Gyeongbokgung Palace: A Step By Step Guide To Missing The Crowds
These days, crowds and crowds of tourists coming off of those large tourist buses are filling up Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) making it less than enticing to visit.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the top tourist sites in Seoul, Korea and is a definitely must-see for anyone living here or coming for a visit. Just north of Gwanghwamun Square and south of the President’s Blue House, the palace is right in the heart of Seoul and easy to get to from anywhere.
It used to be one of those historical sites that you could visit and be assured that you’d also be able to enjoy some peace and quiet while inside the tall walls that surround the grounds. Currently, you’d likely walk from the peace and quiet directly into the noisy chirps of guides speaking numerous languages loudly into speakers and waving flags that could likely end up in those photos you try to set up just right. If you plan it juuuuust right though, you could miss those crowds (almost) entirely.
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PALACE: Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, the last dynasty in Korea’s history. The palace was built in 1395 just after the capital of Korea was moved from Kaesong, which is in North Korea today, to Seoul, though back then it was known as Hanyang. Gyeongbokgung, calso called the Northern Palace due to it’s position, served as the home of Kings of the Joseon Dynasty and was the main palace until a fire destroyed the palace during the Imjin War that lasted from 1592 to 1598. After that time, the palace was actually abandoned for two centuries until the 19th century when Prince Regent Heungseon restored the palace and it’s 7,700 rooms during the reign of King Gojong (1852 – 1919). Though the 500 buildings were restored for a time, the palace was again dismantled and systematically destroyed during the Japanese colonization. Over time, the palace has been restored bit by bit and today is the largest and grandest of the five palaces in the capital city.
Here is my step by step guide to missing the crowds at Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Step ONE: One of the first ways to miss the majority of crowds is to show up BEFORE the palace actually opens. The palace ticket booth will open at 9:00am and you want to be the first in that line to get your tickets. Get there by 8:45am to be sure you’re at least one of the first few people headed in. Most of the tour buses drop tourists off on the east side of the palace where there is another ticket booth available. DO NOT go there or you’re just asking to be enveloped by the hoards of tour groups. Get your tickets from the main ticket booth just inside of the main (southern )gate, Gwanghwamun Gate, to the right. While the free guides are available at other times in the day, and I know as a tourist you might feel like that is the best option in order to learn the most about the palace you’re walking around, you won’t get a lick of information when that guide is taking around 50 other tourists AND the palace will be full of even more tourists by those times later in the day, too. Either use the nifty guide that is free at the entrance for all of your informational needs or hire a private guide.
Check out the numbered map below as I’ll use it to let you know where to go via those numbers.
Numbered Map: 1 -> 2
Step TWO: Most of the Chinese tourists, who seem to be the largest number of tourists traveling by large groups these days, only seem to stop in the palace for three photo-ops and leave the rest as they’re off to their next destination SO, you can fairly easily miss them for the most part if you know how to side step them and get to those picture perfect stops they’re hogging between groups. First head into see the main throne room. Since you were, hopefully, one of the first in line, you’ll be one of the first up to the throne hall also known as Geunjeongjeon Hall. Take those pictures and stand in awe but then get a move on to the west. If you head from the main throne hall out the western open doors to see the party and banquet hall, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, that “floats” on water, you will be one of just a few taking this smart route through the complex this early. The number of times that we’ve gotten there and found not a soul has been numerous when timed just right and that means plenty of space, peace and quiet and beautiful photos.
Numbered Map: 2 -> 3 -> 5 -> 11
If this starts to get too confusing, I highly recommend joining a tour that would take you through the palace and some of the surrounding area. With a guide, it would obviously be easier to take a look and maneuver.
Step THREE: From the beautiful floating pavilion, head back east, but enter the walled in area through the entrance just north of the one you’d previously come out of. The halls going north of the main throne hall are the residences of the king and queen as well as where they ate and held other court meetings. You may run into some crowds here, but shouldn’t be too many. Many of the groups hang out around Gangnyeong-jeon, or number 6 on the map, so just take a look and keep heading north from there. You should hit all of the halls going back in a straight line.
Numbered Map: 11 -> 4 -> 6 -> 7 -> 8
Step FOUR: Now you’ve gotten through the main halls, you’ll need to make your way back to Hyangwon-jeong. From Amisan (8) you head out the door to the east and then head back north again. You will run into a TON of tourists on your way back to the pond and may likely feel like a salmon swimming up stream at this point. Don’t feel like you’re going backwards though. You’re seeing the palace from the main hall back whereas the bussed-in tourists start in the back and come forward. Seeing all of them come south now should give you delight as that means there won’t be nearly as many by the pond by the time you get there.
Numbered Map: 8 -> 12
Step FIVE: Now you’ve made it back to the pond and you have a decision to make. You’ve seen the major parts of the palace and depending on the weather, if it’s too hot in the summer or just too cold in the winter, you could make your way to the Folk Museum on the grounds for some inside time, exit or see just a bit more of the palace. Keep heading north, or away from the front gate that you entered from and see more of the palace as well as the back gate which leads back to the Blue House or the President’s House. Another option is to go east from the pond to the folk museum which is in a very tall pagoda looking building that you can’t miss. The third option from here, is to head toward the folk museum, but then steer towards the exit to visit Samcheong-dong or the Bukchon Hanok Village. And yet a fourth option is to head west into Tongin Market to eat up lunch. Gyeongbokgung has seen a number of restorations in the past decade in order to bring the palace, one day, back to what it looked like in it’s hey-day. It’s wonderful to continue walking the grounds to see more, but weather is always a factor and in the humid summer heat or the frigid cold winter, time inside the folk museum is also a great use of time.
Enjoy Gyeongbokgung Palace at just the right time and you’ll actually be able to enjoy it. Go any other time and you’ll likely come out needing a rest and wondering why the palace is a must see at all.
If you want to see Gyeongbokgung Palace on your trip to Seoul, check out a Klook Tour. You can join a tour to see the palace, Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, the Ginseng Center and the Korean Folk Village in ONE Day! It’s a great deal and a GREAT way to see all of the traditional stops at once easily.
Gyeongbokgung Palace is actually one of FIVE palaces in Seoul, Korea that you can visit. If trying to get away from the crowds and maneuvering through the palace grounds does NOT sound like something you want to do, definitely visit the other temples. Though Gyeongbokgung is the largest, the others definitely have their positive attributes and obviously one of the highlights is that you can see them on your lonesome. Here are some others to check out and why you might like them a bit better:
- Changdeokgung Palace: Changdeokgung Palace is known for having the Secret Garden that is said to be beautiful in every season. This palace only offers viewing on a tour that you have to reserve when you arrive and English guides are only at specific times. The palace is beautiful and having a guide explain the architecture is a great highlight.
- Changgyeonggung Palace: One of the most overlooked palaces of them all, this palace has a substantial park and features a Japanese colonization era greenhouse that is quite stunning. The palace is beautiful and you can often walk the grounds all on your own.
- Unhyeonggung Royal Residence: This smaller residence is a bit different from the others in that none of the buildings have been painted in the colorful reds and greens of the other palaces. Quite a bit smaller, but FREE to enter, this stop is a bit more rustic, easy to get to and has some of the cheapest options for Hanbok rental in the area.
- Deoksugung Palace: This palace is a popular stop for tourists because it’s just across the street from City Hall and right downtown. There is a changing of the guard ceremony that people watch daily and a mixture of Joseon era and modern elements in this palace.
- Gyeonghuigung Palace: This palace, also free and a great stop if you want a bit more privacy while palace viewing is another palace that is often overlooked but is great if you just want to peruse the architecture quickly and easily on your own.
Know Where To Stay
Stay in something traditional and absolutely stunning, check out the Ihwa Hanok Stay. This is an entire Hanok House that is available for rental and features five bedrooms, four bathrooms and all of the amenities you’d want yet still in a traditional home. This spot is suitable for 12 guests and is really so well suited for any traveler that might not be quite sure about sleeping on the floor of a Hanok just yet, but wants to have the experience.
161, Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 사직로 161 (세종로)
Days: Closed Tuesdays
Hours: November ~February 9:00am – 5:00pm; March ~ May 9:00am – 6:00pm; June ~ August 9:00am ~ 6:30pm; September ~ October 9:00am – 6:00pm
Admission: Adults: W3,000; Children: W1,500
Amenities: restrooms, parking, wheelchair rental, free tours
English: 11:00am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm
Japanese: 10:00am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm
Chinese: 10:30am, 12:30pm, 2:00pm, 4:00pm
Know Where To Go!
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