Temples and Buddha’s Birthday
Not far from where I live in Seoul, one can walk and find more than half a dozen Buddhist temples set into the slopes of Bukhan Mountain (북한산). These little Buddhas are just a 5-minute walk from where I live.
Many Koreans celebrate Buddha’s birthday. It is a national holiday in May commemorating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama. Many will visit nearby temples set in scenic locations or head to Bonguensa Temple, which is located right in the middle of the city.
The temples will be strewn with lines of paper lanterns, fluttering in the warm spring breeze above the heads of both worshipers and tourists. Thousands of people will line the streets of Jongno in the old city center to watch the annual Lotus Lantern Festival procession, where lines of women in colorful hanbok carrying beautifully lit lanterns will walk gracefully past.
Korea is a country of festivals. From fire, ice, and mud festivals to butterfly, firefly, kimchi, and sea-parting festivals, there is literally something for everyone. Let’s not forget the Cherry Blossom Festival! With a population of over 51 million people occupying about 100,000 square kilometers (that’s about 20% the size of California, population ~40 million), festivals are often very crowded. Festivals are a fun way to experience something fun and different in Korea. Just be prepared for crowds.
Hiking Seoul is a Must
I prefer the quiet respite of undiscovered temples tucked in the hillsides, which is where I found this small shrine of miniature Buddhas. Perfectly aligned, it feels as though a thousand souls have come together to meditate on the value of uniformity.
What I love most about Korea is the mountains and the plethora (large or excessive amount of something) of easily accessible hiking trails. The views of the city and distant mountains are incredible from the peaks. You can even see the 5th tallest building in the world in the distance on a clear day.
Beware of Wild Boars!
I’m still waiting for a wild boar sighting. There are lots of signs warning of their existence, but in 9 years, I haven’t encountered one yet. It’s on my bucket list (from a safe distance of course).
Discover the Trails
In addition to the views, hiking in Seoul provides well-marked (mostly…and some only in Korean), well-maintained trails for all levels. You can even find restrooms and rest areas along the way. Many trails have natural springs where you can hydrate. You never know what you might discover on a hike in Seoul. Outdoor exercise parks, temples, and badminton courts are common. Hiking Ansan Jarak-gil, there are even a bunch of hammocks on a wooden platform in the forest.
Hike the Seoul City Wall
The Seoul City Wall (한양도성) is just one of many fantastic hikes right in Seoul. Last fall I completed the entire Seoul City Wall hike, covering 4 of Seoul’s mountain peaks in two days (not consecutive). You can read more about the Seoul City Wall hike in Simon Richmond’s Lonely Planet article. He’s got a few nice pics there as well. However, don’t count on seeing the fish mural on the stairs in Ihwa Village near Hyehwa. Residents became annoyed with noisy tourists and painted over it. Sadly, this icon is now gone.
Share Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Seoul hikers are some of the friendliest Koreans I’ve met. They might even offer you a roasted sweet potato (고구마 goguma) if your mountaintop picnic provisions are lacking. Don’t be surprised if you see them drinking soju at the top. While it is starting to be discouraged (for obvious reasons), many hikers enjoy soju as a welcome reward at the summit. Be careful indulging as there are new laws banning drinking (and smoking) on mountaintops. That soju might end up costing a lot more than you planned.
Museums in Seoul
There are tons of museums in Seoul that are worth visiting. They are often inexpensive or even free. If I could only recommend one, it would be The War and Women’s Human Rights Museum not far from Hongdae. It is very well done and moving. If you have time to get outside of Seoul, I also recommend visiting the House of Sharing, a home and museum where some of the surviving victims live. House of Sharing offers English language tours on the third Saturday of every month. I took my mom and aunt when they were visiting me in Seoul, and meeting the halmonis (grandmothers) in their living room was a truly special experience that none of us will ever never forget.