Jeremy Tredinnick explores the city’s Namsan district, finding reminders of the past and panoramas of the modern city
1 - Namdaemun
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 colourfully 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 9am-6pm; the market begins around 10.30pm and ends at roughly 5pm the following day;
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 9am-9pm 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 12-2pm; dinner served in two sessions: 5pm-6.30pm and 7pm-8.30pm; booking is essential; tel +82 2 2266 9101; koreahouse.or.kr/eng
3 - N Seoul Tower
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 262-metre “mountain”. The five-minute ride up gives a taster of the views to come, and shows Namsan’s forested slopes laced by walking and biking trails (a one-way ticket costs 6,000 won/US$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 beautifully coloured 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, 479 metres 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 10am-11pm (10am-midnight on Saturdays); tickets cost 10,000 won (US$8.70); nseoultower.co.kr/eng
4 - Namsan Park
If you’re hungry, grab a lunch of bibimbap, a tasty and filling local dish of meat, vegetables and egg on top of a bed of rice (watch out for the fiery red pepper sauce), then it’s time to head back down the mountain via the Namsan Stairs. A kilometre of steep, solid granite slabs that drop down fast on the northwest side (going up will give you a major cardio workout), they are lined by trees and the occasional viewing platform, and deposit you by a small zoo and the very interesting Namsan Indoor Botanical Garden (open daily 9am-6pm, admission 500 won; the zoo is free). More than 800 plant species are represented in themed gardens including a steamy greenhouse filled with palms and orchids, and a hot, dry desert room where fantastic cacti vie for attention.
Farther down there’s a memorial hall dedicated to Patriot Ahn Junggeun, who was immortalised in the eyes of the nation for openly killing a Japanese oppressor, and a picnic area surrounded by large stone statues of political heroes, under whose gaze schoolchildren play and old folk reminisce. Finally, passing ruins of the old city walls, you exit Namsan Park and meet modern Seoul once again.
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 6pm-2am; Millennium Seoul Hilton, 395 Namdaemun-ro 5-ga, Jung-gu; hilton.com