Secret Garden Fit for a King

Many kings, actually. Yesterday we visited Changdeokgung Palace, built in 1405 and — second to the Gyeongbokgung Palace — the palace from which many Joseon dynasty emperors ruled, including the last reigning one, Emperor Sunjong, who ruled until 1910. Like the Jongmyo Shrine, this palace is also a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the way its buildings and design are integrated with nature. It was Will’s first palace visit in Seoul.

The palace grounds are immense, 110 acres if I remember correctly. Many different areas and so many buildings — whether housing quarters for queens, concubines, princes, or staff, or meeting halls, ceremonial halls, horse stables, storage rooms, etc. — it’s easy to get lost looking around. We were there for hours and I still don’t think we saw everything. Once you pay admission into the palace, you can explore freely. If you want to visit the palace’s Secret Garden, however, you need to pay a separate admission fee and go in with a guided tour group. They give the tours in various languages, several times daily.

The Secret Garden (aka Rear Garden) is even larger than the main palace grounds, taking up almost 60 percent of the entire area of the Changdeokgung Palace. Its acres and acres are filled with ponds, streams, gazebos, pavilions and many beautiful walking paths. The garden was meant as a place for the kings and their royal family members to relax, but also used for military exercises, archery contests, banquets and growing certain grains. Since it is also located next to the Changgyeonggung Palace, it was used by members of both palaces.

The palace and garden were lovely to stroll through on this November day, but we imagine they’re that much more stunning in the spring, when all the trees and flowers are in their full splendor. Our English tour of the garden lasted 1.5 hours, and the tour group itself was rather large (I personally prefer smaller tour groups like at the Jongmyo Shrine, where everyone isn’t in the way trying to snap the same photos you want), but in the end it’s definitely a plus having a knowledgeable tour guide to share the history of things.

You an also access Changgyeonggung Palace from Changdeokgung Palace, but we’d been walking for quite a while and were hungry, so we decided to leave it for another time.

For a bite, I decided to revisit Insa-dong Street, since it’s within walking distance from the palace and Will hadn’t been there yet. Like most neighborhoods in Seoul, there were plenty of eateries to choose from. What’s one way to decide where to eat? Look for lines of people waiting outside. That’s how we ended up joining the line at Bukchon Son Mandu, a popular dumplings place. You could either wait in line for a precious seat inside the quaint restaurant, or you could order take-out.

We each ordered combination plates and, agreed that while the dumplings were pretty good, we liked the “ball dumplings” the best (meat and veggies balled up — basically the stuffing without the dough). Will thinks the fried dumplings were disproportionately doughy, but he liked the kimchi dumplings. I liked the steamed dumplings better than the fried — let’s just say I don’t think my stomach liked all the grease on the fried ones. ><

For dessert, I gave in to those waffle-whipped cream-ice cream concoctions we’d seen back on the streets of Myeong-dong. I ordered a waffle with strawberry whipped cream and vanilla ice cream…. wow! Delicious. Filling, but delicious.

As I devoured my waffle treat, I followed Will in search of the Nagwon Arcade we’d seen on the map. Sweet, an arcade. What we didn’t realize, until we stepped into the “arcade,” is that it’s the Nagwon Instrument Arcade! A building full of every kind of musical instrument — guitars, pianos, violins, flutes, saxophones, ukuleles, even ocarinas (I thought these only existed in Zelda!) — as well as amps and other musical gear. Wah wah. Will was disappointed.

We’ll just have to go in search of a PC bang next time and see some gaming action. Anyone know of any in Seoul? Let us know!


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