Dressing up in the Royal Palaces in Seoul

20040830 21 Gyeongbokgung Palace

Heavy rain has set in when we reach the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace, one of the royal palaces in Seoul. A family dressed in the formal garb of Korean nobility is seeking shelter under the eaves of the royal palace. We recognize the traditional dress of the Yangban, a Korean noble or court official. Its most striking element is the characteristic hat traditionally made from horsehair with a bamboo frame. Of course, the rental ones are made from plastic…. The women wear hanbok. This is the typical Korean skirt that begins directly under the breast and bulges down with a lot of fabric. Some of them are holding umbrellas, and nearly all are holding smartphones to take family photos in the palace surroundings.

Gyeongbokgung – Seoul’s most visited Palace

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Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of five Royal Palaces in Seoul. It was originally built in the 14th century but repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. The latest round of rebuilding is still going on. There is a lot to rebuild, since about 80% of the palace buildings were systematically destroyed by the Japanese occupation forces in the early 20th century. The Japanese even built their own government building in the place of the former palace. Now the Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the top tourist attractions in Seoul. We notice that not only Koreans but also busloads of South-Asian tourists rent royal costumes for their walk around the premises.

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When we walk the palace grounds in the pouring rain, we see labels on most buildings classifying them as “1860s”. That is rather surprising since they contain concrete and we are quite sure that some of them didn’t exist when we first visited more than 25 years ago.

Changdeokgung Palace, where Royals lived until modern times

The constant rebuilding and reinvention of Korean history is probably one reason why we find only another one of the five Royal Palaces in Seoul on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Changdeokgung was originally built in the 15th century as a secondary palace. But when a Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century left the town and its palaces in ruins, this one was the first palace that the Korean kings rebuilt. They then proceeded to use Changdeokgung as the main Royal Palace for the next 200 years. Indeed, some members of the Royal Family even continued to live there until 1989.

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The large throne hall with its ceremonial court is quite impressive. Stone markers show on the courtyard where officials with the court ranks one or two should stand during ceremonies. Lower ranks were apparently not so much in attendance – there’s fewer space allotted to them.

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Western amenities in a traditional palace

Behind the Changdeokgung throne hall are smaller buildings where the government did the daily work. The nearby residential building for the Korean king was rebuilt after a fire in 1917. That was apparently a welcome opportunity to fit it with electricity and some Western-style furniture. Nevertheless, many of the buildings in this palace appear to be quite old. Certainly they do look like from a different time, even those intended for the king’s concubines that were in use until the 1980s. They all feature beautiful woodwork, especially in the latticed windows and doors, but also the banisters and eaves.

The whole Changdeokgung palace complex lies not on a large flat area like most palaces, but at the foot of a hill with some slopes. Thus, the halls are not arranged in one clear pattern but in accordance with the surrounding landscape and the topography. This is culminating in a pleasant stroll garden, the so-called “secret garden”.

Even in this palace, however, we notice a whole area of densely arranged administrative buildings that were newly built in 2005 but made to resemble old buildings. In addition a number of the main buildings have modern and concrete elements that the information panels do not acknowledge. Therefore we always wonder what of this is old? And what part is restored according to confirmed original plans? Or even, are some of the buildings just a modern fantasy of what the Korean government currently wants their own country’s history to look like?

Is it worth visiting royal palaces in Seoul?

Both palaces are impressive and popular with tourists. History buffs can skip the newly rebuilt Gyeongbokgung Palace, but it is good for photos. And although we have some concerns with the historical accuracy of the UNESCO rated Changdeokgung Palace, the buildings are beautiful and the design is stunning. On the whole, we liked the solemnity of the ancestor shrine, Jongmyo more. But clearly the Korean Royal Palaces are more visually attractive.

How to travel to the royal palaces in Seoul

Both Royal Palaces are in the centre of Seoul and close to metro stations. It is easily possible to walk between them (and also to Jongmyo Shrine).

NB: Our 10-day travel to Korea also included places like Gyeongju and the Baekje UNESCO sites. It was not sponsored or supported in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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  1. I would love to explore the Gyeongbokgung Palace when I visit Seoul, for it’s history and beauty. I love the look of the latticed windows and doors – and am so glad they’ve rebuilt what was lost to fire. Seeing those wearing the traditional dress and royal costumes adds to the mystique of this place. No wonder it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list!

  2. I gotta say it is interesting to read about Korean cultures and traditions. I do not believe that I have before. It is interesting to know about the two palaces and the history behind them. Seoul seems to be an amazing place to explore and somehow fascinates me.

      1. Both Gyeonbokgung palace and the Changdeokgung palace are full of grandeur letting us take a glimpse of the Korean monarchy. It’s strange how some of the new buildings resemble the old ones and vice versa, even though they were built in different period. And I find the idea of wearing royal robes and walking around the premises quite an exciting one. The throne hall with ceremonial court look very impressive with all the lattice woodwork. It’s commendable how these palaces we’re rebuilt every time after destruction by the Japanese and are still under renovation. I would love to visit Seoul.

        1. Dear Pulomo, Seoul is a fantastic city. It is very, very modern too and at the same time they have this old heritage sites you can visit.

  3. We loved watching the show at the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace in Seoul. Luckily we had a beautiful day to visit. It was definitely good for photos. Although our guide did question some of the authenticity of the re-built sections. Still worth seeing.

  4. First of all, I love that you call it plastic instead of manmade or some other euphemism for…yes: plastic! This palace reminds me of the citadel in Hue in Viet Nam – it looks very similar, and there you could also rent ‘costumes’. However, I like traditional Korean attires much better. I’m planning on going to South Korea as one of my next trips and buying an attire is actually high on my list. I hope they sell them second-hand so that I can afford it – this way, I also bought Kimonos in Japan. However, I’ll look into all your posts on Korea since I still need lots of inspiration 😉

    1. Dear Renata, now that you mention it – there are similarities to the citadel in Hue! I can see that too – but never thought about it. We might go to South Korea too next summer too, because we will be in Japan for a few months and hopping over to Korea by ferry is always an option..

  5. Very interesting info on Gyeongbokgung Palace. So much history and architectural grandeur. The 15th century Changdeokgung Palace too is grand. Good to know they are close to metro stations, that makes the access easy. I would love to explore the palaces when I visit Seoul.

    1. Dear Indrani, Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace are must-sees in Seoul, if you are interested in history. Seoul has a very convenient public transport system – so it is easy to get around.

  6. Being a history-buff, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung are top of my places-to-visit list for Seoul. The palaces look really stunning. Such beautiful architecture and paintings. Quite an insightful post!

  7. What a fun tradition to dress up to visit the royal palaces. Sounds like tourists take this very seriously and are showing respect for the royal dwellings. Perhaps the newer buildings detract a little from the historic aspects, but overall it must be a very interesting visit.

    1. Dear Tami, I am not sure if it is a tradition or just a fad? However it is certainly good that young Koreans are interested in their own heritage.

  8. Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace seems to be an extremely fascinating architectural and cultural place. These traditional clothes are stunning. I would also like to see Changdeokgung because it is on the UNESCO list and was built in the 15th century. It’s good to know that they are in the center of Seoul and you can get to them by metro. You had a fantastic trip!

    1. Dear Agnes, the Royal palaces in Seoul are great for sightseeing if you are interested in history. However be prepared that not all of the buildings are original.

  9. I didn’t realize that Seoul had so many places associated with royalty! It’s no wonder the Gyeongbokgung Palace is visited so much. It looks like a lovely place!

    1. Dear Jennifer, Korea was a kingdom up to the WWI. The Koreans are very proud of their culture connected with the court. There are numerous TV series about the different South Korean dynasties.

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