The throne room of Joseon Kings, Gyongbokgung

Joseon Dynasty through Architecture in Seoul

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.

1. Gyeongbokgung

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.

Gyeongbokgung with Mount Bugaksan as backdrop
Gwanghwamun – The palace’s main entrance
Audience Chamber in Gyeongbokgung

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.

Practical Information

  • 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.

A typical hanok

Practical Information

  • 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.

A wall segment in Namsan
Dongdaemun – The Gate of Rising Benevolence
Dongdaemun stands amid a bustling shopping district

Practical Information

  • 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.

29 thoughts on “Joseon Dynasty through Architecture in Seoul”

  1. I love those gorgeous colours of Gyeongbokgung. Great shots Len. 🙂

  2. Seeking Wonderful – Ljubljana, Slovenia – Hi. I'm Janja from lovely little country in the heart of Europe called Slovenia. I am constantly planning new trips, even if I can't afford to take them. Seeking wonderful in the world around me and travel with my love to see some more of it. Love big cities, green nature, little surprises, Taiwanese ice teas, chocolate and sea.
    Seeking Wonderful says:

    Wow! Your photos are gorgeous! The Fortress Wall and Hanok Village look so pretty. I would love to visit South Korea. I think it had that great balance between super modern and traditional.

    1. Indeed. The Korean embrace the new but they don’t neglect the old. Instead they are doing a great job in promoting their own tradition to the whole world. I was surprise by the amount of tourist wearing a hanbok to the palace 🙂

  3. Sheryl Gim – Japan – Former ESL Teacher & Fear Free Certified Professional Pet Sitter based in Japan | Binge-watcher | Daydreamer | Socially awkward | Chocolate lover
    Sheryl Gim says:

    Hi Len! Thanks a lot for joining Thoughts of SheryL!
    Great blog! 🙂

  4. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Lovely photos, Len! When I went to Gyeongbokgung it was cloudy. There were some short intervals of sun, but the clouds were just too thick, which made the day even colder. Did you visit the other palaces as well?

    1. Unfortunately no 🙁 I was travelling with my parents. At the retired age, they don’t like walking too much and one palace was enough. I intended to visit the garden in Changdeokgung, but they were closed for winter.

      1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        Well, that means you have to go back to Seoul one day! 🙂

  5. Cô luôn luôn thích bài cháu viết, nhưng những tấm ảnh cháu chụp thì cô lại thích hơn bài viết gấp mấy lần. Cám ơn cháu đã cống hiến cho người đọc, người xem rất nhiều bài hay, ảnh đẹp và những miền đất xa lạ người đọc chưa hề đặt chân đến. Thật tuyệt vời.

  6. Fantastic blog post, Len!
    I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of old and new. Part of why I enjoyed visited and have been fascinated every since by Japan so much is because how well they do modern with traditional, and it seems like South Korea is similar. The autumn colors are phenomenal! So are the colors of the intricate details.The photos of Forbidden City from Beijing that I’ve seen online always seem to be full of tourists, but your photos make it look that it would be a peaceful experience exploring Gyeongbokgung. Hanok village looks so charming too! I must absolutely visit South Korea one day. What make countries special and appealing to visit are how well they’ve preserved their ancient and cultural heritages.

    1. I am glad that you like the post, Pooja! 🙂 Actually, the palace was full of tourists during my visit. But most of them went straight to the audience chamber. The smaller buildings such as Donggung was left untouch.

  7. Forestwood – A philosophic Aussie writes here at StPA, one who will readily admit to loving Scandinavia. I'm interested in global politics and what drives us to be who we are. Scratch the surface and you'll find a practical Environmentalist with an egalitarian bent, trying to unleash a little creativity via the written word. Scandinavian culture, literature and traditions are close to my heart, even though I'm Australian. Travel and courteous discussions greatly broaden the mind, so I travel if I can and am always up for a vigorous, respectful discussion. I'm an avid reader, I enjoy photography and craft, particularly traditional art forms. I hope you'll find 'Something to Ponder About,' in my WordPress Community.
    Forestwood says:

    There looks like there is so much to see there! The architecture is as colourful as those trees on the wall segment at Namsan. Really stunning Autumn shades.

  8. vinneve – I believe in this quote "Life is a JOURNEY, travel it well." Wherever we may end up so long as there is LOVE we will be happy!
    vinneve says:

    I’ve never been to South Korea yet. Good to know more info about them before I visit someday!

    1. South Korea is a beautiful country. Very modern yet still retain some yesteryear charms. Language barrier does exist, but it’s not much a problem in big cities like Seoul or Busan.

  9. vinneve – I believe in this quote "Life is a JOURNEY, travel it well." Wherever we may end up so long as there is LOVE we will be happy!
    vinneve says:

    That era is always famous in the Korean drama haha! I learned from watching it too. Beautiful photos you have there so interesting!

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