One of the main reasons for visiting Seoul is for its rich history, dating back centuries to the Joseon Dynasty. There are fortresses, memorials, imposing city gates from ancient times, and grand palaces scattered around the city. I have visited each of the 5 main palaces in Seoul on multiple occasions and I enjoy seeing all of them – although I do have a particular affection for Gyeongbokgung.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was the largest and most important of the five grand palaces built, way back in 1395, although it has since been destroyed by Imperial Japan and then restored to something resembling its former glories. Nowadays it serves as one of Seoul’s main tourist attractions and as well as hosting the National Folk Museum of Korea inside its grounds, there are captivating ‘changing of the guard’ ceremonies held a few times each day, which is a great event to capture on video. Please read about my full experience at Gyeongbokgung.
Changyyeonggung Palace was built in 1483 by King Seongjong (the ninth king of the Joseon Dynasty) to take care of the wives of the preceding kings. Compared to other palaces, the size of the palace is compact and simple. Changgyeonggung Palace is connected with Changdeokgung Palace. It’s located east of the primary palace of Gyeongbokgung, so it is also referred to as “Donggwol,” the “East Palace.”
Deoksugung Palace is situated on a much smaller site than the other palaces in Seoul. It is confined in the city, almost surrounded by high rise buildings and roads with heavy traffic. Deoksugung Palace was used a home for the King when other royal palaces were burnt to the ground by the Japanese in the Colonial Period. Check out my detailed tour of Deoksugung. Another point of interest at Deoksugung Palace is the great statue of the Korean King ‘Sejong the Great’. This statue provides a nice photo opportunity and it is not always easy to find yourself alone without the mass crowds in front of your lens.
Unhyeongung Palace Unhyeongung Palace was formerly a private residence of Prince Regent Heungseon (1820-1898), the father of Emperor Gojong (the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty). The young Gojong lived here before he assumed the throne. The royal wedding ceremony of Emperor Gojong and Empress Myeongseong also took place here. During the reign of Emperor Gojong, Unhyeongung was as grand as any other palace in Seoul, but today’s complex is much smaller than its original size. Over time, many of the palace buildings have been heavily damaged and destroyed during various conflicts.
The other major palace, Changdeokgung, is much more tranquil than the others I have mentioned here. It is surrounded by lush gardens and greenery, including a secret garden known as “Huwon”, which in the winter’s snow can make Changdeokgung look remarkably picturesque, rivalling perhaps even the snow-shod classical Japanese and Chinese gardens. Check out my experience at Changdeokgung.
All in all, the grand palaces of Seoul give a good reason to spend some time in the city, and they are very cheap to enter. Of course, there are other things to do here, such as hiking at Bukhansan, shopping at Myeongdong or getting glitzy south of the river ‘Gangnam Style’, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without immersing yourself in Korea’s rich cultural history.