What Things to Do and See in Seoul
Seoul is the Capital of South Korea with population of almost 10 million people. There are many things to do in Seoul and here we will list the best and most important Seoul’s tourist attractions.
Visit Gyeongbokgung Seoul
The World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung was built in the early 15th century as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung. The most charming section is Huwon, a ‘secret garden’ that is a royal horticultural idyll.
Originally built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung served as the principal royal residence until it was burnt down by the invading Japanese in 1592. Rebuilt 300 years later, the palace consisted of 330 buildings and had up to 3000 staff, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family. During Japanese colonial rule in the 20th century, most of the palace was again destroyed – much of what you see today are accurate recent reconstructions.
The palace’s impressive main gate, Gwanghwamun, is flanked by stone carvings of haechi, mythical lion-like creatures. At the palace’s broad front courtyard, you pass through a second gate, Heungnyemun, and over a stream to face the ornate two-storey Geunjeongjeon, an impressive throne hall where kings were crowned. West of here is Gyeonghoeru, a large pavilion resting on 48 pillars where state banquets were held. It overlooks a lake where royals went boating.
Living Quarters & Gardens
A series of smaller meeting halls precede the king’s living quarters, Gangyeongjeon, behind which are Gyotaejeon, the queen’s chambers. Behind is the terraced garden, Amisan; the chimneys here released smoke from the palace’s ondol (underfloor heating) system. On the eastern side is Donggun, the living quarters for the Crown Prince. To the rear, King Gojong built more
halls for his own personal use and an ornamental pond with an attractive hexagonal pavilion (Hyangwonjeong) on an island.
Museums in the Palace
The National Palace Museum of Korea (9am-5pm Tue-Fri, to 6pm Sat & Sun), inside Gwanghwamun, has royal artifacts that highlight the wonderful artistic skills of the Joseon era – including gold-embroidered hanbok (traditional clothing) worn by royalty.
There’s also the excellent National Folk Museum of Korea with three main halls covering the history of the Korean people and the life of yangban (aristocrats).
Nearby is an open-air exhibition of early-20th-century historical buildings and structures, and the separate National Children’s Museum and a play area.
Visit Changdeokgung Seoul
The most beautiful of Seoul’s four main palaces, World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung was originally built in the early 15th century as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung. Following the destruction of both palaces during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, Changdeokgung was rebuilt and became the primary royal residence until 1872. It remained in use well into the 20th century.
Huwon (Secret Garden)
Walk through the dense woodland of the Secret Garden and suddenly you come across a serene glade. The Huwon is a beautiful vista of pavilions on the edge of a square lily pond, with other halls and a two-storey library. The board out the front, written by King Jeongjo, means ‘Gather the Universe’. Joseon kings relaxed, studied and wrote poems in this tranquil setting. Ongnyu-cheon is a brook at the back of the garden where there’s a huge rock, Soyoam, with three Chinese characters inscribed on it by King Injo in 1636.
Enter through the imposing gate Donhwamun, dating from 1608, turn right and cross over the stone bridge (built in 1414) – note the guardian animals carved on its sides. On the left is the beautiful main palace building, Injeongjeon. It sits in harmony with the paved courtyard, the open corridors and the trees behind it. Further on are the private living quarters of the royal
family. Peering inside the partially furnished rooms, you can feel what these Joseon palaces were like in their heyday – a bustling beehive buzzing round the king, full of gossip, intrigue and whispering.
Round the back of the palace is a terraced garden with decorative ondol chimneys. Over on the right is something completely different – Nakseonjae, built by King Heonjong (r 1834–49) in an austere Confucian style using unpainted wood. Royal descendants lived here until 1989.
The headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has the largest hall of worship in Seoul, decorated with murals from Buddha’s life and carved floral latticework doors. The temple compound, always a hive of activity, really comes alive during the city’s spectacular Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday, and is a great place to learn a little about Buddhist practice.
Inside Daeungjeon are three giant gilded Buddha statues: on the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the centre is the historical Buddha, who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha, with a medicine bowl in his hand. The small 15th-century Buddha in the glass case was the main Buddha statue before he was replaced by the much larger ones in 2006.
Geuknakjeon (Paradise Hall)
Behind Daeungjeon is the modern Geuknakjeon, dedicated to Amitabha Buddha; funeral services, dharma (truth) talks and other prayer services are held here. On the left side of the compound, is the octagonal 10-storey stupa, in which is enshrined a relic of Buddha brought to Korea in 1913 by a Sri Lankan monk.
Beomjongru (Brahma Bell Pavilion)
This pavilion houses a drum to summon earthbound animals, a wooden fish-shaped gong to summon aquatic beings, a metal cloud-shaped gong to summon birds and a large bronze bell to summon underground creatures. The bell is rung 28 times at 4am and 33 times at 6pm.