If there’s anything to convince you Korea’s capital is worth visiting, it’s the incredible palaces of Seoul. Hidden among the city’s high-flyin’ skyscapers, shopping malls, and busy markets, these unmissable historic relics unfold a a whimsical world spiked with tradition and immense beauty.
Seoul’s palaces are a rare glimpse backwards into the history of city that, at the surface, never seems to stop peering forward. Among them, you’ll uncover some of Seoul’s best preserved traditional Korean architecture set among jaw-dropping natural backdrops that’ll leave you in awe.
Not sure where to start exploring? Here are six of the best Seoul palaces to visit…
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The Five Grand Palaces of Seoul
As the name would imply, you’d do well to start by checking out the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul. All five hail from the Joseon Dynasty, a prosperous era in Korean history lasting for just over five centuries starting in 1392.
From getting gutted by fires to destruction by Japanese invaders, these palaces have endured a tumultuous history, making them all the more important to the history of Seoul and Korea. What you’ll see today among them are mostly reconstructions, but ones that remain surprisingly faithful to palaces’ original spirits.
With just 24 hours in Seoul, you’d be hard-pressed to visit all five grand palaces and give them their due time. Over the course of a couple days though, you’ll have no problem experiencing them to their fullest while still having time to dig into many of the other top places to visit in Seoul.
Want to visit Seoul palaces without hassle? The Seoul Hop-On Hop-Off Downtown Palace Course stops directly at the 4 most popular of the five grand Seoul palaces among other top Seoul destinations like Myeongdong, Insadong, and N Seoul Tower.
If you’ve only got time to visit one of the grand palaces, make it Gyeongbokgung Palace. This immense and historically-significant complex dates back to the twilight of the 14th century when King Taejo built it as his main royal seat.
Gyeongbokgung, meaning “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven,” stood unchallenged for about two centuries until the Japanese ransacked it. The invaders left the palace in total ruin, and it wasn’t until the 1800s that efforts began to rebuild it.
Unfortunately, history was, once again, unkind to Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the early 20th century, the colonizing Japanese tore the palace to shreds for a second time. It stood in disrepair until the 1990s when the current ongoing restoration project launched to return Gyeongbokgung to its former glory.
So far, so good.
Today, what you’ll find at Gyeongbokgung Palace is nothing short of spectacular—even if lacking in true authenticity. The grounds are the most impressive among all the palaces in Seoul with Bugaksan and Namsan looming in the background and keeping watch over Gyeongbokgung’s stunning gates, halls, pavilions, gardens and bridges.
Besides the host of traditional Korean architecture & landscaping, Gyeongbokgung Palace is home to the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum. Both are among the top museums in Seoul and are must-visits for any traveller with a passing interest in Korean history & culture.
For a slightly kitschy take on ancient Korean history, be sure to catch the Joseon-inspired changing-of-the-guard ceremony, setting off every hour starting at 10am and ending at 3pm.
- Opening Times: 9:00am to 6:00pm daily (closed Tuesdays)
- Entrance: ₩3,000
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Getting to Gyeongbokgung: The easiest way to get to Gyeongbokgung Palace via public transportation in Seoul is by metro. Both Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3) and Gwanghwamun Station (Line 5) are within short walking distance. From the namesake station, Exit 5 will lead you directly to the grounds while Exit 9 of Gwanghwamun Station lies just south of the palace grounds.
A short walk east from Gyeongbokgung—through the beautiful Bukchon Hanok Village—brings you upon Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul’s second most important palace.
Constructed as a secondary royal residence by King Taejong, Changdeokgung came in handy when the Japanese invasion laid Gyeongbokgung to waste almost exactly 200 years after its founding.
From 1592 until 1868, when Gyeongbokgung’s first reconstruction finally took flight, Changdeokgung Palace functioned as the primary royal seat for the Joseon Dynasty. In fact, it housed the kings and queens longer than the main palace of Gyeongbokgung!
Despite being the slightly younger of the two most impressive Seoul palaces, Changdeokgung Palace is the only one in the city to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status. And it couldn’t be any more deserving.
Like Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung Palace didn’t have an easy history; it, too, was damaged and repaired many times over its long lifespan. What makes Changdeokgung unique though is that it managed to retain more of its authentic elements better than any other palace in Seoul. The buildings here, while still reconstructions of the originals, are much older than the late-20th-century equivalents at Gyeongbokgung.
Even more unique at Changdeokgung Palace—and the big reason for its popularity among the Joseon rulers—is how seamlessly the grounds blend in with the palace’s natural surroundings. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Huwon, Changdeokgung’s “secret garden.”
Walking among the ponds and foliage of Huwon is a tranquil escape that will make you forget you’re smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities.
You’re only able to visit Huwon on a separate special guided tour (₩8,000), but admission is included if you choose to purchase the Seoul palaces combination ticket (₩10,000) that gets you access to Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung and Deoksugung.
- English-language Tour Times: 10:30am and 2:30pm (closed Mondays)
- Entrance: ₩3,000
Getting to Changdeokgung: The closest metro station to Changdeokgung Palace is Anguk Station (Line 3). It’s about a 5 minute walk east along Yulgok-ro from Exit 2.
Sharing the grounds adjacent to Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung Palace is a quick detour away from Seoul’s second most important palace. Aside from its larger sibling to the west, Changgyeonggung is the only palace in Seoul that features buildings built before the 20th century.
As you’d expect, Changgyeonggung’s storied past paints an interesting picture for travellers enthralled by Korean history. An original 12th-century Koryo Dynasty palace once stood in Changgyeonggung’s place, and it wasn’t until 1483 when King Sejong renovated it as a gift to his father, King Taejong, who was stepping down from the throne.
Over the years, Changgyeonggung Palace was used mostly as royal residence for relatives, queens and mistresses of the Joseon kings. In the early 20th century, Japanese colonizers forwent destroying the palace, converting it into a zoo and botanical garden. It was until 1983, long after Korea shook the yoke of Japanese occupation, that Changgyeonggung once again became a palace and began to undergo a series of restorations to return it to its former glory.
Of this first trio of Seoul palaces in central Jongno-gu, Changgyeonggung Palace is the least impressive. Checking out the palace’s magnificent gardens, however, make visiting Changgyeonggung worthwhile. Try to time your visit with spring or fall (overall, the best time to visit Seoul) to see the landscape draped in cherry blossoms or blazing fall colours.
- Opening Hours: 9:00am to 5:30pm (closed Mondays)
- Entrance: ₩1,000
Getting to Changgyeonggung: If you’re already at Changdeokgung, it’s a short walk east through a small gate to the palace. Alternative, hop onto the Seoul metro and take Line 4 to Hyehwa Station. Changgyeonggung’s about a 5 minute walk west of here along Daemyeong-gil and Changgyeonggung-ro from Exit 4.
For a smaller and quieter Seoul palace experience, set your sites on Deoksugung Palace in the northwestern corner of Jung-gu. With its less important stature among Korean rulers, Deoksugung escaped much of the fiery fate of Gyeongbokgung and even Gyeonghuigang during Japanese occupation. Along with the reconstructions, a handful of pre-20th-century buildings remain to catch a quick glimpse of Seoul’s past.
The history of Deoksugung is a little different than other Seoul palaces; in fact, it wasn’t intended to be a palace at all! These former royal houses only got “upgraded” to palace status after the late-16th century Japanese invasion left the others in ruin. Although it remains lesser-known than Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, Deoksugung was the final home of Gojong, the last Joseon king and first emperor of Korea, whose death at this very palace gave it much greater significance within Korean history.
Oddly enough, Deoksugung Palace’s major claim to fame is its early 20th-century buildings, featuring European-style architecture that seems wholly out of place among the Korean motifs surrounding it. Deoksugung is, in fact, the only palace in Seoul whose design dips outside of traditional Asian boundaries.
Don’t miss Deoksugung’s daily (expect Monday) changing of the guard ceremony that takes place at 11:00, 14:00, and 15:30.
- Opening Hours: 9:00am to 9:00pm (closed Mondays)
- Entrance: ₩1,000
Getting to Deoksugung: The palace is located adjacent to City Hall Station (Lines 1 & 2). Exit 3 will put your directly on the Deoksugung grounds.
With both its smaller stature and “younger” face, Gyeonghuigung Palace is the least popular of all the five grand palaces of Seoul among visitors. Gyeonghuigung’s history began as a secondary royal residence in 1623 after the Japanese devastated the main Joseon palaces.
For about two centuries, Joseon royalty used the palace until a fire ripped through in the 19th century. Before a restoration could even take place, the Japanese rolled in once again during their early-20th-century occupation of Korea to ensure Gyeonghuigung had little chance to recover.
At the height of its glory, Gyeonghuigung Palace was a large complex with over 100 buildings spread around it. After its fate was all but sealed by the Japanese, new circumstances within Seoul meant that only a portion of the palace could be restored.
The current 20th-century reconstruction reflects only a third of the original, and although it’s impressive to look at, Gyeonghuigung remains the least authentic of all the grand palaces of Seoul. Since it’s so close to Deoksugung, however, there’s no reason to not throw Gyeonghuigung into your Seoul travel plans.
History lovers will also enjoy the Seoul Museum of History that sits on the palace grounds. Both the palace and museum are free to visit.
- Opening Hours: 9:00am to 6:00pm (closed Mondays)
- Entrance: Free
Getting to Gyeonghuigung: The palace lies between Seodaemun Station & Gwanghwamun Station on Line 5 of the Seoul metro. From Exit 4 of Seodaemun Station, walk north along Saemunan-ro to find Gyeonghuigang. From Gwanghwamun Station, you’ll need to use Exit 7 and walk west along Saemunan-ro. In both cases, it’s about a 5-minute walk.
Other Seoul Palaces
Although it doesn’t have the label of “grand” palace, Unhyeongung Palace occupies an important place in the history of Seoul and of Korea. This small palace was the former home of Heungseon Daewongun whose son, Gojong, the last Joseon king and the first Korean emperor, was born and lived here until ascending to the throne at the tender age of 12.
Like every other palace Seoul, Unhyeongung is but a shadow of its former self. Most of the buildings were damaged or destroyed over the years, notably during 20th-century Japanese occupation and the Korean War. What remains are reconstructions of the real deal.
Today, Unhyeongung Palace is a hotspot for cultural activities including a yearly re-enactment of the marriage of Emperor Gojong and his bride Empress Myeongseong. Perhaps for that reason (and, of course, it’s beauty!), Unhyeongung remains a popular place for young Koreans to tie the knot.
- Opening Hours: 9:00am to 7:00pm (Apr-Oct), 9:00am to 6:00pm (Nov-Mar)
- Entrance: Free
Getting to Unhyeongung: The closest metro stop to the palace is Anguk Station (Line 3). Exit 4 spits you out directly onto the grounds of Unhyeongung.