Five things to do in the historic centre of Korea's capital
Seoul. Finally! After three business trips to the Korean capital, during which I had not been able to see anything else than my hotel, the meeting location and Incheon airport, finally I had the chance to combine the fourth duty trip to Korea with a weekend for a bit of leisure and sightseeing. A Korean colleague gave me some precious advice for my travel planning and I would like to pass these recommendations on to you, as it turned out to be a great program. So, here are my five highlights for a first visit to the historic centre of Seoul:
Staying in a traditional Hanok and exploring Bukchon Hanok Village
In the north of “old” Seoul, between the palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung in the Jongno district, you will find Bukchon Hanok Village (buk= north; chon = village). This is a hamlet featuring around 900 traditional Korean houses, many of which serve as guest houses or hostels today, due to the touristic attractiveness of the area. No surprise, as walking round here feels a little bit like you have just travelled a few hundred years back in time, whereas you are actually quite close to the lively centre of the vibrant metropolis called Seoul.
During the times of Joseon dynasty, the nobility used to live here in the proximity of Seoul’s palaces, so that they could get there in time to join the morning sessions with the king. Nowadays, it is great fun to explore Bukchon Hanok Village during a leisurely stroll through its winding alleys and narrow lanes.
It is recommendable to go for such walk during either early morning or late afternoon/ early evening hours, when the light is best and the number of tourists who love to walk around here (preferably dressed in traditional Hanbok clothing) is acceptable. Your first place to go might actually be either the Hanok Homestay Information Center (for availability requests) or Bukchon Tourist Information Center (for recommendations on the area itself), both in walking distance from Anguk subway station (Line 3). Here, you will also get maps with suggested itineraries.
However, the area is just perfect for aimless discovery walks, as you will find something interesting behind almost every corner while enjoying the picturesque neighborhood around you.
Some of the many highlights around Bukchon are the “Arts and Crafts street” Wonseo-dong, the stone stairway in Samcheong-dong and the Bukchon Observatory close by, which is a recommendable spot to view the sunset from. From its balcony, you will enjoy a magnificent overview over the traditional Hanok roofs, which will be conquered by the area’s cat population during dusk. In the distance, you will spot the business towers of Myeongdong, Mount Namsan and even the recently opened Lotte World Tower on the other side of the Han river. This view will set you back 3,000 Won per person, yet the lovely old gentleman at the entrance will bring you softdrinks to your front row seat on the balcony.
Please be aware that Bukchon Hanok Village is actually a residential area (even though it seems like a large open-air museum), so please keep your voices down and be considerate when exploring the area.
How to get to Bukchon: Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station (Exit No. 2, 3), Bus No. 601, 109, 151, 162, 171, 272, 7025; Airport Bus 6011 (get off at Anguk Station)
Street food stalls of Myeongdong and Nanta performance
After sunset, you should head to the buzzing Myeongdong district (e. g. with Bus No. 151 or 162). Before watching the electrifying Nanta performance (it is strongly advised to make a reservation for tickets in advance) you should grab something to eat, as it is a VERY BAD decision to watch the Nanta show in a hungry state. Luckily, there are literally hundreds of street food stalls to choose from in the pedestrian streets of Myeongdong, serving interesting and delicious specialties that you won’t find everywhere.
If you wonder why I recommend so strongly to grab a bite to eat before, then you obviously have no clue what the Nanta show is about. Neither had I, so I don’t blame you. Nanta is a cooking performance. And in case you might say now that was a boring thing, think again: it is a 90-minutes nonstop spectacle and one of the best live performances I have ever witnessed!
On a stage decorated in the style of a kitchen, the performance (a combination of Blue Man Group and Safri Duo) is a sophisticated choreography featuring drum performances mixed with acrobatic, dance and martial arts elements as well as comedian theater – including involvement of the audience. If you don’t want to get involved, you should go for tickets on the upper tier. The crew will use any imaginable kitchen utensils as music instruments, like sharp knives that become drum sticks. Still, during the performance they really produce something edible. Truly “art of cooking”, totally worth seeing and great fun for the whole family, as the story is easily understandable and doesn’t need many words.
The best proof for Nanta’s quality is its success. The most successful Korean stage production has been performed for 20 years now and the ensemble has also been on several world tours in the past: 310 cities in 57 countries have already witnessed the action, including New York’s Broadway.
The most beautiful heritage of Joseon dynasty: Changdeokgung Palace
History enthusiasts will find four palaces and one shrine in the old center of Seoul. In case your time is limited and should only allow for one of those buildings, make it Changdeokgung Palace. This is the best preserved one of the four palaces and that’s why it was also added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1997, although it is not the oldest palace in Seoul. Actually, Changdeokgung was established by the Third King Taejong in 1405 as counterpiece to Gyeongbokgung, the former main palace. Together with neighboring Changgyeonggung, it formed the “Eastern Palace”. The special thing about Changdeokgung is, that – in contrast to the prevailing palace architecture of ancient times – it was not built along symmetrical lines with a central main axis, but rather erected in a semi-circle along the foot of the mountain behind it, in total harmony with its surrounding nature.
In its main building, the Throne Hall, you will see a painting above the throne, which you can also find on the 10,000 Won note (together with a portrait of the Fourth King who created the Korean alphabet). Next to the Throne Hall, the Council Hall is the only building on the palace’s premises that features a blue-tiled roof, an extremely expensive specialty.
I strongly recommend getting here early (it is probably best to arrive even shortly before opening, so that you will avoid long queues if you arrive later), which is only a few minutes’ walk if you stayed in Bukchon Hanok Village overnight. Otherwise, you can also get here from Anguk or Jongno 3-ga subway stations.
If you plan to visit more than just one palace, you may consider the “Royal Palace Pass” combo ticket for 10,000 Won (valid for one month). This will cover Changdeokgung Palace (3,000 Won) as well as its Secret Gardens (5,000 Won), which will already cost you almost the same amount. Admission is totally free, however, if you're wearing a traditional hanbok costume. Another recommendation is to join one of the free guided tours (e. g. the Palace Tour at 10:15am, Secret Gardens tour at 11:30am). From my experience, I found that the guides were speaking English very well and the background information provided was interesting and helpful. An alternative would be to download the app for self-guided walks provided by “Cultural Heritage Administration” (available in English).
At the place where you enter the Secret Gardens, you could also turn right and enter the Changgyeong Palace instead. This area was mainly used as residential complex for members of the royal family and less as seat of the government. Together with Changdeokgung, it formed the “Eastern Palace”, before it was downgraded to a public zoo by the Japanese in the early 20th century. During the 1980s, it was restored to its original purpose. From its main entrance and exit in the east, you need to walk southward for fifteen minutes until you will eventually reach Jongmyo Shrine. When visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site, too, the Royal Palace Pass ticket will have paid off at last!
Please be aware that Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung (as well as Deoksugung) are closed on Mondays, while Jongmyo Shrine (and Gyeongbokgung) are closed on Tuesdays!
Water finds its way: Cheonggyecheon Stream
So much about temples and palaces. And as temple-hopping will make you hungry eventually, it is a nice coincidence that Gwangjang Market is just a stone’s throw away. At the eastern end of this market, you will find lots of food stalls. Still your hunger with a hearty Bibimbap and have a freshly squeezed fruit juice afterwards.
Then, head on to nearby Jongno Sewoon Building. From its Roof Garden you will have a nice 360-degrees view on the part of Seoul north of Han river. Seoul is incredibly huge, as a glimpse at the city’s subway map will tell you. Luckily, most of the attraction in the historic center are within walking distance, so that you don’t need much time for commuting between places.
And so, the next highlight is also just around the corner, a few steps south of Gwangjang and the Sewoon Building. I’m talking about Cheonggyecheon Stream, which flows through Seoul at 8.4 kilometers in length from West to East. But, wait: I should better say “…which flows AGAIN through Seoul”, as this stream was once dried out and covered by a highway. Thanks to Lee Myung-bak, an earlier mayor of Seoul, the stream was dug out again and the area was reopened in 2005 as a modern recreational space for people to walk along.
Some meters below street level, here it feels like miles away from the hustle and bustle of Seoul and it is actually quiet and peaceful. A nice way to escape the city and a positive example for urban renewal!
Sunset from Mount Namsan
As we like sunsets (who doesn’t, right?), we wanted to watch the sunset on our second day from another one of Seoul’s sunset hotspots. So we headed towards Mount Namsan, the “southern mountain”. As the cable car station is relatively hard to reach with public transportation and we didn’t want to waste our time searching for the right connection, we decided to take a cab to the station. This turned out to be a very good idea, as taxis are quite cheap. At the cable car station, you should at least calculate with waiting times of around one hour, so better be there in time in order not to miss the moment while waiting in the queue (e. g. arrive latest at 4:30pm if sunset is around 6pm).
We were fortunate enough to arrive at the summit of 262 meter-high Mount Namsan just in time to witness the sun disappear on the horizon to the city’s west, but the view to the other directions is amazing as well! To cap it all off, make your way up to the Observation Deck of N Seoul Tower on Mount Namsan (the tower dominating the city’s skyline which can be seen from almost everywhere in the city). The 360-degree view from a height of 480 meters down on the city’s skyline at night is truly amazing. However, I recommend you focus only on the views and turn your back on the other Disneyland-like entertainment options in N Seoul Tower.
After the cable car ride back down to the lower station, take the stairs to continue walking down to street level. From here, it is a twenty-minute walk to the old Southern city gate, Sungnyemun Gate (or Namdaemun Gate). Now, you’ve finally earned yourself a hearty Korean BBQ dinner with beer and Korean soju. Cheers!
Have I over-promised on Seoul? I am still very grateful that my colleague has supported me with all the planning to allow for such a great time we had during these two days. However, there are still many items on my bucket list for Seoul (now even more than before!) and I’m sure I will get back to this exciting city quite soon. So, better stay tuned if you want to get to know more about things to do when in Seoul 😉
Have you been to Seoul or Korea yet? How did you like it? What recommendations do you have for further trips to the country and its capital, what would you not recommend at all? I am happy to receive advice and feedback from you down below in the Comments section. Thank you so much!
(visited in October 2017)