Though Seoul, South Korea, is a thoroughly modern city known for its clean and efficient subways, robot cafés, and self-serve convenience stores, it has a rich history spanning millennia. Archeological records date settlement in the city as far back as 4000 BCE, with the earliest written historical record indicating a larger settlement in the 1st century BCE.

Under the Joseon Dynasty (14th to early 20th century), Seoul rapidly grew as an epicenter for politics, fashion, and economy, and at the center of it all were the royal Joseon monarchs and their advisors. The first palace and royal court began construction in 1392, with many more to follow, and today, you can still visit five of these beautiful complexes. Though altered and worn throughout the centuries, today, these palaces are restored for the enjoyment of Seoul's visitors and residents.

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General Things To Know When Visiting the Palaces

All five palaces -- Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeongung, and Gyeonghuigung-- are located centrally in the "old city" of Seoul. Concentrated around other neighborhoods and sites ripe for exploring like Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong, the palaces and their environs will make you feel like you're traveling back in time. While it is possible to visit all five palaces in a day, that may be a recipe for really sore feet!

You may notice that near every palace, there's a hanbok rental shop. That is no coincidence-- If a visitor wears a hanbok, a traditional Korean costume, then their admission to the palaces is free! Renting a hanbok will set you back anywhere from $15-$30 for a 2-3 hour rental period, which may cost more than your entrance into the palaces themselves; however, it's a fun cultural activity that will make for some fantastic photos along the way. You don't have to feel shy about being dressed up; on any given day, flocks of other visitors will be joining in on the historic cosplay.

Another pro-tip for entering the palaces: if there's a long line for the admissions window, bypass it by using your transportation card! The "T Money" Card (available for purchase and preloading at kiosks in subway stations) can be used to "tap into" the palaces straight at the front gates just like you would tap into the subway or bus. This is super convenient, especially if you've left your belongings behind at the hanbok store's storage lockers!

Palace #1: Gyeongbukgung

The oldest and most famous of the palaces, Gyeongbukgung, dates back to the late 14th century and served as the primary residence for Joseon royalty. As the most northern located palace in the city, it sits against a stunning backdrop of Seoul's mountains, with Gwanghwamun Square stretched in front of it (this will spot will look familiar to viewers of Netflix's King, the Eternal Monarch). It's the largest and grandest of the palaces--meaning plenty of places to explore and to snap some stunning photos--with a separate museum you can also visit for free. If you're eager to see some living history, Gyeongbukgung features a changing of the guard ceremony in the central courtyard.

  • Address: 161 Sajik-ro, Jongo, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 사직로 161)
  • Nearest Subway Stations: Gyeongbukgung Palace Station, Gwanghwamun Station, Anguk Station
  • Hours of Operation: Closed Tuesdays, Wednesday-Friday from 9 am-6 pm
  • Admission Fee: approximately $2.20 per adult, $1.10 per child under 18 years old, under six years old, and seniors are free.

Palace #2: Deoksugung

The smallest of the palaces, Deoksugung wasn't actually a palace at all when first built in the 15th century. It became the official royal residence during the Imjin War and Japanese Invasion of 1592, when all the other designated palaces were significantly damaged and destroyed. Today, this palace is famous for its changing of the guard ceremony as well as its cultural demonstrations during Korean holidays like Chuseok (also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival in other Asian countries). Deoksugung's distinctive stone walls and British-style buildings and gardens evoke a true "crossroads of history" feeling.

Deoksugung is also open later than the other palaces, with a closing time of 9 pm. Local folklore says this palace is one of the most haunted historic buildings in Seoul, so if you're out about at night and during the spooky season, you may be in for an encounter!

  • Address: 99 Sejong-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 세종대로 99)
  • Nearest Subway Stations: City Hall Station
  • Hours of Operation: Closed Mondays, Tuesday-Sunday from 9 am-9 pm
  • Admission Fee: approximately $0.75 per person

Palace #3: Changdeokgung

Designed to harmonize and blend in with nature, Changdeokgung's "Secret Garden," called Huwon makes this palace a true delight to visit. Surrounded by trees, flowers, and waterways, the palace feels like an oasis in a built-up city. Changdeokgung served as the primary palace for Joseon royalty from the 17th to the 19th centuries and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Huwon is a crowd favorite, so it's on a separate, timed-tour ticket. Be sure to follow the Secret Garden signs and grab your ticket to Huwon early, especially if you're visiting the in the spring or fall!

  • Address: 99 Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 율곡로 99)
  • Nearest Subway Stations: Anguk Station
  • Hours of Operation: Closed Mondays, Tuesday-Sunday from 9 am-5 pm
  • Admission Fee: approximately $2.20 per person, $5.90 per person for Huwon

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Palace #4: Changgyeongung

Changgyeongung is a beautiful complex of 15th-century Joseon architecture mixed with 20th-century Edwardian architecture with a darkly fascinating past. Infamous as the site of Crown Prince Sado's macabre death by rice chest in 1762, today, crowds flock to the Joseon palace for a promenade within Korea's first western-style green house and botanical garden.

  • Address: 185 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 창경궁로 185)
  • Nearest Subway Stations: Anguk Station
  • Hours of Operation: Closed Mondays, Tuesday-Sunday from 9 am-5:30 pm
  • Admission Fee: approximately $.75 per adult, $.40 for children under 18

Palace #5: Gyeonghuigung

As the "youngest" palace (built in the oh-so-recent 17th century), Gyeonghuigung was originally meant to be a detached "extension" to Deoksugung. However, much of the complex between the two palaces has since been destroyed. This palace is a bit of a hidden gem and is your best bet if you're hoping to avoid some of the tourist crowds. It's also right next to the Seoul Museum of History, which is a fantastic museum to learn more about the city itself.

  • Address: 45 Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 새문안로 45)
  • Nearest Subway Stations: Seodaemun
  • Hours of Operation: Closed Mondays, Tuesday-Sunday from 9 am-6:00 pm
  • Admission Fee: Free