Gyeongbokgung Palace & Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul, South Korea
Trip to South Korea – Part 6: Jewel Of The Palace
The Gyeongbokgung Palace & Gwanghwamun Plaza are located in central Seoul, and a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.
Gwanghwamun Plaza – often referred to as Gwanghwamun Square – is easily accessible since the main subway station lies directly underneath it.
Two huge statues stand over seeing the plaza as if keeping watch over everyone passing by.
Firstly, there is a statue of King Sejong sitting on his throne placed on top of a massive pedestal. King Sejong – or Sejong the Great – is best remembered for his invention of Hangul, the written Korean alphabet used today. [A/N: Anyone learning the Korean written language will have undoubtedly come across this name before.]
However, the 15th century Korean monarch is also considered to have been involved in the promotion of agriculture, literature, science and technology.
Secondly, there is a statue dedicated to Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, a 16th century Korean war hero. [A/N: K-drama buffs interested in historical dramas might recognize this name, since they tend to make frequent mention of it.]
Towards one end of the plaza one can already see from afar the massive main entrance into the Gyeongbokgung Palace, known as Gwanghwamun Gate.
Sejongno, a busy multiple-lane road separates Gwanghwamun Gate, the palace and the impressive wall surrounding it from the plaza.
For the better part of each day, one can find several guards dressed in traditional royal garb standing guard in front of the gate.
While walking through the gates, don’t forget to look up and admire the meaningful paintings and drawings on the ceilings.
In a Russian Doll sort of way, the king’s quarters are located at the innermost center of the palace grounds. Several sturdy walls form each layer around his throne room and can only be accessed through these big inner gates.
In the past, each gate would be heavily guarded by the Royal Guards and might even be kept closed the majority of the time.
This close-up of one of the multiple gates showes the intricate architecture and colourful designs on it. Any reconstruction over the years has been made using the same materials used originally wherever possible.
Detailed maps located inside the grounds are a great help for all visitors to not loose their way around the massive palace complex. In addition, English tours are available throughout most of the day. We personally were very pleased with our nice guide, her knowledge of the place, and the pace at which she proceeded throughout the tour.
Hyangwonjeong Pavilion (loose English translation ‘Pavilion of far-Reaching Fragrance’) is a small, hexagonal, two-story pavilion situated on a island in the middle of a pond. A bridge connects the island and the pavilion to the rest of the palace grounds. The bridge is known as Chwihyanggyo which loosely translates as “bridge intoxicated with fragrance”. Due to its fragile state, the bridge has been closed off for public access. Even though close-ups of the pavilion are therefor not possible, this does not diminish its serene beauty.
[A/N: Coex Aquarium has a miniature replica of this pavilion on display.]
The Queen and Queen Dowager (Mother of the king) would each reside in their own separate quarters towards the back of the palace grounds. For added protection and privacy, their residences were enclosed with a lower wall, some of which doubled as the outside walls of a building.
This small metal door allows for a fire to be build underneath the building inside its stone base. This will in turn provide floor heating to the rooms above. Underground tunnels leading to chimneys away from the building would make sure the smoke could escape safely.
[A/N: Although obviously upgraded to a more modernized version, floor heating systems are still a common thing in Korean homes.]
Most of the buildings found today within the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds had to be reconstructed since having been destroyed by enemies in the past. Four hexagon shaped chimneys built in 1869 are some of the few original structures still standing. Hiding their purpose behind a artfully disguised tower-like design, they were made to blend in as part of the Amisan Garden.
The Gyeongheoru Pavilion (Royal Banquet Hall) is a two-story pavilion used in the past for huge parties hosted by the king.
Walking among these old historical buildings truly makes one feel transported into another world. Specially if you’re into Korean historical dramas, this place makes you expect one of these drama characters to appear at any moment.
An inside look at some rooms complete with a traditional table set-up.
Below are some close-ups of the kings throne room and seat. Even after all this time the opulence and magnificence of the room is obvious. As a result, one can easily imagine the impression this room must have made on people in the past upon setting their eyes on it for the first time.
Nearby rental shops provide the opportunity to dress up in historical costumes when visiting the palace grounds. One can generally also expect a discount or sometimes even free entry into the place when wearing traditional Korean clothing.
During the Joseon Dynasty, Royal Guards were responsible for guarding the palace gates and protecting the King while he resided at Gyeongbokgung. Twice each day, staff will reenact the ‘Changing of the Royal Guard’ ceremony. As the name suggests, this event depicts the protocol these guards had to follow as a new unit took over their posts.
We recommend looking online beforehand to ensure you get to experience this ceremony as it is a sight to behold.
Only after gaining access through several gates one would get to enter the innermost patio. This is the location of the kings residence. While his living chambers are towards the rear of the building, the throne hall is at the front. Here the king would give an audience to anyone considered worthy of his time.
Final advice: Allow yourself plenty of time for this adventure. Exploring the extensive Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds can easily take a few hours, and is not something you’ll want to rush through.
Cee and R.