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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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