Before the Japanese annexed Korea in the early 20th century, the Joseon dynasty ruled the country for some 500 years after King Taejo ascended the throne in 1392. The new king established his capital in Seoul – moving it south from Kaesong, a city located in modern-day North Korea – and established a grand palace at the base of Bugaksan mountain. Gwanghwamun, the main gate to the palace, faced a tumultuous history at the hands of the Japanese, who twice destroyed the decorative top and moved the stone base across town. Now back in its original location, the gate is topped with a beautiful new wooden pagoda designed to look like the 19th century version. A colorful changing of the guard ceremony takes place in front of the gate every hour between 10am and 3pm. Huge crowds gather to watch the costumed performers go through their paces while a drum corps provides a dramatic soundtrack. I love any kind of historical reenactment so this was a highlight for me.
Just like its main gate, Gyeongbokgung palace was twice destroyed by the Japanese in 1592 and 1915, and was replaced by a giant colonial government building which stood until 1996. Gyeongbokgung has since been reconstructed with historical accuracy and impressive attention to detail. It is a beautiful site, with vast courtyards and exquisitely carved wooden pavilions. The vividly painted throne hall is worth a peek, as is the National Folk Museum of Korea, which is located on the palace grounds.
A secondary palace, Changdeokgung, was built in 1412 and has faced the same cycle of destruction and rebirth, though around a dozen of its original buildings have survived. The throne hall, still hung today with yellow draperies and a mass of chandeliers, is magnificent. It’s easy to imagine 19th century court officials kowtowing to the king in his golden throne.
Changdeokgung was so successfully designed to complement its stunning natural setting that UNESCO World Heritage status was granted in 1997. The palace’s supposed best feature is its rear garden, once used exclusively by the royal family. Sadly, we didn’t get to visit this “secret” garden as you must take a guided tour and we just missed the last one of the day. All the more reason to go back!