The Prospering Virtue of Changdeokgung Palace

After three and a half years living here, I’ve come to know Seoul fairly well, and yet when asked by travelers or other residents about what I’d put on a “short list” of must-see city sites, it can be difficult.

Outside view of Changdeokgung Palace, showing red pillars, with turquoise fretwork on the windows, ornate design in the eaves, and stone steps up to the doors.

Frankly, personal preference varies considerably, and Seoul’s long history and sheer size combine for almost infinite possibilities. That said, I’ve found a helpful travel planner.

As the educational, scientific and cultural organization of the United Nations, UNESCO has created its own lists of the world’s most spectacular sites. South Korea appears 18 times on those lists, which is more than any other Asian country, relative to its size. 

Among the nation’s inscribed treasures, six are located within the greater Seoul area.

The ceiling of Changdeokgung Palace, with red pillars, ornate carvings around the lights and in the ceiling, in turquoise, red and green.
Photo from here.

They include: Changdeokgung palace (창덕궁), Hwaseong Suwon Fortress (화성수원), the Jongmyo Royal Shrine (종묘) and ceremonial rites , and the Joseon Royal Tombs .

All have been remarkably preserved for centuries.

Perhaps the most popular is Changdeokgung Palace. Although nearby Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) is typically regarded as Seoul’s main palace from the Joseon Dynasty, it’s the eastern Changdeokgung Palace that’s usually considered the most beautiful.

A painted map showing Changdeokgung Palace, and the surroundings.
Photo from here.

The “Palace of Prospering Virtue” was completed in 1412, and was home to 13 Korean kings over 270 years. And unlike Seoul’s other four palaces, Changdeokgung’s physical plant follows the area’s natural topography.

The effect is one of harmonizing with nature instead of dominating it.

An aesthetic legacy of the peninsula’s Three Kingdoms Era, Changdeokgung Palace won the praise of Korea’s most-admired king, Sejong the Great, who told his son, King Munjong, “Even though Gyeongbokgung is magnificent and splendid, the ideal place in this capital city is Changdeokgung.”

Despite succumbing to fire over the centuries, the palace’s reconstructions always respected the original design.

Close up of Changdeokgung Palace window shutters, carved wood in turquoise above, and deep red color below.
Photo from here.

Today, 13 major buildings, which amount to about thirty percent of the original, are set among 110 densely wooded acres. Changdeokgung Palace‘s remarkable preservation and its unique co-existence with nature are why the palace was inscribed to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997.

If you enter the palace from its grand southern gate, Donhwamun (돈화문), you’ll cross Seoul’s oldest stone bridge. Constructed in 1411, Geumcheongyo’s (금천교) graceful arches are decorated with mythical, fire-eating creatures called haetae.

Changdeokgung bridge, a stone structure, with a mythical creature carved out of stone, and arches to let the water flow. The background is the entrance to the palace, an ornate building in red, with a dark roof.
Photo from here.

Beyond the bridge and gate, the palace is divided into four areas. The first surrounds the grand throne hall, Injeongjeon (인정전).

The second-largest wooden building in Korea, the interior design is a curious mix of east and west, with towering, painted ceilings, an ornate throne, electric chandeliers and Western-style curtains.

External view of a stone terrace, with headstones approaching the steps to Changdeokgung Palace, an ornate building in red and turquoise with a dark roof.
Photo from here.

Delve further into the palace grounds and you’ll come upon the royal residence buildings. You can distinguish the king’s bedchamber from the queen’s by the former’s roof ridgeline that’s called yongmaru, or the dragon’s spine.

The dragon was the symbol of the king. On the palace’s eastern edge is a detached cluster of buildings called Sangnyangjeong and Nakseonjae (낙선재). The latter is where royal family members lived until 1989.

A brick plinth in a terraced garden, with an ornate stone wall behind. Shrubs and grass cover the terraced areas.
Photo from here.

The vast majority of Changdeokgung Palace, however, is dedicated to Huwon (후원), a gorgeous 15th century garden of ponds and 28 pavilions that extends northwards onto Bugaksan mountain (북악산).

Although access to the garden is restricted, tours are provided daily in four languages and it’s a remarkable sight year-round.

So the next time you’re putting together a Seoul travel itinerary for yourself or someone else, I’d say that Seoul’s UNESCO treasures are a great place to start.

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About Matt Kelley

Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.

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