Ten secret refuges across Seoul

Written by on June 15, 2012 in Travel

With a population density of 16 000 people per square kilometer, Seoul is a bustling metropolis to say the least. Ever since the end of the Korean War, the number has been growing, putting a strain on resources, housing, and privacy. Some visitors find it all overwhelming, but not me.

All across the city are hidden oases of peace and quiet, where you can disappear to and forget about the stresses of urban life for a while.

Sure, you probably know of the Han River Park, Seoul Forest, Dream Forest, Cheonggyecheon, and some of the bigger mountains like Namsan, Bukhansan, and Gwanaksan. And many of those places are must-see for those who are new to Seoul, as well as residents. But they’re also way too crowded, and pretty far away from each other.

So instead, we’re going to look at some of the places I’ve found in my time living in this city. Plus, I’ll show you where they are through the magic of Daum Street View, which I praised in a previous blog post.

Hongje Waterfall

Seoulites certainly love their city streams: I’ve already mentioned Cheonggyecheon, and there’s also Yangjaecheon south of the river that was similarly restored. But my favourite is Hongjecheon, probably because it runs right past my home. It’s over 13 kilometers long, offering biking and walking paths all the way from the mountains down to the Han. But the best section would have to be the artificial waterfall built at the foot of Ansan Mountain, where the Naebu Expressway curves north toward Hongje Station.

In order to attract more people to this area, the waterfall was constructed along with a musical fountain. As you can see in the picture below, it’s working.

Hongje Stream Waterfall

Actually, the waterfall was just a trickle when I visited, but the area itself is very beautiful, with many comfortable places to sit and even a little sandy beach. It’s easy to forget you’re in Seoul when you visit the waterfall.

Go there on Daum.

Tomb of Prince Yangnyeong

I found this place purely by accident. Once while riding my scooter around Sangdo, I stopped to use the washroom in a random building and went up to the rooftop, where I saw this:

Front Gate

I was unable to find any tourist information on it at all, but the front gate was open so I walked in and gave myself a lonely tour of the most beautiful garden I’d ever visited. It was beautiful, and aside from myself and one person in the building it was totally empty.

Although the front gate usually is closed, there are other ways to enter and go up to the tomb, which sits at a beautiful location on top of the hill with a stunning view of the city. Also in the vicinity is Sangdo Park, location of Yeombulsa Temple.

Prince Yangnyeong was the eldest son of King Taejong, who was perhaps most famous for fathering King Sejong the Great. In those days, the crown was passed to the eldest son, making Yangnyeong the candidate, but the crown prince saw in his younger brother the markings of a great leader. In order to pass down the succession to Sejong, Yangnyeong intentionally banished himself by misbehaving in court. He later married a commoner and spent the rest of his life living as a wanderer in the mountains.

Go there on Daum.

Eungbong Mountain

From many parts of Geumho, Eungbong Mountain is a major feature of the landscape. Located at the end of the valley next to the river, it’s only 95 meters high but it gives a great view of the city.

Eungbong Mountain seen from Maebong Mountain, another fantastic urban mountain.

The mountain is said to resemble a hawk, which is where it gets its name. It is said that the Joseon kings came here to hunt. Nowadays you can find a basketball court, climbing facilities, and you can see it in the picture above: a beautiful two-level octagonal pavilion right at the very peak. It provides a great view of the city, and when I was there the park lights were on until midnight.

The pavilion at night

Go there on Daum.

Gwanghuimun Gate

Everyone knows the big gates of Seoul, but there were actually many smaller gates as well. Gwanghuimun is probably less well-known due to its closeness to Dongdaemun, but the problem with many of the larger gates is that there are too many people or cars around. Instead, this much smaller gate offers a more intimate atmosphere just south of the chaos that is Dongdaemun Market.

Seen from inside.

There’s a small fence around it so it seems like you’re not supposed to go on the grass, which is a bit wild and stretches for 150 meters.

Go there on Daum.

 Geumho Park

As you can probably guess by some of these entries, I used to live in Geumho, just downhill from this very nice hillside bit of greenery. Well-kempt paths wind through the trees, and you can find a few sports facilities and fantastic vistas here and there. One path offers a special foot massage walk, inviting visitors to remove their shoes and walk across the specially placed stones and other objects intended to sooth the foot.

The massage walk

Go there on Daum.

 Saenamteo

I admit I’m not Catholic, but this church in Yongsan is undeniably beautiful. At first it doesn’t even seem Catholic due to its Oriental architecture, but soon you start to notice the statues of martyrs, as well as Jesus Christ Himself standing out front. It is actually a Catholic martyrs’ site and has nine martyrs resting there.

The front entrance, seen at Christmas when they had a nativity scene.

The grounds are beautiful to wander around, and so is the second-storey balcony, with doors into the huge main room. Although I’ve never been brave enough to go inside, there is also an interesting underground museum at the front of the property that shows a bit of the history of the site as well as of Catholicism in Korea.

The unique architecture of Saenamteo

Saenamteo is situated in an area slated for redevelopment. However, I have seen some conceptual drawings of the proposed megaproject that leave Saenamteo intact.

Go there on Daum.

 Gyeongui Line

The Gyeongui Line is one of Korea’s oldest railways, once connecting Seoul with Pyongyang and up through Sinuiju into China. Although we can’t take that ride today, it is a useful link for Ilsan and Paju. Currently it is being extended underground through western Seoul, terminating at Yongsan Station by the end of the year.

In order to install the underground tunnel, many buildings were cleared out, resulting in a long, thin strip of land cutting through the city. The solution? A park path stretching all the way from Yongsan through Hongdae and terminating right at my front doorstep.

Certain sections are already open, such as this part between Gongdeok and Daeheung stations.

Looking east toward Gongdeok

When it opens, it will be a great route for bikers, joggers, and city explorers.

Go there on Daum.

 Wowsan

Hongdae is a district known for its nightlife; sometimes people even forget that it’s centered around an arts university, Hongik University. But actually, the university itself is situated on a mountain slope, and although Wowsan isn’t much more than 200 meters high, it’s still a great refuge away from the jungle that is Hongdae. There is a park up there with some sporting facilities, and the view is spectacular, not to mention unexpected in this location.

Please forgive the lousy quality of my old camera.

Go there on Daum.

104 Hill

Well I probably have enough mountains now. Yeppffff…I’m gonna put one more mountain.

104 Hill, like its name suggests, is 104 meters high, making it an easy climb. You may have seen it if you’ve ever been north of Hongdae; it stands out due to the Hankook and Hyundai billboards at the top.

What I like about this mountain, apart from its closeness to my home, is its historic value. It was the site of a fierce battle in the Korean War when the allied forces were taking back Seoul. There is a memorial to the ROK Marines who fought tooth and nail to reach the top of this hill in order to secure the way in to the capital. Of course, now there are paths and steps and it’s an easy climb. But there’s still an interesting surprise at the top.

There are paths all over the hill.

Also, once you reach the top and see all the exercise equipment, you can move on north and follow the ridge toward Ansan, the mountain behind Yonsei University.

The ridge north of 104 Hill

Go there on Daum.

Rooftops

If you’re in Seoul, where are you now? Can you get onto the roof? A surprising number of buildings in Seoul have free rooftop access; what’s more, many of the rooftops are actually very pleasant. To say nothing of the view.

A very spacious residential rooftop

It makes sense: in a city as dense as Seoul, every bit of space counts. Many businesses and homes have rooftop parks where people are free to go out–usually for a smoke, but there’s no stopping you from going up there to have a picnic, or just admire the view. They are also commonly used as gardens.

You can see the rooftops here being used for everything from hanging laundry to gardening to a lush yard.

Oh, and sometimes you find the most unexpected things up on rooftops.

An inner rooftop courtyard

Are you disappointed because still none of these are in your part of Seoul? Well, go out there and get looking for your own quiet little places. That’s how I found all of these. In fact, they only represent a very small section of the city, mostly around places I’ve lived.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats