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 palace. The traditional dress of the Yangban, a Korean noble or court official, consists of the characteristic hat traditionally made from horsehair with a bamboo frame (the rental ones are made from plastic…). The women wear hanbok, the 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 Palace is one of five Royal Palaces in Seoul, originally built in the 14th century but repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. The latest round of rebuilding is still going on, as 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, and not only Koreans but also busloads of South-Asian tourists rent royal costumes for their walk around the premises.
When we walk the palace grounds in the pouring rain, we are surprised to see most buildings labelled as “1860s”, although they are built with concrete and we are quite sure that some of them didn’t exist when we first visited more than 25 years ago.
The constant rebuilding and reinvention of Korean history is probably one reason why only another one of the five Royal Palaces in Seoul is listed a 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 devastated, this one was the first the Korean kings rebuilt. They then proceeded to use Changdeokgung as the main Royal Palace for the next 200 years, and some members of the Royal Family even continued to live there until 1989.
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.
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 and fitted with electricity and some Western-style furniture. Nevertheless, many of the buildings in this palace appear to be quite old and 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, 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, and a number of the main buildings have modern and concrete elements that are not acknowledged in the information panels, so we always wonder what of this is old, what part is restored according to confirmed original plans, and which of the buildings are 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 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 was not sponsored or supported in any way; all expenses were paid for by ourselves.