There’s nowhere that makes you feel as if part of a fairy tale quite so well as a palace, and Korean palaces are no different in that regard. Indeed, Korean palaces are some of the most (pardon the pun) magical pieces of architecture I have ever seen!
Most of my all-time favourite Korean palaces are in Seoul, and despite its identity as a thriving, modern metropolis, it pays homage to its traditional roots and ancestors with the preservation and restoration of historical buildings.
1. Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁), Seoul
Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁) is one such place and is my favourite palace in all of Korea. Standing in a large park and occupying 110 acres in the heart of Seoul, this palace casts a striking figure.
It is one of the five grand palaces in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty. During its time, it has seen its own fair share of trouble, being burnt to the ground completely in both 1592 and 1623, as well as being heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910 – 1945). For me, it is the perfect example of Korea’s resilience and determination.
Today, as it stands, Changdeokgung Palace consists of 13 buildings and 28 garden pavilions. Surrounded by high walls, the palace is isolated from the neighbouring modern buildings and heavily-populated roads.
As soon as you pass through the gates, a hush seems to fall upon the area: traffic quietens, the air fills with the sound of birdsong, and it becomes incredibly easy to forget the city laying beyond the palace walls.
Entry to the palace requires a ticket, which you can buy at the front entrance. You have the option of a regular ticket, which will allow you access to most areas of the palace, or, for an added price, the regular ticket plus entry to the Huwon (후원)/Biwon (비원), the secret garden (guided tours only). Note: the palace is closed on Mondays!
Entering the palace gates, you will find booklets in four languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, detailing the long history of the site.
Compared to British palaces, those in Korea seem to hold a wealth of colour. Hues of green, red, orange, blue, purple, white…they are mesmerising. And don’t forget to look up when visiting – you don’t want to miss any of the beautifully intricate artworks on the ceilings!
With the secret garden pass, a tour guide takes you around an extended area of the palace grounds. The tour is available in English, Chinese, and Japanese, with the English tour held multiple times every day (barring Mondays when the palace is closed).
When I visited, the tour guide was incredibly friendly and entertaining. Factual information incoming. During the time when the palace was originally created, Koreans thought the ground was square and the sky round so the square-shaped ponds symbolise land, and the circular structures in the middle symbolise the sky. Amazingly, one of the ponds is also shaped like the map of Korea!
What, to me, was once a simple, albeit beautiful, attraction soon became a place of complexity, with hidden strings tying everything together seamlessly.
As part of the tour, you can also walk under a stone archway said to give eternal youth and health to any who walks through it. It was created with the intent of wishing such good fortune on the King.
And my favourite fact of the day: the palace houses a 700-year old tree which stood by itself until 2010 when a tsunami hit it, but it is still alive today!
Got all of that?
I was so impressed when I first visited in late January 2017, that I revisited the palace again in the same late spring.
2. Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (동궁과 월지), Gyeongju
My second favourite is Gyeongju’s Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (동궁과 월지). Originally, the pond was known as ‘Anapji’. However, in the 1980’s, engraved fragments were found which spelled out the letters ‘Wolji’ meaning a pond that reflects the moon, and so the true name of the pond was revealed.
For me, this is the most picturesque palace I have visited in Korea so far. Broad stone pathways bordered by green fences and luscious greenery. Following the path, visitors are taken around the pond to each of the palace structures. All in all, the palace buildings, foliage, and encompassing pond create a beautifully tranquil and aesthetic environment.
3. Deoksugung Palace (덕수궁), Seoul
Another palace I recommend visiting in Korea is called Deoksugung Palace (덕수궁) which is another of the five grand palaces in Seoul.
The highlight of this palace is the changing of the Royal guards ceremony which takes place three times a day, barring Mondays when the palace is closed. The ceremony begins at the Daehanmun Gate of Deoksugung Palace, and slowly makes its way to Bosingak Belfry which has a bell ringing ceremony at noon, stopping at multiple places on the way.
I particularly like how accommodating the staff are here, especially for solo-travellers. The friendly staff members readily offer to take your photo, so everyone can have a lovely memento of their trip.
Korea offers so many glorious palaces – these are just a few of my all-time favourites! So if you are visiting Korea and have the urge to step into your own personal fairy tale, or you simply wish to admire the beauty of Korea’s vibrant history, take a look for yourselves!