The city of Seoul is an ever-evolving clash of old and new, modern and traditional, historic and futuristic. The neighbourhood of Bukchon provides the visitor a sense of this antagonistic soul of Seoul in a microcosmos: a walk through its hilly streets will transport you 600 years back in time to the Joseon Dynasty, and one minute later it will offer you some of the city’s most current and bubbling youth and pop culture.
When you step off the orange line at Anguk and ascend the subway stairs that transport you from subterranean Seoul to the edges of Bukchon, you will catch your first glimpse of the hills that carry this neighbourhood. You will pass a Starbucks and a 7Eleven, as you do anywhere in Seoul, but as you continue to walk, these features of our modern globalised world begin to blend with the remains of a Korea as it existed in a time when the outside world had not yet reached its shores.
Bukchon is situated in northern Seoul where it is sandwiched between the leafy gardens of Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace. During the Joseon Dynasty which lasted between 1392 and 1897, Bukchon was traditionally the residential quarter of high-ranking government officials and nobility who were affiliated with the palaces. It is one of the few places in Seoul where you can still see the traditional hanok houses: wooden structures with the slanted tiled roofs that are so typical of the Far East. These houses were built to provide comfort in both Korea’s hot and humid summers as well as its winters which often see temperatures of well below -15 degrees Celsius.
When I first visited Bukchon in 2007, it was really nothing more than a fine collection of hanok houses. They formed the backdrop of a tranquil afternoon walk that I took on one of my weekends while living in the city as an exchange student. The car-free alleys wound up and down and from certain viewpoints I was able to take magnificent pictures of a sea of tiled roofs which contrasted with the highrise of the modern city looming just behind them. The streets were quiet; the only life I observed was an old lady sweeping the street, a school boy and his little sister running home from their homework class, and perhaps a couple of cats idling about in the August sun. The tranquility of the area was mesmerising – Seoul is one of those 24/7 cities that are always wide awake, most notably my own neighbourhood Sinchon with its sensory overload of neon lights, shops blasting K-pop music from their open doors, joyful students, strings of cars, promotion girls fitted with handsfree microphones and its dubious annotation in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the neighbourhood with the largest amount of bars per square meter on the planet. Bukchon seemed like a world away from all that, providing a sense of time travel into the Korea of many centuries ago.
Flash forward to 2016. Nine years after my initial calming visit to Bukchon, it is obvious that Seoul’s fast-paced stride into modernity has not bypassed this area. It is always incredible to see how Seoul continues to morph and transform at a speed that is hard for any mortal being to keep up with. Leave one year between two visits to any given neighbourhood in the city and you won’t recognise it without blinking once or twice: subway stations will have tunnelled their way in underground, 20-story department stores will have shot up like mushrooms, and dozens of shops and restaurants will have replaced the dozens of other shops and restaurants that were there before. Seoul always moves on and never stops, and so Bukchon is now also riding the wave of modernity into the future.
Where in 2007 there had been quiet alleys, these are now teeming with mostly Chinese and Japanese tourists. Where there were rows of solemn and nearly deserted hanok houses, there are now scores of art galleries, craft workshops and concept stores that beckon you to empty your wallet on the kind of purchases you really want but do not really need. Where there was perhaps one lonely tea shop there are now countless bars and restaurants to rest your tired feet and satisfy your hungry stomach. Within the space of less than 10 years, Bukchon has transformed wildly into a kind of hipster heaven that can compete with some of London’s, Berlin’s or New York’s most trendy and sophisticated neighbourhoods – except it has a prime advantage in its fairy tale decor of historic hanok, and the views from the tops of its hills that offer you insight into the very essence of Seoul: the elegance of the traditional royal palaces engulfed by a sea of sky scrapers and multilane highways. In Bukchon the old and new that form the heart of the city merge and melt together, like a yin-yang symbol, keeping each other perfectly in check – while it lasts, as Seoul’s stride into the future does not show any signs of stopping.
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Getting to Bukchon
Metro – Take subway line 3 (the orange line) and get off at Anguk station, exit 1 or 2 and walk in the northern direction.
Bus – Bus 2 to Jongno, get off at Bukchon Hanok Village bus stop.
A walk around Bukchon can easily be combined with a visit to either Changdeokgung Palace or Gyeongbokgung Palace or both, as Bukchon is nestled in between these two sights.