22 Sajik-no, Jongno-gu
HOURS: Mar.-Oct. Wed.-Mon. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Nov.-Feb. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
COST: ₩3,000 adult, ₩1,500 child
SUBWAY: Gyeongbokgung (Line 3)
The grandest of Seoul ’s former royal abodes, Gyeongbokgung (Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven) has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since it was first constructed in the 14th century by King Taejo, founder of the Joseon dynasty.
With the recent completion of restoration work on Gwanghwamun, its radiant, multi-tiered main gate, the palace has been returned to something approaching its former glory.
Set against a dramatic mountainous backdrop, Gyeongbokgung consists of a succession of courtyards that culminate in the center at Geungjongjeon, the towering throne hall, which rests on an imposing stone platform carved with auspicious symbols, such as phoenixes and dragons.
Other structures of note include Gyeonghoeru, an imposing pavilion with a characteristic flared roof that overlooks an artificial lake; Gyotaejeon, the former living quarters of the Joseon queens; and Hyangwonji, a picturesque pond framed by a beautiful hexagonal pavilion and graceful stone bridges.
There’s no denying Gyeongbokgung’s architectural beauty, but very little has survived its tumultuous history unscathed. It has been uninhabited since Korea’s King Gojong left the premises in 1895, after the assassination of the queen, Myeongseong, by Japanese agents. During the ensuing Japanese occupation all but a handful of the palace complex’s hundreds of buildings were destroyed, and the colonial administrative headquarters were erected directly in front of the main hall in a symbolic eradication of the Korean throne’s power.
Perhaps this is why the palace has a somewhat desolate feeling in places, with parts obviously recently rebuilt and others still under construction. Even the grandest buildings contain only a few pieces of furniture. Still, anyone with even a passing interest in Seoul’s history will find more than enough to occupy an afternoon here.
Colorful changing of the guard ceremonies are reenacted regularly, and there are also two museums on the palace grounds—the National Palace Museum, which has an extensive collection of royal relics, and the National Folk Museum of Korea, which displays historical artifacts commoners used in their everyday lives.