Secret Garden lets tourists follow in the footsteps of Korea’s kings and queens
Visitors used to require permission from the king to enter the Secret Garden, a lush park behind the Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul. Now you can book a guided tour online.
The original palace, which was built in 1405 as a secondary palace for Joseon dynasty, was destroyed during the late 16th-century Japanese invasion. It was rebuilt in 1610 and served as the principal palace for the next 270 years.
But it’s most distinguished for the former royal retreat, which extends to the north and is accessible through a separate gate. The garden takes up more than 60 percent of the 110-acre palace grounds and incorporates lotus ponds and pavilions with traditional Korean tiled roofs into a virtual forest.
The complex offers a literal breath of fresh air — and some welcome summertime shade — in the heart of the busy South Korean capital, allowing tourists a chance to stroll in the footsteps of the kings and queens from the dynasty that ruled the country until 1897.
Overhanging foliage and imposing stone walls provide seclusion and serenity from the traffic outside, with maple, walnut, mulberry and pine trees among the highlights. It’s said to be beautiful in any season, but the changing colors of the leaves in the fall are guaranteed to be stunning. A moonlight tour is also available on designated evenings from June to November.
The site has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its unique design with buildings that are “integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting.” The park includes more than 100 species of trees, including some that are more than 300 years old.
Our guide, wearing a traditional Korean hanbok dress and parasol, led us first to the Juhamnu Pavilion, which was used as a library and royal archive and is adjacent to a lotus pond. The guide explained that the pond is square to represent the earth and contains a round island for the sky.
A smaller pavilion with two pillars rests on the edge of the pond, apparently used by kings for fishing centuries ago. At the right angle, the two pillars resemble legs, the guide says.
Unique architecture abounds. The Uiduhap Pavilion is one of the more modest structures as it was used by the crown prince as a place of study and contemplation and is not decorated as vividly as the others.
The 19th-century Yeongyeongdang complex, meanwhile, is a residential area that was built to accommodate audiences during which ceremony officials presented food, wine and other gifts to the royal couple.
Near the end of the tour is a small pagoda with a thatched roof that sits in what may be the smallest rice paddy in the country. This was supposed to allow the kings to dabble in agriculture so they could understand its importance to their people. There’s also a stream dominated by a large boulder that is inscribed with a poem written by King Sukjong to honor the landscape.
The Secret Garden was also known as the Forbidden Garden because even high officials were not allowed to enter without the king’s permission. Modern tourists have it easier, but the area is still restricted to guided tours.
Tours last 90 minutes and include some steep climbs; wear comfortable shoes. Only 50 tickets are sold for each tour. The guide moves fast and doesn’t wait for stragglers, so stay toward the front to soak in the information. Photographers may linger along the way, but guards make sure nobody strays off course.
Changdeokgung Palace & the Secret Garden DIRECTIONS
The address for Changdeokgung Palace is 2-71, Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul. On the subway, take Anguk Station on Line 3, take exit 3 and walk straight for about 5 minutes until you see the palace on your left. The parking lot is closed until further notice due to renovations.
The palace is usually open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Secret Garden tours must be booked separately. They’re available in English at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., subject to change. Book at http://eng.cdg.go.kr.
Admission to the palace and the Secret Garden is 8,000 won (about $8) for adults under 65; 5,000 won (about $5) for over 65; and 4,000 won (about $4) for youths ages 7-18.
There is a cafe in the area just before the Secret Garden entrance.