Of the five grand palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty, this was the largest and most important one. Two years after King Taejo took power in 1394, he ordered the construction of this palace. It is said to have had 500 buildings when it was first built and it served as the home of Joseon kings for the next 200 years. During the Japanese Invasion (1592-98), the palace was burned, not by the invaders, but by disgruntled palace workers who wanted to destroy records of their employment as servants. The palace was later restored in 1865 under the leadership of Heungseon Daewongun during the reign of King Gojong. Using the original foundation stones, over 300 structures were completed by 1872, but at a great cost to the Korean people. Sadly, King Gojong used the palace for only 23 years after its reconstruction -- he fled to Russia when his wife, Queen Min, was murdered on the palace grounds. A year later the king moved into Deoksugung.
During the Japanese colonial period, all but 10 structures were demolished and only a fraction of its structures remain, including Gyeonghoeru Pavilion (which is on the W10,000 note), Geunjeongjeon (the imperial throne room), and Hyangwonjeong Pond. The main gate to the palace, the Gwanghwamun, is currently under renovation and should be completed in October 2010. Free English tours are available in front of Hongremun (the entrance gate) at 9:30am, noon, 1:30pm, and 3pm.
The National Palace Museum is located south of the Heungnyemun (gate), and the National Folk Museum is located on the east side, within Hyangwonjeong. Entry to the palace includes admission to the museums as well. The National Folk Museum is well worth a visit, especially if you want an insight into Korean culture and the daily lives of Koreans throughout the country's long and turbulent history. I especially liked exploring the complex of dioramas, pagodas, and model homes on display in the museum's outdoor court. The museum itself is made up of three interconnected buildings -- there are maps available to help you explore.
The National Palace Museum was created in 1992 and is filled with relics collected from archaeological digs at Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, and Jongmyo. Focusing on the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), it's the perfect place to learn about Confucianism (once Korea's main religion) and ancestral rites that were passed on through the royal line. The displays give insight into the lives of Joseon royalty and palace architecture as well.