EXPLORING SEOUL: Palaces
Seoul has an unusual amalgam of both traditional attractions and modern locations crowded into the city. It’s best to plan your visit around an area, head there via subway, and then explore the neighborhood on foot.
Note: Street names aren’t widely used in Seoul (or most of South Korea for that matter). Some major streets may have street signs, but in general streets (and especially smaller alleyways) have no mark. More commonly, people will always give you directions starting from a famous landmark or a store in the area. When traveling by taxi, it’s best to know the gu (district) and the dong (ward) where you’re headed.
Because this city has been the capital of Korea for centuries, it’s natural that the city would have the country’s most elaborate palaces and historic buildings. An important part of Korea’s intricate history, these palaces tell stories of fallen kings and centuries old dynasties, and hold more mysteries within their walls than we can ever know.
This palace was built in 1405, the fifth year of the reign of Joseon King Taejong, as a separate palace adjacent to the main one, Gyeongbokgung. Located to its east, it is also known as Donggwol (the east palace), while the Gyeongbok-gung is the north palace. Changdeokgung was also burned down the same time the main palace was in 1592, during the Japanese invasion. Reconstructed in 1609 to 1611, it served as the seat of royal power for 300 years until Gyeongbokgung was rebuilt at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Left in disrepair afterward, the palace was renovated in 1907 and used again by King Sunjong, the country’s last king. Although he lost his crown in 1910, Sunjong continued to live here until his death in 1926. His widow, Queen Yun, kept the palace as her home until she died in 1966. The last royal prince died here in 1970 and the last royal family member lived in the palace until her death in 1989.
The palace grounds are divided into administrative quarters, residential quarters, and the rear garden. The existing administrative section includes Donghwamun (the front gate and the oldest existing palace structure), Injeongjeon (the throne hall), and Seon-jeongjeon (the administrative hall). The residential area includes Huijeondang (the king’s bed chamber), the Daejojeon (the queen’s bed chamber), the royal kitchen, the infirmary, and other annex buildings.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, Changdeokgung’s rear garden has remained a resting area for the royals since the time of King Taejong. Sometimes called Huwon, Bukwon, and Geumwon, it was named Biwon (or “Secret Garden”) by King Kojong and it has kept this name since. Some of the trees in the garden are now over 300 years old and represent the height of Korean garden design and landscaping techniques.
Located east of Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung was a summer palace. Built in 1104 and called Sunganggung, the palace was given its present name in the 1390s, when the first Joseon King lived here while waiting for Gyeongbok-gung to be built. Destroyed in 1592, it was reconstructed in 1616, with the majority of the buildings rebuilt in the 1830s after a terrible fire. During the Japanese occupation, a modern red building was built in the grounds and it was turned into a zoo and botanical gardens. The zoo was removed, though the botanical garden remains, and the palace was completely restored from 1983 to 1986.
Unlike the other palaces in the city (which all have north-south orientations), Chang-gyeonggung has an east-west orientation, as was customary during the Goryeo Dynasty.
The houses face south, but the office of the king, the Myeongjeongjeon, faces east. Because the ancestral shrines of the royal family are located in the south, the gate couldn’t face south, according to Confucian customs. The largest building in the complex is Tongmyeongjeon, which was built as the queen’s quarters. The pond, Chundangji, located in the north of the complex, was constructed during the Japanese occupation before that, much of the land now underwater had been a rice field that the king tended.
The smallest of the city’s palaces, Deoksugung is located at the corner of one of downtown Seoul’s busiest intersections. It is known for its stone wall and the walk along its outside. Deoksugung (“Palace of Virtuous Longevity”) originally belonged to Wolsandaegun, the older brother of Joseon Dynasty King Seongjong, but later became a proper palace when Gwanghaegun (Prince Gwanghae) took the throne in 1608. The east wing was for the king and the west wing was reserved for the queen. In 1900, Jeonggwanheon was the first Western-influenced building to be added to the 9 palace grounds. The red-and-grey brick structure features massive columns, ornate balconies, and a green tile roof. King Gojong, who reigned from 1863 to 1907, enjoyed having coffee and spending his free time there. The back of the building had a secret passageway, which still exists, to the Russian Emissary. The other Western-style building is Seokjojeon, which was designed by a British firm in 1905, when the Japanese occupied Korea. It was completed in 1910 and became a Japanese art gallery after King Gojong’s death in 1919. After Korean independence from Japan, a joint commission of Americans and Russians held meetings there in 1946 in an attempt to reunite North and South Korea. The east wing of Seokjojeon now serves as a gallery for Palace Treasure exhibitions, and the west wing is part of the National Modern Arts Center.
Of the five grand palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty, this was the largest and most important one. Two years after King Taejo took power in 1394, he ordered the construction of this palace. It is said to have had 500 buildings when it was first built and it served as the home of Joseon kings for the next 200 years.
During the Japanese Invasion (1592–98), the palace was burned, not by the invaders, but by disgruntled palace workers who wanted to destroy records of their employment as servants. The palace was later restored in 1865 under the leadership of Heungseon Daewongun during the reign of King Gojong. Using the original foundation stones, over 300 structures were completed by 1872, but at a great cost to the Korean people. Sadly, King Gojong used the palace for only 23 years after its reconstruction—he fled to Russia when his wife, Queen Min (p. 99), was murdered on the palace grounds. A year later the king moved into Deoksugung.
During the Japanese colonial period, all but 10 structures were demolished and only a fraction of its structures remain, including Gyeonghoeru Pavilion (which is on the +10,000 note), Geunjeongjeon (the imperial throne room), and Hyangwonjeong Pond.
The National Palace Museum is located south of the Heungnyemun (gate), and the National Folk Museum is located on the east side, within Hyangwonjeong. Entry to the palace includes admission to the museums as well. The National Folk Museum is well worth a visit, especially if you want an insight into Korean culture and the daily lives of Koreans throughout the country’s long and turbulent history. I especially liked explor-ng the complex of dioramas, pagodas, and model homes on display in the museum’s outdoor court. The museum itself is made up of three interconnected buildings—there are maps available to help you explore.
The National Palace Museum was created in 1992 and is filled with relics collected from archaeological digs at Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, and Jongmyo. Focusing on the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), it’s the perfect place to learn about Confucianism (once Korea’s main religion) and ancestral rites that were passed on through the royal line. The displays give insight into the lives of Joseon royalty and palace architecture as well.
Constructed in 1616, this was the fifth palace built in the city and one of the best royal grounds for a nice stroll the name means “Palace of the Shining Bliss.” The palace was designed following the slant of the surrounding hillside and an arched bridge used to connect it to Deoksugung (which is now across the street). The complex used to house over 100 buildings, but most of them were destroyed and the site was reduced by half when the Japanese built Gyeongseong Middle School during the colonization period. A major restoration project was started in 1988 and the palace was reopened to the public in 2002.
The Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Seoul Historical Museum now occupy parts of the original site. The Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art has both permanent collections and temporary exhibits of contemporary South Korean artists, including painters, potters, sculptors, and photographers. The Seoul Historical Museum exhibits artifacts and documents chronicling the history of Seoul from the Stone Age to today. Opened in 2002, the majority of its collection is from the Joseon Dynasty, but other exhibits display the landscape of the city, lifestyles of Seoul’s citizens, its culture, and its development as a metropolis.
The childhood home of King Gojong (26th king of the Joseon Dynasty), Unhyeongung is smaller and architecturally different from other palaces. It is a representative home for noblemen during that period. Under the orders of the Queen Mother Jo, the small residence was renovated into a palace with four gates. Gojong’s father and regent, Heungseon Daewongun, continued to live at the palace even after his son became king. Like the other palaces in the city, Unhyeongung was damaged during the Japanese colonization period and the Korean War, so it is a much smaller version of its former glorious self. The small row of rooms on the right (when you first enter) is the Sujiksa, the quarters for the servants and guards. A bit to the left is the Norakdang hall, used for welcoming guests and for holding important events such as birthday parties and wedding ceremonies. In fact, a re-creation of the 1866 wedding of King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong is held here Saturdays from late April to late October from 1 to 3pm. Korean classical music and performances are held on Sundays from April to October at 4pm. Entrance to the palace is free starting from 1 hour before performances are held.
from: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee-Frommer Korea Selatan 2