The past two months have been busy with back-to-back travel and visits from friends and family. Fortunately, we didn’t miss fall and tried to make the best of what Seoul had to offer. It’s already winter now and the weather has been iffy with cold spells and showers of snow. As we brace ourselves for another cold winter, it’s nice to look back at the brief interlude that nature offered us, before she hits us with sub-zero temperatures and cold winds from beyond.
Most locals, tourists, and expats visit national parks to enjoy fall colours. It’s our third fall in Korea and I wanted to visit some of the famous mountains in the southern provinces. But, travelling there isn’t easy during fall (or high tourist seasons) and we didn’t have the time. The news anchor comforted those who couldn’t travel outside Seoul by telling them to take in the views of the changing leaves along the streets. And that’s true because Seoul has hidden gems and many spots of green tucked in quiet corners of the city. For a bustling city, there are many parks and gardens to absorb the soothing effects of nature. Fall (as well as cherry blossoms) is one of the best times to appreciate the true beauty of Korean landscapes.
Nakseongdae Park (낙성대공원)
We’ve lived for two and a half years in Seoul and still haven’t discovered many places in the city. We were invited to Basil’s Korean colleague’s wedding next to Nakseongdae Park and that’s how we found this park. The park is dedicated to the Goryeo Dynasty commander, General Kang Gam-chan. There’s a striking bronze statue of the general at the entrance gate of the park.
The walkway from the statue leads to a description board and a map of the surrounding area. The main entrance to the park is a couple of steps away from here.
TIP: There’s a trail that leads to Gwanaksan from here. We weren’t dressed or prepared for a hike and had to skip it. Gwanaksan is one of the more difficult hikes in Seoul and has been on our list for a while. The mountain is also famous for its spectacular fall views.
The park was deserted on a Saturday afternoon. Our timing couldn’t have been better. The trees were either flaming red or burning yellow in the afternoon sun. It’s hard to find spots like these in Seoul and I cherished every moment. The tranquility of the gardens had a soothing effect on me.
Wooden doorways open into manicured gardens and the main shrine. There were few locals who gladly volunteered to click pictures for us. I admire the way Koreans appreciate nature and the change in seasons — no matter how many times they’ve seen it before.
Changdeokgung Palace & Huwon (창덕궁과 후원)
My friend Bora was visiting Seoul after 2 years. We decided to explore Seoul as tourists and my friend, Yiping, joined us. I’ve visited Changdeokgung Palace (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) many times, but have never visited it’s fabled: Secret Garden.
Tickets to the Secret Garden are hard to get. Online booking gets sold-out during tourist season and we decided to test our luck. Sadly, we were told (at the palace entrance) that tickets were sold-out for the afternoon English tour. It was Culture Day (last Wednesday of every month) and there wasn’t an entry fee to the palace. We decided to inquire at the ticket counter inside. The lady confirmed that tickets were sold-out, but we could wait until entry time and check for cancellations. Turns out, we were either very lucky or tour operators cancelled blocked bulk bookings.
Inside the Secret Garden
Huwon meaning ‘Rear Garden’ was built by King Taejong. The gardens were the private resting and recreational place for royalty only — earning it the name of Forbidden Garden. It was also called Biwon or Secret Garden during the reign of King Kojong. The tour course inside the garden is simple to follow.
Buyongji Pond & Juhamnu Pavilion
We entered the gates of Huwon and followed the crowd as it dispersed around Buyongji Pond. It was the end of October and the leaves hadn’t turned yet. The pond was tucked in the shadow of the thick collection of trees. Juhamnu Pavilion, bang opposite the pond, was built in 1776 during the reign of King Jeongjo. The first floor was a library for books and the second floor served as a reading room.
We sat for a bit and soaked some afternoon sun. Further on, beyond a low-ceiling walkway, lies Aeryeonji Pond. The leaves were in the cusp of turning colours here.
TIP: Wearing a Hanbok allows a visitor to enter palaces without an entry fee. Although, renting a Hanbok may equal or exceed the price of purchasing a combined ticket to all 4 palaces and the shrine.
It’s strange how people had disappeared from the path. I wasn’t complaining because we got to enjoy the tranquil environs of the garden without tourist banter. The reflections of the trees on the stream was the highlight of our visit.
Ongnyucheon (옥류천), also known as the Jade Stream, runs alongside the pavilions.
The trees towards the end of the pathway were flaming red. We had saved the best for last. We retraced our path back to where we started and missed seeing the ancient Juniper tree.
TIP: Bukchon Hanok Village (and Samcheong-dong) is a stone’s throw away from Changdeokgung Palace. The quaint alleys lined with red trees is sight not to be missed.
Seoul Forest (서울숲)
I had visited Seoul Forest in April. Back then, the trees were pink with cherry blossoms and were all set to begin a new cycle of life. In the first weekend of November, the trees had begun to shed their leaves and prepare themselves for the end of the cycle.
We were a bit late. The bright reds were turning into deeper browns and didn’t look as spectacular. That didn’t stop locals from making a visit to the forest. It was a Saturday afternoon and visitors were few.
Basil had never visited this side of the forest before and was happy to walk along the bridge. The bridge gives a panoramic view of the buildings beyond and lush greenery below.
Pools of stagnant water had turned turbid with green moss and the grass around it had turned pale brown.
Hangang River (한강)
The white bridge connects Seoul Forest to Hangang Park — on the other side. Basil was tempted to exit the forest and walk along the Han. But, that would mean we would miss the other sections of the forest and we decided against it.
We retraced our path along the white bridge and reached back to the start. There were multiple paths leading to the entrance gate. The leaves were in transition here and the afternoon sun made their colours pop.
We crossed the main intersection and entered the other entrance of Seoul Forest. There’s a fantastic line of Gingko trees here and we were just in time. We had visited this section in 2016 (our first fall in Seoul) and I remember how fascinated I was back then. Two years later, I was equally amazed by the beauty of the location.
The lake reflected the autumnal hues of the trees in its tranquil waters and created the picture perfect fall landscape.
Hyochang Park (서울효창공원)
Hyochang Park is one of the most underrated parks in Seoul. Despite being steeped in Korean history and patriotism, the park rarely attracts foreign tourists. It’s mostly visited by Koreans, of all age groups, looking to get a breath of fresh air and their daily dose of exercise.
I revisited Hyochang Park in spring and was happy to find it bursting in shades of pink and white. Since then, Basil and I visited it almost every night to exercise and walk in its woods. Our visits decreased with the changing weather. Fall was reason enough to visit our old haunt.
The park has a dense tree cover and quiet pathways. Saturday evenings bring in the crowds, but we were lucky to have found many secluded corners. Basil and I split up to cover more ground.
Back in the day, Hyochang Park was the burial site for royalty and was subsequently converted into a park during Japanese rule. After Independence, the tombs of Korean martyrs: Yoon Bong-gil, Lee Bong-chang, and Baek Jeong-gi were buried here.
I had seen the tombs of the martyrs before and explored another trail in the park. The sun had touched almost every yellow leaf and turned the landscape golden. It’s one of the best sights I’ve seen so far.
TIP: The main entrance from Hyochang Park leads right into the Gyeongui Forest Line, another quiet place to observe fall colours.
I had hoped to summarise fall in just one post this time, but it was a herculean task. My next post will highlight neighbourhoods and Seoul’s college campuses in fall.