On the second weekend in Seoul (the day before I hiked Yongmasan and Achasan), I headed to Gyeongbokgung and the The National Palace Museum of Korea. I figured I needed a bit of history and culture to get better acquainted with this city — I was feeling a bit overwhelmed after all. This day out, along with the hike the following day, helped make me feel a bit more comfortable in my new surroundings.
I had already seen the main gate of the palace on my first day in Seoul. Gwanghwamun is easily recognizable among the crowds on a main thoroughfare through the city. It also looks more impressive at night.
Gyeongbokgung, which means greatly blessed by heaven palace, is the largest and most centrally located palace in Seoul. Just down the road from the main gate to the palace is Chonggyecheon Stream, which makes for a pleasant walk when there aren’t too many flies about. Gyeongbokgung was first built in 1395, but was destroyed in a fire during the Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century. It was rebuilt during the Joseon Dynasty in 1867. Empress Myeongseong was assassinated here by the Japanese in 1895. It was again mostly destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century when it “annexed” the Korean peninsula. (If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of brutal history involving the Japanese in Korea.)
Korea is still reconstructing the palace.
I arrived at the ticket booth just in time — a free English tour of the palace started less than 10 minutes after I bought my ticket. I also found that I could buy a combination ticket to the other palaces and Jongmyo Shrine for only about $10, which ended up saving me about $2 overall. More importantly, having those tickets that were valid for 30 days was a constant reminder that I had to do more sightseeing in Seoul.
Walking in a large group can make getting decent photos a little difficult at times. I had to disengage from the group a few times to get the pictures I wanted, which meant that I missed some of the explanations being given by the guide.
Having shared culture and Confucian philosophy with China, the design of Gyeongbokgung is similar to quite a few historic structures in China. The palace certainly isn’t as colorful or impressive as China’s Forbidden City, but that may be because of all the reconstruction. As mentioned in the tour, the Joseon emperors practiced Confucianism and believed that they shouldn’t live in luxury — there was more of a compromise in that their luxury wasn’t that far above the people of the city (or so the history books claim). Assuming the reconstruction of the palace (and other palaces in Seoul) is accurate, then the Joseon emperors were far more modest than their counterparts around Asia.
The National Palace Museum wasn’t as interesting at Gyeongbokgung, but it was free and it was raining, so walking around inside for an hour or so was worthwhile. The museum houses numerous artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty, most of which were once part of the palace. Having spent so much time in China, a lot of the artifacts weren’t all that interesting to me — I’ve seen plenty of similar items museums around China. There were, however, a few that stood out to attract interest.
I also arrived in Korea at the right time. It seems that the US held a few artifacts (supposedly for protection during the Korean War) and recently returned them to Korea — they were returned home on April 25, 2014.
Also nearby is the (again, free admission) National Folk Museum of Korea, most of which is geared toward children — and there were a lot of them visiting while I was there. There is quite a bit of cultural history in the museum that doesn’t feature the Joseon Dynasty.