For all the world, Seoul is a megacity filled with skyscrapers and high-tech facilities. It’s widely known as South Korea’s powerhouse and the origin of Hallyu and K-pop. However, hidden beneath this modern facade are 600-years-old history and traditions. These values coexist with everyday city life, creating an identity for one of Asia’s most exciting cities.
Founded in 18 BC, Seoul is first recorded as Wiryesong (위례성), the capital of the ancient kingdom of Baekje. Its name changed to Namgyeong (남경), meaning “Southern Capital” in the 11th century when Goryeo defeated other kingdoms and unified the Korean Peninsula.
During the Joseon era, Seoul was designated as the capital of Korea, also known as Hanyang (한양) and later as Hanseong (한성), meaning “Fortress on the Han River”. The Gyeongbokgung – Korea’s grandest palace – was built in this period. And it served as the royal residence for centuries.
Constructed in 1395, three years after the Joseon dynasty was founded, Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) served as the home of the Kings of Joseon, the King’s household, as well as the government. The palace stands at the heart of South Korea’s capital and its name means “Palace [that] Greatly Blessed by Heaven”.
Gyeongbokgung steadily expanded in the following centuries. But the Japanese burnt down parts of it during the Japanese Invasion of 1592-1598. The palace was left in ruins for the next 270 years until Prince Regent Heungseon restored it as an icon of Korea.
The Icon of Korea
Expanding over 430 hectares, the newly built Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul. It has more than 330 buildings and is comparable to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Combining ancient Chinese architectural principles with Joseon traditions, Gyeongbokgung was a symbol for the Korean nation and the Imperial Family. Ironically, the Japanese destroyed it for the same reason, when they occupied the peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century.
With the wars long over, the government has been trying to restore Gyeongbokgung to its former glory. As of now, half of the structures are restored, including the main entrance, Gwanghwamun, and the inner gate, Heungnyemun. However, it will take at least another 20 years to return Gyeongbokgung to its original state.
- Gyeongbokgung is easily accessible by Metro 3 (Station: Gyeongbokgung). Alternatively, you can take Metro 5 (Station: Gwanghwamun) and walk to the palace.
- The admission fee is 3000 ₩. This cost can be exempted by wearing a hanbok (a Korean traditional outfit).
- The Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every hour from 10:00 to 15:00.
2. Bukchon Hanok Village
In a city that embraces both the new and the old like Seoul, it’s no surprise to see a place like Bukchon Hanok Village. It’s a 600-year-old urban environment where hundreds of traditional houses, called hanok, lined narrow lanes.
These houses date back to the Joseon dynasty and they demonstrate Korean architecture in the centuries past. Today, some of these hanok remain private homes, while many others have been transformed into guesthouses, tearooms, galleries, or restaurants.
- Bukchon Hanok Village is a stone’s throw away from Gyeongbokgung. It’s accessible by Metro 3 (Station: Anguk).
- Because of its popularity, I would recommend visiting the area early in the morning to avoid the crowd.
3. The Fortress Wall
Throughout the Joseon dynasty, Seoul was entirely surrounded by a massive stone wall. The government built it to protect the citizens from wild animals, thieves, and invasions, as well as to regulate visitors from other regions. The wall stretches nearly 19 kilometers along the ranges of four surrounding mountains: Bugaksan, Naksan, Namsan, and Inwangsan.
Although Seoul of modern-day has grown beyond the ancient wall, two-thirds of it still remains standing. That includes six of the eight original gates. These gates were built based on four cardinal and four intermediate directions of the compass. Of the eight gates, the North, South, East, and West gates are known as the “Four Great Gates”. They are named respectively “Wisdom”, “Dignity”, “Benevolence” and “Righteousness”, reflecting four Confucian virtues.
- Of the four main gates, both Namdaemun (South Gate) and Dongdaemun (East Gate) are located in the city center. Namdaemun is easily accessible by Metro 4 (Station: Hoehyeon), while Dongdaemun can be reached by either Metro 1 (Station: Dongdaemun) or Metro 4 (Station: Dongdaemun).
- Seodaemun (West Gate) no longer exists, while Sukjeongmun (North Gate) is slightly off the beaten track.