Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁)

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The first stop on our second day in Seoul was Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁), the largest of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul. It served as the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty until most of its buildings were destroyed by the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592-1598 and again in 1910-1945 during the period of Japanese colonial rule. But since 1990, ongoing efforts have been made by the Korean government to rebuild and restore the palace to its former glory. As of 2015, only about 45% of the buildings have been restored.

The easiest way to get to Gyeongbokgung Palace is by taking the subway and getting off at Gyeongbokgung Station (경복궁역). But for some reason, we got off at Gwanghwamun Station (광화문역) so we had to walk all the way up the side Gwanghwamun Square (광화문광장) to reach the entrance of the palace.

Must see sight #1: Gwanghwamun Gate (광화문). Roughly meaning "may the light of enlightenment blanket the world" (光化門 in Chinese), Gwanghwamun Gate is the largest and main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace. But the gate, as it stands today, is a relatively new building because it's restoration works was only completed in 1968. It's also made entirely out of concrete, so it's not listed as a "national treasure" of Korea unlike Sungnyemun Gate (숭례문) in Namdaemun (남대문). But nonetheless, I still think it's a magnificent piece of architecture and I wish I had taken more photos in front of it! The reason why we didn't hang around at the entrance for too long because we needed to quickly buy our tickets and make it on time to join the English tour of the palace which started at 11:00am.

FYI, the Ticket Office is located to the right of Heungnyemun Gate (흥례문), the gate after Gwanghwamun Gate. It was a bit awkward when we bought our Combination Ticket for Palaces (궁궐 통합관람권) because I kept saying "Integrated Ticket of Palaces" which the lady simply did not understand and responded by saying "this is Gyeongbokgung Palace" (like duh). Luckily, there was an Help Desk just beside the Ticket Office where I could ask and clarify in English what I was supposed to say.

For a mere 10,000 won, the Combination Ticket gives you access to all the main palaces in Seoul, including Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁), the Secret Garden (후원) inside Changdeokgung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁), Deoksugung Palace (덕수궁), and Jongmyo Shrine (종묘). You'll need to visit at least 3 places to get your money's worth, but if you're only planning to go to one or two palaces, just buy the single entrance ticket instead.

The free tour of Gyeongbokgung Palace starts inside Heungnyemun Gate and lasts for an hour to an hour and a half. (Click here for the tour course.) We actually made it on time to join the English speaking tour, but with all due respect, I couldn't really understand what the tour guide was saying so we just left after a few minutes to wander the palace ourselves. (My sisters weren't interested in the tour anyways.)

Must see sight #2: Geunjeongjeon Hall (근정전). Designated as Korea's National Treasure No. 223 in 1985, Geunjeongjeon Hall is a throne hall where the king granted audiences to his officials, greeted foreign envoys and held important state functions. Now, it's the place where you'll find the most tourists, because unless you go on a day when it's freezing cold, you cannot take a photo there without being photobombed by other tourists. Granted, I'm still really glad we went to Gyeongbokgung Palace when the weather was good because when we went to Changdeokgung Palace, it was so cold we couldn't wait to leave.

Must see sight #3: Gyeonghoeru Pavilion (경회루). To the left of Geunjeongjeon Hall is Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, a scenic place where the King held feasts for his court officials and foreign envoys. Honestly, I loved the Pavilion because of how photogenic it looked (it even reminded me of the Marble Boat (石舫) in the Summer Palace (頤和園) in Beijing) and how its surrounding greenery and benches made it so "picnic friendly".

After admiring Gyeonghoeru Pavilion for a good 15 minutes, we made our way towards the back of the palace near Taewonjeon Hall Shrine (태원전), where it was much quieter with less tourists. Although it wasn't as "grand-looking" as the front part of the palace, we still managed to get really nice photos with Bugaksan Mountain (북악산) in the background.

Must see sight #4: Hyangwonjeong Pavilion (향원정). Built by King Gojong (고종) in 1873, Hyangwonjeong Pavilion was definitely the prettiest building in the palace because of it's location and surrounding environment. Kudos to whoever decided to block off the entrance of the wooden bridge leading to the Pavilion because had people been allowed to stand on top of it, I wouldn't have gotten such a good shot!

Must see sight #5: The Royal Guard Changing Ceremonies. Just as we were leaving the palace at around 1:00pm, we managed catch the Gwanghwamun Gate Guard-on-Duty Performance outside Gwanghwamun Gate. This re-enactment first began in 1996 and takes place twice a day at 11:00pm and 1:00pm. (There's also the Sumunjang (Royal Guard) Changing Ceremony which takes place at 10:00am and 2:00pm.) We didn't watch the whole ceremony, but it was a great coincidence to end our Gyeongbokgung Palace tour with such a traditional scene.

If you're planning to just visit one palace in Seoul, a walk through Gyeongbokgung Palace is a must. It's interesting past and stunning historic architecture will make your stay really worthwhile. Plus, it's not an attraction that only tourists visit—I saw many locals there too!

Now, I'm actually looking forward to 2030 when the 40-year restoration project of Gyeongbokgung Palace is complete because the original complex during King Gojong's reign from 1863-1907 had a whopping total of 330 buildings and 5,792 rooms. That's not impressive in comparison to Beijing's Forbidden City (紫禁城) which has 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms, but to me, 2015 Gyeongbokgung Palace was definitely more relaxing and enjoyable than 2008 Forbidden City.

Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁)
161 Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울 종로구 사직로 161

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