No holiday to Korea is complete without a visit to at least one of its palaces. I have seen four palaces so far, and I think the best is probably Gyeongbukgung. If you only have time to visit one, then Gyeongbukgung is the one you should go to, after all, it was the main palace during the Joseon dynasty.
Constructed in 1395, the palace has been razed and rebuilt several times, with the Japanese being blamed as the perpetrators, but given the prickly relationship between Korea and Japan, I sometimes wonder if I should take the Korean’s version of events with a pinch of salt.
What I find fascinating with each visit to the palace is how the past and present seem to merge together at this place. Just outside the Gwanghwamun gate lies the busy traffic junction and modern buildings of Seoul. Standing within the palace and looking out of the gates, one can only imagine how much this view has changed over the years.
At the main gate, you can catch the Royal Changing of Guard ceremony that is held every hour from late morning till afternoon. The ceremony takes about 15 minutes, with actors dressed up as soldiers marching to the sound of drumbeats and traditional instruments.
In the second courtyard, there is the Geumcheon Stream that runs horizontally across. Apparently, it was necessary for all palaces to have a stream, probably for fengshui purposes. The stream was quite pretty during my first visit two years ago, but when I went in May this year, there was hardly any water in it.
Next is the Geunjeongjeon, where the Emperor convenes with his officials and ceremonies are held. Inside, you can see the throne room, but the lack of lighting kind of took away the grandeur. The stone markers at the courtyard are engraved with the rankings of officials, indicating the positions where they should stand. Some of the markings are quite worn out due to weathering, so not all can be read properly.
Around the building are several statues of animals. They are suppose to be animal deities believed to protect the royal family from evil.
In the inner parts of the palace, many of the buildings are locked and empty, but there are some furnished ones where you can peak into. As many parts of the original palace were destroyed, my guess is that restoration work was focused mainly on the exterior and the interior was left empty to reduce the need for maintenance. It is a pity that we are not able to see the original furniture and buildings, but I think the palace looked convincing as a bona fide original. I probably would not have known that the buildings were reconstructed ones if the information brochure did not say so.
One of the main highlights of Gyeongbukgung would be Hyangwonjeong, a small pavilion sitting in the middle of a pond with a link bridge. Built by King Gojong, this pretty pavilion definitely stands out from the maze of similar looking buildings.
Geonghoeru pavilion is also a sight to behold. This was where banquets were held by the king for his foreign guests. It seems that visitors are allowed on the second floor of the pavilion only by reservation. Otherwise, you just have to make do with viewing it from the outside. Finding this pavilion requires more effort because it is located behind a wall. It was originally closed off by a fence and no one else besides the king was allowed to enter.
If you visit Gyeongbukgung in spring, you will be able to see many flowers. When I came in May, it was nearing the end of spring, so there were only bushes of flowers scattered around, but still pretty nonetheless.
Opening hours: 9am-6pm (Mar-May & Sep-Oct); 9am-6.30pm (Jun-Aug); 9am-5pm (Nov-Feb); closed on Tuesdays
Admission: 3,000 won (adults), 1,500 won (7-18 yrs old)
Take the train to Gyeongbukgung station exit #5