Changdeokgung Palace was never intended to be the most important palace in Seoul.
When the Joseon Dynasty began to rule the Korean Peninsula in 1392 and moved its capital to Seoul, it built Gyeongbokgung Palace as its primary residence, from where it planned to rule its new empire forever.
But fate had a different idea and, during a particularly brutal series of invasions by the Japanese between 1592 and 1598, the palace was burnt to the ground.
Changdeokgung Palace, which had been built about a decade after Gyeongbokgung Palace as a secondary residence, was also burnt to the ground during the Japanese invasions. But the decision was made to rebuild it first.
And so, Changdeokgung Palace was restored to its original glory by 1609. Gyeongbokgung Palace, on the other hand, wasn’t really touched for centuries and was left in ruins until a recent restoration effort began in the 1980s.
It meant that Changdeokgung Palace became the seat of government for the next 270 years of the Joseon Dynasty, right until the end of its rule.
And, as well as making it much more historically important than it was originally intended, this decision has also made Changdeokgung Palace the most authentic of the royal palaces in Seoul, with structures that are hundreds of years old, unlike Gyeongbokgung Palace, where many of them are just decades old.
It’s one of the main reasons why Changdeokgung Palace was named as one of South Korea’s World Heritage Sites, while none of the other royal palaces were.
Why is Changdeokgung Palace famous?
Changdeokgung Palace was originally built as a secondary residence in Seoul but became the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty in 1607, from where it ruled South Korea for about 270 years.
Is it worth visiting Changdeokgung Palace?
For the visual spectacle alone, it’s worth visiting Changdeokgung Palace, to see the imposing gates, monumental halls, and the incredible Secret Garden. But it’s also worth visiting to explore the best preserved of the royal palaces in Seoul.
What is the best palace in Seoul?
Often Gyeongbokgung Palace is considered to be the best palace in Seoul because it’s the largest and its recent restoration means it has the most impressive buildings. However, I think Changdeokgung Palace is actually the best because it is the most authentic, with centuries-old structures.
Visiting Changdeokgung Palace takes you inside the royal court, to the era of the Joseon Dynasty that ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. I think it’s one of the best things to do in Seoul.
You can access most of the palace complex, from the collection of offices where much of the day-to-day work of running an empire was conducted, to the enormous throne hall that was used for official functions.
Not all of the buildings are open to the public – you normally won’t be able to see inside the residences of the king or queen. But you can walk around them to get a sense of how it was all laid out.
Most of the main wooden buildings, set on stone platforms, have sloped tiled roofs that look like wings holding up the structures. They’re painted with a colour pattern called ‘dancheong’ that includes five basic colours, but green and red often tend to dominated the designs.
And above it all, Mount Baegaksan looms over Changdeokgung Palace, acting as the main geomantic guardian mountain that it was considered to be.
As well as the main structures, one of the highlights is the Secret Garden of Changdeokgung Palace. This large landscaped garden is very different to other palace gardens, in that it conforms to the sloping terrain, with hills and valleys intersected by various water features.
The Secret Garden should be considered an attraction in itself. Depending on what entrance ticket you’re using, you may need to pay an extra fee to see it (access is only by guided tour). I highly recommend you do this!
I’ll talk much more about the Secret Garden shortly, but first I wanted to run through the top things to see in Changdeokgung Palace’s main area.
Things to see at Changdeokgung Palace
The layout of Changdeokgung Palace follows the traditional principles of palace design in Korea, with three gates and three courts.
The first court is for administrative functions, the next court is for the royal residences, and the final court is for official audiences.
As you walk through the main part of the palace complex, through these gates and into the courtyards that surround the most important structures, these are the key sights to look out for:
Gwolnaegaksa (Government Offices)
After you come through the main entrance of Changdeokgung Palace, the first area you’ll see in front of you is Gwolnaegaksa, the word used to described the government offices within a palace.
It was from these offices that the royal family’s affairs were run, such as meetings of the Royal Counsel Committee. There were also facilities like a royal pharmacy and a library.
The buildings of Gwolnaegaksa were destroyed by the Japanese, like the rest of the palace complex, but these ones weren’t rebuilt until 2005.
They’re all tightly packed together and, even though it’s not a very large area, it can feel like you’re getting a bit lost as you walk through the maze of offices.
Injeongjeon (Throne Hall)
As the main throne hall of the palace, Injeongjeon is where all the major state events were held, including coronations. It’s also where foreign envoys would greet the king and where receptions would be held for them.
After you come through the large gate, the open-air courtyard stretches out to the hall at the rear. It has a clear path marked down the centre, which was used by the king. One either side of it are stone markers where officials stood according to their rank.
If you look behind the hall, you’ll find a terraced garden. According to geomancy, it’s thought this landscaped area would channel energy from the guardian mountain into the palace.
Seonjeongjeon (King’s Council Hall)
While the throne hall was used for important receptions and ceremonies, Seonjeongjeon was where the king would do more of the day-to-day tasks of running his empire.
As the King’s Council Hall, it was where he would meet his senior officials for morning briefings each day and for other reports on national affairs. Around the central hall of Seonjeongjeon are colonnaded areas that were used as offices for secretaries and other staff members.
An interesting thing to note here is that this is the only existing palace building that has blue tiles on its roof.
Huijeongdang (King’s Residence)
The king would also do work in Huijeongdang, where he had an office that he could use whenever he wanted. But, officially, this area was considered to be the king’s residence and was off limits to many people (although the way it was used changed over the years).
From the outside, the building looks traditionally Korean, with the dominant red and green paint, plus the hip and gable roof. But inside there have been quite a few changes that make it appear more westernised. The largest areas were used as drawing room and a conference room.
Something I think is quite interesting is the curved entrance that was added to the building towards the end for the king’s automobiles!
Daejojeon (Queen’s Residence)
As far as area goes, the Queen’s Residence is bigger than the King’s Residence, but I suspect that’s for two reasons – partly because she couldn’t use as many other areas in the palace, and partly because the queen often ends up with a larger personal staff.
In the centre of the Daejojeon’s courtyard is a large living room space with bedchambers on each side (one for the king and one for the queen). Attached to each of the bedrooms are smaller rooms for the maids of honour.
Over the years, there have been many changes to the Queen’s Residence – some because reconstructions were needed after fires, and some to keep up with trends and modernise parts of it (such as Western-style tiled floors and glass windows).
Seongjeonggak (Crown Prince’s Study)
The building known as Seongjeonggak is all that’s left of a mini-palace that served as the residence of the crown prince within the main palace complex.
There was once a hexagonal pavilion, a library, storerooms, and more – all connected by corridors. The area that is still here was used as the crown prince’s study.
Seongjeonggak is right next to the meeting spot for the Secret Garden tour, so it’s a good area to have a look at while you wait for the tour to begin.
The complex of buildings known as Nakseonjae is larger than it first appears, with a series of buildings that was gradually added to over a number of years.
The first part was constructed by King Heonjong in 1847 as a personal library and living quarters, before he expanded it to create a residence for his concubine. He then also added a residence fir the queen dowager who had served as regent until he took the throne.
The Nakseonjae complex is tucked away in a corner of the palace and you could almost miss them. You’ll also notice that they are intentionally decorated in a more modest style without the usual royal paintwork.
The Changdeokgung Palace Secret Garden
The Secret Garden of Changdeokgung Palace is one of the most important aspects of the whole palace complex.
Built in a space full of hills, it’s not like a traditional palace garden. Instead, it has been adapted to the uneven topography and feels more like an adventure into a national park.
The Secret Garden is landscaped with a series of terraces, where you’ll find lawns, flowers, and pools. Pavilions constructed within the garden seem to sit harmoniously with the trees surrounding them, a large collection of species including walnut, oak, chestnut, and pine.
It’s a large space, stretching out for almost a kilometre behind the main section. You can only access it with a guided tour, which takes about an hour and involves a fair amount of walking.
There are only a few Secret Garden tours each day and they can get full in the busiest months. I’ve got information below about booking them.
There’s a fair amount to see on the Changdeokgung Palace Secret Garden tour because, as well as the natural (albeit landscaped) elements, there are quite a few small compounds of buildings that were constructed in the garden over the years.
There’s the two-story Juhamnu Pavilion, for example, which sits at the top of a flight of stairs overlooking a large reflecting pond. It was used as a royal library and a reading room.
Around the Aeryeonjeong Pavilion, with another pond and small buildings, one of the crown princes underwent his academic training and studied topics around state governance.
Nearby, the Yeongyeongdang complex stands out for its different architecture, not using typical royal designs but imitating the home of a common (but still noble) citizen of the time. Built in 1828 and modified in the 1860s, it was used for functions where the king wanted a more informal atmosphere.
Visiting Changdeokgung Palace
For visitors to the city, I truly think this is one of the best things to do in Seoul. It takes you into an important part of the history, with some impressive buildings and special access to the beautiful Secret Garden.
Because it’s one of the main attractions in Seoul, it can get busy. The earlier you come, the more likely you are to avoid the crowds, and arriving shortly after opening time will mean you may even get some sections almost to yourself.
It will take about an hour (maybe even a bit less) to see the main buildings in the primary palace area. You’ll then also need an hour or so to do the Secret Garden tour.
The Secret Garden tours run in English at 10:30, 11:30, 14:30, and at 15:30 (this last one isn’t offered in December and January).
There are 100 spaces on each tour and half of those are sold online in advance here. The other half are sold at the ticket office on the day. Seeing as they can get full, it’s another good reason to visit Changdeokgung Palace at the start of the day.
You also need to pay an extra admission fee for the Secret Garden tour on top of the entrance to the palace. But I would recommend getting the Royal Palace Pass which includes both. (More info on that below.)
Where is Changdeokgung Palace?
Changdeokgung Palace is in the northern part of central Seoul, next to Changgyeonggung Palace and Jongmyo Shrine. The entrance is in the southwestern corner.
The official address of the palace is 99 Yulgok-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Changdeokgung Palace?
If you’re coming to Changdeokgung Palace by public transport, the easiest option is subway. The closest subway stations are Jongno 3-ga or Anguk.
You can also catch the Blue Bus numbers 109, 151, 162, 171, 172, or 272; and Green Bus number 7025.
When is Changdeokgung Palace open?
Changdeokgung Palace is open Tuesday to Sunday at these times throughout the year:
Feb to May: 09:00 – 18:00
Jun to Aug: 09:00 – 18:30
Sep to Oct: 09:00 – 18:00
Nov to Jan: 09:00 – 17:30
NOTE: It is closed on Mondays
How much does it cost to visit Changdeokgung Palace?
Entry to the main palace area of Changdeokgung Palace costs 3,000 won (US$2.30) for adults and 1,500 won (US$1.15) for children (aged 7-18).
Visiting the palace’s Secret Garden can only be done on a guided tour and costs 5,000 won (US$3.80) for an adult and 2,500 won (US$1.90) for children. (You also need to have a palace entry ticket to get to the start of the Secret Garden tour.)
I would recommend buying the Royal Palace Pass at the ticket counter, which costs just 10,000 won (US$7.60) for adults and 5,000 won for children (US$3.80). It includes Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden, along with Changgyeonggung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and Deoksugung Palace.
All the palaces are also included for free with the Discover Seoul Pass, which is a great way to save money if you’re going to visit lots of sights.
Are there tours of Changdeokgung Palace?
The only way to see the palace’s Secret Garden is with a guided tour that is included with the garden’s admission fee.
If you’re looking for a tour of the main palace area, I would recommend this excellent afternoon tour, which also includes some of the historic neighbourhoods around the palace.
There’s also this private tour of Seoul that you can customise to include Changdeokgung Palace.
Because the Secret Garden includes a guided tour, there’s less reason to have your own guide at somewhere like Changdeokgung Palace. But you’ll certainly benefit from having expert knowledge at the other parts of the palace, and at other sights in Seoul.
If you would like a guided tour of Seoul that includes the palace, there’s this excellent afternoon tour. Or there are some other great options here:
The other important thing to keep in mind with your planning is the proximity of Changdeokgung Palace to a couple of other important royal sites.
Changgyeonggung Palace is right next door – and, in fact, there’s a gate that directly connects the tour (right next to where the Secret Garden tour begins). Although Changgyeonggung Palace is not as impressive, it may make sense for you to see both at the same time.
Changdeokgung Palace is also less than ten minutes’ walk from the entrance to Jongmyo Shrine. The shrine holds the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings and queens, so visiting Jongmyo Shrine takes you to a slightly different style of sight, one that’s also very important in its own way.
Jongmyo Shrine is another World Heritage Site and I would certainly recommend you consider seeing it, if you have time in Seoul. The shrine is included in the Royal Palace Pass, so it’s great value.