Enter (1) Gyeongbok Palace (Tel. 82 2 3700 3900) via exit 5 of the Gyeongbokgung subway station. This 14th-century complex was the palace around which Seoul was built. You will want to spend at least an hour here, wandering around the National Palace Museum, with its royal artifacts, the National Folk Museum set next to a huge pagoda, and of course, the grounds themselves with their throne room, living quarters, lily pond, pavilions, etc. There are Joseon-era changing-of-the-guard ceremonies on weekends; the palace is closed Mondays. When you have seen enough, exit via the vehicle entry at the southeast gate—the palace is on a north-south axis, with the mountain behind it being to the north. Outside to the right, you will see what used to be the corner tower of the palace which is now separated from it by a slip road. Note the bullet holes in its face—scars from the Korean War.
Cross the street to (2) Seoul Selection Bookstore (www.seoulselection.com), a friendly basement shop specializing in books and DVDs on Korea in English. Leave the bookshop and turn right. As you walk along, the walls of the palace are on your left.
Next to the bookshop is (3) Beomyeonsa Temple. A modern temple with six resident monks, it was built in 1994 in neo-traditional style. The impressive prayer hall, with its temple bell and golden Buddhas, is on the third floor. Tourists are welcome, but please respect the worshippers. A small gift shop sells coffee, books, monks’ clothing, and Buddhist music and meditation tapes. Outside, the temple has a prayer garden.
Just along from the temple is (4) Gallery Hyundai (Tel. 82 2 2287 3551) a modern art gallery. Set in an old brick building, it also has a wine bar in a converted hanok, or traditional Korean-style cottage. Continue along the street, past more art galleries, and you will come to a grim, faceless military compound on the right—a reminder of the days when military regimes ruled in Seoul. Continue past this, to yet more galleries. The last gallery on the right, the Kukje Gallery, has an installation of a woman running across its glass roof. The road forks here. You may want to stop for a drink in the Jinsun Book Café, which is set in the fork, or in its garden out front.
Take the left-hand fork and follow the road round. After about 110 yards (100 meters), at the north end of the palace you reach the (5) Blue House—Korea’s impressive, neo-traditional presidential residence. Security guards here may prevent you from taking photographs. After seeing this, walk back the way you came.
Before reaching the fork/Jinsun Book Café, you will see the (6) Eros Museum (Tel. 82 2 733 7719) set below the road and on your left. The exhibits in this small but curious museum range from phallic fertility symbols to Joseon-era erotic watercolors. Not suitable for children, but don’t worry, we will be visiting two more museums that are highly appropriate for kids. Past the museum is a green sign reading Yangban Kil. Follow this sign and walk into this narrow alley. You are now in a quiet neighborhood of low-rise housing, both modern and traditional. Keep walking ahead for about 50 yards (48 meters) until you reach a tree-lined road winding through a pretty district. Turn left here.
This is (7) Samcheong-dong, Seoul’s most charming neighborhood of small buildings, cafes, boutiques, wine bars, and idiosyncratic museums. On your right you will come to (8) Kino Gallery and Museum (www.toykino.com), which displays toys and figurines from around the world. After this, continue walking through Samcheong-dong. On your left, you will see a walled compound of tall trees—the Prime Ministerial Residence. On the right, approximately across from this, a flight of stone steps leads upwards to the Romanee Conti Wine Bar (Tel. 82 2 722 1633), set in a modernized, converted hanok offering attractive views over the district. Continue along the street and you will pass the Korean Banking Institute on your right. Two doors down, in a small, square building with two little stone lanterns outside the front door is Seoulseo Dulchaero Jalhanun Jip, a tea house specializing in sujeonggwa (cinnamon and persimmon punch), danput juk (a kind of sweet porridge), and deer antler tea. Across from the tea house is the pricey Yongsusan (Tel. 82 2 739 5599; www.yongsusan.co.kr), a restaurant offering traditional Northern Korean style haute cuisine.
Continue further along the street and at the intersection with “Owl Museum” sign posted on it, turn right. Walk along this street and follow the signs to the (9) Owl Museum (Tel. 82 2 3210 2902) filled with owls and owl paraphernalia from across the world. Children will be invited to post their drawings of owls on the walls.
Once out of the musuem, continue up the main road as it curves up and to the right. Continue up this road for around 160 yards (146 meters) until you reach the University of North Korean Studies and the Vietnamese Embassy. Take the narrow road between these, and you are in a quiet, residential neighborhood. Walk ahead to where the road splits three ways. Take the right branch. Walk ahead with views over Samcheong-dong. Ahead is a T junction; take the right. Walk past an odd, triangular house that is all roof. Ahead of you are spectacular views over Seoul: the tripod-like Jongno Tower and the Mount Namsan Tower. Again, you will come to a T-junction with a small parking platform on your right. Take the left fork and head downhill. You are now in (10) Gahoe-dong, Seoul’s last remaining district of hanok. On either side of you is a row of traditional cottages, most built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. In the past, many officials lived in this area, set between the two palaces of Gyeongbuk and Changdeok. Note the way the largest bricks are at the bottom of the walls, leading the eye up to the houses’ finest feature, their curved eaves, which provide shade for the courtyards, and the way the houses are stacked on the hillside, meaning each has a view of the city below.
At the bottom of the street, take the alley on the right, and follow it down to the main road. At the main road, turn right. Soon, you will come to the restaurant/cooking school OKitchen (Tel. 82 2 744 6420 ). This is an excellent place for a meal. Or, continue ahead, and take the road opposite the school that leads to the right 100 or so feet (30 meters) down the street. Walk up this street and you come to Wood and Brick (Tel. 82 2 747 1592) a combination wine bar, deli, and Italian restaurant, which offers a second-story terrace.
Continue past Wood and Brick and you will see a sign on the right to the Education Museum. Walk up to this and you will come to (11) Jongchinbu, a fine Joseon-era structure that housed the royal genealogy records. There are excellent views over hanok roofs from the back side of Jongchinbu. Walk back down the hill and straight ahead. On your left is Art Sonje Gallery. Continue ahead and you will see, once again, the walls of Gyeongbok Palace.
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!