Completed in 1395, three years after the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongbokgung was completed. The first of Seoul’s Great Palaces, it has been razed, left derelict, reconstructed, torn down, and reconstructed again in the subsequent 700 years.
Arrive at the Gwanghwamun gate on the hour between 10:00 and 15:00 and you will witness the ceremonial Changing of the Guard… But so will about ten million* other tourists, so arrive early to pick a spot.
*May contain hyperbole or traces of hyperbole.
The ceremony takes about fifteen minutes, and begins outside, before progressing inside the gate.
So far, all is well. I might go so far as to say standard; Gyeongbokgung at first can seem quite a lot like other palaces in South Korea. But soon you start to notice that there are an outstanding amount of stone carvings here: statues of protective animals which have stood the test of time and survived much of the palace’s destruction and revival.
And the further in you go, the more you begin to realise the sheer scale of this site, and the more it unfolds its secrets to you.
The restoration work has been undertaken with tremendous skill and attention to detail, leaving throne rooms as vibrant now as they would have been seven centuries ago.
There are large lakes, each with pavilions of varying sizes. Some are accessible to the public and some are not. The excellent free guide book at the front entrance contains a map, along with very good information about locations along every route.
And there are children. Hundreds of ’em. Coaches of school trips, and every child has a questionnaire. This was our lucky day: their questionnaires required them to seek out tall Westerners and ask them questions about their height, then ask to have their photo taken with the oversized pale freak humans. We thought this was a singularly brilliant idea: it teaches the children to be able to approach strangers and ask questions; it gives them confidence in their English Language skills; and it helps them practice proficiency with native speakers.
The downside? Well, kids are eagle-eyed, and once one group spied us, other groups spied them and realised we were a target who were open to questions. Soon we had an entire school trip’s-worth of children tailing us around the palace grounds, patiently waiting their turn to ask us how tall we were and whether they could take a picture with us. One lad asked how long we were, so we took the time to correct him, and his fellow students agreed.
An hour of this and we were lunging out of view between buildings for a breather, but we couldn’t stay there for too long: these kids had work to do, and we figured the longer we hid, the fewer of them would find tall Westerners to speak to.
We spent about four hours here, strolling around the grounds and chatting to schoolkids. It’s an extremely pleasant way to spend half of your day, and is certainly one of Seoul’s must-see locations. There are free English-language tours, excellent guidebooks, and if you visit Gyeongbokgung in the morning, you can leave via another gate and visit the nearby National Palace Museum.
Take Subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station and use Exit 5.
Admission: ₩3,000. Closed on Tuesdays.
There is also an Integrated Admission ticket for four Palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine for ₩10,000.
For more information, and for tour times, see the KTO website.