SEOUL, April 23 (Yonhap) -- Those already familiar with Seoul can attest that no visit to the city is complete without a walk through at least one of its five historical palaces: Deoksugung, Gyeonghuigung, Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung or Changgyeonggung. Pummeled to near ruin during the Japanese invasion (1592-98) and colonial occupation (1910-45), they represent remarkable architectural achievement and the relentless resilience the nation still prides itself upon to this day.
All palaces have undergone significant restoration in recent years. Due to their relatively close proximity to each other -- they were once all joined together -- it is possible to reach all five comfortably on foot within a day. Admission ranges from 1,000 to 5,000 won (1,000 won roughly US 80 cents).
One of Seoul's stronger suits is that its city center is peppered with historical monuments in and around its modern facade so there is no shortage of cafes, teahouses and restaurants to sample along the way.
Deoksugung, or Deoksu Palace (gung meaning palace in Korean), at City Hall station (subway Line 2, Exit 2) is a good place to start. Though much of the original structure here was destroyed, there are a few buildings that have remained intact. The city has been restoring the premises, and much of the restoration was completed in December last year.
Deoksugung's (www.deoksugung.go.kr) most distinguishing trait from its counterparts is the prevalent influence of Western tradition and modernity. Several buildings, namely the Russian-designed Jeonggwanheon, make it very unique.
Long ago, Jeong-dong, where the palace is located, comprised the residences of Western powers and foreign missionaries that were very modern in style; some even occupied the grounds and would later morph into the palace layout itself afterward. Unfortunately, today Deoksugung is only about a third the size of its former glory during the era of Emperor Gojong -- the founding figure of the Korean Empire.
The tree-lined street encompassing Deoksugung, located just to the right of the subway exit, is especially beautiful during the spring and autumn months.
Jipokjae, private royal library, near Gyeongbokgung's north gate entrance (All photos courtesy of Gregory Curley)
To reach Gyeonghuigung, the second palace along the route, simply follow through all the way up to Jeongdong Theater, cross the street and turn right. Gyeonghuigung is roughly 50 meters down on the left.
One of the five representative palaces of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeonhuigung was also referred to as Seogwol, or "palace in the west." A victim of colonial aggression, all of its royal halls and buildings were demolished and moved. Although the neighboring palaces suffered similar fates, Gyeonghuigung lost most of its grandeur and never fully recovered despite the fact that many of its structures were restored.
Nonetheless, Gyeonghuigung still retains a quiet charm and rustic simplicity that makes for a worthwhile visit. It is here where the popular Kukkiwon taekwondo demonstrations are held every year.
To proceed to Gyeongbokgung, turn left after exiting the grounds and walk all the way up to Gwanghwamun Station. Turn left and walk along Gwanghwamun Plaza, a hugely popular addition to the city. It's also a vantage point to take in the newly restored Gwanghwamun, the main entry point into Gyeongbokgung.
Gyeongbokgung (www.royalpalace.go.kr) is the oldest and grandest of the Joseon palaces. "Gyeongbok," meaning "resplendent happiness," refers to "a long-lasting and glorious dynasty."
Gyeongbokgung wasn't rebuilt until the 1860s, nearly 300 years after the Japanese invasion.
Cherry blossoms are in bloom at the entrance of Changgyeonggung
After exploring the premises, exit at the north gate entrance, just across from the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. Proceed right and walk along the outer palace lined with cherry blossoms as it bends right, all the way to the crosswalk at Jisun Gallery, the entry point to Samcheong-dong.
Turn left across the street and then make a right at the police station. Follow the street and turn left at the Family Mart. Cha Masineun Tteul is 100m up on the right.
Cha Masineun Tteul is a hanok teahouse perched up on a hill that straddles Bukchon and Samchong-dong. It offers a view and a wide assortment of teas and side dishes.
The omija cha (7,000 won), or five-berry flavored tea, is a favored pick as is the sweet pumpkin rice cake (6,000 won). Literally translated as "a garden where people drink," Cha Masineun Tteul has been here for six years.
Another option is Coffee Bang Atgan (02-732-7656). From the Family Mart, head straight until the large brick Kiehl's shop. Coffee Bang Atgan is just up on the left. A fresh cup of Guatemalan Antigua is 6,000 won.
Samsamwa, a hexagonal pavillion once used for storing books at Changdeokgung
The greenhouse at Changgyeonggung
To proceed to Changdeokgung, grab a map at the information center just down from the Kiehl's shop on the left beside Jeongdok Library.
About 50m down from the information center on the right, there's restaurant cafe To Go Coffee. It sells misutgaru (8,000 won), a delicious drink made from soy milk, multi-grain and honey and the Serena sandwich (10,000 won) with rosemary chicken and baked tomatoes.
From there, keep following 5-gil Bukchon-ro through the next intersection, from where it changes to 4-gil Bukchon-ro, and then finally Changdeokgung 1-gil as you near Changdeokgung.
Both Changdeokgung (www.cdg.go.kr) and Changgyeonggung (www.cgg.cha.go.kr) are referred to as "eastern palaces" as they lie to the east of the city. The palaces were destroyed, but only Changdeokgung was immediately rebuilt after the Japanese occupation.
Considered to be an "outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design," Changdeokgung was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.
Those wishing to visit Changdeokgung need to do so through a guided tour (3,000 won). There is a separate tour for the "secret garden" (5,000 won) as well. The complete timetable is available through the Web site.
Changgyeonggung can be accessed from Changdeokgung through Hamyangmun gate. Changgyeonggung is home to the beautiful greenhouse -- Korea's first modern conservatory -- constructed in 1909 of wood and steel.