Old Seoul: Gyeongbokgung Palace and Hanok Village

There is plenty of modern to explore in Seoul if that’s your thing. Generally for me, however, history is the name of the game. So rather than head out to Gangnam for neon and skyscrapers an afternoon wandering through Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Hanok Village was on order. The palace dates back to the 14th century, though there have been several cycles of destruction and reconstruction. So, no, I wasn’t really walking entirely amongst buildings from a previous era, but some of the restorations are close to true while other buildings are well done reconstructions.

Traditionally only the King would enter through the center gate at Gyeongbokgung Palace. Not so much anymore.
Traditionally only the King would enter through the center gate at Gyeongbokgung Palace. Not so much anymore.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

The palace grounds are quite spread out and, while I’m sure it is possible to take in the experience just wandering on your own, I recommend going along with one of the guides. We happened to show up about 2 minutes before an English-speaking tour was starting so we lucked out on that one. I’m pretty sure we would have missed out a bit had we just gone on our own. For example, I doubt I would have figured out on my own that these small markers were used to “sort” those awaiting access to the throne room by social status.

Awesome detail in the wood beams of Seoul's Gyeongbokgung Palace
Awesome detail in the wood beams of Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace

Really some impressive buildings to wander amongst.

More detail in a railing at Gyeongbokgung Palace
More detail in a railing at Gyeongbokgung Palace

And it doesn’t hurt that all the leaves were changing; the foliage put on quite a show.

There is also the “secret garden” portion of the tour available at Gyeongbokgung Palace. You need to sign up in advance for that and apparently I thought I did but managed to not do so. Oops. Everything I’ve seen about it says it is worth doing so don’t be like me and screw that one up.

The tour of the main area is free once you buy a ticket or you can wander on your own. For the Secret Garden tickets and a guide are compulsory.

Hanok Village

Last time I was in Seoul I more or less had the Hanok Village to myself. It was quiet and pleasant to explore the old residential neighborhood without the crowds. This trip was quite a different experience. The old buildings are still very cool and there was more street food available which I consider a bonus. There were also massive crowds, most of whom were wielding selfie sticks and generally just making for a crazed scene. It was not the same as 5 years ago; hardly too much of a surprise, I suppose. Still unfortunate, though.

The old tile roofs of Seoul's Hanok Village
The old tile roofs of Seoul’s Hanok Village
Old school architecture in Seoul's Hanok Village with a glimpse of modernity in the background
Old school architecture in Seoul’s Hanok Village with a glimpse of modernity in the background

I still think the Hanok Village area is worth visiting. There are some cute shops and cafes scattered throughout and the views are still very cool. But it wasn’t quite as spectacular as last time I was there, and I can only think that is mostly related to the crowds. Then again, I’m a tourist, too, so I suppose I cannot really complain too much on that front.

Dongdaemun Gate

Bonus “Old Seoul” bit: We stayed at the JW Marriot Dongdaemun Gate and one of the evenings I set up my GoPro on the balcony of the executive lounge to record a time lapse of the traffic passing by the centuries-old site. Lots of fun there.

Stephan and I also recorded an episode of the Dots, Lines & Destinations podcast while in Seoul; well worth a listen.

More from this trip

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Couple of years ago I found myself with a 7-hours layover at ICN. Instead of hanging out at the lounges, I took the train into the city, bought a metro pass and visited the palace where I spent couple of hours wandering around. Didn’t get to do a tour, but it’s a great place to visit nevertheless.

    1. My first time in Seoul was a ~12 hour layover like that and I purposefully booked the long version (a 2 hour option was available) so I could head into town and explore. Going back the second time when I was a bit more comfortable with the surroundings made it even better. Really a very cool city to explore.

  2. Aw — you posted your Gyeongbokgung Palace photographs before I posted mine!

    I was there earlier in the fall; and I stayed at a hanok virtually across the street from the palace.

    I have yet to post a trip report of my stay as well as of the palace. My fault…

    1. And here I was a bit frustrated that I’m still months behind in getting these trip reports out. Looking forward to seeing yours as well.

  3. When did you go, and do you think the time frame might have affected the crowd levels? I’ll be visiting in September for the first time, and don’t know what to expect.

    1. This trip was November 20th-ish 2014. I have no idea how the crowds vary seasonally. I think mostly that it is just more popular now. Or I’m remembering history through rose-tinted glasses.

  4. Great photos, love the fall colors! The Secret Garden is well worth it, very pleasant stroll and nice insights into the life at the time. I had a very knowledgeable guide.
    I went to the Hanok village over the weekend and found it crowded as well. It seemed to be a lot of locals and tour groups, so it might be worth going on a weekday and/or early, during lunch or late to avoid the groups!

  5. Seth, I read this article again and saw the part where you had to sign up in advance for the Secret Garden tour.

    While you do need to sign up in advance, I simply walked up and purchased my ticket no more than 20 minutes in advance; so you might have been able to do it.

    I intend to post a trip report of my tour in the Secret Garden and you can judge for yourself whether it would be worth it to you or not; but I enjoyed it.

    1. They do sell some tickets walk-up for the secret garden tour as well. I don’t remember if we missed the timing on that or they were sold out but it didn’t work in out case.

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