Many words come to mind to describe Seoul. So many words actually that it’s hard to pick only one to give a true depiction of what makes this multi-faceted city so fascinating. At the forefront of fashion and arts trends yet delightfully old-fashioned in some parts, the city manages to combine an endless creativity and a true sense of an identity rooted in the past. Throughout the centuries, the city was destroyed, torn by war and occupied, but it was always reborn from its ashes. Could perpetual change be the key to describing it ? Perhaps, as in a change that always brought along with it a sense of reinvention, just like the five palaces of the city that were burnt, moved and leveled, but still shape Seoul to this day.
Known as the Great Palace of Seoul or the Northern Palace, Gyeongbokgung is arguably the biggest and the most impressive of all palaces in the Korean capital. It stands at the end of the Saejong-daero avenue and walking from one end of the avenue to the palace, from the edge of the river Cheonggyecheon and its contemporary vibe to the iconic statue of king Sejong, inventor of the hangul alphabet, is the perfect way to access it.
The palace in itself was destroyed numerous times, and especially during the 16th century Imjin invasions and during the 20th century Japanese occupation, but it returned to its former glory in the late 90s. It is now a highlight of any visit to Seoul, not only for the diversity of its architecture but also for its landscape, as the shadow cast by the Bugaksan mountain in the background gives it a very disctinctive feel. Closed on Tuesdays.
The palace of Changdeok is actually fairly close from Gyeongbokgung and even closer from Insa-dong, known for its modern galleries and souvenir shops . It is said to be the best preserved among all the palaces, even though it was damaged and destroyed throughout the centuries, just like all the other Joseon palaces. Still, Changdeokgung became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997, as a testimony to its refined architecture and harmonious landscape planning.
Yet, what really makes this palace stand out is the so-called Secret Garden of Huwon, a rear garden at the back of the palace which was used as a place of leisure for the members of the royal family and is now a serene haven in the middle of the bustling city. Beware though as some tickets do not include access to the Secret Garden and you’ll have to buy another one to visit both sites. Closed on Mondays.
If you’re visiting the aforementioned palace of Changdeokgung, it would be a pity to miss a stop at Changgyeonggung. Indeed, the latter is as close as it can get as it stands within the same park. More reasonable in size, it could be said that it is more laid-back than its ancestor. Yet, it doesn’t lack elegance as the palace used to serve as a residential quarter for concubines and queens.
As you leave the sound of traffic on Changgyeonggung-ro, you’ll enter a world of graciousness, where traditional hanok houses and delicately painted halls are never too far from a quiet pond or a cherry tree, which explains why the palace is a sought-out place during the cherry blossom season in April. It is also a great spot for an original take on the emblematic Namsan Park, which can be seen looming in the background. Closed on Mondays.
Deoksugung is small but what it lacks in size, it makes up in style. Indeed, not many palaces can boast to host a top-notch modern art museum within its walls. On top of that, the palace seems to be lost in an urban sea, backed up in a corner as it is by all the high-rise buildings all around. For that reason, it is one of the most surprising and picture-perfect palaces in the city, highlighting the balance between rampant modernity and preservation of traditions that epitomizes Seoul.
Deoksugung is also well-known for its changing of the Royal Guards ceremony, that draws many visitors to its gate on three occasions every day at 11AM, 2PM and 3 :30PM. Sure, the place becomes a real tourist hub at those times but the beautiful outfits straight out of a historical drama, the riveting sounds of traditional drums and the overall stunning ceremony make it a place to cross of your Seoul bucket list without a doubt. Closed on Mondays.
The palace of Gyeonghuigung seems like an unlikely contender to steal the crown compared with the big 4 but it’s got aces up its sleeves nonetheless. This palace was built as a secondary home to the King where to move in cases of emergency, and it could be said that it still a secondary choice for visitors who usually favour nearby Deoksugung. It has been heavily reconstructed and was even moved during the Japanese occupation, to the extent that there seems to be little architectural continuity on the spot.
As you walk through the unassuming Heunghwamun gate leading to what looks like any other park in the city, discovering the beautiful Sungjeongjeon Hall might be a tad surprising indeed. Yet, the soothing and peaceful atmosphere of the palace might steal the show and urge you to come back for a second visit. Luckily, entrance is free and the palace is open every day, meaning Gyeonghuigung is the kind of places where to go back, take a seat and open a book to catch a break.