Author's Note: This is the first in a series of articles about recreational travel opportunities for service members stationed in South Korea. Each article will highlight a specific South Korean destination, attraction, or event within the authorized traveling distance for U.S. forces in country. The aim of this series is to encourage everyone to safely and enthusiastically explore their surroundings, develop an appreciation for the history, culture, and customs of their host nation, as well as showcase the diverse activities available to service member, and their families, near and far, while stationed in the Republic of Korea. Concluding each article will be an approximation of how much money and time are required for each destination, attraction or event, as well as directions and amount of physical activity is required. Many opportunities to travel in groups are available through the base's Information, Tickets and Travel office as well as Outdoor Recreation.
SEOUL, South Korea - When visiting Seoul, the Republic of Korea's capital and megacity, it will strike any observant traveler that the city, host to more than 10 million residents and even more tourists, possesses a combination of man-engineered modernism flanked and surrounded by natural spectacles. This was especially apparent to me on my trip to Namsan, a mountain located in the central district of Seoul. Namsan and its surrounding areas provide great hiking and walking opportunities for exercise, as well as a couple of tourist destinations with splendid views of the city.
I started my trip from Osan Air Base at 8:30 a.m. Planning to spend most of the day walking, I made sure to dress warm and packed a large water bottle and multiple snacks for the trip.
Leaving my home, I walked to Songtan Station, taking the metro into Seoul. Another option for travelers is to use one of the various bus routes into the city. To get to Namsan I rode Line 1 from Songtan to Seoul Station, no transfer required. A one-way metro ticket costs W1,150 after the deposit refund and the trip took approximately 80 minutes, time I used to catch up on reading and studying I had to do.
At Seoul Station, it's about a 10-minute walk to Namsan Park. Foreign travelers can look to Romanized street signs pointing travelers in the right direction in case of any confusion.
Along the way, travelers can stop by the pagoda-styled Namdaemun Sungnyemun gate, one of the eight gates of the Seoul Fortress Wall, a giant work of defense infrastructure for Seoul during the Joseon dynasty originally built around 1395, which now serves as a historical hiking route spanning nearly 12 miles around the city. The Sungnyemun gate, translated literally as "Gate of Exalted Ceremonies," is one of the four major gates of the Seoul Fortress Wall and was historically used to greet foreign ambassadors and to grant or deny travelers access to Seoul. The gate has suffered extensive damage throughout history, notably during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War in the 20th century. Most recently the gate was damaged during a fire in 2008, but has been repaired and is listed as the first national treasure of Korea.
Surrounding the Sungnyemun gate are a lot of city attractions and the Namdaemun market, one of the oldest markets in South Korea, which presents potential consumers with an array of merchandise to buy. Without stopping at any of these side-attractions, it's just a 5-10 minute walk to Namsan Park, a perfect entryway to Namsan Mountain.
The park has many trails and various sites to see on the way up, making it a pleasurable stroll from the park's entryway to the top. Hiking the paths does require a modicum of personal fitness, but aspiring travelers need not worry, I came across plenty of elderly people and children on my way up, and all pathways are paved with concrete and stairs.
Statues, landmarks and guideposts are very tourists friendly, with placards written in Korean, Mandarin, and English. I came across a number of friendly people on the way as well, many local hikers greeted me politely as we crossed paths and I met several American travelers taking their children out for an early hike. One woman at the top of the mountain even tried to explain what the marker denoting the "Geographical Center of Seoul," was... in Mandarin. Of course we had no luck communicating, but she tried to explain it to me as best as she could and I appreciated the attempt.
On the way up there are a number of spots to stop for a great panoramic view of the city and exercise pavilions for the traveler looking to do some anaerobic training. Behind the skyscrapers and metropolis neighborhoods, travelers can make out some of the other, larger mountains in Seoul and can even spot the outline of the Fortress Wall of Seoul, which spirals up, down, and around the mountains.
Near the top of the trek is a cable car running from the mountain's top to bottom. I'm not sure where it originates at, but the ride could provide a fun, relaxing view of the sites for weary hikers.
At the top of the mountain is the Namsan Bongsudae, a beacon tower used in older days to communicate across the provinces of Korea. To send messages, troops would light the towers, using smoke in the day and fire at night. Throughout the day there are Bongsugun (translates to beacon tower soldiers) who reenact a beacon lighting ceremony used to deliver messages.
A little further from the beacon tower is the N Seoul Tower, which marks the highest point in Seoul. Access to the tower is free, and there are a number of restaurants nearby for hungry hikers or gift shops for people looking to get souvenirs. There are also additional sites around the tower, with multiple platforms giving access to great views of the city and the surrounding mountains. I got lunch at a Korean fusion restaurant for W8,000 and rested my legs before heading back down the mountain.
The hike up and down the mountain can be done in about an hour and a half, but most travelers will take longer while enjoying the scenery and surveying the statues and landmarks. Overall, I spent about three and a half hours going up and down Namsan.
After descaling the mountain, travelers can go back to the metro and arrive back at Songtan Station in approximately 100 minutes, with the base being either a 15 minute walk or even shorter taxi ride away from there. However, the hike is a half-day trip at most, and the location in central Seoul gives Namsan travelers a chance to explore the city more if they wish, whether it be shopping in the nearby Namdaemun Market or dining at one of the many and diverse restaurants in the area.
Although there are larger mountains in Seoul, Namsan is an easily accessible, family and tourist friendly destination that affords beautiful panoramic views to travelers for little cost. It's location in the central of one of the world's largest cities gives travelers a great chance to explore a little bit of nature, while still having access to all the diverse services of the metropolis.
Location: Namsan Mountain
Directions: Take metro line 1 Songtan Station to Seoul Station. Taking exit #3, follow Romanized street signs to Namsan Park.
Cost: W11,500, which includes metro tickets and lunch. Additional fares for using taxis.
Time: 7 hours (Approximate time from leaving to arriving back to base. Additional travel time may occur.)
Documentation required: No ID required.
Who it's for: Scenery lovers and tourists interested in South Korean landmarks.
When it's open: Year round, although the platforms and Seoul Tower have limited hours of operation.
Activity required: Moderate. Steep hills and steps may be challenging for the very young or old.
What to travel with: Travel light. Make sure to take your SOFA and ID card as well as a functioning cellular phone. As always, when traveling, groups are preferable, but make sure to notify your supervisor and chain of command where you intend to go. Pack any additional snacks or water as desired, there are multiple toilets and water fountains on the route. Happy Hiking!