06 October 2014

Only in Seoul #1: Historical Cultural Attractions

This is the first post of Only in Seoul series, my version's list of places to visit in Seoul. I usually give people this list when they asked me where to go in Seoul. This time is about the historical and cultural places you should visit in Seoul. Let's start!

Gyeongbokgung
This is the main palace of Joseon Dynasty, the last and longest-ruling dynasty in Korean history. You haven't been to Seoul if you haven't visited this place. Since I love history and culture, this is one of my favorite places in Seoul and I've been to this palace 4 times! First with myself when I just came to Korea, second with my family (mother, father and sister) when they came to visit me, third with my brother who came to visit me also, the last time with myself again after watching Korean TV show 1 Night 2 Days episode Gyeongbokgung. On that episode, the hosts visited Gyeongbokgung and revealed some interesting facts about this palace which I wasn't aware before, so I went there again to check it by myself, plus this time I took the free English tour they provided. You can appreciate more the beauty of this place when you know the stories.

Geunjeongjeon (the main throne hall of Gyeongbokgung) between Mount Namsan and Mount Bugaksan in the background

In Gyeongbokgung you can also try wearing Hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) and watch the Opening Gate, Royal Guard Changing and Closing Gate ceremonies, all for free. There are 5 grand palaces in Seoul, but if you only have time to visit 1 palace, you should visit Gyeongbokgung. And Changdeokgung. Hmm I cannot decide between these 2 palaces, but okay, maybe Gyeongbokgung. But seriously if you can visit 2 palaces, then Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Here's why Changdeokgung is a great palace to see.

Changdeokgung
Another favorite place of mine, this is the secondary palace where royal family lived when Gyeongbokgung was destroyed in a war. I love it for its simplicity yet still glory, and the connection with nature. Inside this palace, a beautiful and peaceful garden, named Huwon or Secret Garden, was built for the used of royal family and their guests. We can go around the palace complex building by ourselves (I really recommend to take the free tour), but visiting Secret Garden must be with the palace tour guide in designated times (check the tour schedule here). This palace was added as UNESCO World Heritage Site because it's an "outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design" and the buildings are "integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting". It surely is.

Buyongji Pond inside Secret Garden of Changdeokgung

Deoksugung
Another palace? Yep, this one is much smaller than 2 palaces above, but it's famous with its romantic stone wall road and ginkgo trees, especially in autumn season. Here we can also watch Royal Guard Changing ceremony like in Gyeongbokgung. The location is near Gyeongbokgung so you can visit these 2 palaces in the same day. Deoksugung is one of Five Grand Palaces in Seoul along with 2 palaces above, and the other 2 palaces Changgyeonggung and Gyeonghuigung. In my opinion, the other 2 palaces are not as interesting as the palaces I mentioned above.

Stone wall road beside Deoksugung

Jongmyo Shrine
This is a unique place where the remains of kings and queens from Joseon Dynasty were worshiped and enshrined. Visitors may enter Jongmyo Shrine only in a guided free  tour group at specific times on weekdays (except Tuesdays) and Sundays. On Saturdays, visitors may enter at their leisure. It has been registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site for its well-preserved ancient customs such as memorial services and traditional music. If you plan to visit 4 palaces (Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung) plus Jongmyo Shrine within 1 month, you should buy the integrated ticket which is a little bit cheaper than buying all palaces ticket one by one.

Chambers in Jongmyo Shrine where the remains of Joseon kings and queens were placed

The chambers were opened during Jongmyo Jerye, a rite held for worshipping the late kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty, which is held once a year

Integrated ticket for Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung, and Jongmyo Shrine

Namsangol Hanok Village
It is a Korean village which has been restored to preserve the original atmosphere of the area in Joseon era. Here we can see the traditional houses (hanok), buildings, furnitures, games and performances. The best of all is it's free!

Namsangol Hanok Village map

Bukchon Hanok Village
While Namsangol Hanok Village is secluded between the surrounding modern area, Bukchon Hanok Village is a real neighborhood which still preserves the traditional hanok. Unlike other hanok villages, Bukchon was not created for tourists but it is a living village inhabited by Seoul citizens. Many of these hanoks also operate as cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses, providing an opportunity to experience, learn and immerse in Korean traditional culture. One fun way to explore this hanok village is by hunting 8 photo spots to capture the specialty of Bukchon Hanok Village. The map to search this photo spots can be collected in Bukchon tourist center.


One of the photo spots in Bukchon Hanok Village

Insadong
It is a famous area to try Korean traditional tea, and to look for traditional stuff and souvenirs. Every shop here written in Hangeul, even though it's not a Korean shop. For example Starbucks in Insadong is written as 스타벅스커피 (Starbucks Coffee).

Starbucks Coffee in Insadong

See you in the next post of Only in Seoul series.

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