I first visited Changdeokgung Palace on a blustery day in the fall when the afternoon light was harsh and slanted and leaves covered the ground. They filled the curved roofs of pagodas in fluffy piles and littered the surface of lotus ponds in such a way that suggested the grounds had suffered years of neglect. I felt like I was trespassing into “Geumwon,” or the Forbidden Garden — a name given to the area during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) because of its restrictive access to anyone other than royalty.

Nowadays anyone is free to wander around the palace grounds after paying a menial entrance fee, but visitors can only enter the garden area on a guided tour, which keeps the flocks of tourists at bay and aids in preserving the authenticity of the secluded garden.

It was a bright, humid day in late May the second time I visited Changdeokgung, the second royal palace to be built in Seoul, completed in 1412. The late spring weather seemed to have transformed the area that is now called Biwon, or Secret Garden, from a haunting, curious landscape into a refuge of serenity and relaxation — the kind of place that makes you want to stretch out in the sun and nap.

Seoul was on the cusp of summer, and the Secret Garden was draped in every shade of green, with dense trees forming a canopy that offered visitors a reprise from the heat and a spot to rest. Imposing stone stairs led up to Juhamnu Pavilion, a two-story hanok house that once served as the king’s library and overlooks the center of the garden.

Every step further down the gravel path took me away from the voices of my tour group until the only sound came from a few birds calling to one another overhead. The enveloping quiet no longer felt eerie as it had months ago when the trees were half bare. The garden seemed to beckon me forward, tempting me with secrets past. I happily consented.

How to get to Changdeokgung and its secret garden: Head to Anguk Station on subway line 3 and take exit 3. Walk for about five minutes and you will see the palace on your left. For seasonal hours and ticket prices, see the official site.

Words and photos by Jenna Davis. Stop by and say hello!