You might’ve guessed that this sort of post was forthcoming after I wrote about Korean Egg Bread the other day. I missed my chance to write about this particular trip from last year, but now is the perfect time to give you a preview of spring in Seoul since I know a lot of people are heading there for the cherry blossom season!
Although Changdeokgung Palace 창덕궁 was the second palace to be built after the Gyeongbukgung during the Joseon Dynasty, it was the first historical site I ever visited in Seoul. I don’t remember why we decided to skip the more popular Gyeongbukgung in favour of this palace, but just to get it out there: If you ask me to pick just one palace between the two for your own itinerary, let’s reserve that for when I get to visit Gyeongbukgung. 😉
Changdeokgung is supposedly the most well-preserved Joseon palace among the five still standing today, but it has had its fair share of historical troubles. In 1592, citizens burned it down in anger after finding out that the royal family abandoned them by fleeing during the Japanese invasion. The palace was restored later on in 1611, and today it houses many Korean cultural treasures, prompting the UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition.
In Changdeokgung, there are areas you can only visit through in-house guided tours– specifically the famous “Secret Garden” or Huwon Garden. To enter the publicly accessible Palace Grounds you will have to pay for tickets costing 3,000 Won per adult, and then you pay a separate fee to join the guided tour.
We actually didn’t get to explore too much of the public areas of the palace grounds because we were hurrying to catch the schedule we booked for our tour of The Secret Garden. However, the tidbits that we did see were quite beautiful.
I adore how much the buildings complemented the sprouting nature inside the Palace Grounds. Imagine how the shot above would’ve looked at the height of spring! I was really glad to be treated to some plum blossoms that flowered a little early.
The Huwon Garden (aka Secret Garden) Tour costs 5,000 Won per adult, and it is without a doubt one of the highlights of visiting the Changdeokgung Palace. After all, this garden occupies about 60% of the Palace Grounds. Quite a significant percentage for a garden isn’t it? This garden was built specifically for the royal family’s leisure to remove the need for them to venture outside the palace walls to seek entertainment.
The courtyard where you wait for the tour to start is beautifully decorated with spring blossoms, so there’s something to keep your attention busy as you wait. All of the people waiting for the tour were gathered around this area snapping away at these vibrant cherry blossoms. You just cannot ignore how much they stand out.
Joining the Huwon Garden Tour is a great way to learn about the history of Changdeokgung, and there’s an International Visitor option for the tour where your guide will be speaking in English. Our guide was very fluent actually. He first introduced himself and facilitated a little ice breaker so he would have an idea about the nationalities of his International Group for the day.
You see how everyone is still bundled up at this point? You might’ve heard how cold it can be during wintertime in Seoul, so the beginning of spring is still pretty close to single digit temperatures. Make sure to pack accordingly! If you don’t want to bring a lot of jackets and bulky coats with you, consider renting from Seinustar, which is a really great clothing rental service that has a pick-up point at Incheon Airport.
I discovered this service during my winter trip last year and they’ve got lots of fashionable clothes in their catalogue you can rent; including sweaters, spring coats, and down coats. And yes, the clothes are clean so don’t worry!
Anyway, you begin the guided tour on a paved pathway towards your first location, by the pond called Buyongji. Here you will see two pavilions, and the largest one is called the Juhapru. This was previously a royal library where the King would discuss politics with his officials.
That small gate leading into the pavilion is called the Eosumun, and its name literally means “Fish cannot live without water”. Just like how without subjects there is no ruler, “The ruler should always put his people first.”
On the other side is a pavilion with a cross-shaped roof and pillars rising from the pond, called the Buyongjeong. It is said that King Jeongjo of Joseon often came here to fish with his courtiers. If my memory is correct, I do believe they keep some actual fish in this pond to this day.
As you go along the tour you will be put through rocky uphill and downhill climbs, but I think the views are literally a nice distraction. I appreciate how all the palace buildings stunningly blend with the environment while still holding their imposing personalities. Not only is the chosen motif for the structures green; apparently, they were built with very few artificial materials.
Because the Palace is right on the ridge of the mountain Bugaksan, you can expect the tour to be similar to leisurely hiking, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes! Heels are a no-no, and open-toe sandals will probably allow a lot of dust onto your feet. Anyhow, the choice is yours. I recommend comfy sneakers.
The last location for the tour is the Yeongyeongdang Residence, built by the Crown Prince Hyomyeong in 1828. It was designated as men’s quarters, but it had a main room where the master of the residence could meet with guests. Inside this small compound is also a library called Seonhyangjae. If you watch any Korean dramas of the saeguk genre you’d know that the library is not just for reading; it’s also for political meetings or scholarly discussions.
Most of the time, when you visit historical palaces as well maintained as the Changdeokgung Palace, you can expect the garden in the palace grounds to be stunning. At the peak of spring, when all those empty branches would be lush with green, I bet it would be enchanting. I also saw autumn pictures of the Huwon Garden and it was glorious. I reckon I’ll come back here during that season.
Do note that this tour from start to finish is more of a long nature walk, and thus should be done when you have ample time to spare in your stay in Seoul. That’s not counting the time you might spend exploring the rest of the Changdeokgung Palace grounds. You will have chances in each location to stop and rest while listening to the guide tell stories about whatever important event happened inside the Huwon Garden, so it’s not going to be all walk all the time. Take that moment to recharge for your journey to the next stop!
I hope my pictures prove that this Palace is worth a visit. Oh, and don’t forget to say hi to the 750-year old Juniper Tree on your way out of the Huwon Garden! 😉
99 Yulgok-ro, Waryong,dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays (Closed on Mondays), 9AM to 5PM
Tickets: 3,000 Won per adult for the Palace Grounds only. To be able to see the inner parts of the palace, a guided tour is required for 5,000 Won
How to get here: Alight at Anguk Station Line 3, Exit 3