok, many historic sites have free or reduced admission. So I planned to visit both Changgyeonggung palace and neighboring Chandeokgung palace on the same day.
First up, Changgyeonggung palace, the eastern one. Unlike other palaces, Changgyeonggung has served primarily as royal housing for Queens and concubines, only occasionally serving as the King’s main residence. The architecture here has an extra note of grace and delicacy which shines in the morning light as I explore the grounds.
As I continued to wander the palace gardens, I stumbled upon a Victorian-era greenhouse. Turn out, during the Japanese colonialism, the rulers decided to turn Changgyeonggu into a zoo and garden. When colonialism ended, the palace was returned to its original state, but the Victorian greenhouse stayed. Now, the blend of old and new reflects Korea’s tumultuous history but current unity.
Changgyeonggung palace held such beautiful grace — and the oldest palace building. The elegance is perfectly complemented by the neighboring Changdeokgung Palace.
Changdeokgung Palace: a sprawling estate on a rainy day
The US doesn’t have a single palace, but I could walk directly from one palace grounds onto the next — that blows my mind. Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung actually share a border wall. Visitors can walk right from one to the other without leaving royal grounds.
In some ways, Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung feel like the same palace. Beyond the proximity, the architectural designs feel very similar. However, Changdeokgung, the Western palace, was built as a King’s palace and preserved better than any other palace. The grounds sprawl extensively. As a light rain began to fall, I continued to explore the buildings.
Changdeokgung had so many more buildings than the other palaces. I could wander the King’s throne room, infirmary, servants halls, Queen’s quarters, and gardens fit for royalty. Every palace so far had shown incredible attention to detail in architecture and design. Changdeokgung though — wow. To see such labor-intensive, heart-felt work at such a large scale still stuns me to this day. The other palaces are beautiful. Only Changdeokgung, however, shows such beauty on a large scale.
By this point in the day, I didn’t even care about the rain. Exploring Changdeokgung’s splendor was worth it. Walking out the grand gate, I knew that Seoul’s palaces had truly captured my heart. So naturally, I planned a visit to one of the few palaces I had not yet visited.
Gyeongbokgung Palace: a gorgeous visit on a clear night
Having heard about the limited time night tours at Gyeongbokgung palace, I planned my visit accordingly. A few weeks later, I ventured out on a calm, clear evening to see Gyeongbokgung. The most famous of Seoul’s palaces.
Illuminated by lanterns, the beauty of Gyeongbokgung took on an imposing tone at night. The buildings held an extra note of power and authority. Walking along under the stars, I could easily imagine what this place had been like in traditional times. Quite densely packed, the buildings seemed to block out modern Seoul and the entire modern world.
Visiting Gyeongbokgung felt like stepping back in time. The splendor and power of royalty became incredibly obvious to me as I wandered the grounds. I have to admit, of all the buildings at this site, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion is my absolute favorite. I haven’t seen any other palace building quite like this one. The pavilion sat in the center of a man-made lake and stood 2-stories tall. The water’s reflection simply made the site doubly beautiful. King’s used this pavilion to welcome and entertain foreign diplomats or visitors. I guess I didn’t qualify for an invite. Regardless, admiring the Pavilion’s splendor from afar simply made the structure more attractive.
This clear evening at Gyeongbokgung Palace deepened my already growing love for the rich history of Korea. But Seoul has five main palaces.
The Fifth Palace?
What about Gyeonghuigung? Gyeonghuigung’s architecture and organization interact with the nature around it. Or so I’ve heard. I haven’t seen the palace for myself, at least not yet. Seoul always has another adventure and this one is high on my list of places to visit.
Visiting Seoul’s palaces has fostered my love of Korea’s history and culture. Through my time on royal grounds, I have come to deeply appreciate Korea’s incredible blend of old and new. Learning more about Seoul’s past has illuminated the city’s present, the present that I have come to love through my time in Seoul.
When getting to know a person, I value hearing their stories. When getting to know a country, historical sites offer the same value. Seoul’s palaces provide context, richness, and depth to current Korean customs and culture. Visit as many of these treasures as possible — day or night, rain or shine. The palace is always worth it with a hanbok experience.
An Experienced Palace-Love