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The last kingdom in Korea was the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조), which lasted from 1392 all the way until 1910. Over the reign of Joseon, Seoul became the capital city and center of state affairs. Throughout the years, the kings had many grand palaces built here – five of them are currently open to the public. For those looking to explore the history and culture of Seoul, a tour of the Five Grand Palaces is a great way to spend a few days. Here’s a rundown of all five for those planning a trip to Seoul:
This is the granddaddy of ’em all, so to speak – it was the first to be built and also the largest. King Taejo had this palace built in 1395 and gave it the name “Gyeongbokgung,” meaning “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” This auspicious name didn’t exactly work out, though, as the palace has been ransacked by the Japanese twice throughout the centuries. Restoration efforts began in 1990 and continue to this day, but so far they’ve done an excellent job of bringing this former royal palace back to life. In addition to the historical architecture and beautiful gardens, you can check out The National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea here. Also of interest is the changing guard ceremony that takes place outside of the main gate every hour from 10am-3pm featuring guards in traditional Joseon attire. For more on this palace specifically, check out our post from last month.
The Joseon kings sure were clever with their names – this one means “The Palace of Prospering Virtue.” Built in 1405, it was the second royal palace in Seoul and was actually home to the kings longer than any of the others. This is partly due to political strife within the kingdom, but also due to the fact that its construction was more harmonious with nature and it retained many traditional elements that the other palaces were missing. It too was destroyed and repaired on many occasions through the centuries, but even through so many reconstructions it has managed to retain much of its original design. This palace’s most notable feature is its “secret garden” (비원), a beautiful place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The “Palace of Flourishing Gladness” (there they go again with the awesome names) was built in 1483 by King Sejong for his retiring father, King Taejong. It was renovated and enlarged by a later king, and the name was changed from Suganggung to the current Changgyeonggung. During Japanese colonial rule, the temple grounds were turned into a zoo and botanical garden to undermine its royal status. Those have since been removed and the royal splendor of this former palace has been restored. As they’re only separated by one wall, it’s very easy to visit Changgyeong in conjunction with Changdeok. If visiting, make sure you don’t miss the two lovely ponds in the rear of the palace grounds.
There’s an interesting story behind Deoksugubng – it wasn’t a palace at all to begin with. After the Japanese invasion in 1592, all of the royal palaces had been destroyed or at the very least heavily damaged. A temporary palace had to be chosen from the royal houses, and this was it. King Gwanghaegun named it Gyeongungung and made it an official royal palace. It didn’t get its current name – Palace of Virtuous Longevity – until 1907 in a doomed attempt to ensure the longevity of Gojong. He was the last Joseon king and first emperor of Korea, and he died in 1919 at the palace. This palace is unique amongst the five for having many western-style buildings. It also has lovely forested gardens and an art museum on site.
Perhaps the most overlooked of the five thanks to its small size, the “Palace of Serene Harmony” was built in 1623 as a secondary palace – that is, the place the king moves to in case of an emergency. Once upon a time this palace was quite large, composed of around 100 buildings. It even had an arched bridge connecting it to nearby Deoksugung. However, it was leveled during the Japanese occupation (noticing a theme here?) in order to build a middle school. While there may not be a lot to see here these days, it’s a great place to experience local culture – more locals than tourists come here to go for a walk, practice martial arts, or just chill out. Inside the palace grounds, you can also visit the Seoul Museum of History. Best of all, it’s all completely free!
As far as the other four temples go, you can buy separate entrance tickets to each, or you can just buy an all-inclusive ticket that gets you into them all. These can be bought at any of the palaces and you have a month to use them. While most people choose to see just one or two of them, it’s definitely doable to hit all five over the span of a few days. If you’re feeling super energetic, you can even do it all in one long walking tour. If you feel like you’ve already read enough in this post, just go ahead and watch the video: