Changdeokgung and King’s Secret Garden

I love Gyeongbukgong Palace.  LOVE.  I’ve been three times.  I’ll probably go three more times before I leave South Korea.  I cannot get enough of the place–it’s so massive and beautiful I feel like I’m discovering something new each time I go.  It’s phenomenal in the spring with cherry blossoms, it’s radiant in fall with warm sunshine and golden gingko leaves, it’s stunning in winter with snow on the ground.

But dear readers, there are five palaces in central Seoul, and I aim to see them all.  Last weekend, I re-booted this mission and went to tour Changdeokgung, which is famous for its “secret garden.”  The palace grounds are quite small yet pretty but the secret garden is easily its main attraction. 

I had read on the tourism website that the garden had been opened up to wanders and a visitor would no longer require a tour guide to view it so David and I didn’t pay any mind to the time we arrived at the palace.  Apparently the tourism website LIES as we had to buy separate tickets for the palace and the garden and were indeed required to go on a tour.  Luckily the tickets were only W8,000 (palace + garden) and even luckier, one of the twice daily English speaking tours was starting ten minutes after we got there.

  Normally I avoid tours because I hate feeling rushed but this hour and a half one was quite lovely.  Our guide did a great job of answering questions and there was lots of time built in for taking pictures and taking in the scenery.

One thing I will say though is that “Secret Garden” is a bit of a misnomer–it’s more like a secret forest.  One that I would’ve gotten lost in had I been left on my own, so in the end, I’m grateful for the tour mandate.

Although all of the palaces are centrally located in Seoul, the capital hasn’t always been blessed with timely buses and subways, so Changdeokgung served as a vacation spot to Joseon royals although it’s not far from Gyeongbukgong.  Thus, the secret garden, called such because only the king and his family could see it, is full of libraries (royal library housed 80,000 books!!), ponds, reading rooms, and general places to lounge about.   It’s safe to say that I would enjoy a Joseon royal vacation immensely.

One of the most-named reasons to Changdeokgung is that it is a wonderful example of Korean traditional architecture, which is meant to blend with its natural environment.  No place highlighted this better than the living quarters of the royals and their servants, which was left unpainted like a peasant home.  I do love the buildings covered in greens, blues, and pinks, but the golden wood was brilliant in the afternoon sunlight coming through all 160+ species of trees found in the secret garden. 

Another architectural highlight is the only double lotus pavilion in Korea.  I believe our tour guide said “the world” but I’m not 100% sure on that and will take the safe route.  Regardless, it was a very unusual building style and was situated on a canal connected to a pond shaped like the Korean peninsula.  Nifty!

After some anecdotal tales about tigers on palace grounds, we were led back to the palace grounds, but the secret garden-forest had one more treat for us: a 750-year old tree.

Impressive!

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