The tour begins at Mount Namsan cable car station and can be taken in the evening. Take a taxi there, or walk by exiting Myeong-dong subway station via exit 2 and walking ahead past the Sejong Hotel on the left, then turning right along the road leading up. Continue past the Seoul Animation Museum on the left and follow the road up and around to the (1) cable car station on your right (last car is at 11:00 p.m.).
Ascend Mount Namsan (South Mountain) in the cable car (adult round trip ticket $7). Just beyond the cable car station at the top, on the left, is what looks like a set of castle chimneys. This is the restored (2) medieval smoke signal beacon, once used to transmit messages from mountain tops the length of the peninsula. Mount Namsan today has a microwave TV tower on one of its peaks.
Walk to the summit, where there is a plaza complete with a traditional pavilion and the 774-foot (236-meter) (3) Seoul Tower. You will need to buy a ticket to ascend the tower to the viewing platform ($7). As you wait for the elevator, watch the dozens of LCD screens showing different Seoul sights. The 360° viewing platform offers telescopes and amazing views over the city: The restored city walls on Namsan; downtown with its mountains, palaces, and skyscrapers; the park-like Yongsan U.S. Army base; and the Han River. There are also distances for world cities on the windows, including Singapore, 2,883 miles (4,641 kilometers) and New York, 6,872 miles (11,061 kilometers). Around the central pillar are dozens of mini LCD screens with more Seoul sights. Ignore the expensive Grill restaurant with its unprofessional service, and grab a snack and a beer, coffee, or ice cream at the restaurant or food court at the base of the tower. The terrace offers expansive vistas.
Return to the mountain’s mid-levels by cable car or walk down the steps next to the cable car station. You are now at (4) Namsan Ring Road. This spectacular highway curves around the mountain’s contours; few cities boast such an alpine road in their very centers. You can either walk—it is about two miles (three kilometers)—or take a taxi from the entrance to the cable car station to the Grand Hyatt hotel, at the other end of the mountain. Whichever you choose, turn right at the entrance to the station’s car park, not left, which will lead you down to Myeong-dong.
The road will lead you past Namsan Library, the Goethe Institute, and a house with a giant golden goblin in its garden (the home of a mudang, or shaman) before you reach the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Walking it will take around an hour; the taxi will do it in less than ten minutes. On your right, Seoul, all the way down to the river, lies at your feet. On your left are the forested slopes of the mountain, with various walking trails, exercise areas, springs and tennis courts. Ask the taxi driver to drop you at the Hyatt. A footbridge leads from the Hyatt to (5) Namsan Park. This park, with its tall trees, its botanical garden, a pond at its apex, and a trail leading up to a fresh spring and exercise area on the mountain proper, offers some of the best jogging tracks and views in Asia.
After the park either take a taxi or walk down to (6) Itaewon, Seoul’s foreign quarter. The taxi only takes a couple of minutes; walking will take around 15 minutes. To get there, stand in the Hyatt’s entrance and turn left. Walk up, past the clothing shops on your right, and follow the road around to the left, past Top Mansion apartment. You are now in one of Seoul’s most exclusive residential areas: Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee lives in the neighborhood as do many ambassadors in their fortress-like houses. Follow this broad road as it curves down left, then right past the Harue Coffee Shop. Keep going down, past the Belgian Ambassador’s residence, round to the right, and then left past the Chalet Swiss Restaurant. You will emerge at a crossroad. If riding, get out of your taxi here.
Turn right at the crossroad and proceed toward the Hamilton Hotel. The main street further along is full of vendors, tailors, and shops selling clothes, faux watches, and fashion goods, sports gear, and leather wear. The main area for foreign restaurants and bars is in the alleyway behind the Hamilton.
If you have less refined tastes, instead of turning right at the cross road, go straight. The steep alley on your left is named “Hooker Hill” for obvious reasons. Have a drink in the friendly little Debut, which is not a red light bar, a few yards (three meters) up on the left, and watch the action. The next alley parallel to Hooker Hill is Seoul’s gay district. There are also a large number of transvestite clubs in this area, some of which offer shows.
The tour ends here. You can catch a cab in Itaewon, or take a train from Itaewon subway station.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.