When I mention Seoul, what is it you think of? The city with the largest population in the world? A sprawl of skyscrapers, high-rises, and other buildings stretching as far as the eye can see? A place of neon lights, dimly lit soju-bangs, and bustling markets? It is all of these things, but there is an aspect of Seoul which is surprising to some. It is also a city of mountains.
South Korea is a mountainous country, there is no denying it. With lowlands accounting for only 30% of its total area, it’s no wonder hiking is such a common past-time in this country. Take a look at the topographical map below to get a sense of just how mountainous Korea is.
Seoul itself is surrounded by eight mountains. It even has a mountain smack dab in the middle of the city. This last weekend, accompanied by my friend Brandon of Brandon’s Travels and Beers at the Bottom fame, I hiked up two of Seoul’s peaks: Namsan and Bugaksan.
Namsan is one of the staple sights of Seoul, perhaps since you can see it from nearly anywhere in the city with a clear line of site. Surrounded by a well-maintained park and conquered via gondola or an easily hiked stairway, Namsan is the most accessible mountain in the city.
As I mentioned before, Brandon runs two blogs. One of them, Beers at the Bottom, is dedicated to craft beer and hiking–a worthy combination. Since both he and Rachel–the other creative force behind the project–are overseas, he wanted to do some articles focusing on the international brewing and hiking scenes. For this, Namsan is perfect. Not only is it a decent hike with a killer 360 degree view of the city, there are also several breweries at the base in the Itaewon district.
We set out from his guesthouse near Seoul Station and walked a short distance to find ourselves in the outskirts of the park. As one would expect in Seoul, the place had a fair number of people milling about, yet it didn’t feel crowded. As we climbed the first flight of countless stairs, we remarked how refreshing it was to see such a cherished green-space in the middle of such a massive city. As in many other green spaces throughout Korea, Namsan park is dotted with exercise stations for public use.
As we made our way up the mountain, we caught glimpses of the famous Namsan Tower. Jutting out from the summit like a garish lighthouse, it’s kind of hard to miss.
After a chilly, bleak winter, hiking during the spring was a nice reminder that the Nature could still yield colors other than brown. Though most of the cherry blossoms had dropped their petals by then, a few trees were blooming late. Many other plants were in bloom as well, making for an enjoyable trip to the top.
At the top, we were pleased to discover a troupe of people in costumes performing some sort of ceremony. They were dressed in traditional garb and carried weaponry reminiscent of Korean historical epics I watched in university. Naturally, we posed for a picture with the stoic soldiers.
Further along, we found one of the most popular areas of Namsan: a fence adorned with countless love locks marked with sappy messages. The sheer number of them was staggering. The fence is barely visible in some places!
At the top, we paid to ride to the observatory at the top of Namsan Tower. While expensive, it provided us with an exceptional 360 degree view of the city. We could even see all the way to Bugaksan, which would be our challenge for the next day…
After a long day walking up and down Namsan, nothing sounded better than some tasty pub food and a cold, frothy beer. So, we headed down towards Itaewon and found Craftworks, a local brewery. While the nachos left a lot to be desired, the beer was excellent. An excellent end to an excellent day!