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Six (!) Seoul Palaces

Seoul is home to six different royal palaces, each built by or for a different king. Beautifully crafted and opulent, some are more intact and authentic than others.

entrance gateway to Changyeonggung Palace in Seoul, South Korea
entrance gateway to Changyeonggung Palace in Seoul


The five older ones all include at least one tale of complete or partial destruction. All were burnt to the ground during the Japanese Invasion in the last decade of the 1500’s. Most were rebuilt in the 1600’s, so their age is usually given as somewhere around 400 years old. Some suffered fire damage over the next 300 years or so. All were destroyed or damaged to at least some extent by the Japanese during their occupation starting from 1910.

For this reason, it’s hard to discern how much of any of these palaces are what we might call “authentic” or “original.” Nevertheless, the restoration they’ve gone through is extremely well-done, using traditional methods of building and decorating.

Changdeokgung Palace

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Changdeokgung Palace is the prettiest of the palaces, in my opinion, because of the positioning of the buildings on hills in the woods, instead of in a big, flat, open place like Gyeongbokgung Palace (more on that one later). It’s also more highly decorated.

Changdeokgung Palace's ceremonial hall in Seoul, Korea
Changdeokgung Palace’s ceremonial hall

On top of that, this palace is the one that can most honestly be called “restored” rather than “rebuilt.” First built in 1405, destroyed in the Japanese invasion in the late 1500’s, it was rebuilt in 1610 and served as the main palace into the 1880’s. Much of it was destroyed by fire in 1917, but original (1600’s) buildings were moved here from Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the rest were restored.

the eaves of many of the Changdeokgung Palace buildings in Seoul, Korea, are painted in very fine detail with decorative patterns.
roof detail on Changdeokgung Palace

Made up of a large collection of buildings, there’s a lot to see here: highly-decorated gateways and reception rooms; somewhat simpler housing for male royals, female royals, servants and other functionaries; storehouses; kitchens; pavilions. The list goes on. The paintwork and other details are stunning.

more roof details, showing how the ends of the roof beams are decorated, on Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
more roof details, showing how the ends of the roof beams are decorated

Changdeokgung has a massive garden behind it, now called the Secret Garden because it was off-limits to anyone but the royals. Much is left more or less natural, with paths winding through it. That doesn’t mean it’s a wild forest: small buildings, neatly symbolic ponds with pavilions, and simple houses, meant for contemplation and relaxation or other outdoor activities, are scattered around the garden.

a small pavilion in the Secret Garden in Seoul, Korea
a small pavilion in the Secret Garden

The king did some gardening, planting rice himself, supposedly to set an example to his subjects. His wife raised silkworks using the mulberry trees here. (All very Marie Antoinette, who played at being a peasant in a small “hamlet” on the grounds of Versailles.)

another pavilion within the Secret Garden, Seoul, Korea
another pavilion within the Secret Garden

Tours through the Secret Garden are required, except on Saturdays. This can be positive or negative. On a tour, you have to follow along, but on the other hand, fewer people overall obstruct your views. The tour, though, is very carefully timed; the guide will inform you of exactly how many minutes you have at each stop in the tour, and exactly how many minutes it will take to walk to the next one. If she says the tour will take 50 minutes, it will take 50 minutes.

detail from the roof of one of the pavilions in the Secret Garden, Seoul, Korea
detail from the roof of one of the pavilions in the Secret Garden

Your other option is to visit on Saturday, which will give you the freedom to wander the paths on your own. Most likely, though, you’ll be sharing the garden with far more people.

Changyeonggung Palace

Changyeonggung is in the same large park as Changdeokgung. It was originally the primary palace, but after the palaces were all destroyed in the Japanese invasion in 1592, Changdeokgung was rebuilt first and became the primary palace.

a gateway in Changyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea
a gateway in Changyeonggung Palace

While Changdeokgung is the prettier of the two because of the setting, Gyeongbokgung is also worth a visit. The paintwork and detailing on the various buildings is just as breathtaking.

detail of the paintwork under the eaves of a gateway in Changyeonggung Palace
detail of the paintwork under the eaves of a gateway in Changyeonggung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace

an especially grand gateway at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace has the most impressive entry gate, inner gate and ceremonial hall of all of the castles, just considering sheer size. The traditional changing of the guard ceremony in the outer courtyard is also fun to watch. Of the palaces, this is the one that is laid out most formally, with large courtyards surrounded by walls and gates into further inner courtyards. Again, it is all ornately painted.

Guards carry flags during the changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
The changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace involves formal marching, flag-waving, and traditional music.

This palace was also destroyed in the Japanese invasion in 1592-98, but not rebuilt until 1867. Torn down again during the Japanese occupation that started in 1910, it was only fully rebuilt in the 1990’s.

Girls line up for a photo at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea
other visitors to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Koreans will sometimes dress up in traditional hanbok dresses just for fun or to mark a special occasion. I love the contrast between the traditional and contemporary in this photo!

The National Palace Museum, right inside the entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace, is worth a visit, containing artifacts illustrating the history of the 500-year-long Josean Dynasty and the short-lived Korean Empire. The items, which all come from the royal household, are beautiful in terms of craftsmanship: ceremonial costumes, artwork, porcelain and many other lovely objects. The museum itself is elegantly laid out, quiet, roomy, well-lit and not overdone.

Also within the grounds of Gyeongbokgung is the National Folk Museum. In more or less the same style as the National Palace Museum, this one is about common people and culture rather than royalty. It contains lots of interesting artifacts used by government functionaries or peasants. Exhibits on the history of the Korean people and aspects of Korean culture could keep you busy for hours on a rainy day.

interior of a cafe on display at the National Folk Museum in Seoul, Korea
This café interior at the Folk Museum isn’t much different from small restaurants everywhere I went in Seoul.

Outside, one original traditional home and a cluster of reconstructed buildings—a café, a barber shop, a water mill, a comics shop, and so on—illustrate Korean life in the mid-20th century. There’s also a separate children’s museum, though I don’t know how much of that would be available in English.

The National Folk Museum also has a collection of “totem poles” from around South Korea, some of them quite amusing!

Deoksugung Palace

I also visited Deoksugung Palace, a much smaller affair right next to city hall in the center of the city. It used to be bigger, and what is left is only a few buildings: a couple of gateways, one residential building and a few other small structures. I was able to see the whole thing by visiting the Jeong-Dong Observatory (really just a coffee shop with big windows) in the Seosomun Building right next door to the palace.

an aerial view of the Deoksugung Palace grounds in Seoul, South Korea
This view of the Deoksugung Palace grounds shows pretty much the whole thing.

What’s different about this palace, though, is that it was occupied by a later king, who decided to modernize—in other words, Westernize—his palace. Now used as an art museum, you can see his neo-classical palace on the left in the picture above, complete with Ionic and Corinthian columns, presenting quite a contrast to the traditional Korean buildings next door.

a building in traditional Korean style in the foreground; the neo-classical palace in the background, at Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, South Korea
two different eras right next to each other

I didn’t, however, stay long at Deoksugung Palace. In an open space next to the very modern glass city hall, a K-Pop concert was being set up. This was a couple of blocks away, but the volume at which they blasted that K-Pop was headache-provoking. Combined with that, the park around Deoksugung Palace is full of cicadas who emit a constant, loud buzzing sound. Usually, I can handle that, but the cicadas seemed to turn up the volume whenever the K-Pop started. It felt like a drill into the side of my head.

Trying to move further from the K-Pop, I didn’t find anywhere quieter within the palace grounds. At another one of the traditional buildings, a tour guide was explaining something or other to a group of tourists. In order to be heard above the K-Pop and the cicadas, she was shouting into a portable microphone. This video clip doesn’t do justice to the noise, since the bass line of earlier songs was more intrusive, but it’ll give you an idea of what it was like:

It was painful to hear, and I left quickly.

Gyeonghuigung Palace

I decided I might as well check out the one remaining palace I hadn’t seen, walking distance from Deoksugung: Gyonghuigung Palace. This one is the smallest and by far the quietest of all the palaces, with only two or three other small family groups exploring it when I was there. It’s also the least interesting, comprising just one compound with walls, a gate, a reception room, and one living building behind. Like the others, it was built in 1617-1623, destroyed after Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1910, then rebuilt recently. It’s also somewhat less ornately decorated than the others.

a segment of Gyeonghuigung Palace in Seoul, Korea
a segment of Gyeonghuigung Palace

Nevertheless, being there, hearing only the cicadas (not as loud) and the distant roar of the city, was a relief after the cacophony of Deoksugung. It would probably be the best of them for a picnic, for example, without a lot of people around.

Unhyeonggung Palace

There’s actually one more palace that isn’t even mentioned in the tourist material about Seoul: Unhyeonggung Palace. I only noticed it because I happened to walk by it on my way to Changyeonggung.

Like Gyonghuigung, this palace compound is quite small. What’s different about it is that it was built later, mostly in the 19th century, but follows the traditional design. It’s much more modest, though, and only very simply painted. It’s also completely empty of tourists. I think I was literally the only person there that morning.

What Unhyeonggung Palace does well is illustrate how the royals lived in a palace like this. Quite a few of the rooms are furnished with floor mats, cushions on the floor, low tables, cupboards, wall screens, and other decorative or practical items. Mannequins model how particular events might have looked, such as a party held for the king’s mother.

a scene showing the queen and a royal guest, in Seoul, South Korea
a scene showing the queen and a royal guest

Jongmyo Confucian Shrine

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Jongmyo Confucian Shrine isn’t actually a palace, but it is royal and seems to me appropriate to include in a discussion of all the palaces. You could say that Jongmyo is the palace for deceased royalty.

When a king of the Joseon Dynasty died, it was believed that his soul left his body and resided in a memorial tablet, a hollow block of wood. Jongmyo, then, is essentially a storage place for the tablets. They are housed in a couple of long halls, only opened once a year for a worship ceremony, though during the Josean Dynasty the rituals would have happened more often.

one of the buildings housing the spirit tablets at Jongmyo in Seoul, South Korea
one of the buildings housing the spirit tablets

A path runs in Jongmyo from the entrance gate to the halls. The middle part of that path is reserved for spirits, so visitors have to walk other routes. In any case, the surroundings are pretty, though not nearly on the same scale as the Secret Garden of Changdeokgung or the huge open areas of Changyeonggung.

Interestingly, later kings would judge their deceased ancestors to decide whether they had any “achievements.” The ones who had excelled in some way were judged as worthy of housing their tablets in the biggest of the halls, while the others—those who died before accomplishing anything or who just weren’t very good kings—were relegated to a smaller, lesser hall.

As with the Secret Garden, in order to see Jongmyo, you have to take a tour, some of which are offered in English. On Saturdays, though, you can wander at will.

a sign on the spirit pathway at Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul, South Korea
a sign on the spirit pathway

My Recommendations

I only ended up visiting all of the palaces because I had to stay in Seoul for some medical treatment. If you don’t have time to see them all, I’d recommend Changdeokgung as the prettiest palace to visit, along with its Secret Garden. Changyeonggung would be my next choice, for the palace, of course, but also for the two quality museums on its grounds.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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So a good thing came out of your medical emergency – you got to see all 6 palaces! they look really cool. I would love to see South Korea one day.

I would like to visit the the first three palaces. They look amazing. It is sad to know that they were damaged during the occupation but at least we have something to appreciate(and marvel at) nowadays.

Fire is a problem with these beautiful timber structures. It is the same in Japan. The craftsmanship is simply mind boggling. I’m glad you were able to get around to all the temples whilst recuperating. If I make it over there, I’ll know which to see first. 🙂

I was there for two years. South Korea is beautiful.

Beautiful place…

Hi Rachel. All my years in Korea and I have not made it to the six! I do plan on changing that soon. I think I’ve been to four of the six. I’ve always wanted to go to Changdeokgung, particularly to see the Secret Garden. Thanks for the tip for Saturday visiting. I’m in Seoul for Chuseok, when a lot of Koreans leave. Next Saturday may be the perfect opportunity.

Thanks so much for cohosting Travel Photo Thursday. #TPThursday

I love the beautiful detail of these palaces. Your photos are awesome. I have to keep looking back to which was which, because their names look so similar at first. haha I love historic places and would love to see them one day. The path where the spirits walk is also quite interesting to know. Thanks for sharing!

Hi Rachel,

On your recommendations, you mentioned Changgyeonggung palace as your second choice. Isn’t it Gyeongbokgung Palace that has the 2 museums?

The reason why I was paying close attention to this is that I have to choose between visiting Changyeonggung or Deoksugung Palace. I already have the other 2 in my itinerary and have only 1 more palace to fit in.

Which would you recommend on either of the 2-Changyeonggung or Deoksugung ?

Thanks in advance for your input.

Mary A.