Free Things To Do in Seoul
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Home to five warning beacons and a protective city wall during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Mount Namsan now hosts a park and a smattering of tourism sites like an aquarium, a library and a bevy of beautiful walking trails.
But most people visit Namsan Park for its panoramic views of Seoul. To scope it out for free, visit Palgakjeong, an octagon-shaped viewing pavilion that boasts alluring vistas of the city. For an even more breathtaking sight, shell out a few won to get to the observation platform atop N Seoul Tower, Namsan Park's real showstopper. Recent visitors said that on clear days, the view from 1,574 feet up is spectacular. Out on the sky deck, you can't miss the thousands of padlocks attached to the fence; couples lock them there as symbols of everlasting love (bring your own lock if you're feeling romantic). For an extra-special experience, reserve a table for dinner in the rotating French restaurant, n.GRILL, on the tower's top floor.
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Bukchon Village occupies the hilly neighborhood between Gyeongbok Palace and Changdeok Palace in north-central Seoul. The neighborhood has the largest collection of privately owned hanoks, or traditional Korean homes with tiled roofs and stone floors, in Seoul. Not only that, but these 900 hanoks date all the way back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). While a stroll through Bukchon Village may feel like a trip through the ages, the neighborhood is not frozen in time. Some of the hanoks are still private homes, but others have been converted into tea houses, coffee shops, cafes, art galleries, inns and museums. It is not uncommon to see a Korean couple on a date in a hanok-style restaurant or for tourists to stay in a hanok guesthouse (like the Anguk or the RakKoJae). Even if you're not bedding down in Bukchon, recent travelers strongly recommend a visit regardless.
Travelers found the neighborhood to be picture-perfect and a lovely stroll. Make sure to bring sturdy walking shoes though, as the site is pretty hilly and takes a couple hours to cover in its entirety. Some reviewers say that because of Bukchon Village's popularity, it's best to visit early in the morning or late at night to avoid crowds. Regardless of what time you visit, keep in mind that this is still a residential area, so you'll need to heed the signs posted around the village about noise. To get the most of Bukchon Village, stop by the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center for information on walking tour routes and attractions to see within the village.
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Located in northern Seoul – but still quite accessible via public transportation – Bukhansan National Park is a mountainous oasis in a bustling metropolis. The park, which covers more than 30 square miles, is home to towering granite peaks, forest-laden valleys and miles of hiking trails in between, as well as about 100 historic Buddhist temples and monks' cells. The historical must-see, though, is Bukhansanseong Fortress, a Joseon stronghold. You also won't want to skip the 5-mile mountain wall that runs along the park's rocky terrain. The fortress was built in 1711 and served as a place of refuge for kings in times of emergency (rebuilt on the foundations of the original, which dates back to A.D. 132). Bukhansan's proximity to Seoul, its natural setting and its historical significance combine to make it the park with the most visitors per square foot, according to the Guinness World Records. That means it can get extremely crowded, especially on weekends.
If it's panoramic vistas you're after, try trekking up Baegundae peak via the Bukhansanseong trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park. From the top, you're in for a great view of Seoul and lands beyond – unless the city is shrouded in smog, which does happen occasionally. Recent visitors do warn that this hike is not for the faint-hearted; the rocky path requires strength, endurance, very sturdy hiking shoes and patience (the trek is estimated to be a 3.5-hour round-trip hike). If the Baegundae hike sounds too strenuous, you might want to consider another one of Bukhansan's trails (don't worry – there are plenty that are equally rewarding).
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The neighborhood surrounding Hongik University in west-central Seoul is a hub for Korean youth culture. Hongdae beckons to college students and other young adults with its propensity for self-expression and all-around alternative atmosphere, not to mention its plethora of bars, clubs, shops, restaurants and cafes. And because Hongik University is especially renowned for its arts programs, Hongdae is a noticeably creative area. You don't have to stroll far to find art galleries, walls adorned with street art and students singing or selling their craft on the sidewalks. Join the throngs of college students and tourists to hunt for unique souvenirs at Hongdae's two weekend markets, both held in the playground near the university's entrance. The "Free" Market takes place on Saturdays and the "Hope" Market on Sundays, both from about 1 to 7 p.m.
Night owls should head to Hongdae on "Club Day" – the last Friday of each month. On this day, revelers can club-hop among the neighborhood's hottest spots for only 15,000 won (about $14). Also, since Hongdae sits at the epicenter of Seoul's burgeoning underground and indie music scene, make sure to stop by one of the many live music venues that participates in Club Day as well.
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In this quaint central-Seoul neighborhood, you can find everything from hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) to herbal teas to calligraphy supplies. About 40 percent of Korean crafts are exchanged in Insadong, though ceramics are the prized goods here. Insadong's alleys, which are lined with street vendors, wooden tea houses, galleries and restaurants, stretch from the Anguk-dong Rotary to Tapgol Park. By shopping here, you'll be contributing to centuries of Korean history – Insadong was central to painters during the Joseon Dynasty and continues to be a hub for artistry today.
Recent visitors lauded Insadong as a great place to buy cultural souvenirs, but they also appreciate its fun atmosphere. Guests say there are always lots of people coming to and fro as well as street performers and artists hanging around, waiting for interaction. For a trip back in time, visit Insadong on the weekends when motor vehicles are prohibited on its winding streets, adding to its quaint, Old World vibe. While the atmosphere is undoubtedly fun, visitors suggest those wanting to experience Insadong without crowds come during the weekdays.
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Dongdaemun isn't just a market – it's a shopping mecca. Encompassing 10 city blocks, Dongdaemun features 26 malls, 30,000 specialty shops and scores of wholesale stores, making it place to go if you need, well, anything. Make sure to get a map of the district. With all the options available, there's no way you're going to be able to navigate this overwhelming, multi-street shopping complex without some guidance. Though if you want to try, you'll have plenty of time: Dongdaemun Market is open 24 hours per day and many shops stay open till as early as 5 a.m.
Most of the malls in Dongdaemun feature a mix of retail and wholesale shops, though it's good to know which sell the most of what. The best way of navigating this mammoth fashion hub is to split the area up by Jangchungdan-ro, a big street that runs through Dongdaemun Market. West of Jangchungdan-ro, you'll find malls that appeal more to tourists. Doota (located in Doosan Tower), Migliore, Good Morning City and Hello apM sell a mix of retail and wholesale items but have multilingual information desks and currency exchanges. East of Jangchungdan-ro, you'll find more malls that sell more wholesale than not. These include Designer's Club, Gwanghee Fashion Mall and Nuzzon. Though if all you're after is wholesale, hit up Pyeonghwa Fashion town north of the Doosan Tower. When your stomach starts to rumble, head over to Mukja Golmok, which translates to "Let's Eat Alley." There, you can find a smorgasbord of Korean cuisine.
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