Unlike in Korea, my hometown doesn’t experience seasons. In San Diego, we call it winter when we have to wear a jacket at night and pull the umbrella out of the closet for a bit of use. We know its autumn when Starbucks is offering pumpkin spice lattes. While having the privileges to enjoy the beach most days and keep our tans throughout the year, we do miss out on the beauty of leaves changing in fall.
In Korea, this season is constantly postcard-worthy. Autumn brings more reliable sunshine, pleasant temperatures and a mixture of beautiful burnt oranges and deep reds at almost every corner. It is a welcome relief between the humid monsoon rains of summer and the freezing slushy sidewalks of winter.
This is by far my favorite time to be in Korea. So if you will be in the Seoul area this autumn, here are my picks for the best places, and ways, to enjoy the leaves.
Take a stroll through ‘The Secret Garden’ in Changdeokgung Palace
Changdeokgung Palace is one of the five grand palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty and became a UNESCO heritage site in 1997. Though nice all year long, it is a beautiful place to visit when the leaves are bright orange and red. Within the palace is the “The Secret Garden”, or Huwon Garden. For many years during the Joseon dynasty, the garden was closed to the public and only seen by kings. Today, this is one of the best preserved examples of a traditional Korean garden and some trees are over 300 years old.
In hopes to preserve the site, only a certain number of visitors are allowed in each day, and only on guided tours.
How to visit: .Guided tours of the Secret Garden are offered only twice a day in English at 10:30am and 2:30pm for 5,000 won. Closed Mondays. Try to arrive early, as the lines to purchase the tour tickets can get quite long.
Admission to Changdeokgung Palace is 3,000 won. Open from 9-5 in October and 9-4:30 in November.
From Anguk Station (Subway Line 3), take exit 3. Go straight for 5min.
Hike Seoul’s Southern Massif, Gwanaksan
Though less popular than Seoul’s tallest mountain, Bukhansan, Gwanaksan still offers amazing autumn hiking and views. While stomping over crunchy leaves and enjoying the view of southern Seoul below, you’ll encounter a few other surprises. Being an outpost during the Korean war, some foxholes and military trenches still remain on various spots among the trails. Before reaching the top, a treacherous section awaits, where you must hop across a few boulders and pull yourself up by chains secured to the rocks. Frightening, but reaching the picturesque Buddhist cliff temple at the top, Yeonjuam Hermitage, makes it worth the trip.
How to visit: There are various stations to reach the mountain from. From Gwacheon station (line 4) take exit 7. Walk straight for 550m then turn left. The park entrance, with brown signs, will be on your right. From Seoul National University Station, take any bus bound for SNU (Seoul National University) where numerous other trails up the mountain can be found.
See Seoul from above at Namsan Park
Almost in the center of Seoul, Namsan Mountain is a perfect spot to view the autumn colors from above. Either take a bus up the winding, bright, tree lined road or opt for taking the cable car. From the top of the mountain, go up N. Seoul Tower and see the city from 360 degrees. If on a date, join in on the mushy tradition of “locking your love” on one of the fences of the observation platform.
I suggest coming in the late afternoon, timing your visit right to be able to see the autumn scenery during the day and night. Once finished, walk down the mountain taking one of the illuminated paths. There are a few observation decks on the way down, great for seeing the neon city and chaotic traffic at night.
How to visit: To take the cable car: From Myeongdong Station the easiest option is to take a taxi to the base of the cable car for 2,400 won. Just say “Namsan Cable Car (like ‘keibeul ka’ if the driver doesn’t quite understand). Open 10:00 – 23:00 (all year around) Roundtrip ticket is 8,000 won/ One-way ticket 6,000 won .
By bus: Take the yellow bus from Chungmuro Station (line 3 and 4). Go out exit 2 to the right of Daehan Multiplex. The yellow bus ‘2’ will take you up the mountain where you can get off at N. Seoul Tower.
N. Seoul Tower Observatory is open from 10am to 11pm. 9,000 won for an adult ticket.
Shopping down Garosugil Street.
Garogusil, meaning “tree-line street”, in Sinsa-dong is the perfect place to spend an autumn afternoon shopping. Though a bit pricey, it beats feeling like a sardine in Myeongdong, or getting stuck inside a multi-level mega mall. The street has a more European feel than Asian, and the hustle-bustle of Gangnam seems miles away, all making for a pleasant afternoon under the yellow ginko trees. Many upscale cafes and cozy restaurants can be found within the numerous boutiques.
How to visit: Take exit 8 out of Sinsa Station (line 3). Walk straight about 800 meters and turn left at the ‘J-Tower’, the tall glass building. You can also reach it from Apgujeong Station, exit 5. Walk straight for about 15 minutes and turn left at Kraze burger.
Weekend trip to Seoraksan
Seoraksan National Park is one of the most popular places to visit during fall in Korea, and for good reason. The national park brings out some of autumns brightest colors and the rivers are full from the end of monsoon season. Within the national park you can hike some of Korea’s most dramatic peaks, including Ulsan Bawi, which ends with an almost vertical 800 steps to the top. While in the park, visit the bronze Buddha of Sinheungsa Temple near the entrance, take a walk to some of the close waterfalls, or ride the cable car. With limited time, the cable car is the best option. From there, hike 30 minutes to the top of Gwongeumseong to view to other peaks from above.
How to get there: From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon Station line 2, exit 4) take a bus to Sokcho. Buses run every 30 minutes and take about 3 hours. Alternatively, take a bus from Express Bus Terminal to Sokcho. Buses run every hour and take about 4 hours. From Sokcho, take bus 7, or 7-1, to the entrance of Seoraksan National park.
Accommodation: You can camp or find accommodation inside the park, but most people stay in neighboring Sokcho. During fall, it is wise to spend the night in Sokcho, then wake up early to head to the park. This way you beat the crowds, whom usually pile in late morning to early afternoon, and have a more pleasant hiking experience.
When to visit:
In general, the best time to view the foliage in Korea is from mid-October to mid-November. Last year, the leaves peaked in Seoraksan around October 20th and in Seoul around October 28th. Generally, the northern parts of Korea peak first, before the change moves south. Check the “news” section of Visit Korea for this year’s predictions.