I can even add that if you are in the city without much time to explore and can only visit only one of the palaces, choose Gyeongbokgung. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
A bit of the Gyeongbokgung’s history and more
Gyeongbokgung was built back in 1394 by King Taejo. As mentioned before, Gyeongbokgung belongs to the Joseon Dynasty.
You can easily find this gorgeous palace at one end of Gwanghwamun Square, which is easily located in one of the most important avenues of Seoul.
Gwanghwamun Square and Sejong-Daero Avenue concentrate many of the South Korean capital’s major tourist points and must-sees. Over there, you can find places like The Gyeongbokgung Deoksugung, part of the beautiful Cheonggyecheon stream, and one of my favorite spots for photos in Seoul: Namdaemun (Sungnyemun Gate).
For photographers reading this, I want to point out that in the very back of almost everything mentioned above, acting as the perfect background, you can spot Mount Bugak! Make sure you get the right lenses for composing photos of Gwanghwamun and its sightseeing spots together with the majestic Mount Bugak, or Bugaksan if you want to sound Korean.
Here is a map to help you locate easier.
During the Imjin War (1592-1598), Gyeogbokgung was set on fire and destroyed. Consequently, the royal court had to move from there to Changdeok Palace (Changdeokgung), which is another palace located in Seoul.
After being abandoned for so long, in 1867, the Gyeogbok palace (Gyeogbokgung) was rebuilt into a large complex. Now Gyeogbokgung was back to serve as an iconic symbol for the royal family and the Korean nation.
Curious fact: After the death of Empress Myeongseong a few years after, in 1895, King Gojong moved to Deoksugung. He never returned to Gyeogbok palace. (Deoksu Palace is another one of the five palaces in the city, today Deoksu Palace is very close to the City Hall)
In the 20th century, Gyeogbokgung suffered some horrible changes. When the Japanese Empire turned Korea’s capital Seoul into a Japanese colony (1910-1945), the beautiful Gyeogbokgung was systematically demolished and reduced to only ten buildings. If you don’t know the size Gyeogbokgung was before, this destruction meant that roughly 90% of its structure was put to the ground.
Seoul, which back then was named Keijo, was the colonial capital of the Japanese Empire, as some of you know. During this period, one of the most effective forms of coercive propaganda implemented by the Japanese Empire was the new architecture built everywhere. I guess it had the purpose to kill visually Korean identity.
Please note that we are talking now about the Japanese ruling that only ended because Japan lost WWII. I’m adding this to the text because this piece of the story gives a global view of what we call WORLD WAR II. Usually, we focus too much on Hitler’s damage that we tend to forget the horrors outside the out little view of the world. We need to pay more attention to happenings and war crimes outside of what we call “West”.
During this period in history over there in the far East, had one of the most effective forms of coercive propaganda implemented by the Japanese Empire: They did their new architecture style everywhere. I guess it had the purpose to kill the Korean identity in a visual and immersive way. Tragic!
The good news is they fail miserably as you can see in the photos here. In almost all photos you can spot a few Koreans using their traditional dress, the hanbok.
In 1911, the Empire decided to build a house for the new general administration. The Japanese General Government Building was born.
Designed following this new architecture idea, built in a neo-classical style, this enormous piece of architecture that went by the name of Seoul Capitol or Government-General Building took over ten years to be made. The Joseon-chongdokbu Cheongsa project was completed only in 1926.
The Korean General Government Building used noble materials such as white marble and granite stones to denote luxury and much more. After all, as the hotbed of Japanese power over Korea, this building needed to demonstrate its superiority in all aspects, right?
Besides the choice of expensive materials, architectural style, and size, there was one more element to be considered: the location. And of course, they used the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace or Gyeongbokgung.
If you remember the beginning of this text filled with Korean words, the Gyeongbokgung was the most important of Seoul’s five palaces. Also important to highlight that this chosen location was in front of the throne hall. This was final hit to eradicate the legacy of the Joseon dynasty.
Its construction not only hid the entire palace from public view but also meant more destruction of Gyeongbokgung’s structure to make room for the work. Back in the 20s, Seoul was a city of small houses with straw roofs in its central part. This new building was so impressive – and oppressive! – that was considered a landmark until the 1960s!
Here is a public domain photo of this place so you can see how huge it was and how it looked like.
In 1989, the South Korean Government began an extensive reconstruction project (40 years!) of the hundreds of structures destroyed during the colonial era. This is very much like what the German Government did with iconic buildings from the past regime if you need a recent comparison to make sense in your head. We still miss you Palast der Republik!
In 1995, the Korean General Government Building was demolished to make way for Heungnye gate’s reconstruction (Heungnyemun) and its respective cloister.
And the last part of this text about the history of Gyeongbokgung is about 2009/2010. By this time, it was estimated that around 40% of the structures present before colonial times were fully restored and rebuilt.
And now I want to open the comment section of this post to a polemic discussion: What do you think of actions like this one from the German or Korean Governments?
Do you think it is relevant to destroy part of history to make a replica of something that will never be the original? Or do you think it is valid any attempt to recover a country’s identity after the end of an oppressive regime?
What to see inside and around Gyeongbokgung
Gyeongbokgung has four main gates. If you find it hard to see the information on this map, please click on it and open in a new window. All the high points I’m giving here in this post and more. I will talk about some of the highlighted spots, but please take your time to visit everything once you are inside.
As a start of this imaginary tour, you will enter Gyeongbokgung via its main gate. As you pass through the Gwanghwamun (1), you’ll see an area called Heungnyemun(2). It is one of the parts of the palace’s complex where you can see the guard ceremony’s changing every day between 10 am and 3 pm. The ceremony takes place also inside the next area that leads to the throne room (3).
Following straight, you’ll find the King’s (4) first and right after, the queen’s (7) space. Both are located next to the Royal Banquet Hall (10), which is only a short stride to the left of where you are.
If you started this tour via Gyeongbokgung’s back entry (16), you would find the Royal Library (14), a few smaller temples, gardens, and pavilions. Near you can also find the Taewon-jeon (15). There you can see the marvellous Taewonjeon Shrine, which is an ancestral shrine build in 1868.
A curious fact about the location of Gyeongbokgung is that, just like in the Forbidden City in Beijing, a bridge crosses a stream leading to the entrance gate. And there is a reason for that. According to Korean and Chinese geomancy (I know, fancy words!), a palace must be built between a stream and mountains. And the mountain, in Gyeongbokgung’s case, is the magnificent Mount Bugak (Bugaksan) that I mentioned before as being the perfect background for photos.
The Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty inspired the construction of Gyeongbok Palace. The influence goes beyond the similarity with the architecture, the obvious Chinese layout of the buildings and some cultural patterns that defined the way this palace was used. You can definitely see the similarities when you compare Gyeongbok Palace to the other fours palaces from Seoul. Gyeongbokgung is so much more organized and you see that on the first glimpse you take on the map above. Another evidence of this inspiration is in the way stones are used in Geunjeongjeon (3). The stones are set in the courtyard to indicate where officers should position themselves during the palace ceremonies.
Changnyeong-jeon (6) is the residence of the King. The incredible details on this roof denote the nobility and high-end luxury of the construction. Changnyeong-jeon was originally built in 1395. Then destroyed during the Japanese invasion in 1592, then rebuilt in 1867. And then burned down in 1876 and finally rebuilt again in 1888— A rollercoaster of emotions in the shape of a building! But if you think it is over, think again. In 1920 the Japanese dismantled it to rebuild another structure. Only in 1994, Changnyeong-jeon finally was rebuilt, and it is the look we see today.
Gyotae-jeon (7) is where the queen’s chambers were. As you can see on the map, it was just after the King’s chambers (6). Its history is similar to that of Gangnyeong-jeon (a.k.a. Rollercoaster of Emotions II).
Gyotae-jeon was built a little later, in 1440. Then it was burned down by the Japanese in 1592, rebuilt in 1867, also used for rebuilding another structure by the Japanese in 1920 and finally rebuilt in 1994.
Jibokjae (14) was the King’s private library. Initially, it was in Changdeok Palace (Changdeokgung) and was brought from there by King Gojong in 1891. Several Chinese influences can be easily spotted in this structure, such as the choices of colors used, the style of the brick walls, the roof, the wooden screens, and much more.
The National Palace Museum of Korea (17) and the National Folk Museum of Korea(18) are also part of the palace’s premised.
How do you get to Gyeongbokgung? When you can visit Gyeongbokgung? And how much it will cost you?
Gyeongbokgung, unfortunately, isn’t free of charge. But adults pay only 3000 won, which converts into approximately 2,30 euros. That is pretty cheap for the vast collection of things you can see inside. If you are under 18, you only pay half of this. And if you have kids up to 6 years old, it is free.
The palace is closed every Tuesday, and on the other days, it is open from 9 am to around 6 pm. There is an emphasis on the around because the closing times change depending on which month you are visiting Seoul.
Since this palace is enormous, arriving there is very easy. I managed to do it without getting lost because it is right of exit 5 of Gyeongbokgung Station (line 3). Seoul’s public transport is definitely on the top of the list of easiest to use. Easier than many that use our alphabet. I swear by it!
All information regarding opening times, how to get there and possible updates on entry fee you can find on the official website for this Royal Palace. The website is available in Korean and English.