I almost scrapped the tour of Cheong Wa Dae because of a jam-packed itinerary and of some reviews I read that one can skip this if pressed for time. But the heavens had a different plan for us so we found our way to the meeting place one fine spring afternoon after having a satisfying lunch at nearby Tosokchon.
How to Book a Tour
The 40-minute walking tour is free but one has to make online reservations at least three weeks in advance. We made ours three months ahead because the slots are limited and can fill in quickly. Make reservations here https://english1.president.go.kr/tours/tours.php
Read the guidelines very carefully because if you correct any mistake made in the initial application by making a second application, all applications could be rejected.
On the Day of the Tour
The meeting place for the tour is the Cheong Wa Dae Information booth located at the east parking lot just outside Gyeongbokgung Palace’s east exit gate. You have to be there 30 minutes before schedule. Be sure to bring a print-out of the confirmation number and your passport. Then, you will board a shuttle bus that will take you to the Blue House.
Our waiting time took longer than the 10-minute short ride to Cheong Wa Dae. During the ride, the security staff oriented us on what to do once inside. He radioed the other staff for information on the number of people inside the bus including our nationalities.
Inside Cheong Wa Dae
When we arrived at the entrance, we waited for another clearance check before alighting the bus. Once inside, we had to undergo another security check, this time more thorough and stricter than airport-style security. We emptied our bags of everything. I was asked to take a sip from my water bottle and spray the facial mist I had. One of us was asked to take a photo with her camera, while another was asked to blow the whistle he was carrying and was warned not to use it inside. However, I never felt violated by this search because they were all very courteous throughout the entire search process.
Our passports were swapped with an audio guide and lanyard that we had to wear during the entire tour. We were also given a souvenir from Cheong Wa Dae and a laminated brochure with a brief explanation of the areas. We watched a short video about the history of Cheong Wa Dae at the Public Information Hall and were reminded that we could only take photos at 3 out of 6 main places that we visited.
The first place where we were allowed to take a picture is at this point, with the big pine tree as background. This is called Nokjiwon, or Green Grass Garden, where commemorative trees were planted by previous presidents during special occasions.
This is the highlight of the tour – the front lawn and a glimpse of the Blue House. We were allowed to take pictures here but not step on the grass nor come closer to the main building. The Blue House got its name from the 150,000 handmade ceramic blue-colored roof tiles. This houses the private office of the President and other various functions rooms.
The last building is the State Reception House. This is where the President welcomes international guests. This is also the end of the official Blue House tour. The presidential security officer who talked to us during the entire tour offered to take us to Chilgung.
Chilgung, which means “Seven Shrines”, is a collection of seven shrines beside Cheong Wa Dae, housing the spirit tablets of the seven royal concubines who gave birth to a future Joseon King. This is a humble shrine rarely visited in Seoul, for you have to book a Blue House tour before you can visit it.
At the end of the Chilgung tour, we had one last look at the State Reception House with Mt. Bugaksan as a beautiful background. The walking tour lasted more than an hour and is available only in Korean. But we had audio guides and a friendly presidential security officer as our “unofficial” guide who accompanied us until the last moment when we went to our next destination.