South Korea is filled with cultural sites of all varieties, but special places that hold historical significance are designated as Historic Sites by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea. Gyeongbokgung Palace has held this honor since 1963, and continues to attract locals and tourists alike. With the mystical backdrop of Mount Baegaksan to the north and the urban Seoul metropolis to the south, the landscape of Gyeongbokgung is truly unique.
Gyeongbokgung was the main palace for rulers throughout the Joseon dynasty, and the surrounding esteemed neighborhood of Jongno-gu remains a reminder of that high status. The presidential residence, called either The Blue House or Cheongwadae, is directly north of this historic site. To enter the royal grounds, you must proceed through Gwanghwamun Gate (광화문). As a short Korean language lesson, “mun”/문 means “gate,” so when switching between languages, you might repeat yourself! Similarly, “san”/산 means mountain!
Upon exiting Gyeongbokgung station, hanbok rental shops are scattered near the entrance of Gwanghwamun Gate. Hanbok (한복) describes a set of clothing worn traditionally in Korea, and today are works of art worn during special occasions. A defining feature of women’s styles of hanbok is the long bell-shaped skirt. When I visited, my friends and I saw a sign in the window of “The King Hanbok” offering a special discount.
As a tall female foreigner who had only tried on hanbok once before for a Korean class back in the US, I was uncertain if any of the hanbok would fit me. To my (pleasant) surprise, this set of clothing was one of the most comfortable (and arguably, most flattering) things I have ever worn. The skirt, or “chima” 치마 is typically “free size,” but due to the extensive amount of fabric used, this garment can comfortably fit a variety of body types. At the shop where my friends and I went, the jackets worn over the skirts came in a range of sizes (XS-XL), so no one was struggling to allow their arms to fit naturally. This was also perfect for the February weather when we visited, and I was able to wear my leggings and sweater dress underneath, only needing to remove my outer coat for the look to work.
I was instantly drawn to a beautiful blue skirt, and the ladies who worked there helped me choose a matching jacket based on the colors in the skirt. You will be expected to wear the garments over your existing outfit, so if you can, perhaps choose something light and breathable. If you opt for the female style, the ladies who work there will give you a hoop skirt or crinoline to wear underneath for the full bell-shaped effect. Most locations also offer male hanbok styles, and the ones at this location looked stunning. Don’t worry about trying to tie the outfit yourself, as the workers will essentially dress you up. You will likely be asked to put any belongings you do not want to bring with you into a locker, and these are usually either very inexpensive or free. At “The King Hanbok,” customers could rent a small purse and headpiece alongside their hanbok at no additional cost. Because these hanbok did not have pockets, the purse was very helpful to carry my phone and wallet around. There was also the option to have your hair beautifully styled by the shop workers, and a few of my friends elected to do this. The results were gorgeous if you are willing to spend a few extra thousand won. The more ornate hanbok that I chose was less than 10,000W for 2 hours (with the promotion offered by the shop), and I believe that the simple ones cost less than 5,000W.
It was a very short distance from the shop to the front gates, and there were many other palace-goers, many of whom were Korean, also dressed in hanbok. Although we saw no indication of a need to pay for entry, we had heard that wearing hanbok onto the grounds permits free entry. The palace is surrounded by walls, and the traditional guards are still holding down the fort at the front gates. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the ending segment of the changing of the guards, but you can get a full video of the process below.
Upon entering the gates, the backdrop of the mountain and the palace harkens back to the Joseon dynasty. The grounds are also home to a museum, which was unfortunately closed on the day when we visited. Tours were also not being offered when we visited, likely due to the emergence of the global pandemic, but for a more in-depth description of the significance of each part of the grounds, check out the official website here, it’s well worth the read!
My friends and I decided to take a photoshoot around the grounds, and some very nice people even offered to take our pictures. My friends and I had a very positive interaction with a woman who was so excited to see us embracing this aspect of Korean culture, and she enthusiastically gave us recommendations for things to do around Korea during our stay.
For anyone planning on making a visit, the palace is closed on Tuesdays, per the main website. I would recommend going on a clear day so you can fully appreciate the contrast between the skyscraper skyline outside and the time capsule within the walls. If you get the chance to wear hanbok at this site, definitely give it a chance!
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