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Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon travel guide

As the heart of South Korea, and the nation’s capital for more than six centuries, the vast, high-tech, high-rise city of Seoul has it all: fashionable shopping areas, labyrinthine arcades, thriving markets, historic palaces, soaring office blocks, and dynamic nightlife. One of Asia’s largest conurbations, with a population of well over 10 million, it is brimming with exuberance and energy.

The city is bordered by eight mountains, and the hilly countryside that extends to the north, south and east is marked by the royal tombs and ancient castles of Gyeonggi Province, and its capital Suwon. Day-trip options include the Korean Folk Village near Suwon, and Bukhansan National Park, just short drive from downtown Seoul. Panmunjeom, on the border with North Korea, makes for a different kind of day trip – a fascinating opportunity to visit the world’s last remaining relic of the Cold War. Further afield, you can mix sightseeing with skiing, hiking, and climbing in Gangwon Province, where you’ll find some of the peninsula’s most breathtaking scenery at Seoraksan National Park

Places to visit in Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon

Seoul

Seoul is the heart of South Korea - a mixture of chic shopping districts, traditional markets, historic palaces, towering office buildings, crowded streets and pulsating nightlife. Read more...

Suwon

Suwon, the capital of Gyeonggi Province, is an old fortress-city 51km (31 miles) south of Seoul. Suwon’s name, which means “water-source” or “water-field,” derives from its location in an area which was traditionally known for its fine artesian wells.

These days, the city is renowned for its restored castle walls and its galbi, or barbecued short ribs. However, it’s the late spring and summer strawberries (ttalgi) that come to most Korean minds when you mention the word Suwon. The city can be quickly and easily reached on subway line 1 from Seoul Station to its terminus at Suwon Station. Better yet, take the faster, more comfortable (and more expensive) train from Seoul to Suwon station.

The main sight in Suwon is the Hwaseong Fortress, with its massive walls, gates, and other historic architectural facilities which meander for 5.5km (3½ miles) around the old city proper. Construction began during the reign of King Jeongjo (1776–1800), the 22nd Joseon monarch, who established the fortress in memory of his father, Prince Sado. The whole complex is an integral part of the city, so there are no opening or closing times or gates to enter.

Bukhansan National Park

Besides its abundant natural beauty, Bukhansan National Park also has historic Bukhansanseong (North Han Mountain Fortress), one of two major ancient fortresses in the Seoul area – the other being Namhansanseong, to the south of the capital – built to defend the royal family against attacking hordes of Manchus and Mongolians when all other defenses had failed. This historical fortress is similar in design and setting to its southern counterpart, and is located above the sprawling northeast suburbs of Seoul along the rocky high ridges of Bukhansan mountain.

Bukhansanseong was originally constructed during the early Baekje period and at various times fell into martial disuse. Today, you can walk along most of the 8km (5 miles) of wall and see the west gate, and view what remains of the palace and warehouses within the walls. A neat village has grown alongside a stream in the crater-like center of the fortress, and meadows and small forests on its less-populated fringes are favored picnic sites.

Being so close to Seoul, this park is immensely popular for both hikers and picnickers, and the most popular trails and riverside picnicking areas tend to get quite crowded on weekends. Access from Seoul is very easy; take line 4 on the subway to Suyu Station, or to Dobongsan Station for the northern part of the park.

Panmunjeom and the DMZ

One of the most unusual, and fascinating, experiences in South Korea involves a short journey from Seoul to the heavily fortified border with North Korea. The two countries remain technically at war, even if economic prosperity and the apparent tranquility of life in the South make the idea of hostilities breaking out inconceivable for most visitors. Yet relations have grown frosty again, with warlike proclamations from Pyongyang following the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel in 2010.

To acquaint overly optimistic tourists with this potentially volatile situation, the Korean Government and United Nations representatives have sanctioned one of the world’s most unusual tourist outings. This unique visitor attraction is a day trip to Panmunjeom, the site of a small farming village which was obliterated during the Korean War. Panmunjeom (accessible only through an organized tour) is the historic site on Korea’s 38th parallel where US and South Korean representatives of a special United Nations Military Armistice Commission have been holding periodic talks with North Korean and Chinese negotiators. Their goal: to mutually supervise a cease-fire truce that was signed here on July 27, 1953. That truce agreement formally divided Korea into North and South political sectors and put an uneasy – and still unofficial – end to the bloody Korean War.

Geographically, Panmunjeom sits in a wide valley just northwest of the broad Imjin River and about 56km (35 miles) northwest of Seoul. Cartographically, and therefore politically, it also straddles the stretch of land near the western end of Korea’s Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), a demarcation line about 4km (2½ miles) wide which winds its way for 250km (150 miles) across the waist of the Korean peninsula. This truce camp is the point of official contact between North Korea and the free world. It is also a heavily mined, barricaded, and patrolled “no-man’s land” only for well-armed soldiers, a few hundred farmers, and, ironically, several formerly endangered species of birds (such as the spectacular Manchurian crane). These species have flourished within the confines of the DMZ since it was declared off-limits to most of humanity in 1953.

Getting to the Demilitarized Zone from Seoul is extremely easy. The tours are well advertised and run several times a day, six days a week. Many tours do not include a visit to the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which is well worth the extra time and money.

In the distance, across the dividing line in the North Korean half of the demilitarized no-man’s-land, is a village is said to be the biggest in the world (and with a giant flagpole) but no-one actually appears to live there. Curiously, even the windows on the sides of the buildings appear to be nothing more than black paint. American soldiers are in the habit of calling the North Korean village “Propaganda Village.” However, it goes under the official name of Gwijeongdong.

Seoraksan National Park

Seoraksan, the “Snow Peak Mountain,” is now more formally known as Seoraksan National Park. In fact, it is not a lone mountaintop, but rather a series of peaks in the mid-section of the spectacular Baekdudaegan or “Great White Range,” South Korea’s most prominent geographical region. This panoramic backbone of South Korea’s northeast province of Gangwon is a tourist destination which lives up to its public relations hype. The Seoraksan area is a true mountain wonderland, and after a visit you’ll understand why early Zen (or Seon) Buddhist monks chose this region to sit and strive to become one with the universe. Despite the crowds this park attracts, it is possible to enjoy some solitude within this jewel in the crown of South Korea’s extensive National Park system – just avoid visiting at weekends and during school holidays.

The most popular section of the park is Outer Seorak (Oeseorak). This region is east of the mountain divide, closest to the East Sea and furthest from the interior of the peninsula (hence “Outer Seorak”). Visitors to the park usually end up staying in the heart of Outer Seorak, at the resort village of Seorakdong. According to park literature, up to 26,000 people can be housed within the park (it seems like more on holidays), and 90 percent are in Seorakdong. Inner Seorak (Naeseorak), the western section of the park, has the advantage of fewer visitors, and the disadvantage of having fewer attractions.

Top hotels in Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon

  • Seoul Garden Hotel

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169-1 Dohwadong, Mapogu

Seoul

tel: (02) 717-9441

Located to the west of Itaewon. Only a few mins’ walk from subway stations. The airport bus departs right in front of the hotel. Close to river boat landing. Has 362 rooms (five Korean-style). Health club, sauna, and bar. 

  • Nine Tree Hotel

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51 Myeongdong 10 gil, Junggu

Seoul

tel: (02) 750-0999

Sparkling, fresh, friendly and reasonably priced for a place smack in the middle of bustling Myeongdong. Stay here and you'll be steps away from the center of Seoul: the subway, Myeongdong market, sightseeing, and more. The hotel offers a number of room options, from twin to family size, and in-room amenities, free WiFi, a foot massage machine, and a choice of nine different pillows to help you feel comfy.

  • Sorak Park

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74-3 Seorakdong, Sokcho

Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon Seoraksan National Park

tel: (033) 636-7711

About 1.5km (1 mile) from the park entrance, this is the region’s top hotel, with 121 rooms (18 Korean-style) with private balcony overlooking mountain. Excellent facilities include casino, cocktail lounge, nightclub, sauna, and health club. 

Top restaurants in Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon

  • Korea House

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80-2 Pildong 2-ga, Junggu

Seoul

tel: (02) 2266-9101

Exceptional surroundings on a hillside with traditional Korean buildings, serving food formally reserved for royal families, and with entertainment. 

  • Sanchon

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14 Gwanhundong, Jongnogu

Seoul

tel: (02) 735-0312

Situated on a little side street in Insadong, Sancheon restaurant serves a superb range of traditional Buddhist vegetarian dishes. Evening entertainment. 

Read more about South Korea

Read more about South Korea in Insight Guides: South Korea

Insight Guides: South Korea

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Places to visit in Seoul, Gyeonggi and Gangwon

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