Korean culture exploded into the world’s conscience following the massive popularity of the song “Gangnam Style” in 2012. Since then, K-Pop became a worldwide phenomenon and Korean dramas found huge audiences throughout Asia and beyond.
For many people outside Asia, though, South Korea and its dazzling capital city are still something of a mystery. Seoul is big and crowded. With a metropolitan population of over 25 million, Seoul can seem a daunting place to approach. But even in this bustling, loud, hectic city, you can find moments of profound calm, quiet contentment and recuperative serenity. Here are four ways to explore Seoul’s softer side.
For walking tours of Seoul, you don’t even have to leave your couch. Check out the YouTube channel WalkScapes here.
1) Cafes and Coffee Shops
Coffee culture is big in Seoul. Seoul’s many cafes offer a plethora of unique options to escape the hustle and bustle outside. A list of excellent Seoul coffee shops would take ages to compile, but here are a few highlights.
- Stylenada Pink Pool Cafe. For something unique and charming amidst Seoul’s busiest shopping districts, Myeongdong, head to Stylenada Pink Pool Cafe. The cafe’s rooftop is open to guests and features giant pillows to help people relax while they imbibe a drink of their choice.
- Cafe Sketchbook. Located in the bustling university district of Hongdae, Cafe Sketchbook is best known for featuring the artwork of local artists. Add to that comfortable seating, calm music and carefully chosen decor, and you have all you need to contemplate the nature of this dazzlingly vibrant city.
2) Mountain Escapes
One of the great things about Seoul is its proximity to the mountains (in fact, in Korea, it is difficult to get away from the mountains).
This proximity can mean that, at times, the trails are crowded with hikers of all ages. But many other times, you will easily find a quiet place and feel a world away from the city that lurks just below. Here are three mountains that provide a quiet escape:
- Bukhansan. This mountain is located just north of Seoul, easily accessible from Anguk subway station. Comprised of three peaks, Bukhansan reaches a height of over 800 meters (2,744 feet). The hike to the top is mildly strenuous for novice hikers, but fortunately rest areas are plentiful along the trail. If you push through, you will be rewarded with mesmerizing views of the city and the surrounding hills.
- Bugaksan. You won’t find a more convenient mountain retreat than Bugaksan. Located in the middle of Seoul, Bugaksan isn’t imposing at only 342 meters (1,122 feet). However, don’t let this dissuade you. Bugaksan features two mountain courses which will challenge and delight at the same time.
The mountain was closed to the public for 40 years after North Korean special forces infiltrated the area in 1968. Fortunately, the extended absence of humans was a boon to wildlife.
Expect to see rabbits, birds and deer as you amble along the trail. Hanyangdoseong, or the Seoul City Wall, was recently rebuilt and acts as a guide you as you make your way to the top. The wall evokes images of a long-distant past, only minutes from the center of Seoul
- Inwangsan. The quiet mountain escapes don’t end there. Inwangsan is another conveniently located reprieve from the high energy of the city. Accessible from the neighborhoods of Jongno, Hongje and Sodaemun,
Inwangsan is famous for its views; views that have inspired painters, poets and writers for centuries. As you approach the mountain, you will walk through quaint neighborhoods adorned with skillfully sketched murals.
Once on the mountain, it will take you roughly two hours to reach the top. Take your time. Don’t rush. The view at Inwangsan should be savored.
3) Lush Parks
Seoul is blessed with many wonderful parks; sanctuaries from the noise that envelops you on the streets. Many of these parks are conveniently located near subway stops. A few examples include:
- Naksan Park: Named for its camel-like appearance, Naksan Park has been a favorite beauty spot since the Joseon Dynasty (which ruled over Korea for five centuries, all the way up to 1892).
From Hyehwa Station, a long, steady climb awaits. The views at the end are worth it, though. You will enjoy the same panorama admired by Joseon kings and queens.
- Ilsan Lake Park: Located on the west side of Seoul, Ilsan Lake Park is an excellent retreat from the bustling center of the city. Jeongbalsan Station is a 10-minute walk, so it is easily accessible despite its distance from central Seoul.
The centerpiece of the park is its lake, which is the largest man-made lake in Asia. Surrounding the lake is a biking track (5 kilometers long). In addition, 9 kilometers of walking paths snake lazily through green lawns, clusters of graceful trees and cheerful gardens.
The park even features a musical fountain, which hosts water shows after dark that are a hit with young and old.
- Yongsan Family Park: Once the haunt of American GIs stationed in Korea, these days Yongsan Family Park is an oasis for everyone. Located near the banks of the Han River and next to the National Museum of Korea, the park features walking paths beloved by the Korean public. Within the park you will find the National Flag Park, which is shaped like the rose of Sharon, Korea’s national flower. Ponds, picnic areas and shady lawns provide an excellent respite for any foot weary traveler.
If you, like me, are an avid meditater, you will be pleased to find that Seoul abounds with resplendent temples. Even those temples in the midst of Seoul’s thriving, pulsing heart offer easy opportunities for rich, calming, contemplative experiences. Here are just a few of Seoul’s best temples.
- Bongeunsa Temple: located squarely within one of Seoul’s wealthiest neighborhoods near COEX Mall, Bongeunsa is old. Founded by Buddhist monks at a site nearby in 794, Bongeunsa takes you back in time.
The temple is built into a sturdy hillside and graced with charming gardens and carefully designed landscaping. This seclusion makes you forget that one of Asia’s most thriving neighborhoods lurks just outside.
And as with many Korean temples, Bongeunsa offers a temple stay program for those who want to deepen their connection and understanding of monastic life.
- Gilsangsa Temple: A more modern counterpart to the venerable, old Bongeunsa, Gilsangsa dates back to only 1997. Previously, Gilsangsa was an upscale restaurant, but after the restaurant’s owner donated the land to Buddhist Monks, a new and popular temple emerged.
The temple offers a host of relaxing activities, including meditation rooms, classes about Buddhism and a zen center. From Hanseong University Station, the temple is a 20-minutes walk or a short shuttle bus ride away.
- Myogaksa Temple: Another great option if you are looking for a unique experience in Seoul is Myogaksa. Located a short walk from Dongmyo Station, Myogaksa is nestled picturesquely on the same mountain as Naksan Park.
The temple was carefully situated based on the principles of Feng Shui. This attention to detail pays off for the visitor, who is guaranteed to feel a sense of calm and well-being quickly after entering the grounds.
Myogaksa also hosts guests for extended, overnight stays; if you are interested in learning more about the practices of Korea’s Buddhist monks and deepening your own sense of zen, Myogaksa is the place to do it.
For an excellent overview of Seoul’s temples, check out the Seoul Guide’s article on the subject here.
To most people familiar with Seoul, the city conjures up images of bright lights, crowded shopping streets and vibrant nightlife. However, as I have shown here, Seoul as a vacation experience can be tailored to any temperment, any preferred pace.
If you seek a slower pace, consider Seoul as your next destination. The loud, shiny facade camouflages what is a remarkably diverse city with a seductive, serene heart. Come to Seoul. Relax. Chill out. Take it easy. Enjoy calm amongst the crowds.
Other useful links:
The Seoul Stop