Seoul has a lot to offer but every now and then I have this fierce craving of heading out into the woods. I want to be far away from the hustle and bustle of the restless city life, away from neon lights and traffic jams, no subways or buses to carry you but your own feet (at least once you get there). And for everyone who has the same itchy feet as me, I have singled out three unique places to pay a visit to. Here are my favourite Seoul hikes.
Seoul Hike #1: A Half-deserted, Half-alive Comical Village of Artists
The place seemed interesting enough, a far-out village full of artists and eccentricities, cafes and museums in the middle of beautiful scenery just a little off the military border between the Koreas but just away enough for comfort (near Paju). To get there, go to the regional bus stop in Hapjeong (just outside the station) and show them you want to go to 헤이리 문화예술마을, Heyri Art Village.
I expected more, though. It was Wednesday at lunch time and the place seemed deserted except for classes of school kids on a special outing to the local toy museums. Cafe were closing, shops assistants were bored and museums were being renovated. I guess I picked the worst time to come here. But even so, the major attraction, a kid’s playground centre, had quite visibly shut down and fallen into neglect without anyone bothering to at least clean up. Old microwaves standing next to ransacked boxes, but at least the three-legged cat living here was provided with cat food.
Eccentric certainly cut it. You could walk up grassy slopes onto rooftops, walk along fences made to look like colour pencils, see a smurf house on top of a roof and marvel at larger-than-life metal statues. Artsy cafes came in abundance and museums were everywhere, though I had trouble spotting them with all the houses being so modern and quirky in their looks. When it comes to architecture, this place is certainly a great sight. I was in utter awe at the creativity and puristic mind of the designers and loved exploring them.
My Seoul hikes advice: Check which museum you’d like to see and whether it is open. Stores for stocking up on hand-made crafty goods and artworks as well as fancy restaurants and quirky cafes are open. And you can easily head for a small hike around the village and into the nearby woods.
Seoul Hike #2: One of Korea’s Most Beautiful National Parks
Seoraksan was supposed to be amazing. I know I am seeming a bit bleak here and still recommend going but not with the expectations I went with. To make things clear from the start and avoid the disappointment I felt, the national park is a major tourist attraction and doesn’t hide the fact. Busses 7 and 7-1 are frequently going back and forth between the park and city centre of Sokcho and will drop you at a huge parking lot that leads to a big paved centre in the valley surrounded by restaurants and toilet buildings.
A new addition to the park is the gondola that takes lazy tourists up to take some pictures of mountain peaks and deep valleys. For the more adventurous walkers, paths and tracks have been neatly laid down. There are four differently challenging degrees from city walkers over to pro hikers but that being said, Korea has a thing for making things easier when it comes to nature and the true hiking experience, such as I experienced in Australia, is somewhat lacking.
Nevertheless, I set out to make my way to one iconic white mountain clearly sticking out from the rest and since out from the crowd was what I sought, I was determined to find it. The hike to Ulsanbawi takes two hours and takes you to the foot of the mountain. A full hike across the mountain ridge would take at least a full day and I unfortunately didn’t have time for that. Seems like I was a tourist, after all.
My Seoul hikes advice: Come here with lots of time to actually be able to see a lot of the trecks. Best is to stay in Sokcho and head out to the park. Make sure you check out the fishery market in town as well.
Seoul Hike #3: A Historic Fortress Wall and through Military Zones
This one is a real challenge and makes it indisputably to the top of must-do sights in Seoul. The Fortress Wall Walk give you the best views over the city, gets you exercised (and you’ll feel it after 5 days still – it does hurt) and you will get both nature and city insights. How much better can it be? Well, if you like to see all things military, you’re in for a treat because the walk requires you to pass two military zones, where you have to have your ID checked and are watched by soldiers.
That bit wasn’t at all exciting for me unless you count me nearly dying on the stairs because I slipped and my energy levels were at an extreme low. I hate stairs! Why would you have a hiking trails up a mountain with stairs?! That’s not hiking, that’s challenging walking! Anyway, moving on from my hatred for stairs (they’re evil!). The old fortress wall winds its way around the whole city centre of Seoul, which means you will see all 8 city gates in the middle of business districts, walk through forests, up mountains and get to see down onto the smoggy city skyline. I think it was magical.
Hold on, it gets better. It’s not much, but a little treat is in store for you as well (not all of these Seoul hikes will only give you the pleasure of amazing sights). If you collect four stamps along the way of your Seoul hikes (you can get a map with instructions from information centres) and present them, you will get a small button with the trail on it as a reward. And you know you possess all five Confucian values: righteousness (ui), reliability (shin), wisdom (ji), generosity (in) and politeness (ye). And you can give yourself a big high-five. Come on, you’ve earned it. Nothing awkward about it. Maybe just a little, but awesome people deserve awesome things.
My Seoul hikes advice: Get up super early and avoid weekends because then the paths will be quite crowded. Check whether there are some road closures or construction works going on. At the time I did the hiking, one section was closed off and the detour took me an hour. Also, wear sturdy shoes and bring enough food and water with you. There’s not a lot of opportunity to buy some.