In the morning or midday, start at the landmark (1) Namdaemun (Great South Gate). Part of it burned in February. Built in 1398, this was originally the southern gate in the city wall. (Sections of which still exist: Were you to walk about 200 yards up the hill toward the Hilton Hotel and look down, you would see the road is built on part of it.) Now, this fortress-like gate is a traffic island and grass plaza surrounded by modern buildings. On weekend afternoons, you can take photographs next to the gate guards, decked out with Joseon-era (1392-1910) weaponry and costumes. Walk through the gate; note the dragons painted on the roof.
Cross the crosswalk to (2) Namdaemun Market—there is a yellow sign in English—and enter the market, which has been here, just inside south gate, for 600 years. While not as big as the giant Dongdaemun (Great East Gate) Market, Namdaemun Market is more manageable and livelier, especially at night. Walk straight, past the shops and stalls selling household goods, clothing, and shoes; some of the Western foods here come from the Dokkgaebi Shijang (Goblin Market—the black market in goods from U.S. Army bases). You will reach an intersection ahead of you with a ginseng shop on either side: Insam Jingmae Jang (Tel. 82 2 755 5508) and Seoul Sanghui (Tel. 82 2 778 8149). The roots in the jars cost from $15 to more than $300; both shops also offer packed seaweed, medicinal mushrooms, and other exotica. Continue across the intersection, and up the alley ahead. Keep walking until the alley opens out; the Fashion Mall Mesa is on your right. Ahead is the Shinsegae Department Store, one of Korea’s top shops. Turn left here and walk down the alley to the main street.
Ahead, you will see the gray towers and turrets of the (3) Bank of Korea. Built by the Japanese, it is one of the few remaining pieces of colonial-era architecture standing. The bank also has a coinage museum. Cross the road to the bank. Over on the right is an odd building that looks like it is split down the middle—the GPO—and beyond it the trendy shopping precinct of Myeong-dong.
Enter the narrow road to the right side of the bank and walk ahead about 150 yards (137 meters) to the (4) Westin Chosun Hotel. If you’re hungry, pick up a sandwich at the Chosun’s excellent basement deli. Also glance inside its posh Ninth Gate restaurant at the framed photos of famous guests such as Bob Hope and Muhammad Ali.
To the left of the hotel entrance you will see a garden, and in it, the (5) Temple of Heaven. Built in 1897, this beautiful pagoda is a smaller copy of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. Also in the garden is a set of stone drums. Walk down the path past the drums and down the steps.
Ahead of you is (6) Seoul Plaza, scene of various events throughout the year, from photo exhibitions to ice skating. Cross to it via the Seoul Plaza Underground Shopping Center or via the crosswalks. To the left side of the semi-circular City Hall itself—another colonial structure—is City Hall subway station exit 5. Across the road is Deoksu Palace, but ignore this—we will visit a more attractive palace at the end of the walk. Go through the subway and emerge via exit 2.
Once outside, about 50 yards (45 meters) ahead and to your left is the Romanesque (7) Anglican Cathedral. One of the city’s most beautiful buildings, it was constructed in 1924. Inside is a plaque honoring British soldiers killed in the Korean War. At the rear, in the church’s courtyard, are several traditional Korean buildings.
Cross back under the subway and leave via exit 4. The next building on your right after City Hall is the Korea Press Foundation Building. Visit (8) Seoul Global Center, a tourism and expatriate help office, on the third floor.
Leave the Press Building and turn left. Ahead of you, near the end of the broad boulevard of Sejong-ro is a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the 16th-century hero who defeated the invading samurai fleets. Behind him is Gyeongbok Palace and Mount Bugak, the heart of Seoul. Continue past the Seoul Finance Center building and you will see a giant, purple sculpture similar to a seashell. Turn right here.
This is (9) Cheonggyecheon, the stream that flowed through medieval Seoul, was concreted over in the 1960s, and beautifully restored in 2005. In the small plaza—a popular site for free performances at weekends—is a touch-screen satellite LCD map of Seoul. Walk down the steps, past the fountains, to the stream banks and proceed straight ahead. Buskers and traditional musicians are a common sight and sound here. In the evening, the stream is floodlit. Continue until the bright orange bridge, and then take the steps back up to street level on the right.
Cross the bridge and walk straight ahead to the intersection. On your right is (10) Bosingak Bell Pavilion. Built in 1396, this bell used to ring out the time. Now it only sounds once annually, when it rings in the new year.
Opposite Bosingak, in glorious 21st-century contrast, looms the tripod-like (11) Jongno Tower/Samsung Life Insurance Building. Take the elevator to the 33rd floor where you will find the plush Top Cloud Fusion Restaurant (Tel. 82 2 2230 3000) and its attached coffee shop and wine bar. If you suffer from vertigo, do not look down when you cross the glassed-in walkway from the elevator. This is a great place to stop and sample the amazing views over a meal, wine or coffee. (The expensive restaurant, naturally, offers the best sights over the mountains and palaces.)
From the Jongno Tower, walk back under the road so you are once again standing in front of and facing the bell pavilion. Turn left and walk ahead. On your right is (12) Jongo 2-ga, a pulsating, youth-focused entertainment district. In the evenings, the streets are full of vendors selling everything from cuddly toys to pirated DVDs. To sample this zone of bars, restaurants, DVD rooms, and karaokes, take a right in the street with a giant piano set into the pavement. Walk to the first intersection and turn left. Walk ahead to the end, where you will come out to a main road. Turn right to the crossroad.
Diagonally across from you is (13) Tapgol, or Pagoda Park. Here, in Seoul’s first park, (est. 1897) Korean youths read out the 1919 Declaration of Independence from Japan; their activity was crushed by the colonial power. Today, various statues and plaques commemorate the event. The centerpiece of the park is “National Treasure No. 2.,” a 13-yard (12-meter) stone pagoda dating back to 1467, carved with Buddhist scenes, that gives the park its name. Exit the park the way you came in and turn right. You will often see little tents with Chinese characters on them in the evenings here: fortune tellers. Turn right at the corner and proceed ahead until the road forks; the right-hand fork leads under the Hollywood Cinema.
Take the left-hand fork and you are in the arts, crafts, and souvenir district of (14) Insadong. This is the place to buy Korean traditional clothing, calligraphy materials, decorated fans, antiques, and porcelain in the shops lining both sides of the street, which is closed to traffic and open to performances on Sundays. Note the Starbucks on the right: Supposedly the only one in the world with its sign written in a language other than English. About halfway along the street on the right is a sign to Sanchon (Tel. 82 2 735 0312), a famous Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (there are articles about it from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal prominently posted on the corner). Walk down this alley, and directly ahead is the cosy Old Tea Shop (Tel. 82 2 722 5019); on the second floor, you can sit amid antiques, with live birds flying around your head, and sip ginger, jujube, or ginseng tea. Continue to the end of Insadong, marked by a pair of stone totem poles and a tourist information box, and turn right.
Walk along this street for about 330 yards (300 meters). Cross under the cross road via Anguk subway station. Walk ahead, and on your left is Changdeok Palace and its attached (15) Secret Garden, or Biwon. This ancient pleasure garden for Joseon royalty was also where the last surviving members of the royal family lived out their days until dying off in the 1980s. There are English guided tours at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. every day except Thursday, when it is open without tours, and Monday, when it is closed.
Biwon concludes the tour. Either take a taxi from here, or wonder back to Anguk Metro Station.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.