The five royal palaces of Seoul attract millions every year and are some of the city’s top attractions. With five in all in addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jongmyo Shrine it may be overwhelming at first in deciding how and where to visit.
While individual admission prices for the palaces and shrine aren’t too high on their own, you can save money by opting for a combination ticket which allows access to four of the royal palaces (Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, and Deoksugung) and the Jongmyo Shrine. The ticket can be used over the duration of three months making it perfect for those in Seoul for a longer stay or history buffs. Another great value for those with a shorter stay is the Discover Seoul Pass which allows access to 16 of the top Seoul attractions which includes the above mentioned palaces and royal shrine. For the best value, otherwise known as free, rent a traditional hanbok outfit from the many rental shops around to wear which will allow you free access to the palaces and the shrine.
While Korean and English language descriptions are found throughout the shrine, for a truly in-depth look at the palaces and shrine, opt for the free guided tours that are scheduled throughout the day in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese. You can also do a combined tour that includes guides accompanying you to surrounding neighborhoods and sites via the free Seoul City Walking Tours. The various courses are all free but must be reserved in advance.
Another popular way to experience the palaces is through the special night admission that opens up throughout the year at Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, and Changgyeonggung. During these special periods, participating palaces open admission into the late evenings providing a starkly different atmosphere and environment than the daytime.
Some of the royal palaces have unique areas and spaces that are only accessible via advanced online reservations. Changdeokgung’s famed Huwon, or rear gardens, were favorite resting grounds of many royal family members and is exceptionally beautiful with its foliage, ponds, and natural surroundings. There is a fee for the mandatory guided tours but it is well worth a visit, especially in spring or autumn. At Deoksugung, you can join a free guided tour of Seokjojeon, the residential building of members of the last Joseon Dynasty royal family. The Neoclassical Western-style architecture is striking and unique among the royal palaces while painstaking efforts have been made to preserve and recreate the intimacy and authenticity of the royal chambers and residential rooms.
The Changing of the Royal Guard Ceremony at Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung are particular favorite times to visit. This dramatic ceremony is free but at scheduled times of the day which you can check via the official homepages.
If you happen to be in Seoul during the first Sunday of May, you may be lucky enough to observe the Jongmyo Jerye that takes place once a year at Jongmyo Shrine. This special memorial service is a rite held for the ancient kings and queens of the Joseon Period as their ancestral tablets are preserved here. This ceremony has been said to be the oldest complete ceremony in the world and is even designated as a Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.
Last but not least, do note that because the palaces and shrine grounds are outdoors to plan accordingly. Summer and winter seasons can be extreme so spring and autumn seasons are considered the best times to visit. Because of their age and historic value, food is strictly forbidden within the grounds.