A tour in South Korea wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the royal sites in Seoul. Any one of them gives you a primer on the rich heritage that South Korea has, and all of them offer leisurely strolls and pleasant sights.
There are plenty of spots around South Korea that features the ruins or rebuilt structures of the Joseon Dynasty and other ancient kingdoms. Some do not require admission fees, such as the Unhyeongung Royal Residence and the Gyeonghuigung Palace.
The main royal sites—namely Jongmyo Shrine, Deoksugung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, and Gyeongbokgung Palace—are where you can fully appreciate Korea’s history and cultural heritage. Here are a few ways to maximize your exploration of these main royal sites in Seoul:
Know when to go.
If you’re still deciding on the date of your tour, check if you can schedule it during South Korea’s autumn season (September to November; peak: late October) or springtime (March to May; peak: early April). Of course, Seoul is still gorgeous during winter or summer, but the royal sites look quite magical during spring and autumn.
Also, take note of the operating hours of the royal sites (most of them are open from 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.) and the days when they are closed:
Closed Mondays: Changdeokgung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace
Closed Tuesdays: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine
Join the scheduled tours.
Each of these tourist attractions offers free guided walking tours at certain times of the day. There are tours in English, Chinese, and Japanese that last for one to two hours.
Sign up for a free walking tour.
If you want a tour with a smaller group, it’s better to reserve a spot for a walking tour in advance (at least one to two weeks before the date you want to visit the site).
The first time I booked a walking tour, I was the only one who signed up for it. It felt like I had a personal tour guide. The second time around, we were less than 10 in the group—still better than when I joined a scheduled tour where we were around 20-30 and I sometimes struggled to hear what the guide was saying.
Wear a traditional costume for free!
If you want to experience a hanbok fitting and snap a few photos, hit the booth in front of Deoksugung for a free rental. The booth operates from 10:40-11:30 a.m., 13:40-14:30 p.m., and 3:20-4:00 p.m. on a first-come, first served basis. The hanbok can only be worn in the area in front of Daehanmun Gate at Deoksugung Palace.
You can also try on the royal guard costumes for free in the booth just inside the Sumunjangcheong Building of Gyeongbokgung (just inside the main gate). The booth is open before and after the Guard Changing Ceremony and the Guard-on-Duty Performance (9:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 2:00 p.m.; each ceremony lasts about 10-20 minutes)
Rent a hanbok for free admission.
Go to all the royal palaces in Seoul for free by wearing South Korea’s traditional costume: the hanbok. A rental usually costs 13,000 – 15,000 KRW for 4 hours (that includes the hanbok, a small purse, and hair accessories). Aside from the free admission to the palaces, it makes for awesome photos, as well.
Buy an integrated ticket…
If you have your heart set on visiting all the royal sites in Seoul, purchase an integrated ticket in any of the tourist spots. It saves you 4,000 KRW (vs. buying individual tickets to all the sites). The ticket is valid for three months, so it’s also great if you’re planning an extended vacation in South Korea or if you’re here on a long business trip.
…Or just pick one or two royal sites.
The first time I went to Seoul, I picked only Gyeongbokgung since its pictures looked stunning. The second time around, I bought an integrated ticket for two reasons: one, I was staying for seven weeks and struggling with making an itinerary on my free days, and two, I was curious what the other royal sites in Seoul looked like.
Since I’m quite easy to please, I really enjoyed all of them. Each one has a unique charm or an attractive reason to go.
Deoksugung lets you inside the throne room and the modern palace (online reservation required).
Changgyeonggung has this beautiful pavilion, greenhouse, and expansive pond.
Jongmyo has wonderful foliage and an interesting collection of artifacts and golden utensils.
Of course, the two sites with the most expensive admission fees have the best sights. Changdeokgung’s main draw is the Huwon Secret Garden. Every part of that area looks like a page out of a fantastical folk tale, really.
Gyeongbokgung has the most stunning view in my opinion, as it sits perfectly in front of Mount Bugaksan. The story of Empress Myeongsong and how she was assassinated at the picturesque palace garden also gives this site a more melancholic, yet awe-inspiring beauty.