10 Must-Visit Historic Sites in South Korea
South Korea is famously known for being the origin of worldwide trend K-Pop and K-dramas, the standing ground of tech giant Samsung and auto manufacturer Hyundai, the well-embraced Korean skincare and cosmetics, and recently, the birthplace of the director and stars of Academy Award-winning film ‘Parasite.’
However, despite leading in modern trends, the country is more than that. South Korea is a place rich in culture and history. It is the home of 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has a long and interesting history involving kings, palaces, different dynasties, wars, and politics. These matters are often overlooked, but as South Korea rises to the top, more and more tourists and history buffs are flocking to places with valuable Korean history.
If you are planning to visit South Korea and want to experience and see first-hand its culture and history, here are ten places that you must visit.
The Five Palaces of Seoul
The Five Grand Palaces of Seoul is the capital of tourist spots. You can not leave South Korea without visiting at least one of these palaces and roam the area wearing the country’s traditional clothing, the hanbok.
The palaces were originally built back in the 1300s. Reconstructions were made because of the Japanese invasions in the 16th century and those were also destroyed by the following Japanese occupation in the 20th century.
These palaces have been through a lot and that alone deserves them the top spot of the must-visit historical sites.
Here are the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul.
The main and the largest out of the five palaces in Seoul is Gyeongbokgung. The palace was first built in 1395 under the reign of King Taejo during the Joseon Dynasty. This palace is located in the center of Seoul and houses his majesty. It boasts a magnificent view of the inner mountains and the Korean alphabet, the Hangul, was created right inside its chambers.
The palace is divided into different wings: the area for government officials and areas for the royalties, such as the King and the Queen’s chambers, as well as their immediate family and relatives.
Following the Japanese invasion, Gyeongbokgung was rebuilt in the 1800s, however, that didn’t last very long as it was once again destroyed during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Standing in the ground now is a convincing reconstruction made in the 1990s.
If you want to visit the grandest and most important of all five palaces, Gyeongbokgung is your place.
The second most popular palace out of the five is Changdeokgung, the secondary residence for the kings and queens.
Changdeokgung has many charms, one of them is the secret garden, Huwon. Kings across dynasties and generations are said to have been infatuated with this area. They often studied, wrote poems, and fished in this very garden. Huwon is considered a safe place where kings can escape the chokehold of royal responsibilities.
Changdeokgung has most of its pre-20th century structures still intact and if you’re up for some legitimate old palace pillars rather than the reconstructions, Changdeokgung is one of your options.
Out of all the five palaces, only the Changdeokgung has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage due to its formidable number of surviving older structures.
Back to back with Changdeokgung is the Changgyeonggung, the other half of the East Palaces. (Though if you visit them, they have separate entrance fees.)
This palace is the residential quarters for the queens and concubines. It is famous for its wide grounds and beautiful gardens that are littered with spring blossoms and autumn colors.
Originally, before being renamed Changgyeonggung, it was built as Suganggung Palace by King Sejong, the fourth ruler of the Joseon dynasty, for his father, King Taejong. During the rule of the Japanese, the palace became a park with a zoo and a botanical garden. It remained this way until the 1983 restoration.
Deoksugung is one of the smaller palaces and served as an auxiliary palace. It wasn’t as badly destroyed as its other fellow palaces so you still get to see older structures along with the modern reconstructions.
Architecturally, it is known as the only Korean palace that is designed to consist of a bit of Western-style. It is a popular cherry blossom spot.
Gyeonghuigung, alongside Deoksugung, is another of the smaller palaces. If you’re not really into historical places and palaces, you can opt-in to visit any of these two for the experience.
Gyeonghuigung is the youngest of the five Seoul palaces. It was first built after the Japanese invasions in the 1600s, where most of the original palaces were destroyed, and served as a secondary palace. This small palace was wrecked by fire in the 1800s and was damaged to the ground during the Japanese occupation in the 1900s.
The standing Gyeonghuigung today is entirely modern-built and is notably smaller than it was originally. So out of all the five palaces, Gyeonghuigung has the least historical authenticity. However, don’t let that put you off as it is still a magnificent palace to visit as the Seoul Museum of History is located on its grounds.
The Jongmyo Shrine was established around the same time as Gyeongbokgung in the late 1300s. It, too, suffered the same fate as the grand palace and was destroyed during the invasions in the late 1500s. It was rebuilt in the 1600s and fortunately, has survived since.
The shrine has a holy purpose as it serves as a memorial for the kings and queens of Joseon through Confucian rituals. Each of the kings and queen’s spirits is believed to have been housed in spirit tablets upon their deaths.
Annual rituals are still held every first Sunday in May.
If you are determined to know all the bits and pieces of Korean culture and their beliefs, you’ll learn more at Jongmyo Shrine than at the palaces. This is because of the tour guides. Tours are available in English, Chinese, and Japanese language, with guides that are very knowledgeable about the shrine and generally, Korean history.
Jongmyo Shrine is the place to visit, and even if you’re not a history enthusiast, it is still worth taking a look at because of its hundred-year-old buildings, as well as its tamed atmosphere compared to the crowds at the palaces.
If you don’t want guided tours, you can freely roam Jongmyo Shine on a Saturday.
The Hanbok Museum is another must-stopover as It is just located on a street across the Gyeongbokgung Palace main entrance ticketing booth. It’s very near so if you have the time, make sure to drop by and take a look at Korea’s traditional clothes.
Take note that the museum only opens on the first and third Saturday of every month.
The Hanbok Museum does not only showcases traditional Korean clothes but also educates and highlights all the events and rituals that natives go through from birth to death and the proper clothing that one must wear on those.
All hanboks on display are created by Lee Ri-Ja, a hanbok designer, and has designed and created these pieces with great care and attention to detail. Overall, there are about 300 different kinds of hanbok on display and some are even designed practically to be worn on a daily basis.
Aside from hanbok, the museum also showcases ornaments and other articles that you will surely fall in love with how beautiful they are.
If you are up for some modern Korean cultural activities and traditional Korean art, you can visit Gwanghwa-mun or Insa-dong.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Another place worth visiting right after the five grand palaces is the Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional Korean village located between the two main palaces, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. Standing on these grounds are about 800 to 900 traditional Korean houses, called the hanok.
Visiting the village will surely bring you back 600 years ago, back to the Joseon Dynasty. The village used to a be residential area for high-ranking government officials, nobles, and influentials families. Now, it is still a residential area so be polite, maintain proper manners and stay quiet when visiting.
Bukchon Hanok Village has some activities that you might like, including traditional tea houses, visiting galleries, or have some light snacks in cafes or restaurants.
King Sejong Story
The 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong reign from 1418 to 1450 and was responsible for some of the most distinguished achievements in Korean history, including the creation of the Korean alphabet, the hangul, and for leading the growth in the areas of science, culture, art, and politics.
Behind the statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square is a passage that leads to The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall. This hall highlights the king’s brilliant contributions to Korea’s development.
The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall has 9 different sections that you can explore in a total area of 3,200㎡. All over the museum are displays that show the king’s creation of the Korean alphabet, as well as his scientific, artistic, military, and political contributions, including the theory of Minbon, which states that the people are the base of politics.
The museum is a great tourist destination as it also has a special exhibition room, the King Sejong Multimedia Room, books, a souvenir shop, and a lounge for the convenience of the visitors.
The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall is connected to the KT building on the left and is also linked to the Sejong Center for Performing Arts on the right through an underground passageway.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 a.m to 10:30 p.m.
Suwon Hwaseong Fortress
Located an hour drive south of Seoul is Suwon, a historical city, and is the home to some of the World-Heritage listed structures that were built during the reign of King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty.
The capital Hanyang (Seoul) was supposed to move to Suwon in 1794. However, the king died after the construction of the fortress wall. Because of this, Seoul remains to be the capital.
King Jeongjo is one of the most successful Kings of the Joseon dynasty because of his notable modern visions. However, his family was not regarded the same way. King Jeongjo followed the footsteps of his king grandfather, as his father, the Crown Prince Sado, was put to death because of a mental illness.
Hwaseong Fortress was built as a tribute to King Jeongjo’s filial piety for his father. Aside from that, the fortress is also a representation of the king’s power, as well as, serving as a national defense for the city.
Along the wall, you’ll be able to see bastions, artillery towers, signal towers, secret doors, and many other military-based elements.
The Hwaseong Fortress is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage.