Updated: Feb 22
I recently returned to Seoul, South Korea, my home away from home, after a 5 year absence. I went back to visit old friends, and relive all of the amazing experiences I had while teaching and living there over the course of 3 years. I traveled the length of the peninsula multiple times, visiting small villages, attending festivals for everything you can imagine, and island hopping on a “pirate” ship called the Koreana. I've seen every tourist attraction, visited hundreds of temples and palaces, and tried more of the food than I can even begin to name. But one thing I never got to do was wear a hanbok.
A hanbok is a traditional Korean garment flaunting bright colors, embroidery, and a ribbon tied across the jeogori (a short jacket). Hanboks are formal wear, usually worn on special occasions, such as weddings and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). On holidays, my kindergarteners would show up to school with their hanboks on, and I always wanted to participate.
Fast forward five years, and I went to revisit one of my favorite palaces, Gyeongbokgung. It is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces, and was the main palace during the Joseon Dynasty. I always loved the amazing architecture and peaceful gardens. While there, I was surprised to see almost everyone wearing hanboks. It had always been a perk that if you wear a hanbok, you can enter the palaces for free. But usually you would see very few people that actually did it. This was a completely different scene than what I had in my memory, and it was absolutely magical. I felt like I was amongst actual royalty, and I needed to find out how I, too, could become a princess.
It didn't take long to locate the many hanbok rental shops that have popped up near the main gate. Although there were a lot of foreigners, I was surprised to see that a majority of the customers were actually Korean. Hanboks can be rather expensive, so owning several is not common, and the rental shops also had designs that were more typical of Joseon royalty.
So what is the cost to rent one of these beautiful gowns for a few hours? Mine was a whopping 4,000 won (approximately 4 dollars). I went to The King Hanbok just outside exit 4 of Gyeongbokgung Station on line 3 (orange line). It was quite busy, but that's to be expected at midday on a gorgeous autumn Sunday.
I chose one of their “traditional” hanbok styles, which was brightly colored, and frankly, matched my hair the best. But I got lucky since there were not many choices. For a still very cheap 10,000 won, you could choose the “premium” hanbok which had a lot more options. They had several skirts and jackets to choose from, as well as hats, purses, and other accessories. I also chose to get my hair done (+5,000 won), which included braids, pearls, a ribbon, and the classic headband.
Rather than go to the very popular Gyeongbokgung, I went to one of the smaller palaces a short walk away called Deoksugung. (You can also take bus 09 three stops to City Hall Station).
It was much less crowded, and equally beautiful. The trees were all shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple.
There were plenty of secluded spots to set up my tripod without being in the way of others, and vice versa.
I had incredible backdrops of autumn trees, gorgeous ponds, and my favorite: traditional buildings decorated with dancheong, the intricate and colorful designs painted on the wooden rafters.
I've always loved and embraced Korean culture so much, and I'm so happy I finally got to take part in wearing the traditional clothing. It has been one of my favorite experiences in Korea to date, and I have a LOT of adventures to compare, so that's saying a lot. If you find yourself in Seoul, you should definitely take the time to wander the palaces as royalty.
Note: There is another very popular spot for hanbok photos, walking distance from Gyeongbokgung. The Bukchon Hanok Village (NOT hanBOK village) is a neighborhood of traditional houses (hanok), teahouses, and galleries. It is beautiful, and definitely worth a visit regardless of your attire, but be prepared for masses of tourists. I went on a Monday afternoon and it was an Insta-nightmare. Want to know what to eat during your stay in Seoul? I've got you covered with the best Korean street food and must-eat meals.