On this summer weekend afternoon, I happened to catch an outdoor concert of medieval court music and dance. These performers were presenting a 'peony dance' on the site where, in the mid-1400's, King Sejong the Great and his cabinet invented and then presented to the nation 'Han-geul,' the Korean alphabet. (It was the world's only phonetic alphabet specifically created to encourage mass literacy by using scientifically-based symbols. South Korea even has a national holiday commemorating that declaration--the world's only 'alphabet-day.')
Watching the riot of color in the breeze and listening to wavering vibrato, I recalled that one of those cabinet ministers from five-and-a-half centuries ago was a distant relative on my mother's side of the family. A sense of 'coming home' in a foreign place settled over me as I sat in the sun.
Touring the palace grounds is a great way to spend an afternoon. Be sure to check out the Throne Hall, the Royal Banquet Hall, and Hyangwonjeong, a two-story pavilion built on a small island in the center of a pond.
January-February, November-December: 09:00-17:00
March-May, September-October: 09:00-18:00
Adults (ages 19-64): 3,000 won / Group (over 10): 2,400 won
Children (ages 7-18): 1,500 won / Group (over 10): 1,200 won
To get here: Take Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Palace Station, exit 5. Alternatively, you can take Line 5 to Gwanghwamun Station, exit 2.
The grandest of all the palaces is Gyeongbok-gung. Built in 1395, the palace grounds are filled with lotus ponds, gardens, and ornate statues. Be sure to stand under the palace roof and look up—you’ll be dazzled by the intricate patterns of red, blue, and green painted on the eaves.
The grandeur of Changdeok-gung Palace is a close second to Gyeongbok-gung. Its sprawling gardens are famed for their immense beauty, and were thought to be the favorite refuge of the royal family back in the day.
Known for its lush botanical garden, Changgyeong-gung Palace was built by the famous King Sejong in the 15th century. Though originally built to house the king’s father, it became the primary home for queens and concubines instead.
Gyeonghui-gung is the smallest of the palaces, and served more as the king’s vacation home. Much of it was destroyed during the Japanese occupation, but it has since been restored.
The architecture of Deoksu-gung is unique among the palaces, as it incorporates both Korean and western elements. Don’t forget to watch the changing of the royal guard ceremony, which is held daily at 11:00, 2:00 and 3:30.
1390's: The gate is built when Seoul becomes the capital of a new dynasty.
1590's: The guardhouse above the stone arches is burned during the Japanese invasions. It lays in ruins until...
1867: It's rebuilt as part of the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace; the construction almost bankrupts the 'Hermit kingdom' which finally ends up becoming a protectorate and then an outright colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945. Seoul is renamed 'Keijo.'
1926: The gate is dismantled and 're-mantled' nearby during the Japanese Occupation, to make way for construction of the Government General Building.
1950: Communist troops retreat for the first time during the Korean War, the gate is destroyed again...
1963:...rebuilt with concrete.
1990's: the Government General Building is demolished to make way for the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace; Gwanghwamun gate will finally be restored to its original condition and location.
2010: The newly restored stone-and-timber gate is unveiled; it has come home, after over eight decades of being 'displaced'...
Once again, the stone 'haetae' can stand guard, as it did six centuries ago when it was first placed here.
This time, may it last for a good while...
Insadong in the center of city embodies a great mixture of old and new Korea. There are a unique collection of shops, restaurants and teahouses, and I especially loved the charming and slightly corky art galleries located along the streets heading towards the Gyeongbokkung Palace. Also, the small side streets starting at the end of Insadong leading up to the Blue House (S. Korea’s presidential residence) east of Gyeongbokkung Palace are filled with charming little cafes and restaurants.
In the fall, the area around City Hall, especially the street next to Deoksugung, is absolutely breathtaking with changing color of leaves, and Seoul Museum of Art, which houses a great collection of contemporary art, is definitely worth a visit.
The best entertainment venues, restaurants and café are usually located around two of S. Korea’s renowned universities, Ewa and Hongik University. The Ewa/Shinchon area has a wide variety of restaurants and great movie theaters, and Hongdae is full of unique one-of-a-kind shops, cafes and the karaoke bars.
Here, they're gathered around a medieval bronze sundial. Students in Seoul have the past at their fingertips; taking a break from their smart-phones, looking back at how time was told centuries ago, their teacher explaining how the lines indicated the time throughout the year. Clocks like these were posted in public places; animal symbols were engraved around the edge for those who were illiterate.
In 1895, at the orders of the Japanese ambassador, assassins entered Gyeongbok-gung Palace at night and brutally murdered Queen Min (also known as Empress Myeongseong) just yards from this pond. The political intrigue leading up to her assassination also led, eventually, to the fall of the Joseon Dynasty and to the foreign occupation.
A hundred years later, this account was turned into a musical. The Last Empress (called by some Korea's Evita) played in Seoul for a decade and was performed in London, NY, and Toronto as well.
Today, Hyang-won-jeon is one of the most popular spots in Seoul for couples on dates. History's intrigues don't always take center stage.
To get to Gyeongbok-gung Palace, take Seoul subway Line 3, Gyeongbokgung station.
Open 9-5, closed on Tuesdays.
Twice a day, the medieval heritage comes to life with the changing of the guard and patrol ritual. The courtyard between Gwanghwamun and the first gate to the Throne Hall, where the reenactments take place, was occupied for most of the 20th century by the massive General Government Building, built by the Japanese during their colonization of Korea (1910-1945). The placement of the domed granite structure was highly symbolic—blocking the access from Gyeongbokgung's Throne Hall, symbol of national rule, to the rest of the city: foreign imperialism, set in stone. The building was torn down in the mid-1990s.
Today, the harmony of mountain and tiled roofs reigns again at the center of the South Korean capital. (Few cities have changed as much as Seoul did during the last century—from a medieval backwater through the rubble of the Korean War, it's now one of the world's largest and most Internet-connected cities.) The cloisters, courtyards, and gardens offer a pedestrian refuge from the swirl of traffic outside the palace walls.
To get here via subway:
Line #3—exit #5 of Gyeongbokgung Station.
Line #5—exit #2 of Ganghwamun Station.
At the entrance to Gyeongbok-gung, the oldest palace complex, the "Sumunjang" (Changing-of-the-Guard) begins with the reverberant boom of a massive drum, and then the colors parade by, with boat-like boots. Banners and embroidered uniforms flap in the breeze, spears and shields stand at attention, and nasal oboes compete with clanging cymbals. The ceremony dates to the 1460s and, after much research, was reinstated in the late 1990s.
Catch it most days at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., or 3 p.m. The palace is closed on Tuesdays.
(The smaller Deoksugung palace in the center of the city also re-enacts its own changing-of-the-guard, but the setting at Gyeongbok-gung—with the repetition of tiled-roofs and Bugak-san mountain looming over it all—is spectacular.)
Seoul, despite being one of the world's largest cities, is still often overlooked by travelers to NE Asia who flock to Tokyo and Beijing instead. Some think Korean culture is simply a variation of China or Japan—but for those who take the time to explore, the color is very definitely "local."
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul, the palace grounds sit on 101 acres of serenely landscaped land, backed by the jagged rocky peaks of the Amisan mountains.
Small pavilions, flower gardens, statues, ponds and streams prevail in this natural space, and the crowds of tourists and children make for great people watching as you meander.
This “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven” was once the heart of Korea. It was the power center of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), and was originally built in 1395—some new digs for a new dynasty. Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, the palace is a complex of buildings—a throne hall, the king’s living quarters and more—a sort of city inside a city, accented by gardens and pavilions. The Japanese flattened the place in the 1590s, and the site remained a ruin until a complete reconstruction in 1867 brought back more than 500 buildings. At the Gwanghwamun Gate, soldiers, beautifully costumed in red robes, still perform the changing of the guard. Seoul has other palaces, but this is the one to see if your time in town is limited.