The Jongmyo Shrine is home to the sacred spirit tablets of the deceased Joseon Dynasty kings and queens, Korea’s last monarchs. These sacred tablets purportedly hold the spirits of these royals. Owing to its architecture and the hallowed ancestral rites and rituals that have taken place – and continue to take place – here, UNESCO deemed it a World Heritage site in 1995.
Jongmyo is the oldest Confucian royal ancestral shrine, having been originally built in the 14th century and later rebuilt in the 17th after the Japanese destroyed it during their invasion of the 16th century. The main shrine, Jeongjeon, is one of the longest single wooden structures in the world, with a front façade stretching for 109 metres. It holds 49 royal spirit tablets of the most esteemed kings and queens, whereas the Hall of Eternal Peace, Yeongnyeongjeon, holds the tablets of 34 less worthy kings (and their queens).
The shrine lacks the grandeur and opulence of Seoul’s royal palaces. Instead, it intentionally exudes an air of solemnity and piety befitting its role as a place of worship. Regardless, the shrine is a magnificent example of expertly designed and crafted traditional Korean architecture. Sacred ceremonies honouring the dead regularly took place here throughout the Joseon reign, and today, the tradition continues. Known as Jongmyo Jerye, this important, artistic and solemn ceremony happens on the first Sunday in May and features rituals, song and dance.
Jongmyo Shrine is closed on Tuesdays. On weekdays and Sundays, you can enter the shrine only as part of a guided tour and only at scheduled times. On Saturdays, you’re allowed to visit independently. From February to May and September through October, opening hours are from 9am to 6pm; from June to August, 9am to 6:30pm; and from November to January, 9am to 5:30pm.