The National Palace Museum in Seoul is not to be missed. Typically I’m not one to suggest activities for large cities where it’s easy to get turned around, but Gyeongbukgung is one attraction that should be on any traveler’s list.
Gyeongbukgung is one of the oldest palaces in Korea. It was built during the Joseon Dynasty when the capital was first moved to Seoul. The palace has been rebuilt several times. It was completely destroyed by the Japanese and damaged severely in the Korean War–not to mention the general wear and tear of being over 500 years old.
I arrived late in the day as the palace itself was closing down so I made for the nearby National Palace Museum. I walked around the outside display and the gardens for a bit, noting the architecture and detail of a deconstructed palace from the 1970s.
This first modern reconstruction was built entirely of cement and then joined together, like wood, as part of Park Chung-hee’s push to make Korea an exporter of industry. The deconstructed palace was doubly fascinating as I’d just been reading about Park and his economic policies in “Korea’s Place in the Sun”. (A great book for anyone interested in a an overview of Korean history.)
I was happy to head inside as the afternoon cooled to a chilling -7 degrees. (That’s Celsius, people.) The National Palace Museum was beautiful. I’m no museum expert, but this museum was awesome. Unfortunately they do not allow photos of the exhibits, so I’ll do my best to walk you through with words.
My first stop was the science room which completely made me fall in love with the whole place. Right in the center of the room was a giant black stone, the front and back smoothed and polished with small gray dots carved out.
“Huh, that looks like a map of the constellations,” I thought walking and closer. It was! I almost had a nerd-gasm on the spot. I was staring at the second oldest astronomical map of the stars! The awesomeness overwhelmed me. A few seconds later, I was sad to notice that the constellations happen to be one of the few displays with no English. Sadly I was not able to learn much about early Korean astronomy. (But I’m totally looking it up now.)
The museum continued to awe me with incredible displays of furniture, clothing and music. There was even one alcove completely dedicated to name stamps of the Joseon Dynasty.
Once I was completely overwhelmed by Korean history, I made my way to the display on Vietnam. The Vietnam display was very cool. It was incredible to see the contrast between the two cultures side by side. It certainly inspired me to one day visit the country.
After two hours, I finally made my way to the subway to begin the journey home. I’ll definitely be heading back to check out the palace and the National Folk Museum too.
Directions: Take the Orange Line (Line 3) to Gyeongbukgung Station. Follow the signs to Exit 5. If it looks like you are in a museum while you are still in the subway station, you’re in the right place. Oh, and expect to be overwhelmed by tourists from everywhere. Admission is free.