First built in 1395, and rebuilt, repurposed, and restored many times after a number of fires, invasions, and occupations over the centuries, Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) — which translates to "Palace Greatly Blessed By Heaven" in English — is the largest of the "Five Grand Palaces" originally built by the Joseon dynasty. It now serves as the central feature of what is commonly referred to as the "Palace Quarter" when marketed to tourists in Seoul.
Gyeongbokgung opens at 9 AM with varying closing times by season. It is closed on Tuesdays altogether. Entry is not free, but it is inexpensive, and a discount ticket for all five of the palaces — Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung (창덕궁과), Changgyeonggung (창경궁), Deoksugung (덕수궁) and Jongmyo (종묘) — also is available and valid for a generous three months from the first date of use. Visiting Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung alone with the discount ticket is cheaper than buying individual tickets and will save time in queues, as well.
One of the most popular times to visit Gyeongbokgung is for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Official information in English states that the ceremony starts at 10 AM and occurs every hour on the hour until 4 PM (16:00). However, official information in Korean provides more details regarding the specifics of each ceremony. It also includes an earlier military training exercise for the Sumungun (수문군), the Gatekeepers, at 9:35 AM outside Hyeopsaengmun Gate (협생문), which is the entrance nearest to the righthand ticket windows and lists the final time for the ceremony as 2 PM (14:00).
Based on personal experience from several visits to Gyeongbokgung, travelgasm.com would suggest arriving around opening time with the goal of viewing both the military training at 9:35 AM and the first ceremony at 10 AM, which is formally the Sumunjang (수문장), the Royal Guard, Ceremony in front of the main gate, Gwanghwamun (광화문). There is a free guided tour in English at 11 AM that also could be convenient as well as a longer, paid guided tour of the palace and other nearby sites that might be of interest.
There are assorted reports from tourists who showed up in the afternoon and were upset to have missed the Changing of the Guard altogether. Arrive in the morning to avoid disappointment. Crowds will be swarming regardless of the time of your visit, but they will be smaller for the 9:35 AM event that isn't commonly advertised in English. There also are larger special events from time-to-time — we were fortunate to stumble into a full scale battle re-enactment on one visit and attended an evening concert that we noticed advertised in Korean on posters in the area on another visit. There is some information on the dates and times for special events in Korean on the official site, as well.
Additionally, there are two large museums within Gyeongbokgung — the National Palace Museum of Korea (국립고궁박물관) and the National Folk Museum of Korea (국립민속박물관). The Palace Museum presents more than 45,000 artifacts from royal palaces and tombs and the Folk Museum covers the traditional daily life and culture of Korea. Each follows the same opening hours as Gyeongbokgung itself, and are provided at no extra cost, with the last permitted entry one hour before the palace closes. Be sure to review the official exhibits pages for the Palace Museum and Folk Museum, respectively, to learn about any special events or exhibitions that may occur during your time in Seoul.
The neighborhood to the east of Gyeongbokgung, Bukchon (붘촌), — or as it is formally branded for tourists, the Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을) — is beautiful at its best. This small, people-scaled neighborhood nestled in the hills between the walls of the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces once was the area where nobles and important government officials lived during the Joseon period.
Although most of the traditional houses in Bukchon, called Hanok (한옥), were destroyed during years of occupation and war, and some residential streets these days are little more than drab rows of garage doors; a significant portion of the neighborhood has been rebuilt in its beautiful traditional Korean style at its traditional scale but with modern materials.
One street in Bukchon, Samcheondong-gil (삼청동길), is particularly famous for its cute cafes, restaurants, dessert shops, and wine bars, but there are many places to eat lunch or dinner — or have a snack or a drink — throughout the entire neighborhood.
Three restaurants in the area well-regarded by Koreans are Gyeongchunjaui Ramyeon Ttaenggineun Nal (경춘자의라면땡기는날) for Korean noodles, Boutique Kyungsung (부띠끄경성) for Korean beef steak, and Daejangjangi Hwadeok Pizza Jip (대장장이화덕피자집) for Korean-Neopolitan pizza.
If you have time, we would suggest also visiting Changdeokgung Palace, just to the east of Bukchon, as well as Changgyeonggung Palace a bit further east still, to finish your exploration of the Palace Quarter.
First built in 1405, Changdeokgung Palace — which might translate to "Prosperous Virtue Palace" in English — is famous for its attractive garden, formally the Huwon (후원), or Rear Garden, but more commonly marketed as the Biwon (비원), or "Secret Garden." It opens at 9 AM with closing times varying by season. It is closed on Mondays.
Changgyeonggung Palace — which might translate to "Prosperous Celebration Palace" in English — probably is too significant of an attraction to get away with calling it one of our "7 Things Tourists Don't Do in Seoul, But You Should," but it receives far less attention than the other two palaces. No doubt, this is at least partially because reaching the front of Changgyeonggung Palace from the outside involves a rather long and unpleasant walk around its wall (and the same walk back to return to the metro), but you can skip this walk by using its rear entrance, Hamyangmun Gate (함양문), from Changdeokgung. Changgyeonggung has the same opening hours as Changdeokgung and also is closed on Mondays.
We only visited Changgyeonggung once in the afternoon, but it is architecturally similar to its more popular siblings; and we practically had the place to ourselves. The peace and quiet was a nice change compared to contending with the selfie-stick wielding hordes elsewhere. Its main stone bridge — Okcheongyo (옼천교) — also is particularly attractive.
We've mapped out the best walks from Gyeongbokgung to Changdeokgung through Bukchon below. One is winding and leisurely and includes portions of Samcheondong-gil for its famous eateries and Bukchon-ro 11-gil (북촌로 11길), one of the prettiest streets in Bukchon, and the other is the quickest option between the palaces. Both walks mostly avoid the large, unpleasant streets in the area in favor of smaller streets that are more enjoyable on foot.
How to Get Here: The closest metro to Gyeongbokgung is Gyeongbokgung Station on the Orange Line (Line 3), Exit 5. However, if the Purple Line (Line 5) is more convenient for your starting point, Gwanghwamun Station, Exit 9, opens onto Gwanghwamun Square, which is a people-friendly walkway that goes directly to Gyeongbokgung. The walk from Gwanghwamun Station is much more convenient, and likely shorter, than having to transfer to the Orange Line from a nearby transfer station. To depart from either Bukchon Hanok Village or Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung Palace, Anguk Station, Exit 2, on the Orange Line, is the closest option.
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