The Five Grand Seoul Palaces of the Joseon Period, along with Jongmyo Shrine, make up the main traditional sightseeing spots in the Korean capital. Although the sites mostly date back to the 1300s – 1500s, the majority of the buildings standing on them today are actually recent reconstructions, as the original structures were destroyed by Japanese invasion (16th Century), and the reconstructions then destroyed by Japanese occupation (20th Century), and repeatedly by fire; the East Palace (Changdeokgung & Changgyeonggung) is the only one with a decent number of surviving pre-20th Century structures (around a third), but the reconstructions have been done well and do look the part.
Visiting all five would probably be overkill for most visitors, especially if you’re only in Korea for a short time. On the other hand, you should probably visit at least one or two while you’re in Seoul!
So, which one(s) to visit? Read on below for more detail on each palace, but in a nutshell:
Gyeongbokgung if you want to see the most historically important & physically impressive of the Seoul palaces.
East Palace (Changdeokgung & Changgyeonggung) for genuinely old buildings (rather than modern reconstructions of old buildings), and for the best surrounding gardens.
Deoksugung and/or Gyeonghuigung if you’d prefer to visit smaller palace sites, perhaps combining them with a city stroll.
Changing of the guard ceremonies are held at the gates of Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung at various times through the day (see below for times).
Some of the palaces are famous for cherry blossom viewing in April, namely Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung, and Changgyeonggung.
(If you wear a hanbok you get free entry to the palaces; this is especially popular with bus tour groups, as well as smaller groups of tourists and locals dressing up for a day out. You can arrange hanbok rental here*)
The most impressive and expansive of the 5 Seoul palaces, Gyeongbokgung was the original palace (construction began in 1395) and was historically the main seat of royalty, though that moved to Changdeokgung following the Japanese invasions in the late 1500s as Gyeongbokgung wasn’t rebuilt until the 1800s.
The Japanese destroyed it again in the early 20th Century during their occupation of Korea, and most of the present buildings at Gyeongbokgung today only date from the 1990s. The reconstruction is pretty convincing though, and this is the palace to go for if you want to visit the largest and most important of them.
It’s a large site and if you also visit the National Palace Museum and/or the National Folk Museum which both stand on the palace grounds, it’ll take up half a day.
If you want to see the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung, you can check the schedule here
Access: Line 3 Gyeongbokgung Station / Line 5 Gwanghwamun Station (take exit 9 and walk north past the King Sejong statue)
Changdeokgung & Changgyeonggung (the East Palace complex)
These two palaces stand back to back, with a gate in the separating wall providing direct access between them; collectively they’re also referred to as Dongwol (East Palace), and though they have separate ticketing (3,000 won for Changdeokgung and 1,000 won for Changgyeonggung) it usually makes sense to visit them both in one go.
The East Palaces have the most pre-20th Century structures still standing, so if you’re wanting to see some genuinely old palace buildings rather than modern reconstructions, this is where to go (around a third of the buildings you see date from the 1600s-1800s, though are in fact still not the originals – which were also destroyed by the Japanese invasion in the late 1500s).
Changdeokgung is the second oldest of the 5 palaces, was the main one from 1592 – 1868 (between Gyeongbokgung’s first destruction & reconstruction), and is the only one to have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UNESCO listing is both due to the fair number of surviving older structures, and the way this palace was designed to be in harmony with its surroundings rather than imposed upon them (the Secret Garden in particular).
Changdeokgung’s famous Huwon (‘Secret Garden’) can usually only be visited on a guided tour (the ticket for this is an extra 5,000 won – if you get the all palaces combination ticket (see entry fee info at bottom of page) it also includes the Secret Garden). The guides are really good and the tour takes around 90 minutes, but if you prefer to wander freely you can do so on ‘Culture Day’ on the last Wednesday of every month, when the palaces all have free entry; it’s still 5,000 for the Secret Garden, but without the requirement to join a tour.
The Secret Garden isn’t just a pretty garden, it’s actually like an entire additional palace complex with various buildings and pavilions standing in beautifully landscaped surroundings; the entry fee may seem steep, but it’s definitely worth it if you’re there during the spring blossoms or autumn colours:
Acess: Line 3 Anguk Station, walk 5 minutes east
Changgyeonggung is notable for the large grounds it stands on, with beautiful landscaped gardens renowned for their spring blossoms and autumn colours.
Nice in winter too:
Access: Line 4 Hyehwa Station, walk 5 minutes west
Deoksugung & Gyeonghuigung
These two palaces are much smaller than the above three, so if you’re not really into palaces but feel like you ought to see one while you’re in the country, you should find one of these two nice and manageable!
They’re also located quite near one another, with an attractive tree- & sculpture-lined walled road connecting them, and there’s a good museum at Gyeonghuigung, so you can easily combine the two palaces with the museum and a bit of a city walk for a cultural half-day which isn’t too heavy on the palaces.
Deoksugung is located right outside City Hall Station (Line 1 exit 2, or Line 2 exit 12 and head north), and historically served mostly as an auxiliary palace. It wasn’t as badly destroyed as Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung, so you do see a few pre-occupation structures alongside the modern reconstructions.
It’s also notable architecturally for being the only Korean palace with some western-style buildings (dating to the early 20th Century). Deoksugung is a popular cherry blossom spot too.
You can see the changing of the guard at Deoksugung at 11:00, 14:00, and 15.30 daily (except Mondays)
Gyeonghuigung is the youngest of the Seoul palaces, having been first built as a secondary palace in the 1600s i.e. after the Japanese invasions which wrecked the other original palaces. However it was badly damaged by fire in the 1800s, and then the Japanese occupation finished the job off in the early 1900s.
The reconstruction standing at Gyeonghuigung today is entirely modern and is also much smaller than the original palace, so this site has the least historical authenticity of the five. It’s still an attractive place though, and the Seoul Museum of History stands on its grounds; the palace and museum taken together are worthwhile, and can easily be visited in conjunction with nearby Deoksugung.
Access: halfway between Seodaemun & Gwanghwamun stations (Line 5) on Saemunan-ro (the main road between the stations), a 5-minute walk from each.
Deoksugung & Gyeonghuigung walking route
After visiting Deoksugung, turn right out of the gate and immediately right again, then follow the road up alongside Deoksugung’s outer wall, going straight ahead at the little roundabout behind the palace. This road has various sculptures and a number of decent eateries and cafes (at the start near Deoksugung and again at the top where it meets the main road) where you can make a pit stop; when you get to the main road, cross over and head right a few more minutes to Gyeonghuigung.
The Jongmyo Shrine was founded around the same time as Gyeongbokgung Palace the late 1300s, and was similarly destroyed in the invasions of the late 1500s. It was rebuilt in the 1600s, and has largely survived intact since then.
The shrine’s purpose was memorial of the Joseon kings & queens through Confucian rituals, with each king & queen’s spirit housed in spirit tablets upon their deaths. Annual rituals are still held today, on the first Sunday in May.
If you’re keen to learn about traditional Korean culture & beliefs, you’ll pick up more at Jongmyo Shrine than at the palaces, not least thanks to the guides – entry is usually only by guided tour (included in the entrance fee), the exception being Saturdays when visitors are free to roam. Tours begin at set intervals through the day, with English, Chinese, and Japanese language tours available (in addition to Korean), and the guides are very knowledgeable about both the shrine itself and Korean history generally.
Even if you’re not a big history buff, the shrine’s nice to visit because the buildings are hundreds of years old, and it has a peaceful atmosphere rather than the crowds at the palaces. (If you’re really not keen on a guided tour, just visit on Saturday)
Access: just east of Jongno 3-ga Station (Lines 1 & 3)
Gyeongbokgung: 3,000 won
Changdeokgung: 3,000 won (plus 5,000 for the Secret Garden)
Changgyeonggung: 1,000 won
Deoksugung: 1,000 won
Gyeonghuigung: free (there’s no ticket gate; it’s more like a public park)
Jongmyo Shrine: 1,000 won
Culture Day: the last Wednesday of every month is ‘Culture Day’, when you can enter any of the palaces free of charge. It still costs 5,000 to enter the Secret Garden, but entry isn’t limited to the usual fixed tour times so you can just buy the ticket and wander at your own leisure (guided tours do still run at the normal times if you’d prefer to have a guide).
Combination ticket: for 10,000 won you can get a combo ticket covering all of the above (including the Secret Garden), valid for one month. The combination ticket is available from the regular ticket windows at each site.
Remember, entry to the palaces is free if you wear a hanbok*
The sites all open at 9am, and close between 5pm-6:30pm depending on the season (earlier in winter), with last admissions 30-60 minutes before closing. The exception is Deoksugung, which closes at 9pm (last admission 8pm).
(Jongmyo Shrine is usually only entered on guided tours; the guides are great, but if you want to wander the shrine freely you can do so on Saturdays only)
Monday: East Palace complex, Deoksugung
Tuesday: Gyeongbokgung, Jongmyo Shrine
Have you been to any of the Seoul palaces? Any questions? Give me a shout below!
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Since you gave me such excellent advice for my hike, I thought I’d ask your advice for my next stop. I have about 8 hours in Seoul on Sunday. I would like to explore the city a little bit. What would your suggestion be? Culture, art, architecture, it’s all awesome. Aaaaand coffee shops of course 🙂
Happy to help again! Is that 8 hours total on the ground, or 8 hours free time excluding airport?
For sure I’d recommend at least one or two of the above palaces. If you visit Gyeongbokgung & the two attached museums that already fills a couple of hours, and if you also stroll over to the East Palaces that adds a couple more. On the way between them you can check out Insadong street, which is a good spot for food & coffee, also handcrafts & souvenirs if you’re in the market for any.
Alternatively maybe think about the Namsan hike, given your Gwanaksan time you won’t need long at all for Namsan. You can hike up it right out of Seoul Station, so you could do that first before descending to Myeongdong for food/coffee, then from there head to Deoksugung or Gyeongbokgung – you could jump on the subway, or just do the whole thing on foot. If walking, you can go from Myeongdong to Gyeongbokgung via City Hall (and potentially Deoksugung), Cheonggyecheon stream, and Gwanghwamun Square. You can find all those on Google Maps easily enough, but it doesn’t work for walking routes in Korea so I recommend downloading an app called KakaoMap which does the job nicely.
Depending how long you have downtown, either of the above itineraries should be enough. For more suggestions check out this post I wrote on my Korea snowboard site. Any questions, fire away!
Great post! Exploring the palaces in Seoul is one of my favourite things to do. I love that they have the palace ticket for only 10,000 won. It makes the palaces so accessible, and you only need to buy one ticket! My personal favourite is Jongmyo Shrine. The tour guides are so knowledgable, and you learn so much about Korean history. Plus it is gorgeous!
Cheers Erica! It’s a great city in so many ways, and the palaces are a big part of that