Where better to begin an exploration of Seoul than Korea’s National Treasure Number 1: Namdaemun, the Great South Gate. The massive pagoda-style gate is made of stone and wood and was built in the 14th century by the first Joseon dynasty ruler, but has been rebuilt a number of times, most recently after an arsonist attack in 2008 that destroyed the curving wooden roofs. It reopened in 2013 after a full reconstruction, and earlier this year the changing of the guards ceremony began again, featuring three stern but colorfully-clad sentinels who stand watch over the gates as tourists walk through the gated archway.
Cross the road to the northeast and you’re at the entrance of Namdaemun Market, Seoul’s largest wholesale market with a 600-year history. During the day you can find virtually anything here, from cheap clothing to bottled ginseng, art to fishing gear to kitchenware – the list is endless. But it’s at night, when merchants from all over the country come to buy goods, that this market is most alive.
Namdaemun is free to visit, open 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM. The market begins around 10:30 PM and ends at roughly 5:00 PM the following day; namdaemunmarket.co.kr/english
2 NAMSANGOL HANOK VILLAGE AND KOREA HOUSE
A ten-minute cab ride skirts Namsan peak’s northern slopes and brings you to Namsangol Hanok Village, a great place to see five immaculately presented traditional hanok houses and get an insight into the Joseon family homes and life of yore. Visitors can try their hand at playing traditional games in the main courtyard, while soon-to-be-married couples dress in traditional clothing for photo shoots in the bucolic surroundings. (Open 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM every day except Tuesday; admission free; english.visitkorea.or.kr)
Next door is Korea House, a restored traditional hanok that offers a superb introduction to classical Korean cuisine plus traditional dance performances. Lunch 12:00 – 2:00 PM; dinner served in two sessions: 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM and 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM; booking is essential; tel +82 2 2266 9101; koreahouse.or.kr/eng
3 N SEOUL TOWER
Before A 15-minute walk or quick cab ride back west and you’re at the Namsan Cable Car Station, the fastest way to the top of the 860-foot “mountain.” The five-minute ride up gives a taste of the views to come, and shows Namsan’s forested slopes laced by walking and biking trails (a one-way ticket costs ?6,000/$5.20).
Exit the car, climb some steep steps and you pass five stone-built, torpedo-shaped structures, the restored signal beacons that in ancient times warned the city of impending invasion. In front of you is the Palgakjeong, an octagonal pavilion with a beautifully colored geometrically patterned ceiling and the elegant sweeping eaves typical of traditional Korean architecture.
But the structure that really dominates Namsan’s summit is N Seoul Tower, a huge needle of concrete that offers one of the most stunning 360-degree city views in the world. From the Observatory viewing level, 1,571 feet above sea level, the Han River winds across the southern view from west to east, and each window panel cleverly displays the name and distance of a famous city that lies in the direction you are looking.
N Seoul Tower is open 365 days a year; Observatory open 10:00 AM – 11:00 PM (10:00 AM – midnight on Saturdays); tickets cost ?10,000 ($8.70);
4 NAMSAN PARK
Where the Bund ends, at Yanan Road East, turn “inland” for a block then south (left) – you’ll soon be part of a stream of people heading into the old Chinese quarter, a rambling network of streets and alleys whose focal point is the Yuyuan Garden. This restored classical 16th-century Chinese garden, built by government official Pan Yunduan for his parents, is a beautiful example of Ming-era landscaping that covers nearly 5 acres filled with pavilions linked by covered corridors and bridges, open courtyards, streams, ponds, ancient trees and stands of bamboo.
Sadly, you’re unlikely to find the peace and tranquillity it was designed to inspire, since you’ll be sharing it with hordes of mostly Chinese tourists, but nevertheless, wandering its winding walkways, pausing in ornate pavilions with curving eaves, and gazing into carp-filled pools by weeping willows is a wonderful antidote to the city strife outside. The Wall of Cloud-piercing Dragon, Exquisite Jade Rock, Inner Garden and Hall of Heralding Spring are all highlights.
Next to the garden’s entrance is the famous Mid-lake Pavilion Teahouse with its zigzag bridge – a cultural must-do if you’re willing to fight the crush – and after that it’s time to work your way back through the kitsch of the bazaar to the Huangpu River. Yuyuan Garden is open 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM; admission RMB40 ($6); 218 Anren Jie (Street).
5 OAK ROOM, MILLENNIUM SEOUL HILTON
Just across the road stands the Millennium Seoul Hilton Hotel – and you’ll be ready for a drink by now. The hotel’s Oak Room is an attractive, English-style bar selling draft beers, wine and other libations, with refined live music in the evenings. It overlooks the hotel’s pretty garden and you can sit outside when the weather is fine, or partake of the BBQ buffet. The Oak Room is open 6:00 PM – 2:00 AM; Millennium Seoul Hilton, 395 Namdaemun-ro 5-ga, Jung-gu; hilton.com. BT