Five Royal Palaces of Seoul

The Five Royal Palaces of Seoul are remnants of the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon family ruled Korea for 500 years until the Japanese annexed the country in 1910. While South Korea today is a democracy, the royal family members still exist and so do their marks on the Korean capital. The Five Royal Palaces of Seoul are arguably the best and most beautiful among these marks.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The first of the Five Royal Palaces of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the oldest palaces in Korea. When the Joseon Dynasty moved the capital to Seoul in 1394, they needed a palace to both live inside and represent this profound change in the kingdom. When the construction ended, the palace became the landmark of Joseon Seoul.

gyeonbokgung of five royal palaces of seoul

Unfortunately, the palace fell victim to the Japanese invasion of the 16th century. The Japanese destroyed the palace and until the 19th century, it remained in ruins. After its renovation, it survived yet another Japanese invasion in 1910. While this time the Japanese did not destroy the palace, they built a headquarters right in front of the palace as a form of mockery.

gyeongbokgung in the lake

Changdeokgung Palace

After Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung Palace was the second primary castle in Seoul. The dynasty built the palace in the 15th century. Following its construction, it became a popular palace among the Joseon kings. Besides its popularity, the palace is an iconic far east architecture example. It is in perfect harmony with the uneven topography of its location.

changdeokgung entrance

Like its predecessor, it could not escape the destruction of the Japanese invasion and similarly, it was renovated in the 17th century. Changdeokgung remained a royal palace until 1989 as many royal family members stayed there. Moreover, Sunjong, the last Korean emperor died on the palace grounds in 1926.

changdeokgung of five royal palaces of seoul

Changgyeonggung Palace

Not a royal residence, technically speaking, Changgyeonggung was a gift. In the 15th century, King Sejong wanted to build a palace for his retiring father Taejong. Sejong strived for a palace that had a calm and serene outlook. As a result, Changgyeonggung was built in a location with a forest nearby. Nearly 50,000 trees surround the palace.

changgyeonggung of five palaces of seoul

However, the palace did not enjoy such a long tenure. Changgyeonggung did not wholly survive two Japanese invasions. Among the palace buildings, only a few remain. During Japanese colonization, the Japanese built a zoo, park, and museum around the palace ruins. Today, the most notable part of the palace is the main gate: Honghwamun.

changgyeonggung inside

Deoksugung Palace

A compound of multiple palaces, in reality, Deoksugung Palace was a residential building for the members of the royal family. The most famous resident of the palace was the older brother of King Seongjong, Prince Wolsan. After the Japanese burnt down most of the palaces in Seoul, the king relocated to Deoksugung making it a true royal palace.

deoksugung interior motifs

However, the palace’s popularity diminished after the invasion failed and the king returned to his original palace. After some time passed, in 1897, the emperor of Korea turned Deoksugung into the central palace of the empire. Emperor Gojong wanted to modernize the country and believed that relocating to the palace was one of the necessary steps.

deoksugung of five palaces of seoul
Scarlet Sawyer

Gyeonghuigung Palace

The last of the Five Royal Palaces of Seoul, Gyeonghuigung was the largest palace of the five. Its name means the “Palace of the West” since it is in the West of the main palace of Seoul. In its prime, the palace consisted of 100 buildings. The palace was so big that it originally had an arched bridge which provided a connection to Deoksugung Palace.

gyeonghuigung of five palaces of seoul

During the invasion, the Japanese destroyed most of the palace buildings. These buildings used to provide shelter and accommodation to various members of the royal family. Now that they were gone, the Korean government started renovating the palace in the 1990s. While two major structures were moved to other parts of Seoul, the renovation still gave Gyeonghuigung a piece of its former glory.

gyeonghuigung interior
Stefano Scuccimara