Getting to Know the inner Seoul

The pop culture of Korea became globally mainstreamed and I am one of the many people who adore their vivid atmosphere. However, it’s not the surface that I’m most attracted to, but the soul of Korea; how they were like in the old times captivated me the most. The capital city, Seoul, was the perfect place for me to unravel their good old days.

My trip to Seoul  cannot be completed without going to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Chakdeokgung Palace and Bukchon Hanok Village as these are one of the best sights to wander. These three places are side-by-side from each other and could be visited in a single day but requires copious kilometres of walking.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

It was already 10.30AM when I reached the Gyeongbokgung Station and I didn’t have a hard time finding my way out as there were signs leading to the Palace. What I didn’t expect was the 400 meter walk going to the exit while my knees and feet were already protesting for abusing their limit.

They were already sprained 2 days later of walking around Seoul and climbing up and down the subway. I am not exaggerating – better pack those mefenamics as they would be helpful when you plan to explore Seoul via subway.

But the wanderlust in me couldn’t be bothered when you have a view of gaudy gate in front of you. The colorful painted details is distinctively Korean and it gives you the legitimacy of how vivid their history was.

I haste through the ticket booth and asked if I would still make it to their English tour of the Palace. Fortunate enough, I still had a couple of minutes before the tour starts.

There were two different tours (Chinese and English) at 11AM and when the tour was about to start, you would see these two separate groups of people gathering up. The meeting place for the English tour was in front of the information center at Heungnyemun Gate. A clear division of the Chinese and the others will be demonstrated; the audience for the English tour was a mixture of Asians and Westerns.

The tour started on time and we went straight to Geunjeongjeon Hall. The center platform leading to the hall was intended for the royalties and according to the tour guide, this generation are fortunate as commoners during the old times could only stay on the sides while the king have official functions and ceremonies.

Geunjeongjeon Hall

I was impressed how the ceiling details were as colorful as the exterior. My photos can’t do justice of how opulent the hall was but it was gloriously appealing.

Another interesting fact why the roof sleeves have nets below it is to keep the birds from building nests on the ornamental details. I found it pretty ingenious on how you can keep the ornamental details pleasing despite the nets without sacrificing the aesthetics. I wouldn’t look at the palace roofs the same way again.

We moved on to the western side of the Palace where Sujeongjeon Hall and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion are located. It was unfortunate that it was not open to public to peek what’s inside these halls. How I would love to see the view from the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion overlooking the Palace grounds and frozen pond.

However, the tour guide explained what these are: Sujeongjeon Hall used to be a sleeping quarter for the King and this is where he developed the Korean Hangul language. Gyeonghoeru Pavilion was built around a huge pond and used a venue for feasts for foreign envoys.

Sujeong-jeon Hall

Gyeonghoeru Pavilion

I wasn’t paying much attention from the tour as there were too much information being fed to us without allowing to go to inside these places. We hopped on to a few other halls – Sajeongjeon hall, Gangnyeongjeon Hall & Gyotaejeon hall, with the usual usual tour routine.

These where the King and Queen’s sleeping quarters lavishly separated with each other. The interesting part of these halls were the chimneys. I was wondering why these were located below the floor as if it was meant for grilling. It was later explained that instead of the traditional western fireplace, the thick masonry floor is heated with charcoals which is called ondol.

The tour lasted for about an hour and a bit so I went back to Gwanghwamun Gate to catch the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony. I was still 3o minutes early so I still had time to stroll around the area.

The tradition drum used for the ceremony

I went in front of the Gwanghwamun Gate to see why there were people mobbing the area. To my surprise, there were guards standing in front of the gate. I wasn’t sure if they were real as they were standing in a pedestals thinking it might be just a wax. I inquisitive looked closer at one of guards face, I could quickly assume they were wax based on the faux facial hair on unbelievably smooth face.

I wasn’t satisfied enough with my conclusion so I draw nearer the eyes – he blinked and gazed at me in split second! I was stunned and could not believe they were real as they barely move like mannequins. I watched the kids posed with them while they teasingly play with their swords – they were still motionless! Up to this day, I’m still bemused how they can breathe without letting air out given the given the negative-degree weather; clearly it’s possible!

The Royal Guard Changing Ceremony started on time with a bang of the drum. It was accompanied with different traditional music instruments that made it nostalgically festive. There were different sets of guards coming in both directions of Gwanghwamun and Heungnyemun Gates. I could barely keep up with the happenings around me but it definitely gave me an authentic feeling of the olden times.

After the ceremony, I went to the tourist center near the Gwanghwamun Gate to fit the traditional guard uniforms, for free. There were so many uniforms to choose from but the staff suggested to try the Sumunjang uniform as it is only worn by the Chief Keeper of the Royal Palace Gates.

I was worried as they were asking me to remove my winter jacket and shoes, but surprisingly, the entire uniform was fit for winter season. If you’re asking if it was comfortable, well, it felt strange! Lol!

How to get there: Gyeongbokgung Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5. It’s quite a long walk to get to Exit 5, but upon getting out, you will be right next to National Palace Museum. Walk towards the Gate on the front left and you will find yourself near the front of Heungnyemun Gate.

Admission: 3,000 Won (2.50USD) for Adults (19-above) and 1,500 Won (1.25USD) for Children & Teens (18-below), 10,ooo Won (8.40USD) for Integrated Palace Ticket (Changdeokgung Palace (including Huwon, Secret Garden), Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace) and Jongmyo Shrine). The ticket booth is located on the left side of Heungnyemun Gate.

Complimentary English Tour: 11AM, 1:30PM & 3:30PM

Royal Guard Changing Ceremony: 10AM, 1PM & 3PM

Changdeokgung Palace

After my sumptuous bibimbap meal in a budget restaurant near Anguk Station, I rushed my way to Changdeokgung Palace hoping to catch any English tours. I could barely walk with my stuffed tummy, when I got to the ticketing booth, I was 2 minutes behind the last Changdeokgung English tour of the day.

I was totally fine with not getting any tour, but when I asked if I could purchase the Secret Garden tour, I was disheartened. They do not allow entry to the Secret Garden without guided tour since the forest-like garden is massive. I still had the option to join the Korean guided tour but it wasn’t advisable due to the massive language barrier.

The only reason I included this Palace was the Secret Garden, but I have another to go back to Seoul! Although, I didn’t let the occurrence discourage me to stroll around Changdeokgung Palace.

The main entrance of Changdeokgung Palace is the Daehanmun Gate

After strolling around the big Halls of the Palace, I stumbled upon this small village-like houses which the interiors were exposed. I gladly peeked into them and had an idea how they were simple but functional. I was trying to check each room to see some artifacts, or at least furniture. Sadly, there weren’t any;  it would have had more nostalgic feeling to it. Nevertheless, it gave a different perspective of less intricate Korean architecture considering it’s of one the biggest Palaces in Korea.

How to get there: Gyeongbokgung Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5. It’s quite a long walk to get to Exit 5, but upon getting out, you will be right next to National Palace Museum. Walk towards the Gate on the front left and you will find yourself near the front of Heungnyemun Gate.

Admission: Changdeokgung Palace – 3,000 Won (2.50USD) for Adults (19-above) and 1,500 Won (1.25USD) for Children & Teens (18-below); Secret Garden tour – 5,000 Won (4.20USD) for Adults and 3,000 Won (2.50USD) for Children & Teens; 10,ooo Won (8.40USD) for Integrated Palace Ticket (Changdeokgung Palace (including Huwon, Secret Garden), Changgyeonggung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace) and Jongmyo Shrine). The ticket booth is beside the Daehanmun Gate (main entrance).

Complimentary English Tour: Chandeokgung Palace – 10:30am, 2:30pm; Secret Garden Tour –  11:30am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm  (Feb-Oct) / 11:30am, 1:30pm (Nov-Jan)

Bukchon Hanok Village

I walked going to Buckhon Hanok Village from Changdeokgung Palace that is roughly about a kilometer. It was an interesting stroll around the neighborhood as you’d see a lot of cafes and restaurants that are cozy and away from the huge crowd.

I didn’t have a hard time going to Bukchon Hanok Village as there a lot of direction signs. I chanced upon visiting Bukchon Culture Center to get a map and at the same time to see an actual interior of a traditional house called “hanok”.

From Buckon Cultural Center, it’s a short walk going to photo spot observatories and you wouldn’t miss it as you’d see a couple of tourists leading to the observatories. What I didn’t expect was the steep alleys of the village. My feet were already tired from walking most of the day but the beautiful sights of the Hanok Village was worth it.

These houses are centuries old but are perfectly maintained that’s why it’s still inhabited by people up to this day. Despite being touristy (and house owners driving with cars are probably pestered with pedestrians), the actual feel of the village was still peaceful and quiet.

I savored every step I made walking the alleys as it made me feel like I was transported back to the old times. If only I could take away the hanbok dress that I wore in Gyeongbokgung Palace, I would have worn it while walking around the streets to complete that nostalgic feeling.

From the east side of Bukchon, I went to the west side towards the observatory deck where you could see the house roofs. It was definitely exhausting walking more steep alleys; if my knees and feet could only talk, they’d probably cuss me to infinity. Lol!

It took me a while to get to the observatory as I have sat at someone else’s front door to catch my breath while my throat was all dried up, not from dehydration but the freezing negative-degree weather.

Still catching my breath upong reaching the steep pathway of the osbervatory, the view wasn’t as special as I imagined. But the effort getting there definitely made it more memorable.

How to get there: The nearest subway station is Anguk Station (Exit 2). There are signs everywhere on how you get to a number of Bukchon Hanok Observatories.

My short wandering around Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and Bukchon Hanok Village in a single day may not be enough to wrap up how amazing these places are, but it was certainly enough to give me the nostalgic feeling and most importantly, a wonderful experience to know how historically rich and vivid their culture is.

Hopefully, in the near future, I could visit more Palaces and off-the-beaten typical villages to immerse myself more with Korean culture. My astonishment with Seoul has never died down and it remains as one of my favorite cities.