There are lots of reasons why South Korea is on most travelers’ must-see list. Its culture, shopping districts, food and its historical and modern sites are just some attractions that make this country a popular travel destination.
I personally wanted to make a trip to South Korea to check out the beautiful locations I used to see in the Korean dramas and movies I had watched before. When my sisters and I went there this first week of June and toured Seoul and Busan for 5 days, I enjoyed the trip so much I wanted to come back! Not only did we see some of their centuries-old palaces, culture villages and other tourist attractions, but we also experienced Koreans’ wonderful culture and friendliness. I’m already thinking of coming back and experiencing the country in a different season.
And while I dream about this, let me share with you our travel experience. I’ll be writing in a series of posts the places we visited, things I’ve learned, some proud-of-myself moments and some mishaps, too! My sisters and I had a great time and I’m excited to write all about it here. Let’s start off with our tour in Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces on our first day in Seoul.
The first thing I have to say is, these palaces are huge. In the itinerary that one of my sisters prepared, we were supposed to tour 4 palaces that day, AND head to Bukchon Hanok Village and check out Namsan Tower after. All in one day. How wrong we were to assume we’d be able to cover all these places in roughly 8 hours! So we had to give up touring two palaces and just choose the two more popular ones – Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung.
As we stepped into Gyeongbokgung Palace, grandeur came into my mind as I gazed at the vast grounds and high walls around me. Established in 1395, it was the main royal palace during the Joseon Dynasty. Its name, Gyeong-Bok, literally means “brilliance” and “fortune”. It was named by its founders as an expression of their wish for the dynasty to thrive and prosper.
There are massive gates erected hundreds of meters apart from each other and that one should walk through to reach the halls.
As we got past Geunjeongmun Gate, the first structure to greet us was Geunjeongjeon Hall. There are several halls in the palace, each having its own function during the Joseon dynasty. Geunjeongjeon Hall, for example, was the main venue for various state affairs such as the coronation ceremonies of the Joseon kings, cabinet meetings and receiving of foreign envoys. Because of it being a place for such important events, it has the most imposing appearance among all the halls in the palace.
The mountain behind it makes a great backdrop, doesn’t it?
As we toured further, I got to see the Koreans’ traditional architecture. The roofs were curved at the edge and there were round pillars to support the structure’s ceilings. I was also fascinated by the wooden beams and roof brackets. You can see how much aesthetics were applied to the buildings.
Some of the structures are not the ones that were originally built, though. In 1592, Gyeong-Bok was destroyed by fire when a huge Japanese army invaded Korea. It sadly lay in ruins for 270 years until a restoration project was launched in 1867. About 500 buildings (yes, it’s a huge place!) were restored or newly built. The palace, however, suffered massive damage again during the Japanese occupation in the early 1900s. Another restoration project came about in 1990. I’ve read that up until this year, a section or two of the palace is still being restored.
To complement our walk through the past, we wore hanboks during the tour. There were numerous rental shops just outside the palace so it didn’t take us long to find one and change into the traditional dresses. We were so into our garbs that we took lots of pictures in it.
What’s also cool is, you’ll have free access to all 5 palaces if you go there wearing hanboks.
As much as we wanted to see more of the palace, we had to leave and move on to our next stop. Also, it was already 2 PM that time so we were already starving.
We had a wonderful and fun tour. I wish we were able to check out Hyangwonjeong Pavilion before leaving, though. It’s a beautiful pavilion situated in the middle of a pond and one that I realized existed only upon checking out the brochure long after we had left the palace. So if you’re going on an unguided tour, I suggest grabbing one of the brochures at the Information Office first so you won’t miss certain attractions.
After returning our hanboks, we started looking for a dining place and found one a few blocks from the palace. I hadn’t had any rice since we left the Philippines the day before so I was extremely eager to finally have a heavy meal. My sisters and I excitedly picked dishes, quite making sure none of us would have the same order. Haha.
Full, satisfied and re-energized, we headed to our next stop, Changdeokgung Palace.
While Gyeongbokgung Palace exudes stately prominence, Changdeokgung has this distinctive charm. I felt that the palace had a more relaxed and a more “homey” vibe, probably because the halls are situated close to each other.
Changdeokgung Palace was constructed in 1405 and served as the palace second to Gyeongbokgung during the Joseon Dynasty. It also didn’t escape destruction from the Japanese when they invaded Korea in the late 1500s. But Changdeokgung was rebuilt early, in 1610 where it served as the main palace for 270 years.
One thing that makes this palace an exquisite piece of land is the Secret Garden. Occupying 60% of the palace grounds, the garden at the back showcases landscapes typical of the Joseon-era. It has pavilions and lotus ponds and the lush vegetation (especially in spring) extends to nearby valleys. Because of this beautiful and expansive garden, it is said that Changdeokgung Palace was loved by the Joseon kings more than any other palace. As someone who finds pleasure in tranquil places, from the scenery alone, I can imagine the relaxation the garden brought to the royalties.
To explore the Secret Garden, one must join a guided tour. The last scheduled English tour was 3:30 PM and since we were in Changdeokgung Palace at around 5 PM, my sisters and I were only able to explore the palace buildings. Here’s one reason to come back!
After our tours, we went to Bukchon Hanok Village. My camera’s battery was already drained by the time we left Changdeokgung Palace (I was pretty sure I had charged my extra battery before we left the Philippines, but that’s what forgetful me thought.) so I wasn’t able to take pictures of the village. But it’s an attraction that shouldn’t be missed, too. As for Namsan Tower, we decided to visit it the next day so we could see it in daylight.
That’s it for our tours on our first day! Next blog post will be about Namsan Tower, Lotte World and our eventful trip to catch the train to Busan.
How to get there:
Subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station, Exit 5
How to get there:
Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station, Exit 3