If you’ve already been in Seoul for a few weeks and dedicated time to explore the city, chances are you saw my previous article with all the must-see tourist sites. Maybe you went above and beyond, blasting past my list and going to all the tourist areas that are suggested in every other Seoul travel guide, and now you want to see the real Seoul.
You are ready to become a real local and feel comfortable calling Seoul your home.
Unfortunately, the elusive places that only locals know are hard to just search up, and I’m not about to name my favorite hidden spots. In fact, I find it a bit paradoxical. Those pockets that only the locals know are special because they know the area so well and stumbled upon it themselves. Being a local is not something you can shortcut.
However, I don’t intend to berate you for your laziness but rather to offer you advice. Seoul can be a difficult city to adjust to, especially if you are coming from a non-Asian culture. Where should you go? Where should you look for that quintessentially Seoul experience?
If you wander around the really big districts, Seoul can come off as a high tech city with high buildings, well-dressed and judgemental people, and no real life. There is life here, I promise, but part of the magic of realizing you live here is discovering those places for yourself. While these aren’t specific places that make the transition easier, below are a list of hints that’ll help you along the way. Remember it is more about the journey than the destination.
Quiet Neighborhoods and Real People
For me, Seoul began to feel more like home when I finally found the people who were living around me.
Seoul’s population is huge and not everyone is living in some strange, far-off suburb. However, because I live right along Gangnam-daero (강남대로) and at first didn’t usually venture off the road when I went out, I never saw any everyday people rushing to work, tucking away strands of loose hairs as they went; kids wandering to school; people walking their dogs; or elderly people loudly talking to their friends or walking with their grandkids. I only saw these moments when I finally turned from my normal path to the areas that seemed like they didn’t have anything to do and there was a higher risk for a complete lack of any English speakers.
It’s funny how it helps make the area feel more comfortable and familiar when you see other people in an environment they subconsciously consider home. You’ll have to make some effort, of course, but these areas are never far from where you are and will remind you that special spots are often closer than you think.
If you haven’t yet heard, rooftops are generally open to the public in Korea. If they are closed, the property owner might just be worried about safety or may have had a prior bad experience with people on the roof. However, if yours has been closed off, don’t despair. It’s yet another opportunity for exploration!
As you journey around Seoul, look for tall buildings that are open to the public and try to reach the top if permitted. Some of the open spaces have nicely designed gardens and the best have beautiful views of the city only for the handful who take the journey. Moral of the story: remember to look up!
Going to a bookstore might seem like a strange addition to this list, but it is one of my personal favorites. I love going to bookstores, seeing how the books are organized and who spends time in each section. I find Korea’s bookstores unique in that people will wander in to read and study as if the place was a library. It’s yet another dimension of Korean culture.
Fair warning though: If you aren’t into people watching or looking for books (sometimes there is an English section), this might not be an experience for you. However, whether or not this is tailored to your liking, it’s an experience all the same.
Along the Hangang
Most Koreans greatly enjoy the Hangang (also known as the 한강 or Han River). You can easily tell with the immense number of runners and bikers, the couples and friend groups chit-chatting as they walk along the water, and the families picnicking with their quickly delivered fried chicken. There are so many people and yet I still feel an uncommon balance of people and nature. It’s beautiful, calming, and definitely a place Seoulites journey to.
Finding the perfect spot is up to you. There are several parks along both sides of the river, each with their own charms. Take the time to enjoy the scenery and find the one that fits you best.
Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but hiking seems to be the national activity of Korea. The 아줌마’s (ajummas or middle-aged women) and 아저씨’s (ahjussis or middle-aged men) will go over-the-top with all the gear they bring and others seem to do it quite regularly either to exercise or to find a nice getaway close to home.
There are several mountains in and around Seoul and even more hiking paths, so with a little effort you can reconnect with nature and see landscapes not visible to you at ground level in the middle of the city. Your own pockets of cool pools, small gardens, cliffs, hidden temples, and natural expanses are all possibilities if you’re willing to make the hike.
You’ll definitely have to carve out a day in your schedule if you want to explore this side of Seoul, but sometimes it’s best to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city for a little while and remember our roots.
Stops for No One
This might be obvious to some, but I advise you to try to “get lost” or go to places you might not normally go to. Get off at the stop where no one else does. Take a turn into an empty alley (preferably not at night to minimize possible danger — though Seoul is always incredibly safe). Go down the winding path into the wheat fields. There is a reason and a story for every place, whether you know it or not.
Sure, it is difficult to journey into the unknown, especially when you’re surrounded by a foreign culture and language. But these moments of discovery serve as a reminder that with just a little determination and curiosity, you can indeed make an unfamiliar place familiar.
You ultimately choose whether to get to know a place or not, to call a place your home or not. It’s up to you.