Going around Seoul, one thing that is very noticeable is the coexistence of skyscrapers with with shrines and palaces. And I cannot state that more than enough. Most of these historical structures were built during the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. Seoul has become the capital city of South Korea thanks to the presence of the Five Grand Palaces conveniently located in Jung-gu and Jongno-gu (-gu = district): Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung, and Gyeonghuigung (gung = palace).
Most palaces and shrines have an entrance fee, but these generally just costs from 1000-3000 won. Guided tours are also available for an additional charge. But you don’t have to spend for it, just download the tour guide app from Korea Tourism Organization! I’ll be writing about those in my next post about Korea.
On certain days, you might catch children on a field trip or a class photo session. They look so adorable in their hanboks. In Korea, real men are not afraid of pink. In fact, they look extra handsome!
If the Buckingham Palace has its guards clad in red and black, the palace guards in Korea has them in various bright colors. However, the Korean palace guards serve mostly for ceremonial purposes. Still these men don’t lose to any other country’s guards when it comes to putting on a poker face.
Don’t let the fancy clothes fool you. These guards won’t give you the time of day to appear in your photos with a smile. Try your luck with the marching band – they are a lot friendlier. There are also costumed-staff whose job is to be in tourist photos after the changing of the guards ceremony. How cool is that?
Constructed in 1405, the Changdeokgung served as the secondary palace of the main Gyeongbokgung. Although all palaces burned down during the 1592 Japanese invasion, it was restored in 1610 and became the main palace for 270 years until the restoration of Gyeongbokgung in 1867. The Changdeokgung complex was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding architectural design that harmonizes with nature.
The Changgyeonggung was a residence for the three dowager queens. It was destroyed and rebuilt twice and was renamed to Changgyeongwon during the Japanese occupation. This meant demoting the stature of the royal family by changing the residence from a gung (palace) to a won (park).
“At Sungmundang Hall, the king threw banquets to discuss state affairs and classical literature. It is believed to have been built under King Gwanghaegun when Changgyeonggung was first rebuilt. Burned down in 1830, it was rebuilt in autumn of the same year. Its foundation was designed to make the hall appear elevated on sloped ground; the base stones for the front columns were made high, while those in the rear were made low. The name of the building “Sungmundang” written by King Yeongjo still hangs at the entrance.” – Wikipedia
The Daeonsil is Korea’s first Victorian-style greenhouse. It was designed by the former head of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Imperial Garden, Hayato Fukuba, but it was built by the French. Did you know? The roof is designed with plum blossoms because the Japanese didn’t want the royal family of Korea to compete with the theme of the Japanese throne.
This palace was built for Prince Wolsan (elder brother of King Seongjong). King Seonjo made this his temporary residence when the other palaces were destroyed by fire during the Japanese invasion. It was in this compound that King Gojong proclaimed to the world the establishment of the “Great Han Empire”.
First of all, free entrance! The Gyeonghuigung is also called the Seogwol (palace of the west) due to its location. About 10 kings stayed in this secondary palace which was built along the natural slanted slope of the surrounding mountain.
Minimal budget was allocated to the rebuilding of this palace, hence only 33% was restored. The government decided to spend more on urbanization and building the community post-Japanese invasion.
This shrine is dedicated to commemorate the deceased royalties. It was built in 1394 by order of King Taejo and was thought to be one of the longest buildings in Asia. Initially, the main hall known as Jeongjeon, had seven rooms. More rooms were added bringing the total to 19 as the building kept expanding to house the memorial tablets of later kings.
One of the unique designs of the Jongmyo Shrine is the forked path that begins from the gate. The center leads to Jeongjeon, where mortuary tablets of kings are preserved and memorial services are held. The eastern path leads to the quarters of the living King, while the western path leads to the young prince’s room.
The palaces and shrines boast of beautiful architectural designs and details that symbolize the rich culture of Korea. Visiting Seoul will surely tick off a lot from your UNESCO World Heritage Sites bucket list. If you have time, do visit places outside Seoul. I used to watch 2 Days and 1 Night (a Korean variety program on KBS World), and there are definitely plenty of stunning views in the provinces. The famed Tripitaka Koreana is housed in Haeinsa, a Buddhist temple located in South Gyeongsang province.
There are more not included in this post. Which palace or shrine are you most interested to see?
*Photos were taken in Autumn during my October 2013 trip to Korea.