Seoul has been the Korean capital for six centuries, which means there’s an incredibly rich history to check out, especially at the grand palaces that dot the city center. To learn your Joseon emperors from your empresses and see exactly how beautiful a South Korean secret garden can be, see our top palace picks below.
Built in the 14th century, Gyeongbokgung Palace (also known as the Northern Palace) was once Seoul’s main royal residence. Although many of its structures were destroyed during Japanese colonial rule at the start of the 20th century, the site was later rebuilt and is now the largest of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Set in the lively Jongno-gu district, Gyeongbokgung houses the National Palace Museum and offers the opportunity to watch the changing of guards at Gwanghwamun Gate.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a reason—built in 1405, Changdeokgung Palace was the main residence for many Joseon kings. Today, it’s known for its pond and pavilion, its beautiful stone road, its 26,000 tree specimens, and its secret garden. Tour the palace interior, or explore the grounds on a secret garden tour—with only 100 tickets available per garden tour, you’ll want to book in advance.
Built in the mid-15th century as a summer palace for the Goryeo Emperor, Changgyeonggung Palace was later turned into a zoo and botanical garden by the Japanese. But in recent years, the palace was returned to its former glory and now the grounds are home to an array of ornate bridges and ancestral shrines. Plus, you’ll find epic views out to Seoul’s granite mountains.
Also called Deoksu Palace, this 15th-century walled compound contains forested gardens, the excellent National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, palace buildings, and one big statue of the late King Sejong. You can find it right by City Hall Station.
The Unhyeongung Royal Residence is one of Seoul’s smaller palaces, commonly used by Seoulites as a wedding venue on weekends. Admission is free, and you can try on and learn about Joseon clothing while you’re here.
Another of Seoul's Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty, 400-year-old Gyeonghuigung Palace is home to the Seoul Museum of History and the Seoul Museum Annex of Art, which is full of historic Korean art.