Seoul is an urban playground, home to skyscrapers, quirky cafés, bustling markets and more beauty stores than you could visit in a lifetime. But there’s also an abundance of national parks and outdoor spots, making the capital an underrated paradise for anyone up for an adventure in nature.
Flanked by a sizeable national park and seven mountains, one of the best things to do in Seoul is catch a breath of fresh air. Sure, you may lose it in the next breath if you choose to hike one of the steep peaks in Bukhansan National Park, but the views are worth the effort.
With mountains to the north, rugged islands off the west coast and a river thundering through the heart of the city, these are some of the best outdoor activities when visiting Seoul.
Scale Seoul's tallest peak at Bukhansan National Park
While there are plenty of mini mountains in and around Seoul, hiking enthusiasts may wish to take on the tallest. Baegundae Peak can be found an hour from the city within Bukhansan National Park, known as the ‘lungs of Seoul’. Bukhansan offers hiking trails of varying difficulties, from simple strolls to the 3.5-hour return scramble to Baegundae Peak. Remember to bring proper footwear and enough drinking water for the steep trek up this 836-metre (2,743-foot) limestone peak. Your reward? Views over craggy cliffs, amber leaves and sprawling Seoul in the distance. Bukhansan translates as ‘mountains north of the Han River’, which should give you a clue as to its location. Catch bus number 704 from Gupabal Station (headed north towards Bukhansanseong Fortress) and jump off at the entrance to the park.
Running through central Seoul, the Han River brings all the necessities: transport links, natural habitats and endless picnic spots. One of the most enjoyable outdoor activities in Seoul is hiring a bike from Yeouido Hangang Park and cycling through 11 riverside parks, stopping at viewpoints and urban art installations. Don’t miss Seonyudo Park, located on an island in the river. Take the Yanghwa Bridge until you see the Seonyudo Park exit and, after exploring the island, reward your efforts with coffee and river views at Caféteria Naru. Bike hire costs between 3,000-6,000 won (£2-£4) per hour depending on the type you choose. Tandems are available should you be feeling romantic.
For an outdoor activity in Seoul with unrivalled views, the City Walls could be classed as either a history lesson or a hike. Hanyangdoseong measures 18 kilometres (11 miles) in length, built in 1396 to protect the city from encroaching enemies.Travelling between Seoul’s four main mountains, Inwangsan, Naksan, Bugaksan and Namsan, the City Walls pass by new and old: 600-year-old turrets looking out over gleaming skyscrapers. Take the one-hour Naksan Mountain Trail between Heunginjimun Gate and Hyehwamun Gate for a gentle hike, or the three-hour Baegak Trail between Changuiman Gate and Hyehwamun Gate. As this section passes the Blue House (the residence of the President of South Korea), you must bring your passport for identification.
The tiny landmass of Nami Island was accidentally formed when the waters of the Han River rose around it during the 1940s. Now, it’s one of the most popular day trips from Seoul, home to a dense redwood forest and the idyllic-sounding Garden of Morning Calm. If that all sounds a little too zen, why not turn up the adrenaline and zip-wire onto Nami Island from an 80-metre (262-foot) tower on the mainland? Guests can zip beside each other on twin cables reaching speeds of 55kph (35mph). Nami island is a one-hour drive from Seoul by car or bus. A ride on the ZipRider, island admission and return ferry costs 44,000 won (£29).
While Japan probably springs to mind as a ski destination before South Korea, there are some excellent slopes on the mountains that surround Seoul. Elysian Gangchon Resort (open November to March) can be reached by subway in just one hour from Seoul, making it a popular option for outdoor adventurers on a budget. The resort spans more than 200,000 square metres (50 acres) and has slopes for beginners and advanced skiers and snowboarders. Catch the Gyeongchun Line from Seoul’s Cheongnyangni Station to Baegyang-ri Station.
While the parks along the Han River can get crowded over the weekend, the sleepy banks of Cheonggyecheon Stream are a lesser-known oasis in otherwise busy Seoul. Product of an urban development project aiming to bring new life and green space to the capital, Cheonggyecheon is an 11-kilometre (7-mile) stream and walkway that runs through downtown Seoul. Despite its urban location, you’ll spot plenty of fish and birds in the waterways and grassy spaces. Whether or not you walk the entire stretch, the best place to begin is Cheonggye Plaza close to Gwanghwamun Station.
Two hours from the capital by bus is Seoraksan National Park, home to Korea’s third tallest mountain and various scenic hiking trails. The most popular is the steep climb to Daecheongbong Peak, a dramatic granite cliff overlooking the park.While a trip to Seokransan National Park is possible during a day trip from Seoul, it’s advisable to spend a night nearby in Sokcho city. The park is home to 1,562 animal species, as well as Buddhist temples and impressive caves, so you won’t run out of ways to fill the time.