Outdoor Activities in Seoul
Some of Seoul’s greatest assets are natural, including the dramatic peaks that ring the city, the river that courses its way through it, and an ever-expanding network of bike paths and parks.
For those who aren’t above a little exertion on their holidays, venturing into Seoul’s green spaces will pay dividends that go beyond health—many of its protected areas are also repositories of culture and history, and you’ll gain a better understanding of the national affection for nature.
Seoul’s fortress walls, erected centuries ago to defend the capital from marauding Japanese and Mongol invaders, once defined the city. They’ve fallen into disrepair or vanished completely in many areas, but an intact stretch still snakes across Bugaksan, the mountain that rears up behind the official presidential residence, Cheong Wa Dae—and it’s open to hikers.
Make sure to bring your passport along, and begin the trek from Samcheong Park, after a light breakfast and coffee in one of Samcheong-dong’s many cafés. The climb to the wall is exhausting but worth it, with spectacular views over central Seoul. After presenting your ID at a check-in post you’ll be free to follow the wall all the way to Changuimun, a historic gate that opens up into the tranquil neighborhood of Buam-dong.
The walk takes around three hours, and by the time you finish you’ll be in need of sustenance, so stop into Cheers for a cold beer and what many claim is the best fried chicken in the city, or try renowned dumpling house Jaha Sonmandu if you’re in the mood for something more traditional.
After lunch spend some time soaking in Buam-dong’s village-like atmosphere, and it’s then a relatively straight and pleasant stroll all the way down to the Cheong Wa Dae and Gyeongbokgung area, where plenty more sightseeing and dining options await.
Kick off the day with another hike—this time on the mystical mountain of Inwangsan. Find your way to Sajik Park, just west of Gyeongbokgung, and after contemplating the elaborate ceremonies that must have once taken place on the still-visible Sajik altar, make your way to the rear, where clearly marked trails point the way to Inwangsan’s slopes.
The mountain is rocky in places and the going sometimes tough, but it’s a place rich in history—on your explorations you’re likely to circumvent temples, shamanist shrines, even ancient archery venues. If you bear west, you’ll eventually connect with paths leading down to Dongnimmun and Seodaemun Prison History Hall, which delve into the darker aspects of Korea’s colonization by Japan in the early 20th century.
After that it’s a relatively quick cab ride to the Yonsei-Ewha-Hongik University axis, where you can lift your spirits with some fine Korean barbecue at a venue like Hongik Sutbul Kalbi or stiff drinks at a pub such as Beer O’Clock.
Give the mountains a rest and head instead for the river. Seoul Forest, an impressive park and leisure complex that’s one of the newer additions to the riverside, is a great place for a leisurely stroll or jog, with outdoor cafés, gardens, and even a resident animal population to enjoy. If you rent a bike here it’s possible to cycle west along the riverfront all the way to the Ichon area, taking in several impressive bridges and a whole lot of other sights en route.
Once you’ve reached Ichon-dong area and relinquished your vehicle, head up the road to the National Museum of Korea to steep yourself in the country’s storied past. As night falls and hunger strikes make a beeline for the cosmopolitan Itaewon district, where you can take your pick of dozens of foreign and local-themed restaurants and bars.
Seoul has several peaks, but one towers above all the others—Baegundae, part of Bukhansan National Park in the northern reaches of the city. Start your journey to the park at Doseonsa, one of Seoul’s largest and most impressive temples, nestled among forested slopes at a relatively high altitude. It’ll already feel like you’ve left the capital far behind.
Behind the temple complex are paths climbing to Yongammun, a gate that’s part of the city’s ancient fortress wall. From here you can follow the wall east to towering Baegundae itself; be warned, the closer you are to the peak the rockier and more treacherous the hiking gets, though there are ropes and steps in places to help you along. Or head west to make your way past other gates and down the mountain via Jongneung, which contains the tomb of a Joseon dynasty queen.
Wherever you happen to exit, you’re likely to be greeted by clusters of restaurants serving up dongdongju (milky rice wine) and snacks like pajeon (a substantial green onion and seafood pancake) to hungry hikers. The lively Daehang-no area is a fairly quick trip south if you’re not ready to call it an early night.
Take it relatively easy on your last day with a languid stroll along Cheonggyecheon, the restored stream running through Seoul’s old city center. If you begin at the main “entrance” just north of City Hall and head eastward, you’ll soon run into Gwangjang Market, the perfect place to pick up a few handicrafts for friends back home and to get a final fix of Seoul street food.
Work off lunch by walking farther downstream to the Dongdaemun Market area, where you can lose yourself in a few square city blocks (and several towering department stores) worth of textiles, footwear, and fashion. If that doesn’t suit, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a short walk away, as are the many exotic culinary delights of Seoul’s own Central Asia Village, such as Restaurant Kazakhstan and Samarkand.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition