While China and Japan get most of the publicity and tourism dollars in East Asia, Korea has just as long of a history, and just as proud of an empire. Visitors to Seoul, the bustling capital of South Korea, will still find remnants dating back to those imperial days.

While there have been people living in the Han River valley for millennia, Seoul as a city was given importance at the start of the Joseon Dynasty, when Yi Seong-Gye moved his capital there in 1394 from Kaesong in modern day North Korea. Called Hanyang, and later Hanseong, the city was built around two palaces, both of which are open to visitors today, in the north and down to the Han River in the south. (Today the city stretches well south of the river, though the palaces still stand near the northern boundaries, as they are backed up against mountains.)

From this city, the Joseon Dynasty ruled until the Japanese occupation in 1910, which lasted until the end of World War Two.

Sadly, very little of Seoul survived the occupation, or the earlier 1592-98 invasions. During these times, most of the city was burned down as Korea itself was overrun before intervention on the Korean side by the Chinese Ming Dynasty, Korea’s most important ally.

However, tourists interested in this fascinating history are able to view a myriad of artifacts at the stunning National Museum of Korea.

The entrance to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

The entire first floor of this sprawling complex is dedicated to Korean history. (The second and third floors feature artifacts from elsewhere in Asia, as well as Buddhist relics, statues, and writings.) White porcelain – only created in Korea and China – is among the highlights from the Joseon Dynasty period, though the exhibits follow Korean history from the Stone Age on.

White porcelain. Stunning!

The Museum is diverse, well laid out with good English signage, and best of all, completely free! It is definitely worth a couple of hours exploring the history of the Korean people.

The highlight of the National Museum of Korea is this ten story pagoda, intricately carved of stone.

With a bit of history under your belt, it is time to see some of it live. Seoul is home to five palaces, but two stand out.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395, and served as the main palace for the early Joseon Dynasty. Though it burned down in the Japanese invasion, it was subsequently rebuilt in the 19th century, before much was destroyed in the early 20th century, again by the Japanese. Today, the grounds have been mostly restored, and while some construction is ongoing, 3,000 won (about $3) will get you admission to explore the site.

The entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace.

The palace itself reminds me a bit of the Forbidden City in Beijing, with gates leading to squares leading ever inward. However, it is significantly smaller in scale, and able to be fully explored in just a couple of hours, or even less if you make good time walking.

One of the largest buildings in the palace, this open air hall was used for entertaining.

About a mile east of Gyeongbokgung stands Changdeokgung Palace. Constructed in 1405, it took over as the main palace following the destruction of Gyeongbokgung and, while much of it was destroyed in later years, the palace has also been fully restored. Admission is an identical 3,000 won, but an additional 5,000 will allow access to the Secret Garden.

One of the residences inside Changdeokgung Palace.

The gardens of Changdeokgung take up more than two thirds of the area, and were only open to the royal family and their invited guests. Today they are similarly private, accessible only by guided tour. However, this additional fee is well worth it, providing glimpses into both Korean history as well as some of the cultural sides of the Joseon Dynasty.

Rolling hills, ponds, and outbuildings join flowering trees and bushes to create a calming environment, and the 90 minute tours will explore all of the highlights.

A couple beautiful settings from the Changdeokgung Secret Garden.

Today, both palaces are visited by tourists and locals alike. It is worth noting that admission to all five palaces, as well as select museums in Seoul, is free for anyone in traditional dress. These outfits can be rented all over the historical center of the city, and while rental will cost more than admission, it is a fun thing to do!

Visitors in traditional dress, kind enough to pose for me.

If you only have time for one palace, I’d choose Changdeokgung as, while the buildings themselves are a bit less impressive than Gyeongbokgung, the gardens are divine. But whichever you choose, you are sure to have a great experience visiting historic Seoul!

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