Getting Oriented in Seoul—Hiking Up to Namsan Tower

Korea has no shortage of mountains. Yet, in Seoul, they are easily missed. An industrial cloud from China that scatters yellow dust and hangs just above the city’s densely packed skyline is partly to blame. Winding alleys crowded with markets, stalls, restaurants, street vendors, bars and quirky shops are also at fault. With so much to take in, how does one even notice the mountains just beyond?

A typical alley in Seoul

Getting oriented in Seoul can be a challenge even to those who speak the language. With so many distractions, one might find themselves asking how does anyone ever get a proper lay of the land?

The short answer is: not via Google maps. The app doesn’t work as well (it kind of works) in Korea as it does in other places. You can’t get walking directions, and it doesn’t have all the public transport instructions. Your best bet is to use a similar app called Kakao Maps. It’s the same company that does Kakao Talk (the Korean messaging and voice calling app, no one really uses WhatsApp here, FYI). And then you should download a decent subway map to your phone. I recommend downloading the app Seoul. It displays all the stations in English and Korean, which is important, especially if you happen to get lost.

And next, you hike up somewhere, like Namsan mountain, to get a real view of the city. Trust me, Namsan, is where any proper Seoul orientation should start. The trail head is easy to find. All you have to do is look for a giant radio tower (also called North Seoul Tower, it’s lit in bright colors at night).

Namsan Tower viewed from up-close

Get off at Chungmuro Station (충무로) on the sky blue line (line 4), and start walking uphill. You can’t miss the signs pointing to the park. If you find yourself climbing up a series of stairs, like the ones pictured below, you’ll know that you’re in the right place.

Most hiking routes in Korea feature steep staircases like this. This staircase is located at the entrance to Namsan.

The staircase will gradually bring you up towards several different viewing platforms, all of which offer incredible views of Seoul. Up top you’ll find an observatory, and a map of a route that you can follow to hike around the entirety of ancient Seoul. The route literally moves from Namsan tower to all the other surrounding gates of the city—not a bad way to see what the town has to offer from up above.

The view from the summit at Namsan mountain. If you look close enough, you can see the Blue House (Korea’s version of the White House) in the distance.
One of several viewing platforms on the hike up to the summit.

There are multiple viewing platforms at the summit, as well as a place to leave a lock with a message. The mountain is a popular retreat for couples looking to proclaim their undying love for one another, and their locks appear on fences like that pictured below. And for those who are wary of the hike down (or up), they can take a cable car. It takes you all the way up to the summit and back for a nominal fee.

Locks that visitors attach to the fence at the summit.

The great thing about this hike, is how well it is situated to other major sites. After descending Namsan, you can hike down to the Namdaemun market and grab lunch at one of the many vendor stalls. From there, you’re only a short stroll to Duksugong Palace where you can watch a changing of the guard ceremony at 11:00, 14:00, or 15:30 (except on Mondays). Gwanghwamun Square is located just beyond, a quick twenty-minute trek from the market. And there, you can admire and pose for photos by the larger than life statues of King Sejong (who created the Korean alphabet) and Admiral Yi Soon Shin.

Changing of the guard ceremony at Duksugong Palace. A short hike away from Namsan.

Useful Korean Phrases for your trip to Namsan and Namdaemun:

1) Where is…?  어디있어요?  (Uh-dee suh yo)

Example) Where is Namsan? 남산 어디있어요? (Namsan Uh-dee suh yo?)

2) How much? 얼마에요? (Uhl-mah-ey-yo?)

3) Please give me… 주세요 (Joo-say-yo)

Example) Please give me a water (Mool-joo-say-yo)

Please give me this (Point at the object and say “joo-say-yo”)

4) Thank You. 감사합니다 (Gam-sah-hap-nee-dah)

5) Please help me. 도와주세요 (Doh-wah-joo-say-yo)

6) Hello. 안녕하세요 (Ahn-nyung-hah-say-yo)


Featured image credit: “Seoul Tower” by larrywkoester and is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Author: Will Schick

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