Explore Five Beautiful Palaces in Korea

Take a virtual tour to five beautiful palaces of Joseon Dynasty and Korean Empire in Seoul

By National Palace Museum of Korea

As the royal residence and the center of national politics and diplomacy, palaces occupied the prominent position in the capital. The Joseon dynasty decided the location of the capital and the site of the palaces based on Confucian theology and geomancy. 

Geunjeongjeon, Gyeongbokgung PalaceNational Palace Museum of Korea

Joseon’s capital Hanyang, now Seoul, was bordered by four mountains, Baekaksan, Mokmyeoksan, Taraksan, and Inwangsan. Gyeongbokgung Palace was situated beneath Mt. Baekaksan. Other palaces were later constructed allowing kings to occupy different ones as necessary.

East Gate, Seoul, Sunrise by Artist: Elizabeth Keith, Publisher: S. Watanabe Color Print Co. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Gyeongbokgung, is the Main Palace of Joseon, built in 1395. Its major buildings were burnt down in 1553 and were rebuilt. The palace suffered more heavy damage during the Japanese invasion in 1592, which left the palace grounds empty till the reconstruction in 1867. Under the Japanese occupation, most buildings were torn down. The restoration project has been ongoing since the 1990s. The throne hall, Geunjeongjeon, is located beyond the three gates. The king’s office and the bedchambers for the king and queen are situated past the hall. To the east, there are living quarters for other royal families.

In the courtyard running along the central axis, there is a path for the king flanked by paths for his subjects. Pumgyeseok, the stone markers for civil officials to the east and military officials to the west, are lined along these paths. The courtyard is paved with uneven granite stones, bakseok.

The stone terrace elevating the building in the palace is called woldae. The wide flat stone decorated with dragons or phoenixes in the center of the stairway on woldae is dapdo, the path for the king’s palanquin. Woldae of Geunjeongjeon is enclosed with stone railings with auspicious animals.

Roof-hips of buildings were decorated with earthen figurines called japsang. Made to protect the palace from calamities, the characters originated from the Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Their number differed according to the size of buildings and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion has the most with eleven.

Earthenware Figurines from Gyeongbokgung Palace Roof-hipsNational Palace Museum of Korea

The building looks two-storied from the outside, but it has a single story with a high ceiling. The red throne is decorated with dragons symbolizing the king. Behind the throne is the folding screen with the Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks, representing the king's authority and eternity.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Dangga in Geunjeongjeon HallNational Palace Museum of Korea

In 1873 King Gojong built Gencheonggung, a palace within Gyeongbokgung Palace, in 1873 to forge political independence from Regent Yi Haeung, his birth father. King Gojong stayed in Geoncheonggung from 1884, making it the seat of diplomatic activities in the next decade. During this period King Gojong tried to modernize the country incorporating new western technologies. Unfortunately, his wife Queen Myeongseong was assassinated by the Japanese in 1895, and King Gojong who felt threatened took refuge in Russian legation. Geonchenggung was dismantled in 1909 but restored in 2007.

Three buildings used as a library and reception hall stand together connected with corridors. Jibokjae in the middle was built in the combination of the Western and Chinese Qing styles whereas Hyeopgildang to the east was in Korean tradition style, and Parujeong, in the Chinese Qing style.

Hyangwonjeong, the hexagonal shaped two-story pavilion, was built around 1867-1873. It was designated as a Treasure of Korea. Standing on a man-made island in a pond, it is accessible through Chuihyanggyo Bridge, which leads to Geonchenggung. King Gojong often enjoyed walking around here.

The water of Hyangwonji Pond was drawn from the groundwater near Mt. Bugaksan. This is a stone facility that navigates and collects water for the pond. The inscription, ‘yeolsangjinwon’ is engraved on the façade – yeolsang means the north of Hangang River, old Seoul, and jinwon means the origin.

Changdeokgung Palace was built by order of the 3rd king of Joseon, King Taejong in 1405 as a secondary palace. All palaces were ruined during the Japanese invasion in 1592. It was rebuilt and served as the main palace until Gyeongbokgung was rebuilt in the 19th century. Buildings were laid out naturally incorporating hills and slopes. Behind of the buildings, a beautiful garden was created. This is the most well-preserved palace in Seoul and the most Korean palace with its layout in harmony with nature. In 1997 the palace was registered as UNESCO World Heritage.

Pyeonjeon was the king’s office to conduct state affairs with officials. As the king spent most of his time, spirit tablets of deceased kings were often housed here. Seonjeongjeon, the pyeonjeon in Changdeokgung, is the only building with blue-tiled roof in the remaining palace architectures.

Huijeongdang Hall, a king’s bedchamber, later came to serve as his office, instead of Seonjeongjeon, the main office building. Compared to Seonjeongjeon, Huijeongdang was informal. When it was rebuilt in 1920 after the fire in 1917, the western style such as a driveway porch was added.

Eocha, the Royal Vehicles.
Two vehicles for Emperor Sunjong and Empress Sunjeong survive. The car for Emperor Sunjong was manufactured by American General Motors Company.

Royal Vehicle of Emperor SunjongNational Palace Museum of Korea

Eocha means the royal car in Korean. The Empress Sunjeong's was made by English Daimler Motor Company. They show the typical features of early vehicles.

Royal Vehicle of Empress SunjeongNational Palace Museum of Korea

Windows for lights and ventilation framed walls and divide rooms. Decorations on the windows, such as lattices and patterns, differed according to the location. In the throne hall elaborate flower patterns were used to show the dignity. On the windows of other buildings, simpler patterns are found.

Huijeongdang was rebuilt in 1920 after the destruction by fire in 1917. At that time, two paintings with views of Mt. Geumgangsan by Kim Gyu Jin were commissioned for the reception room. Western style features such as glass windows, chandeliers, carpets, and curtain boxes decorate the hall.

Wonderful View of Chongseok-Jeong Mural from Huijeongdang Hall, Changdeokgung PalaceNational Palace Museum of Korea

At the back of the palace ground in Changdeokgung, there is a beautiful garden harmonized with pavilions, ponds and its natural surroundings. The rear garden of Changdeokgung was sometimes called the northern garden, the forbidden garden, or the royal forest. It came to be known as the Secret Garden sometime after new management office for the garden was established in 1894. In the garden, the royal couple enjoyed many activities such as scholarly discussions, poetry gatherings, and holding state exams to select new officials. Today it remains well-preserved without the transformation.

At the entrance to the garden, you will see Buyongji Pond. The present landscape was created during the reign of King Jeongjo. Here, he forged harmonious relationships with his officials through scholarly discussions, poetry gatherings, fishing and archery. State exams were sometimes held here.

To the north of Buyongji Pond, Juhamnu stands on the high ground and commands a fine view of the pond. As King Jeongjo ascended his throne, he ordered to build this two-story library to store writings by the kings. The plaque “Gyujanggak”, handwritten by King Sukjong, was hung on the first floor.

Although it’s not clear, it seems that Yeonghwadang near Buyongji Pond was built before the Japanese invasion of 1592, because there is a record of King Seonjo’s visit of the state exam held there in 1572. It has a front yard used for the national events such as state exams and archery contests.

Built in 1483 for three dowager queens, this palace came to embody the spirit of filial piety. Changgyeonggung was connected with Changdeokgung to form one large palace complex. Located in the east of the main palace, they were collectively known as the Eastern Palaces. Changgyeonggung was rebuilt in 1616 and was used as the residence of royal family members and court ladies. Under the Japanese occupation, it was used as a public park named Changgyeongwon. The palace got its original name back in 1983.

On entering Honghwamun, the main gate of Changgyeonggung Palace, you will see Okcheongyo Bridge. Dokkaebi, or a goblin, was decorated between the arches under this bridge’s parapet to ward off evil spirits.

Changgyeonggung Palace was originally built as residence, for dowager queens, so it didn’t follow all the formality of traditional palaces. The main gate and the throne hall were built facing east unlike others. Myeongjeongjeon is the oldest one among throne halls in Korean palaces.

Munjeongjeon was where kings worked. A tragedy happened in the courtyard of Munjeongjeon in 1762. As conflict between King Yeongjo and his son, Crown Prince Sado deepened, the king ordered the prince sealed alive in a rice chest in the courtyard, where he died eight days later.

Gyoengchunjeon, Hwangyeongjeon, Tongmyeongjeon, Yanghwadang, Yeongchunheon, and Jipbokheon, these are the living quarters of the royal family. Gyeongchunjeon was built as a sleeping quarter for the queen dowager by King Seongjong, Hwangyeongjeon was mostly used by kings and princes, and Tongmyeongjeon was the queen’s bedchamber. Yanghwadang was the reception hall. It seems that Yeongchunheon and Jipbokheon were the residences for the concubines. Some buildings in the living quarters were removed during the Japanese colonial period.

Gyeongchun means ‘sunny spring.’ Gyeongchunjeon was mostly used by queens or dowager queens. Crown Prince Sado, the father of King Jeongjo, also used this hall as a bed chamber. King Jeongjo and King Heonjong were born here.

Situated in the deepest part of the inner court, Tongmyeongjeon was the queen’s bed chamber. A key residential area, it was built on the elevated stone terrace. Its front yard was used for royal events. Lady Heebin Jang buried hoodoos here as a curse on Queen Inhyeon, which led to her execution.

Hwangyeongjeon Hall was a residence for kings and princes. Built in 1483 when Changgyeonggung was created, the building was destroyed and restored several times. The present building was constructed in 1834. This was where Daejanggeum, the only female royal physician during Joseon, treated King Jungjong.

These buildings were residences for concubines. Compared to the other buildings, they were smaller and simpler. Both were destroyed by fire in 1830 and rebuilt in 1834. Now two halls remain connected unlike how they were depicted separately in “the Painting of Eastern Palaces” about 200 years ago.

Deoksugung Palace was originally the residence of Prince Wolsan, elder brother of King Seongjong. After other palaces were destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592, King Seonjo moved here using it as a temporary residence. In 1611, it was named Gyeongungung by his successor, King Gwanghaegun. In 1897 as King Gojong proclaimed the foundation of the Korean Empire, Gyeongungung became the center of modern Korean history. With Emperor Gojong’s abdication in 1907, the palace’s status was downgraded to a residence and its name was changed to Deoksugung.

Junghwajeon served as the throne hall and important ceremonies were held here. The celebrations for Emperor Gojong’s 40th anniversary of enthronement and 51st birthday were held here. The building was built in 1902, and a plaque was hung, written with copper plate characters on the wooden board.

Deokhongjeon Hall was built on the site of Gyeonghyojeon, the spirit hall of Empress Myeongseong. Later, this was used as a reception hall for high–ranking officials and foreign envoys. Though the exterior of the building looks traditional, the interior is decorated in a Western style with a chandelier.

Next to Deokhongjeon, there is Hamnyeongjeon, Emperor Gojong’s sleeping quarters. It was first built in 1897 and destroyed by a fire in 1904, but later rebuilt. Emperor Gojong passed away here in 1919 at the age of 68.This served as his royal coffin hall and spirit hall housing his spirit tablet.

Emperor Gojong demonstrated his strong will on the consolidation of the royal authority and modernization of the state by introducing Western-style buildings and technology. Around the Geonchenggung area in Gyeongbokgung Palace, electric lights and a Western-style clock tower were installed. The Western-style Gwanmungak hall was also built. In an effort to express the dignity of the Korean Empire, in Gyeongungung Palace, the center of the imperial power, more Western-style buildings were constructed. They became the major sites in the imperial court during a turbulent age.

Seokjojeon, a stone building with the combination of Neo-classicism and Rococo, was designed by an English architect, J. R. Harding and built in 1910. It became an art gallery under the Japanese occupation. After the restoration, the Korean Empire History Museum opened there in 2014.

A Western-style garden was laid out in front of Seokjojeon. Originally, a French-style garden was created, and it was rearranged when Deoksugung Palace became a public park. Its present form with a bronze fountain was made in 1938 when the Japanese expanded the west wing of Seokjojeon.

Gyeonghuigung, called the “Western Palace” to contrast with the “Eastern Palaces,” was built on the house site of Wonjong, father of King Injo. King Gwanghaegun made new palace, Gyeongdeokgung Palace, built in the area which was foretold as a place where a king would be born. Later, King Yeongjo changed the name to Gyeonghuigung in 1760. Many kings stayed and enthroned here. During the colonial period, Japanese school was built on its site, replacing the palace. The restoration project by the Seoul Metropolitan Government begun in 1988 and in 2002 the site opened its doors to the public.

Gyeonghuigung, called the “Western Palace” to contrast with the “Eastern Palaces,” was built on the house site of Wonjong, father of King Injo. King Gwanghaegun made new palace, Gyeongdeokgung Palace, built in the area which was foretold as a place where a king would be born. Later, King Yeongjo changed the name to Gyeonghuigung in 1760. Many kings stayed and enthroned here. During the colonial period, Japanese school was built on its site, replacing the palace. The restoration project by the Seoul Metropolitan Government begun in 1988 and in 2002 the site opened its doors to the public.

Dapdo of Sungjeongjeon is also found in two places like the building now exists in two locations. One is the restored dapdo in Gyeonghuigung palace. The other is the original one that was taken to the temple then moved to Dongguk University.

Behind the throne hall, there is Jajeongjeon, the main office where king managed his state affairs. To the northwest, there is Taeryeongjeon. The name of this building was changed from Taeryeongdang to Taeryeongjeon in 1745 after two portraits of King Yeongjo were enshrined here in 1733.

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