Seoul is not all about shopping districts, there are a few historical sites in Seoul such as the big five palaces. We planned to visit a couple of these historic sites today followed by finishing up our day with some shopping districts.
Viewing Seoul from Seoul City Wall – Naksan Section
We started our day today visiting part of the Seoul City Wall, which my friend and I did miss out the last time we came to Seoul three years ago. The 18km Seoul City Wall was built to protect Seoul from invasion, the entire wall was well preserved after standing on its spot for more than 600 years. Visitors to Seoul City Wall can choose to walk the entire 18km or do it in part. As we have little time today, we opted to do the shortest section of the wall, starting from Naksan and we would end up in Dongdaemun gate. To get to Naksan stretch of the Seoul City Wall, we took the subway to Hyehwa Station, which is a mere two stops away from where our hotel is. Exiting the subway station, the path to Naksan is a short 5 mins upslope stroll through a neighbourhood. There are some small shops near Hyehwa Station, where we made a short pit stop to check out their merchandise. We continued our walk towards the base of Naksan Park, which was very well marked with signs pointing visitors to the park. Soon we arrived at a flight of stairs which would take us up to Naksan Park. Naksan Park sits on top of 124m Naksan Hill, which has commanding views of parts of Seoul as well as N Seoul Tower and the surrounding Mountain ranges.
As we climbed the stairs, we were able to see a quieter side of Seoul, a stark difference from places like Myeongdong and Gangnam. At the top of the stairs is an intersection, we took the road on the left that brought us to the Seoul City wall in under 3 mins walk. The Seoul City Wall sits at the top of the hill with the inner-city side being shorter than the side that faces outside of the city it was meant to protect. Getting up close to Seoul City Wall, it is apparent that some parts of the wall are being from different time periods in Korean history. Some parts of the wall are built with more uniform stone blocks cut into similar dimensions, while there are parts of the wall being built with irregular shapes of stones. Most of the inner side of the wall shows signs of being recently restored with the stones looking newer than the others. This stretch of the Seoul City Wall from Naksan to Dongdaemun is a downslope walk, making it a very easy walk for visitors of all ages. There weren’t many people around during our visit to the Seoul City Wall, the only people we saw are locals taking their morning stroll. Along the way, we were reminded of how vast the city of Seoul is with the magnificent views of the city constantly in our sight. After walking for around 30 mins, the serene view gave way to a busy street bustling with life. The moment we saw Dongdaemun Gate sitting majestically in the centre of a busy road, we know our walk along the Seoul City Wall came to an end. I would recommend people who wanted to take a stroll along the Seoul City Wall but do not have much time for it to go for this Naksan to Dongdaemun route. Reaching the main road, we headed for the nearest subway station – Dongdaemun Station and made our way to our next destination.
A visit to Seoul will not be complete without a visit to one of the five palaces in the city. Those with more time can opt to visit the bigger palaces of Gyeongbukgung or Changdeokgung, which would take up more than half a day. Since my friend and I visited these two palaces the last time we came to Seoul, coupled that we do not really have a lot of time today, we opted to visit one of the smaller palaces in Seoul – Deoksugung Palace. We took the subway to City Hall Station which is next to Deoksugung Palace. As it was approaching lunchtime, instead of heading into the palace, we crossed the busy road diagonally opposite the palace and settled lunch in a small family-run restaurant. Despite the owners of the restaurant only able to understand very basic English, we had no problems ordering the food (they do have an English menu). The food was inexpensive and delicious.
After lunch, we headed to Deoksugung Palace. After getting our tickets (KRW1,000 per adult), just when we were about to enter the palace, we were in time to witness the change of guard ceremony. The elaborate ceremony saw locals dressed up in ancient Korean soldier uniforms handing over the guard duties to the next group. The ceremony lasted around 5 mins and we were invited to taking pictures with the guards before heading into the palace. There is a small tentage by the side of the entrance where visitors can dress in Hanbok for the photo opportunity with the guards for free.
Deoksugung Palace was first used as a temporary palace in 1592 during the Japanese invasion where the King stayed when he returned to Seoul after the invasion as the other palaces were burnt down during the invasion. The palace was reused as again in the 19th century where the later King of the Korean dynasty used it as a base to establish the Korean Empire and raised his status to Emperor. It is during this period when most of the buildings in Deoksugung Palace was added. Walking through the main gate of Deoksugung Palace, we came to a stone bridge that transports visitors over a small stream, similar to that of a moat found in most palaces around the world. My friends and I headed to the first building that is surrounded by a stoned corridor. This building is near the entrance of the palace and served as the sleeping chamber of the King when he resided in Deoksugung Palace. Taking a peep inside the sleeping chamber, a small throne sits in the centre of the building and the interior was relatively simple in design. A smaller building next to the King’s sleeping chamber closed for public viewing was used as a place where the Korean King used to receive foreign envoys.
My friends and I decided to visit the buildings at the back of the main palace building before returning to see the main palace building. As we were walking we came across a building that was not painted in any colours next to the King’s Sleeping Chambers. This is the only two-tiered building in Deoksugung Palace and served as the sleeping chambers of the queen. A little further into Deoksugung Palace, passing the queen’s sleeping chambers, is a row of brightly coloured semi-open buildings which was used for the coronation of the King. This is another venue in the palace where the Korean King receives foreign envoys. We peeped into this building and found the interior to be very simple in design, there are no elaborate motives nor was it painted in the bright colours as we were so used to see in Korean Palaces.
After some photo shots, we returned to the building that sits in the middle of Deoksugung Palace. This lone building is the main palace building in Deoksugung Palace. This is where the official throne of the King resides. We were encouraged by the staffs in Deoksugung Palace to enter to view the throne hall. There do not seem to be any restoration works done in the throne hall. The wooden throne hall still retains the paint that was first coating when it was built 500 years ago. The ceiling of the throne hall has elaborate dragon carvings, decked in gold paint. In the centre of the hall, sits the king’s throne majestically on an elevated platform, seemingly displaying the might of the reigning Korean King. The high ceilings in the throne hall make it a very cooling hall. We were encouraged by a staff member stationed inside the throne hall to go closer to the throne for a better look of the artefact. There are, however, strict rules to be followed while inside the throne hall. The staff ensured that visitors do not use any form of flash photography or video while inside the throne hall. We even saw him telling visitors off for videoing inside the throne hall. The part of the throne hall open to visitors is relatively small, we got out in 5 mins. As we exited the hall, making our way to the entrance of the palace, we walked past a large square, installed with small stone tablets marking the place where the different ranked officials would stand during an audience with the king. This square is smaller compare to the ones that we have seen in bigger palaces such as Gyeongbukgung we visited three years ago. As Deoksugung Palace is a relatively smaller palace, my friends and I completed the tour of the palace in under 2 hours. As we were walking out, we saw some parts of the palace being cordoned off for preservation works.
Exiting Deoksugung Palace, we spotted some tentages being erected in the open field opposite the palace. My friends and I decided to head across to check out what is going on. There seems to be some apple harvesting festival event here. There are numerous stalls set up by farmers across South Korea selling the fruit of their labour. We got to try some apples, which is very sweet and crunchy.
The Young and Vibrant Hongdae Shopping District
Leaving Deoksugung Palace, our next stop is Hongdae Shopping District. My friend and I did not manage to visit Hongdae when we visited Seoul three years ago. We made it a point to plan a visit to Hongdae this time around. Access to Hongdae is very easy via the well-connected subway, we alighted at Hongik University station and the shopping district is just outside the station exit. The vibe at Hongdae is very different from that in Myeongdong. While Myeongdong sees mainly tourists, Hongdae is frequented by mainly by Seoulites. The entire Hongdae area has a very young and vibrant vibe, thanks to the nearby University. There are more shops selling clothing here compared to Myeongdong. As we walked around, we spotted a Bingsu restaurant and decided to enjoy some Korean Shaved ice dessert. The dessert was delicious and not too sweet. After dessert, we explored more of the Hongdae area. We do find here to be a better place for shopping compared to Myeongdong. However, due to seasonal changes, the clothing on sale are mainly winter wear, which we would have no use back at home. One would easily lose track of time just by walking around in Hongdae.
Last Dinner in Seoul and Back to Myeongdong
The sky soon got dark and it is time for us to hunt for dinner. For our last dinner in South Korea, we returned to Tosokchon Samgyetang Seoul for some Korean Ginseng Chicken. As we had already timed our visit, there was again no queue for the famous Korean Ginseng Chicken restaurant. After dinner, my friend and I returned to Myeongdong for some last-minute shopping of beauty products. As Myeongdong is mainly frequented by foreigners, I find the shops are more generous in giving discounts and free samples here in Myeongdong. After getting our stuff, we walked around Myeongdong a little and decided to return to the hotel as the shops are closing. My friend and I made a quick pitstop at Dongdaemun Design Plaza to take some photos before returning to the hotel to pack up for our trip home the next day.