The Perfect Seoul Weekend for History Buffs: The Jongno District

Now that the heat and humidity of summer have dissipated, people are taking advantage of the temperate weather to enjoy the city of Seoul. This also a peak time for visitors to the city. If you are visiting from another city in Korea or another country all together it can be hard to budget your time. I’ve made a couple itineraries for your best weekend in Seoul, no matter what it is you want to see.

Saturday For the History Buff: This one is a lot of walking, so lace up some comfortable shoes, bring a water bottle, and maybe a hat for the late summer sun. We’re centering your Saturday on the Jongro district of Seoul.

If you come out Gwanghwamun station exits 3 or 4, you are perfectly positioned alongside monument square in front of Gyeonbukgung palace. From here you are ideally situated to either grab some brunch the the Paris Croissant in the Kyobo building or walk down the block to hit the entrance to the free underground museum about King Sejeong, creator of hangul and Lee Soon Shin, famous military leader. The museum is small, but has a half size replica of the famous turtle boats of Korean military history inside it.

From there you can approach the famous Gyeongbukgung palace. It’s on nearly everyone’s itinerary of Seoul, but it is actually very interesting and worth seeing once. It’s rebuilt, but still only a quarter of its original size. Everything is authentically recreated, so it’s impressive to see the innovative architectural technology (like the original ondol floor heating) being used hundreds of years ago. Many of the original stones were salvaged for use in its rebuilding. And the water garden is a lovely place for photo ops. IMG_1662

If you can get an English guided tour of the palace, it can really help you pick out many cool details about the palace you might not see just looking at the information brochure. However, tour guides are obliged to take you to everything, even the repetitive royal bedroom after royal bedroom. So you can decide whether you want to explore on your own or not. Gyeongbukgung also gives you access to the Korean folk museum that can be accessed from one of the back side gates, just follow the signs in the palace. When you finish the palace, you can exit out the back gate facing the mountain and see the Blue House. This is the home of the current president of Korea.

After staring at the palace (and being stared at by guards) swing to the right and walk down the side wall of the palace past all the security to head back toward the main street. It’s a long, peaceful walk, but at the end of it, just before you hit the main street, you can cross the road to Seoul Selection. It’s book shop with a mainly English collection. They sell and even publish books about Korea. From history to food to language, traditional folks tales and poetry, even some modern Korean set fiction, the small shop always has a great variety of books. They even have some DVDS in stock of documentaries and kdramas. They also serve beverages such as traditional Korean honey tea, which will be a nice refreshment after the palace.

From there, you can cross the main road and head down to Insadong. Insadong is a fun, but often crowded and touristy neighborhood where you can buy traditional pottery, calligraphy brushes, and plenty of food. Get off the main road and try the little side alleys for some more interesting and unique shops. Down the main walking street of Insadong is an OSulloc tea shop– one of my favorite Korean tea producers in Korea. Black, green, and oolang teas from Jeju blended with herbs and flowers in dozens of different flavors, the shop has  containers on the shelves that allow you to smell the perfume of the tea before buying. The upstairs of the shop is also a cafe, so you can order teas and even food made with tea (green tea ice cream, green tea pesto grilled cheese, scones with green tea spread!) before committing to buying a whole box of the tea.

However, if you stay on the same side of the street, you can head to Samcheongdong. At the foot of Bukchon, the traditional house district, Samchegondong is a cute little district of shopping, eating, and playing. It’s mainly populated by young couples, but there’s cool stuff for everyone, with buskers playing on the street, and crafters selling handmade goods at pop up tables. Get some traditional Korean street food or dessert– there’s even a few places to get western food if you’re craving it, and some coffee shops that offer cheap to-go cups. Head up the hill to Bukchon to look at the houses in the traditional Korean architectural style, and snap a few photos of both the beautiful houses, and the beautiful view if you make it all the way up. But remember, Bukchon is a residential neighborhood with quiet hours late in the evening through morning.

And that’s your historical Saturday! For some alternative plans or plans for your historical Sunday, here are a few more ideas.

If you’ve seen Gyeongbukgung before or are simply looking for something a little bit different, you can also try Changdeokgung. This is a smaller palace in the same neighborhood. It was built later and covers less ground. However, it is a UNESCO heritage site largely because of its beautiful Secret Garden.

The Jongno district also features the Cheonggyecheon stream– an open stream that runs through the center of town from Jongno for several km. You can follow it all the way to Dongdaemun if you want a walk. Jongno features the Cheonggyecheon plaza. It’s a big open square around the start of the stream that has fountains and a giant conch shell that signals the beginning of the walk. Many times there are markets and events around the plaza as well on weekends. Families and couples frequent the walkways around the stream and often put their feet in the cool, clear water. Don’t be shy, join them.

The Jongno district and beyond is home to many great museums. Try the Seoul Museum of History or the War Memorial of Korea for interesting (and free!) permanent collections with changing special exhibitions.

Once your taste for history is satisfied, there is still plenty to do in Seoul. What kind of weekend do you want to have next?

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