When talking about ideal winters, winter in Seoul is probably not the first thing that would pop into my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I like going to Seoul, but winter is not my favorite season to be there. Nonetheless, the thing with countries that have four seasons is that each season is bound to have its own unique charm. And because I am the type of traveler that tries to find something to like in each place I go, I can definitely pick out certain things I enjoyed whilst spending a soul-freezing winter in Seoul.
Someone once asked me why I enjoy going to South Korea so much. It got me wondering about it too. It’s true there are other countries that are nicer than South Korea, but there’s something about this country that draws me in. I can’t seem to explain it. On a base level, I would say that I love their food and enjoy learning their language. I also find that they have a rather fascinating culture. It’s the sort that holds on to their historic roots, but at the same time it is the complete opposite of how they were historically. (Did that make sense?)
Like I said, it’s hard to put into words. It’s more of a feeling.
I was really happy when my family decided to spend winter in Seoul last December. My brother and I were put in charge of organizing the itinerary, and for the most part I think everyone in our party had fun to some degree. (I’d like to believe it at least lol.) For me, every trip to Korea is an opportunity to practice my Hangul, so that was one of the main reasons I was excited to be back. BUT DAMN WAS IT COLD! It was so cold, but also beautiful in a barren, silent kind of way.
Some notes about winter in Seoul
Winters in Seoul can be pretty brutal. I am not going to sugarcoat it. It doesn’t really snow in the city but the winter winds are dry and harsh. In fact, I think Seoul is the coldest city I have been to so far here in Asia; even beating out Sapporo during its Snow Festival season. Temperatures in December are at the negative spectrum, and it can range anywhere from -4°C to -16°C in a day. Just imagine how much colder January is.
As hard as it can be sometimes, it would be a waste to let the cold sour your long-awaited winter in Seoul. I wrote a Winter Survival Guide a while back that has tips on how to prepare and what to wear to counter the cold. It’s based from my own experiences. I hope that it would help give you an idea, especially on what kind of things to pack for your trip. Pro tip: Make sure to get a hold of earmuffs. Namdaemun Market sells them for pretty cheap and you can bargain if you buy by bulk. I find that earmuffs help greatly.
[READ ALSO: Surviving your first winter trip]
Another tip I want to give you is to book your lodgings near a subway or bus station. (You can try booking through Agoda since I noticed they’ve been having a bunch of promotions lately.) At the end of the day, when you’re tired of all the exploring you’ve done and you just want to get out of the cold, you’ll appreciate needing to walk just a few paces from the station to your place of lodging.
The places I mention in this post aren’t winter-exclusive locations. You can visit them any time, any season. However, they are the places WE visited whilst spending our winter in Seoul, so I shall talk about them here. I want to show you guys their winter charms and how they highlight the cold beauty of winter in Seoul.
1. Gyeongbokgung 경복궁
Gyeongbokgung is arguably the most well-known of Korea’s historic palaces. (I’m not used to adding the word “palace“ at the end anymore because it feels a bit redundant.) No matter the season, tourists flock to this palace to get a taste of the Joseon era as seen on many K-dramas. The main highlight of Gyeongbokgung is probably the Changing of the Royal Guards ceremony, held everyday at 10 AM and 2 PM (except Tuesdays) at the palace’s Gwanghwamun Gate. Even during wintertime, tourists crowd around the main gate for this.
Gyeongbokgung was built at the start of the Joseon dynasty, serving as the main royal palace before the Japanese invasion in the late 1500’s. It was actually burnt down at that time and spent over 250 years pretty much abandoned before a massive restoration was done in the 1860’s. They managed to fit 330 buildings within the palace walls, including an Outer Court and an Inner Court, as well as several government offices.
This second incarnation of Gyeongbokgung enjoyed a short-lived grandeur though. During the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, the Japanese tore the palace buildings down and used the site to build their own headquarters. Only a few buildings survived this tumultuous time in Korea’s history, one of them being the Throne Hall. It took 45 years after Korea’s liberation for the restorations of Gyeongbokgung to begin in earnest, but it finally did in 1990.
Because restoring such a massive historical site to as close to the original as possible is no simple matter, a lot of construction is still going on inside the compound. I actually visited Gyeongbokgung on a whim a few weeks ago and saw this myself. It’s not a shocker since the Gwanghwamun Gate alone took 4 years to build. I like that they’re taking their time to do the restoration properly, because to me, it’s a sign of respect towards the struggles of the people in the past. Seems like a small compromise to honor the freedoms the current generation is enjoying.
Each time I think about this part of history, it hurts my heart. The Philippines also went through so much just to gain freedom. We study about it at school but I’m not sure if most students actually understand what it all means. It just doesn’t seem like we as a nation give the same kind of value to the sacrifices of our heroes. We don’t have historical sites of this scale even though our history is a very “colorful” one as well.
Anyway, as with any historical location in any place around the globe, it’s best to have some background information before your visit. It adds to your appreciation tremendously, even as a mere visitor in a foreign land. I’ve personally watched enough sageuk dramas to know how big of a symbol Gyeongbokgung is in terms of Korea’s fight for freedom, so being here feels just that bit more meaningful for me.
You can actually take the experience of learning about the Joseon Dynasty a little further by visiting the National Folk Museum inside the palace grounds. A lot of historical replicas are on display inside to give visitors a better image of what life was like back then for the Korean people. Outside, there are also recreations of houses and city streets that showcase the tail-end of the Joseon Era. I’m sure these sights are familiar to those who have watched the K-dramas Mr. Sunshine and Yimong.
Address: 161 Sajik-ro, Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hours: 9 AM to 6 PM (Closed on Tuesdays)
2. Changdeokgung 창덕궁
Located East of Gyeongbokgung is possibly my favorite palace among the “Five Grand Palaces” of the Joseon Dynasty. What’s unique about Changdeokgung to me is how its buildings seem to blend quite nicely with the abundant nature surrounding it. Other palaces usually intentionally make the buildings within stand out, but the more muted and earthy colors of the buildings in Changdeokgung actually complement the background.
This becomes more pronounced if you visit the palace’s Huwon, or the Secret Garden. I actually wrote a blog post about Huwon before, when I visited it during spring of 2016. To be able to enter the Huwon, you will need to book a tour and pay a fee. I think it’s worth a visit at least once, although perhaps the wintertime is not the best time to do it. You won’t be able to see what I mean by the buildings blending in well with nature if all the trees are barren.
[READ ALSO: Greeting the First Blooms at Changdeokgung Palace]
Changdeokgung was the second palace built during the Joseon era, and it suffered the same fate as the Gyeongbokgung during the Japanese invasion. Before that though, this palace became the center of power when King Taejong ascended to the throne after disposing of his brothers and rivals at the Gyeongbokgung.
Emperor Sunjong, the last Emperor of Korea, lived in this very palace with his family during the Japanese occupation of Korea. He was virtually a prisoner because he had no real power as a ruler at this point, and he eventually died within the palace walls. His death became a catalyst for a huge uprising against the Japanese. Ironically, this was what the Japanese were preventing by exiling his publicly-adored sister, Princess Doekhye. (Watch the film The Last Princess for a heartbreaking POV of this part of Korea’s history.)
I realize the history of palaces all over Asia often has these types of tragic events attached to them, but am I weird to be fascinated by them? They’re interesting in a brutal, gut-wrenching sort of way. Learning about them always makes me question what else human beings are capable of doing for power and wealth. Now you all know why I watch sageuk dramas so much lol.
Address: 99 Yulgok-ro, Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hours: 9 AM to 5 PM (Closed on Mondays)
3. Jogyesa Temple 조계사
Located near Insadong is the Jogyesa Temple– one of South Korea’s most important Buddhist temples. It has become the symbol of Buddhism in the country because it is the chief temple of the largest Buddhist order in Korea, the Jogye Order. The temple was first built during the Goryeo era (14th Century), but as the cycle goes, it was burnt down and eventually rebuilt.
From afar, it’s not easy to appreciate what sets Jogyesa apart from other temples, but once you approach, you start seeing the amazing details built into each of the buildings. You might notice how similar the architecture is to the palaces I mentioned above, and that’s because Jogyesa was built using a fusion of traditional temple architecture and palace architecture. No wonder the detailing is this spectacular.
The Daeungjeon or Main Buddha Hall was constructed using pine wood from the Baekdu Mountain in North Korea. It houses the three Buddhas, each 16 feet tall, and so you often hear chanting and see a lot of people praying inside. The pagoda standing across this hall houses relics presented to the temple in 1913 by a Sri Lankan monk. As for the two giant trees seemingly standing guard in the courtyard, both are around 500 years old. Can you even imagine the point in time when they were mere saplings?
Jogyesa is famous for its Dharma Drum and temple bell as well. They fill the downtown area with a sound that is said to enlighten the soul every dusk and dawn. These objects are housed inside a pavilion called the Beomjongru (Brahma Bell Pavilion), which you can see in my Seoul Video Diary at the bottom of this post.
Some readers may be familiar with the different poses of the Buddhas in the photo above, but for those who aren’t, the positions of the hands of each Buddha actually symbolizes different things. Shakyamuni Buddha at the center is considered a great hero in the Buddhist religion since he is the founder of Buddhism. His signature pose has his left hand positioned in his lap, while his right hand is pointed to the ground. This symbolizes him touching the earth after enlightenment.
To the left is Amitabha Buddha. You will notice that the thumb and the third finger of each of his hands are touching in a meditation pose. He is prayed to by those hoping to be reborn in a future life carrying all the good karma accumulated from past lives of doing good deeds. (I hope I explained that right. That’s how I understand it anyway.) Lastly, on the right is Bhaisaiya Buddha, aka the “Medicine Buddha”. He is often depicted holding a container of medicine. People pray to him to heal their suffering, whether it be physical or emotional.
You don’t often find an iconic temple like this nestled right in the middle of a busy downtown area. It literally feels like this place lives inside a bubble, because the moment you enter the compound, you immediately feel cut off from the outside world. I don’t mean it like a bad thing. It’s just that the stark contrast between the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul and the calm surroundings at the Jyogesa Temple is so jarring.
I imagine people must like to come here when they feel the need to take a break from the high-speed city life. You can take a moment to say a prayer, maybe even write a wish or something. Whenever I go to temples or shrines, I always say a word of thanks to whoever god is enshrined there even though I don’t practice the same religion. I don’t believe that you have to choose only one entity to communicate your gratitude to.
Address: 55 Ujeongguk-ro, Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hours: Always open
4. Namdaemun Market 남대문시장
The biggest traditional market in Seoul also happens to be one of my favorite traditional markets to visit. The street food is cheap, and the skincare shops usually have some pretty awesome discounts in this area. You can also buy Tom’s Farm Almonds and other Korean snack foods here for a cheaper price. Whenever we have an early morning arrival, we always drop by Namdaemun for a snack while waiting for the rest of Seoul to wake up.
[READ ALSO: A morning run to Namdaemun]
My absolute favorite thing to eat here at Namdaemun is the yachae hotteok at the stall right by Gate 2. It’s in front of the IBK (Industrial Bank of Korea) and is easy to spot because there is always a line! I normally hate lines but I always line up for this. The yachae hotteok are basically japchae-stuffed hotteok brushed with a bit of pepper-infused sauce. For me, it’s one of the best street foods ever, period. I never miss a chance to eat these when I’m at Namdaemun, and they are especially satisfying during a cold winter day.
Another satisfying street food to have during winter is the eomuk, or fish cakes on a stick. When you buy from any vendor, they give you a free cup of broth as well. Any time you feel extra cold while out and about during your winter explorations, stop by an eomuk stall. It’s cheap but it hits the spot!
Address: 21 Namdaemunsijang 4-gil, Hoehyeon-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hours: Varies by store (Most stores are closed on Sundays)
5. Hongdae 홍대
Another of my favorite places to visit when I’m in Seoul is the hip district of Hongdae. In case you didn’t know, Hongdae is actually an abbreviation of Hongik Daehakgyo 홍익대학교, or Hongik University. This University is one of South Korea’s most prestigious fine arts schools, and the artistic vibe leaks out to the streets. This is where many indie music acts and aspiring comedians set up to play for an audience, especially around nightfall.
The Hongdae Shopping Street is usually crawling with student-age shoppers and shops that cater to such an age group. This is where you can buy trendy clothing items at affordable student-level prices, which is why I do most of my clothes shopping here as well. (I recommend a visit to Tomato Library!) Aside from that, Hongdae is a great place for a food-trip. They have everything you could crave for, but in a more orderly, less crowded environment compared to Myeongdong.
We only had so much time to hang out in Hogdae during this trip so I only managed to eat the food I mentioned above. There is so much more to Hongdae though! It’s yours to explore. 🙂
Address: Hongik-ro, Mapo-gu, Seoul
Hours: Varies by store
6. Cheonggyecheon 청계천
This last place I will mention in this post has wormed its way into my heart unexpectedly. I had initially thought to remove it from our itinerary since it might not be a practical place to visit during winter in Seoul. In the end, my favoritism won over. Frankly, it’s such a nice place to just sit back and chill. Well, maybe not for too long during the wintertime, or you might turn into a frozen statue.
Despite it being extra cold here because of the stream, I was thrilled to get to see the lights display for 2018. Every year, the theme changes. When I was here in December of 2016, they had these giant inflated cartoon characters dotting the stream. This year they stuck with a purely Christmas theme and focused on using lights alone. I bet the 2019 display will be equally awesome. (I might’ve had a peek when I passed by just a few weeks ago.)
I think a visit to Cheonggyecheon should be part of everyone’s winter in Seoul itinerary. There’s something magical about all these lights! I love it! Even though my soul was practically freezing and I couldn’t get my fingers to work properly taking these pictures, I couldn’t find it in me to skip this place. I reckon if I lived in Seoul, I’d frequent Chonggyecheon every time I have a rough day. It’s that kind of place for me.
Can you imagine this used to be a stream filled with garbage? Would the dirty streams and canals here in the Philippines someday turn into something like this? One could only hope, but at least I know it’s possible.
During December, there are special activities set up at the Cheonggyecheon. I saw a lot of kids writing wishes on lanterns and letting them float down the stream. It might be a fun activity while you’re here! As for me, I don’t really do any of that. I am content to just walk around in a world of my own quiet. That smile on my face in my photo below is a testament to how much I’m willing to brave the cold for a little moment at the Cheonggyecheon Stream! (I do feel sorry for everybody else in our party who had to suffer through the chill though…)
Address: Cheonggyecheon-ro, Yongsin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hours: Open 24 hours
I had expected this post to be long, but I hope it was also entertaining and educational. I am too busy with my dayjob at the moment to write individual posts for each location, but of course I am never too busy to make a little video diary of the places I mentioned in this post. I have another forthcoming post about my winter trip to Korea last year. Hopefully, if anybody is planning for their own winter trip next month, these posts will help.
For now, I leave you with my Winter in Seoul 2018 Visual Diary: