Introduction: About City Hall/ Gwanghwamun, Seoul
With Korea’s top attractions located in this vicinity, you could expect the City Hall and Gwanghwamun areas to be crowded with tourists–and in a way you would be right.
However, take a look at all the hidden pockets of this neighborhood and you’ll notice that City Hall and Gwanghwamun are both popular and meaningful for locals as well. With a different atmosphere every season, what’s happening in Gwanghwamun and City is almost equivocal to examining what’s going on in Korea at the moment. Case in point during the past few years are televised World Cup games, the internationally recognized political protests as well as memorials in honor of the victims of the 2014 Sewol Ferry tragedy. Locals gather here to despair together in times of injustice and celebrate the largest festivals here as well.
Here, there are quiet walks to be found and independent films to be seen in addition some of the consistently delicious Korean food. With many embassies, corporations and ministries holding their main offices in this area, the restaurants fill up at mealtimes with suited-up men and women dining with their colleagues and customers–there’s hardly a bad meal around here to be had.
Don’t just open up the front page of the local paper–come live it!
How to get to City Hall, Seoul
a) How to get to City Hall, Seoul from Incheon International Airport (or Gimpo Airport)
- SubwayTake the AREX to the last stop, Seoul Station and transfer to Line 1 one stop away at City Hall Station. (1hour 10min)
- Airport Buses No 6701, 6015, 6702
- Depending on traffic and tolls, your bill will come out to approximately 60,000 won. (1 hour)
City Hall Station, Line 2 (Green)
City Hall Station, Line 1 (Dark Blue)
- Exit 2 & 3 : Both of these exits will lead you straight in front of Deoksugung Palace.
- Exit 4 : This exit will give you a glimpse of Cheonggyecheon Stream before reaching Gwanghwamun.
- Exit 5 :You will be dropped off right in front of Seoul City Hall–a few meters away from the Seoul Metropolitans Library.
- Exit 6 & 7 :These exits will lead you across the street from City Hall and in front of the Plaza Hotel.
- Exit 8 :Walk straight out of Exit 8 for approximately 10 minutes to reach Sungnyemun Gate.
- Exit 9 :An area filled mostly with corporate buildings, this might not neccesarily be the most scenic route to take to your destination.
- Exit 10 :A sharp right after you exit this station will lead you towards the Seoul Museum of Art.
Popular Buses : 603, 602, 172, 472, 700
How to get to Gwanghwamun, Seoul from Incheon International Airport (or Gimpo Airport)
- SubwayTake the AREX to Gongdeok Station and transfer to Line 5 for Gwanghwamun Station. (1hour)
- Airport BusesNo 6701, 6002
- TaxiDepending on traffic and tolls, your bill will come out to approximately 60,000 won. (1 hour)
Gwanghwamun Station, Line 5 (Purple)
- Exit 1 :Walk of Exit 1 or 8, and you’ll be led to the back of the Sejong Center. In this direction, there are several ministries.
- Exit 2 : These Exits will you lead you towards the Cheongdam Fashion Street. For sightseeing purposes, you might want to stick to these two exits.
- Exit 3 :Leaving Exit 3, you will notice the Kyobo Bookstore–one of the largest bookstores in Korea.
- Exit 4 :At Exit 4, you will be standing east of the Statue of Yi Soon-shin.
- Exit 5 :The Ilmin Museum is directly outside of Exit 5.
- Exit 6 :Walk straight out of Exit 6 and you will be at the Koreana Hotel.
- Exit 7 :A variety of chain stores will greet you outside of Exit 7–an Olive Young, a Starbucks Coffee and a Godiva store.
- Exit 8 :Leaving Exit 3, you will notice the Kyobo Bookstore–one of the largest bookstores in Korea.
- Exit 9 :Directly outside of Exit 9, you will be presented in the plaza, between the statue of General Yi Soon-shin and King Sejong.
Popular Buses : 103, 150, 401, 402, 406, 700, 704, 707, 1711, 7016, 7018, 7022, 7212
Tip : During the weekends, it is highly likely that an event such a protest, a marathon or festival has changed the bus routes for this area. If you are staying at a hotel near here, make sure to be extra cautious of such a situation and avoid taking a taxi if possible. Cab drivers may even refuse to go through these streets during high traffic. Additionally, these subways can fill up tremendously.
Best Places to Stay in City Hall/Gwanghwamun
This prime location is central to nearly every major attraction in Seoul (many even in walking distance). There are 5 different subway lines that service the area, and a plethora of buses. On top of that, the hotels in the Gwanghwamun area are some of the best places to stay in the entire city.
Likely one of the most famous hotels in Korea due to its location, the view from the hotel is unlike any other. Overlooking City Hall and diagonally across from Deoksugung Palace, the location in walking distance of so many historical sites is unbeatable. Often used by embassies for important visitors, it’s not rare for the hotel to host A-list events.
- Best for couples/ families/ business
- Overlooking City Hall
- Central location
- 5-star hotel
Shilla Stay Gwanghwamun
Take in factors like décor, location, service and budget, and Shilla Stay Gwanghwamun is one of the best options in this area. On most weeknights, it is possible to book a room in this area for a steal under 150,000 won. In line with the Shilla brand, the décor is minimal but the rooms are kept meticulously clean and the bedding is rumored to be some of the best in the country.
- Best for couples/ families/ friends
- Excellent price point
- Comfortable bedding
Hotel Shin Shin
One of the city’s best-kept secrets, Hotel Shin Shin opened in 2013 and has led the trend in Seoul’s boutique hotel revolution. Located slightly further away from central Gwanghwamun and City Hall, the hotel is less likely to be effected by sounds of festivals or protests–but close enough to walk to both locations under ten minutes. The hotel mixes in Korean design subtly into their décor and has a modern twist different from other hotels wholly Korean in theme as well as those with Western branding.
- Best for couples/ friends/ solo travellers
- Boutique hotel
- Beautiful interior
- Quiet neighborhood
NagNe House (Boutique Hanok)
Walk into Nagne Guesthouse and the first thing you’ll notice is the beautiful garden in the madang (courtyard) of the hanok. An employee of the guesthouse will show you around a small kitchen available for use and you’ll be led to one of the guesthouse’s eight rooms. Despite the fact that the rooms are very small and the thin walls tell all secrets, the guesthouse is elegant and clean. It’s a great choice when traveling with quiet friends for a contemplative journey around the city.
- Best for friends/ solo travellers
- Hanok guesthouse
- Beautiful interior
24 Guesthouse Seoul City Hall
24 Guesthouse is a well-known chain of guesthouses in Seoul and nothing about their bright yellow bedding necessarily screams luxury. However, considering the fact that their most expensive room costs less than 70,000 won on average nights, it’s a great value for the price. Although there is a fair amount of socializing that happens here, it may not be as interactive as other guesthouses loved by backpackers.
- Best for friends/ solo travellers
- Central location
- Loved by backpackers
Best Places to Eat in City Hall/ Gwanghwamun
Would it be more accurate to say that there are so many good restaurants in this area that it’s difficult to choose or that the general quality of the food here is much higher? The answer, in this case, is both¬–especially when we’re talking about Korean food. Likely due to the influx of customers, the same chain restaurants that exist all over the country generally have fresher, better prepared food at the Gwanghwamun branch. Lunch and dinner are extremely busy times as many office workers in the area are coming out for a bite to eat. Be cautious of walking into random restaurants like you might easily do in other parts of Gangbuk, because you might reach incredibly high prices for traditional Korean set meals. It’s difficult to go to a terrible restaurant in these parts, but follow our list and go to some of the best instead.
During peak vacation, tourist buses from China and Japan park at the official Tosokchon Samgyetang parking lot across the street and bring pours of visitors into the restaurant. It is undoubtedly one of the most famous and internationally recognized restaurants in the country. Serving up ginseng chicken soup or samgyetang, there’s no denying that quality of the broth has decreased with its height in popularity. Despite that, the chicken remains one of the juiciest, most flavorful in the city and does not overwhelm you with a medicinal aftertaste. It is also still famous with good reason and is, in the heart of many a local, the best samgyetang in the city.
Nature Kitchen (자연별곡)
Nature Kitchen is a chain buffet restaurant with several locations all over the country. However, rumor has it that the Nature Kitchen in Gwanghwamun is the best. Lunchtime waits can get up to an hour long for the wholesome dishes that boast being chemical free and devoid of MSG. Favorites include the lean boiled pork or bossam, the bibimbop bar and the do-it yourself shaved ice. At dinner, the price goes up slightly and the dinner menu changes seasonally to include an added meat or seafood special. With coffee and tea included, Nature Kitchen is a great value to please everyone in your group at 12,900 won for lunch on weekdays and 19,900 at dinnertime and weekends.
Ask most Koreans where to get traditional Korean porridge, juk, and you’ll most likely be pointed towards the popular juk chain restaurant Bonjuk. It’s quite difficult to find juk that goes above and beyond but Chowon manages to do just that. A hole in the wall place in the Gwanghwamun area, the juk is served with a yellow egg yolk in the center and several sidedishes. With prices slightly cheaper than your average juk store, the store’s ginger chicken porridge (samgye-juk) is especially delicious!
- Address: 13 Saemunan-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu
- Phone Number: 02-735-5904
- Hours: 7:30am-9pm (Closed holidays).
- Map Link: MAP LINK
Before going to Ilpum Dang, one should remember a very important detail–to bring a friend who will order something different from what you’re getting. A restaurant that specializes in shabu shabu and sukiyaki, it’s not just the upscale interior and the top-notch service that makes this place stand out from the others–it’s the food. While the servings are slightly smaller (and the prices are higher) than other shabu-shabu places you’ve in the past, the restaurant is light on the grease and brings out fresh, quality ingredients especially important in a flavor-teasing dish such as this. Hanwoo (traditionally Korean) beef as well as cattle is used in the meat dishes and there are seasonal specialties such as the Webfoot Octopus Shabu-Shabu. Private dining is also available.
Proclaiming themselves as “organically prepared Korean recipe,” a superficial look at Eco Bapsang might have you passing off the restaurant as an ordinary Korean food joint. But there has to be something said about the fact that it’s boggling with customers despite its shabby aesthetic in such a fancy restaurant, right? Indeed, the food at Eco Bapsang is quite memorable–wholesome, fresh and well-proportioned. You can forgive the slightly gorged prices when remembering the extra time and effort spent on the dishes. Yes, 13,000 is pricey for doenjang-jiggae (fermented bean stew) but is it too much for the best doenjang-jiggae you’ve ever had?
- Address: 127-14 Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu
- Phone Number: 02-736-9136
- Hours: Daily 11:30am-10pm (Closed holidays)
- Map Link: MAP LINK
You might not realize how heavily many Korean restaurants season their food until you try the dishes at Moomyung Bapsang. Serving reasonably proportioned dishes, you’ll likely get a bit of meat, rice and vegetables with every order. The makgeolli is often noted for its unique flavor (there’s even a ginger, medicinal flavor) and the best of each region is brought to the restaurant and realized into sidedishes.
- Address: 1F Gran Seoul, 33 Jongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul
- Phone Number: 02-2158-7917
- Hours: Weekdays 11:30am-3:30pm, 5:30pm-10pm. Weekends 12pm-3:30pm, 4:30pm-9pm
- Map Link: MAP LINK
Things to do in City Hall/ Gwanghwamun
When visiting the City Hall/ Gwanghwamun area, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of things to do and places to pose for photos. From the palaces to the museums and all the nooks and crannies in between: try not to get lost in crossing off the checkpoints of each place and take time to luxuriously stroll through some of the quieter streets. Get a Seoul City bicycle and check out the Deoksugung-gil, sit down and people watch at the steps in front of the General Yi Soon-shin Statue¬–even jump through the sprinklers if it’s warm out and you’ve got no shame in you. There is certainly a lot to do and a lot to see in this area, make sure to remember it all instead of trying to do it all.
Best Bars in City Hall / Gwanghwamun
Located on the basement level of the Four Seasons Hotel, Charles H. has been the talk of the town since the speakeasy-type bar opened. There is no sign to enter but if you can’t find it–you can cheat and ask a hotel staff member. Once inside, you’ll notice the interior is by far one of Seoul’s fanciest. Since the prices are so steep and the cover charge is above average, you might want to save this one for a special occasion.
- Address: B1, 97, Saemunan-ro Jongno-gu Seoul
- Website: http://fourseasons.com/seoul/dining/lounges/charles_h/
- Phone Number: 02-6388-5700
- Hours: Daily 6pm-3am
- Map Link: MAP LINK
A high-class whisky and cocktail bar located inside a hanok, there is seating available at the bar as well as a few tables. The vintage furniture in combination with the hanok roof is a sight to behold.
- Address: 16 Sajik-ro 12-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
- Phone Number: 02-733-6421
- Hours: Mon-Sat 7pm-3am
- Map Link: MAP LINK
Inspired by a bar of the same name in Japan, Bar Tender is a quiet bar in a hanok with many layers. The old roof of the hanok has been salvaged during renovation and is quite prominent in the bar itself.
- Address: 17 Sajik-ro 12-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
- Hours: Mon-Sat 7pm-3am
- Map Link: MAP LINK
Seasonal Events in Seoul
No matter when you’re visiting Seoul, you’re bound to be visiting at a time when something is going on in the City Hall/ Gwanghwamun area. During the winter, the plaza in front of City Hall lights up with a small white ice skating rink busy with children on the weekends. A water fountain also goes off in both Gwanghwamun and Seoul Plaza every year. When the weather warms up, all different types of markets open up for your people-watching, wallet-emptying needs. Small booths line up in Gwanghwamun Plaza for the Gwanghwamun Square Flea Market where you can find everything from handmade accessories, used clothes and regional specialty foods and behind Sejong Center, there’s a small art market called Sejong Art Market Soso for up and coming artists. If your trip happens to happen in June, you could come show your support at the colorful and controversial Korea Queer Culture Festival. The Street Art festival called the Hi Seoul Festival is the highlight of autumn for many as well is the Seoul Kimchi Making & Sharing Festival, which gathers up the largest amount of kimchi you’ve ever seen in the name of charity and who could forget the Seoul Lantern Festival that happens every November? Most of the events that happen in this area are free, so come indulge in the fun.
Best Independent Movie Theaters in Gwanghwamun, Seoul
With many independent cinemas dying out in Seoul, the Gwanghwamun area doesn't have as strong of a connection to this genre anymore. However, film lovers still head to either the EMU Artspace or Cine Cube for screenings of their favorite releases. Cine Cube and Emmaus both screen a good mix of independent domestic films as well as highly acclaimed foreign films. Occasionally, EMU Artspace screens popular Korean titles with English translations–making it particularly golden for K-film lovers.
The Royal Places in Seoul
With three of the five main palaces in this area, you could spend an entire day alone trapezing from one palace to another or you could do a bit of reading on each place and see what interests you the most. Here’s our take on the palaces in the City Hall/ Gwanghwamun area.
The largest and most popular of the Five Grand Palaces, Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 during the Joseon Dynasty. However, since much of the Palace was destroyed by fire during the Imjin War, much of what you actually see at the Palace is a restoration that happened during King Gojong’s rule. One could easily spend a luxurious two hours at the Palace as there are also tours available here in English, Japanese and Chinese.
Located right across the street from City Hall, a City Hall and Deoksugung Palace combination is an excellent and efficient idea if you’re short on time. The Palace has an interesting history in that it did not officially become a royal palace until the other palaces were burned down during the Imjin War. During the spring, the sight of cherry blossoms in hues of white and pink make the Palace a sight to behold.
Located right beside the Seoul Museum of History, Gyeonghuigung is quite likely one the least popular palaces to visit and has vast stretches of green space. As such, it’s possible to walk around here without meeting another person. Something about the emptiness of the place transports you into another time–a feeling quite different from the other palaces.
Popular Landmarks/ Historical Sites
Much of Seoul’s most iconic imagery comes from the City Hall and Gwanghwamun area. On the main Sejong-daero strip, the Statue of King Sejong and General Yi Soon-shin are two main fixtures easily recognizable as distinctly Seoul. And although less historically relevant, there is also a towering statue of a Hammering Man diagonally across the street from the Seoul Museum of History.
Also noteworthy are the beautiful walking routes one can take while in the City Hall and Gwanghwamun areas. Cheonggyecheon Stream, which starts at Cheonggye Plaza in between City Hall and Gwanghwamun, is one of Korea’s most successful urban renewal projects. Once a heavily-polluted slum, the stream has been marketed as a tourist district where festivals and shows are held. There are even live fish in the streams (albeit artificially put in by the government).
Beside Deoksugung Palace, there is also the stone wall road Doldam-gil (Deoksugung-gil) which turns into Jeongdong-gil as it curves. Lined with trees, Doldam-gil is cursed with the taboo that one should not hold hands there. Said to have had South Korea’s first divorce court, the curse is a silly one but it’s a fun fact to know for the superstitious.
Jeongdong-gil will lead you to Jeongdong Park–an underrated small park near the Norwegian Embassy. Several white gazebos and park benches with few people busy the park during the summer, but otherwise it is relatively empty. You can pick up a roll of kimbap nearby and marvel at the looming large white tower that is the Seoul Former Russian Legation.
As one last note, although shopping in this area is not particularly remarkable, one of Korea’s largest bookstores is located on the basement level of the Gwanghwamun area. Kyobo Bookstores has a wide range of domestic books as well as books in English, French, Chinese, Japanese and German as well as a distinctive reading area.
Best Theaters in Gwanghwamun
Traditional Korean music (and dance), classical music performances and musicals are the three types of live performances that dominate the theatre scene here. Those looking for a more varied theatre scene may check out the Daehangno area with a strong reputation for student-run theaters and small independent theaters.
With a newly renovated building that opened in 2007, the Sejong Center calls itself a multicultural art center. The main sections comprise of the Grand Theate, Sejong M Theater, Sejong Chamber Hall and the Exhibition Hall. A wide range of arts from solo performances by crossover artists to traditional Korean dance can be held here.
Kumho Art Hall
A showcase center for classical music, performances are held by headlining international acts as well as up and coming domestic artists. Jörg Demus, Heinz Holliger and Chung Myung-hwa are some of the big names to have performed there.
Focusing on traditional performing Korean arts, you’ll be able to see performances of genres such as pansori(storytelling song) as well as folk dances. The theater is also well-known for its café and restaurant which overlooks a beautiful garden.
Best Museums in Gwanghwamun
The City Hall and Gwanghwamun area is one of best for being able to walk from a varied collection of museums. Here, you can see everything from agriculture, history and contemporary art in one day if you put your mind to it. Another great reason to museum hop? Many of the museum’s permanent collections are reasonably priced or free.
Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA)
Located behind Deoksugung Palace, some of the most popular exhibitions in Seoul take place at SeMA. Some memorable exhibitions to have taken place there include the Tim Burton exhibition, G-Dragon’s PEACEMINUSONE and the Gauguin exhibition. When trending exhibitions take place the museum can get extremely crowded and the lines to enter this relatively small 3-story museum can get over an hour long. Try to avoid peak times or arrive early on weekends.
Seoul Museum of History
Opened in 2002, the Seoul Museum of History is a spacious museum where you can learn about Seoul’s history starting from prehistoric times. Artifacts such as clothes, weapons, ceramics and more are located in the museum and there is also a great library for reading and studying on your own.
National Folk Museum of Korea
Located inside Gyeongbokgung Palace, the National Folk Museum of Korea attempts to give the visitor an insight into the daily lives of Koreans at different times of history. Case in point is the 70-80s street where you can walk around see what a classroom of that period looked like, what a barbershop looked like, etc. The gift shop here is particularly noteable for its beautiful prints.
National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
Located right across the street from Gyeongbokgung Palace, the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History opened in 2012 and is a relative newcomer to the museum scene in this neighborhood. After you walk through the museum’s exhibitions, don’t miss the view from the rooftop–the view of the palace from there is the best part!
Located inside of Deoksugung Palace, this branch of the MMCA a nice place to combine with a trip to the Palace. The intimate museum consists of two stories and the exhibition taking over the museum may change the venue’s mood greatly. Musical and dance performances often take place here.
Taking on the venue of the former Dongah Newspaper building, you will find pieces of art dating from the Goryeo period. Many of the pieces focus on social critique