Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is an intriguing blend of old and new, where modern skyscrapers stand alongside ancient palaces and temples. While most tourists flock to famous historical sites such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace, there are several lesser-known historical gems scattered across the city. Here are five hidden treasures in Seoul that are worth exploring:
Seodaemun Prison History Hall is a former prison turned museum located in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Originally established during the Japanese colonial rule in 1908, the prison was used to incarcerate and torture Korean independence activists and others who resisted Japanese rule.
After Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945, the prison continued to operate until 1987, housing both political prisoners and ordinary criminals. In 1992, the facility was reopened as the Seodaemun Prison History Hall to preserve its historical significance and educate the public about the Korean independence movement.
The museum consists of several exhibition halls, showcasing the prison’s history, the stories of the independence activists, and the conditions in which prisoners lived. The original prison buildings, including the main gate, watchtowers, and seven cell blocks, have been preserved to provide visitors with an authentic experience.
Some notable features of Seodaemun Prison History Hall include:
- Prison cells: The cramped and harsh conditions of the prison cells are on display, giving visitors a sense of the suffering endured by the prisoners.
- Execution room: The grim execution room, where many independence activists were put to death, has been preserved to remember the sacrifices made for Korea’s freedom.
- Memorial monuments: Several monuments have been erected to honor the memory of the patriots who fought for Korea’s independence.
- Exhibition halls: The museum features various exhibitions showcasing the history of the prison, the lives of the independence activists, and the torture methods used by the Japanese colonial authorities.
- Outdoor exhibition space: The outdoor exhibition area displays sculptures and artworks related to the Korean independence movement.
Visiting the Seodaemun Prison History Hall offers a sobering look at the struggles of Korean independence activists and a deeper understanding of the country’s history. The museum is easily accessible by public transportation and is open year-round, except for Mondays and certain holidays.
Jeongdong Observatory is a lesser-known gem located on the 13th floor of the Seoul City Hall Seosomun Building in the Jeongdong neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea. This free observatory offers a stunning panoramic view of the city’s historical and cultural landmarks, as well as modern architectural marvels.
Some of the key attractions visible from Jeongdong Observatory include:
- Deoksugung Palace: A royal palace from the Joseon Dynasty, Deoksugung Palace stands out with its unique mix of Korean and Western architectural styles. The palace is particularly known for its stone-wall road and the changing of the Royal Guard ceremony.
- Jeongdong Theater: Established in 1934, the Jeongdong Theater is a historical venue for traditional Korean performing arts, such as pansori and dance. It has played a significant role in preserving and promoting Korea’s cultural heritage.
- Old Russian Legation: Built in 1890, the old Russian Legation is a historical building that once served as the Russian diplomatic mission in Korea. It played a crucial role during the turbulent years of Korea’s late 19th century, including the famous refuge of King Gojong following the assassination of Queen Min.
- Modern Skyscrapers: From the observatory, visitors can also enjoy views of Seoul’s impressive skyline, featuring modern architectural wonders such as the Lotte World Tower, N Seoul Tower, and various skyscrapers.
The Jeongdong Observatory is open to the public for free, providing an excellent opportunity to appreciate Seoul’s historical and cultural landmarks from a unique vantage point. To reach the observatory, take the subway to City Hall Station (Line 1 or Line 2) and follow the signs to the Seoul City Hall Seosomun Building. Keep in mind that the observatory’s hours of operation may vary, so it is best to check in advance before planning your visit.
Ihwa Mural Village is a picturesque neighborhood situated in the hills near Naksan Park in Seoul, South Korea. Once a dilapidated area, the village was revitalized in 2006 through the “Ihwa-dong Naksan Project,” an initiative by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism that transformed the neighborhood into a vibrant destination adorned with murals, street art, and sculptures.
Today, Ihwa Mural Village is a popular cultural spot, attracting both locals and tourists with its colorful streets, artistic atmosphere, and charming views of the city. The area is home to over 60 unique murals created by various artists, which can be found on walls, stairs, and even rooftops.
Apart from the murals, Ihwa Mural Village also features:
- Quaint Cafés and Restaurants: The village is dotted with cozy, independently owned cafés and restaurants where visitors can enjoy a cup of coffee or a delicious meal while soaking in the artistic ambiance.
- Artisan Shops: Small boutiques and handicraft shops in the area offer an array of handmade goods, souvenirs, and local products, making it a great place to find unique gifts.
- Naksan Park: Located near Ihwa Mural Village, Naksan Park is a tranquil green space that offers panoramic views of Seoul. The park features walking trails, historical sites, and a section of the old Seoul City Wall.
- Street Performances: Occasionally, visitors can catch street performances or small art exhibitions happening in the area, adding to the village’s lively atmosphere.
To reach Ihwa Mural Village, take the subway to Hyehwa Station (Line 4) and exit at Exit 2. From there, it’s about a 10-15 minute walk uphill to the village. While visiting, it’s essential to be respectful of the local residents, as the village is a residential area. Keep noise levels low, and do not touch or damage the artwork on display.
Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea. It comprises three royal tombs from the Joseon Dynasty: Seolleung, Jeongneung, and Ingneung. These tombs represent the burial sites of kings and queens, showcasing the rich history and culture of the Joseon era.
- Seolleung: Seolleung is the burial site of King Seongjong (1457–1494), the 9th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and his wife, Queen Jeonghyeon (1462–1530). King Seongjong is known for his strong administrative skills and the promulgation of various laws and policies, which contributed to the stabilization and prosperity of the dynasty.
- Jeongneung: Jeongneung is the tomb of King Jungjong (1488–1544), the 11th king of the Joseon Dynasty. King Jungjong faced numerous challenges during his reign, including power struggles and political factions. Despite these obstacles, he made considerable efforts to reform the government and promote culture and education.
- Ingneung: Ingneung is the burial site of Queen Jeongseong (1692–1757), the second wife of King Sukjong (1661–1720), the 19th king of the Joseon Dynasty. Queen Jeongseong was known for her intelligence and wisdom, which helped her navigate the complex politics of the royal court.
Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs is a beautifully landscaped park that offers a peaceful escape from the bustling city life of Seoul. The tombs are surrounded by dense forests, tranquil ponds, and stone paths that make for a serene and contemplative atmosphere. Visitors can also find traditional stone sculptures, such as the ‘muninseok’ (scholar statues), ‘seokho’ (stone tigers), and ‘seokgam’ (stone sheep), which were placed to protect and honor the deceased royals.
Guided tours are available for visitors, offering valuable insight into the lives and burial customs of the Joseon kings and queens. The site is easily accessible by public transportation; take the subway to Seolleung Station (Line 2 or Bundang Line) and exit at Exit 8. From there, it’s a short walk to the entrance of the park. Note that the royal tombs are closed on Mondays and some holidays.
Jongmyo Shrine, located in Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the ancestral shrine of the Joseon Dynasty. Dedicated to the spirits of its kings and queens, Jongmyo Shrine serves as a symbol of the dynasty’s devotion to Confucian principles and ancestral veneration.
The shrine was initially constructed in 1394 by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, and was later expanded and restored after being damaged during the Japanese invasion in the 16th century. The architecture of Jongmyo Shrine reflects Confucian values and simplicity, with a subdued and solemn beauty that sets it apart from the grandeur of other royal palaces in Seoul.
Some of the key features of Jongmyo Shrine include:
- Jeongjeon Hall: The main hall of the shrine, Jeongjeon, houses 19 spirit tablets of the kings and their queens. With its long, interconnected chambers, Jeongjeon Hall is considered one of the longest traditional Korean wooden structures.
- Yeongnyeongjeon Hall: This auxiliary hall was built to accommodate the increasing number of spirit tablets. It houses 16 tablets of kings and queens who couldn’t be placed in the main hall.
- Jaegung: The area that served as the living quarters for the king and his attendants when they visited the shrine to perform ceremonies.
- Eodo: A ritual platform located behind the main hall, where the royal ancestral tablets were temporarily placed during ceremonies.
- Jongmyo Jerye: This is the ancestral ritual ceremony performed to honor the deceased royals. The ceremony, held annually on the first Sunday of May, is accompanied by traditional music and dance performances called Jongmyo Jeryeak.
Jongmyo Shrine is open to visitors year-round, but guided tours are mandatory to preserve its sanctity. The tours, available in various languages, provide valuable insights into the shrine’s history and cultural significance. To reach Jongmyo Shrine, take the subway to Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station (Line 1, 3, or 5) and exit at Exit 11. From there, it’s about a 10-minute walk to the entrance. The shrine is closed on Tuesdays and certain holidays, so be sure to check the schedule before planning your visit.