Old Seoul in the foreground, new Seoul in the background, young Seoulite in the middle ground. Photo: Tom Coyner

SEOUL – After long, dreary months of social distancing, South Koreans are exiting Covid-19 at the perfect time: The season of the year when their nation is bathed in its annual riot of autumnal colors.

Even in late summer, once-packed destinations were virtually empty of visitors – even on weekends.  As of the start of November, this trend has been reversing, and parks and palace grounds are now swarming with visitors – even on weekdays.

As the citizenry headed out for their last chance of outdoor recreation before winter descends, Seoul-based photographer Tom Coyner headed to one of his favorite spots in the city to capture some late-season visual poetry.

That spot is actually a brace of spots: Two palace compounds of the peninsula’s last royal dynasty, Joseon (1392-1910), which adjoin each other in the northern part of the capitol. 

Changdeok Palace, the larger of the two, established in 1395, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its compound includes the famous Huwon, or Biwon (Rear, or Hidden Garden). 

Adjacent to Changdeok Palace is Changgyeong Palace, established in the mid-15th century. Its compound is more spacious than that of its neighbor’s as many original buildings were torn down during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula to make room for a park.

The result was a showplace for the Japanese empire – akin to Tokyo’s Ueno Park. Post-independence, Koreans sought to restore their palaces to pre-colonial glories – a process that is ongoing. 

The park’s zoo has been relocated and many original buildings have been reconstructed. But the grounds retain their spectacular lake, surrounded by a variety of trees and sporting a beautiful, treed-island.

While seasonal preferences may differ, many would agree that the palaces look their finest during Fall. And it is not only the leaves that paint the compounds in their striking palette.

As the palaces are Grade-A tourist attractions, visitors who show up in Korean costume are waived entrance fees. However, one does not have to engage the pricey services of a traditional tailor to take advantage of this offer.

Entrepreneurs have stepped up – with the result that costume rental stores are now prominent in palace neighborhoods, offering colorful if not entirely authentic hanbok, or traditional Korean attire, to visitors by the hour. 

Naturally, modern paraphernalia accessorizes these faux robes. Many visitors sensibly wear running shoes under their hanbok – and this being millennial Asia, smartphones are very much in evidence. After all, this is the near-perfect selfie location – and the near-perfect time.

Big picture, these locations are hardly representative of today’s Seoul, which is very much an all-bells-and-all-whistles 21st-century megalopolis. But while the city is bristling with modern conveniences, it is also simmering with modern stresses.

Fortunately, Seoulites are able to retreat to their city’s medieval palaces. These havens of tradition, once trod by royals, now provide the perfect spot for the average Kim, Park or Lee to chill.

So: Turn up the ambient trance, pour yourself a generous tumbler of soju and sprawl in your armchair to peruse this gallery of late autumn glories in the heart of Olde Seoul.

To see more of Coyner’s works from across Seoul, Korea and Asia, please click here.

Autumnal views framed by Changdeok Palace’s front gate. Photo: Tom Coyner
Traditional-style robes are not only for locals: A foreign couple in rented hanbok make their way into Changdeok Palace. Photo: Tom Coyner
Those who don traditional attire before entering Seoul’s palaces get free entry. Photo: Tom Coyner
Visitors’ attire competes with autumnal trees in a battle of colors. Photo: Tom Coyner
While masks remain mandatory, nobody is going to summon the constabulary if a visitor doffs her face covering for a swift photo opp. Photo: Tom Coyner
‘Mirror, mirror in the lake/Who is the fairest in this take?’ Photo: Tom Coyner
Don’t fall in … Photo: Tom Coyner
Visitors explore one of the hidden niches of Changgyeong Palace’s gardens. Photo: Tom Coyner
A photographer checks his shot among the autumn leaves of Changgyeong Palace’s grounds. Photo: Tom Coyner
Golden hour, golden leaves. Photo: Tom Coyner
At end of the day, the gates of Changgyeong Palace creak shut. Photo: Tom Coyner