View of hanok traditional homes in Bukchon
I’d heard stories of a hanok (traditional Korean house) village within downtown Seoul that was host to numerous independent cafes, galleries, museums and shops, but was always a little sceptical. An old hanok village, amidst all these dwarfing, spangly high rises? Pah!
On Sunday however, after a little internet research, I was delightfully proved wrong. Bukchon sits nestled beside Gyeongbok Palace under the watchful eye of a large, and particularly Asian looking, slate grey rocky mountain. It’s within easy walking distance of Anguk subway station, so it can easily be combined with a day out to Insadong. Insadong and Bukchon are comparable in that they are touristy because of their traditional feel, but in terms of authenticity, and for a much less hectic atmosphere, Bukchon wins hands down – perfect for Sunday afternoon strolling!
Detail of metalwork on door, Bukchon
It’s a hilly area of well maintained hanoks with graceful low roofs resembling gentle grey lapping waves. The houses are clustered together in a disorientating fashion, separated by skinny, snaking alleyways and usually arranged in a square shape around central courtyards. High walls and thick wooden gates adorned with precise metal work protect the privacy of the homes and promote a serene environment, while dark stained wooden posts with white painted ends support the tiled roofs and wooden latticed shutters keep out hot sun and curious eyes, (it’s so nice to see wood!) Big, brown, ceramic kimchi pots and flower pots crowd together outside doorways.
Despite this maze-like arrangement however, Bukchon is surprisingly easy to navigate. There are a few south- north main thoroughfares which cut through the hanoks that help keep you right, and there are also helpful signs showing the way to some of the main attractions in the area. Stop off at one of the Tourist Information Centres located just north of Anguk station to pick up a map of the area before you set off. You can also buy a 10,000 Won ticket here which gets you entry to Gahoe Minhwa Museum, Donglim Maedup Museum, Seoul Museum of Chicken Art and Han Sangsoo Embroidery Museum within the area.
Without doubt, you will stumble upon numerous small museums which mainly showcase elements of traditional Korea, be it in terms of arts and crafts, ways of living, or food. There are also numerous galleries which support leading contemporary Korean art. Because it was a Sunday, I found the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art, which displays all types of arts and crafts related chicken motifs from around the world, to be closed. The Traditional Doll Centre was also closed. Given my affection for birds and dolls, I was dismayed. However, I was especially taken by the lovely Owl Art and Craft Museum; a room dedicated to one lady’s 40 year old collection of owl paraphenelia which takes form in clocks, stamps, clothing, vases and even lamps. She will even serve you tea in her owl mugs!
Owl Art and Craft Museum, Bukchon
Toykino Museum has 6 rooms filled with film and animation models- a must for Spiderman fanatics! However, it’s not as interesting or atmospheric as the old dusty collection of toys in Toto in Insadong.
If you’re feeling in need of a pick me up after a while of pounding these often precorious streets, there are loads of cafes and restaurants ranging from traditional Korean teashops and fare, to Italian, Chinese, Malay, Singaporean and Indian food. All are a bit on the pricey side, so if you’re short for cash, seek out a long line of Koreans waiting for some great street food.
Traditional woven Korean slippers, Bukchon
There are far too many sights to list here, or even visit in one day. I earmarked a few things on my map before setting off, but I found that the most pleasure I got was from simply wandering and losing myself in the twisting alleys and discovering museums, galleries and photo opportunities as I came across them. The further from the main thoroughfares you venture, the quieter it becomes; it’s likely that you will only hear the sound of your own footsteps and a few chirping birds. I will definitely be back on a Saturday to check out what I missed out on this time. Avoid Mondays, when most museums in Seoul are closed (unless you’re looking for an even quieter experience!)
If you’re wondering what a peaceful, pre- Industrial Korea was like, then Bukchon is your answer.
Directions: Take orange line 3 to Anguk station and leave from exit 1 or 2. Head north and you’re there.