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Seoul Dates for History Lovers: 5 Spots Off the Beaten Track

Allie in her happy place: traditional villages.

So, I’ve been single before. Very single. I have two cats who take up the majority of my time. I take a lot of dance classes (all of which I’m bad at). I sit in cafes all day with no real intention but to enjoy the decor. Ironically, the great opportunity of being alone has somehow opened my eyes to potential date spots more than when I am in a relationship.

I’m a Korean art and archaeology scholar who gets emotional every time I see a Joseon moon jar. Call my date spots unconventional, but whether you like history or not, these places are undoubtedly swoon-worthy. Let me help you create great memories with your loved one, while also learning a thing or two about the local culture.

1. Time for Reflection at Gilsang-sa

Whether you’ve been in Korea for five years or you arrived last month, there will always be another temple to visit, hidden around a busy street corner or locked away on a mountaintop. I know this better than anyone, as a restless Buddhist always on the trail for a place to clear my head. Sadly, one of the most beautiful temples in Seoul, Gilsang-sa, is not an immediate date choice for tourists and locals alike. While most crowds flock to Jogye-sa or Bogeun-sa, Gilsang-sa lingers like a wallflower in the northern Seoul hills.

When you first step into the temple, you’ll have to take a moment to catch your breath. Perfect time to grab someone’s hand, eh? The grounds – which include a main hall (Gaeukrakjeon – Hall of Ultimate Bliss), cafe, dining hall and Zen Center – are separated by bushes, a stream, and towering pine trees. Your first thought may be, “This doesn’t seem like any Korean temple I’ve ever been to.” The short answer is: because it wasn’t.

Gilsang-sa was originally a famous yojeong, a place where the powerful men of Seoul gathered for discussions, entertainment and general relaxation. It was centered around a restaurant called Daewonguk: home to beautiful gisaengs, or courtesans, who transfixed their male audiences with poetry, music and dance. In 1997, overcome with loyalty to her Buddhist faith, the owner of the restaurant donated the space to the monk Venerable Bupjeong (1932-2010) with the request that it be made into a temple.

So, why is it great for couples? Not only can you linger in the tree-shrouded corners, but you can go for a lovely (free!) meal between 12 and 1PM. It’s served cafeteria-style and they ask for anything you can donate. If you want a cozier environment, the bare-foot café and small library upstairs is as charming as you’ll find. While you sip your tea and hold hands across the small wooden tables, your toes are warmed from the heated floors and you can check out the season’s foliage from the wideset windows.
Looking for something more inspiring? Check out the Templestay program on the fourth weekend of every month. It’ll cost you around 30,000 won per person and is a great experience to see how monks practice their faith in the middle of a bustling city. You’ll practice meditation and chanting, try vegetarian goodies, and participate in taking care of the temple grounds. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to enjoy this communal experience, and if you’re joined by your partner, it will certainly be a date weekend you’ll never forget.

Opening hours vary depending on what ceremonies are going on, as well as the Templestay schedule. Website available in Korean, Japanese, English, Chinese.

Address: 68, Seonjam-ro 5-gil, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 성북구 선잠로5길 68 (성북동)

2. Coffee Date at Seonjeungneung Royal Tombs

Imagine it: a picnic basket full of fresh fruit, local Korean booze, and freshly baked bread. You have a silver picnic mat beneath you that you picked up at the local convenience store just minutes before, and you reach over to feed your partner a bite. In the fluffy, green grass beside you lingers…

Dead people.

The Seonjeungneung Royal Tombs, located just east of Gangnam, offer momentary solace from the plush, modern neighborhoods nearby. Joseon Empire (1392-1910) tombs are high, grassy knolls with small mounds symbolizing the burial place of royal family members. The first to be buried in Seonjeungneung was King Seongjeong, the 9th King of Joseon. When he died unexpectedly young, he left his second wife, Queen Jeonghyeon, widowed for 35 years. In the end, she was buried just east of her husband at the tomb site. She was an incredibly spiritual woman and was responsible for founding the nearby Bogeun-sa Temple. Their son, King Jungjong (11th King of Joseon), is also buried here. Despite Jungjong having a long list of lady friends (3 wives, 7 concubines), his original tomb outside of Seoul was moved at the request of his final wife so that he could be with reunited with his family. She also requested to be buried with him upon her death, but the request was never fulfilled, and the King’s tomb remains one of the only solitary burials from the Joseon dynasty.

When you enter the grounds, the first thing you’ll notice is a red gate, symbolizing heavenly beings with the taeguk (yin-yang) symbol. Look straight ahead! Can you spot the uneven pathways to the memorial rites building? You’ll note that one is higher than the other. That is for use by the royal deceased, while the lower path is for all of us mere mortals. The memorial rites building is decorated, as many buildings from Joseon were, with japsang creatures believed to ward off evil spirits. As you make your way around Seoul, see what other buildings you can spot with these decorations!

Have a stroll around the grounds and note other mythical statues, beautiful pines, and Chinese zodiac animals lingering around. When you finally make it to the King’s tomb, have a look at the large pair of stones resting nearby. These are mangjuseok and are designed to guide the King’s spirit to his final resting place. The grave is simple in its design compared to other Joseon tombs, with only these friendly statues as decorations. You can relax nearby on benches or under the trees, or pop into the History Center to learn more details about the site.

Of course, royal tombs surrounded by skyscrapers is an unusual site, and yet it offers an overwhelming sense of calmness. Due to its green carpet of fresh grass, the best time to visit these tombs is during the late spring, summer and early autumn. Entrance is not free, but at a mere price of 1000 won, you’ll certainly see that you got your money’s worth. If you’re tired of a busy day shopping or dining in Gangnam, this will be the perfect escape.

Opening Times: Mar – Oct: 06:00 – 21:00 (Last Entry 20:00)  / Nov – Jan: 06:30 – 17:30 (Last Entry 16:30) / Feb: 06:00 – 18:00

Tombs closed on Monday. Only areas installed with lights are open for viewing at night. Website available in Korean, Japanese, English, Chinese.

Address: 1, Seolleung-ro 100-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 강남구 선릉로100길 1 (삼성동)

3. Seoul Museum of History and Gyeonghui Palace

While I’m usually solo during my museum visits, there is something undeniably charming about a museum date. You can feed each other information, learn something new together, and with most museums now hosting gorgeous cafes, it can be your best choice for a relaxing afternoon.

While the Seoul Museum of History’s size may seem daunting, the well-designed course is easy to follow and incredibly informative. The exhibits start from prehistoric Seoul and follows its rich, yet tragic history into the sprawling metropolis we know and love today. Be sure to spend extra time in the panorama room, where the entire night view of Seoul rests beneath your feet in miniature. If you’re interested in ancient Korea, there are also some incredible models of Jongno-gu when the Yi family was still ruling over Joseon. You can also see room displays of Seoul apartments from the 1980s – a popular attraction for most visitors. Downstairs is a small café (skipable) and gift shop, as well as a free library (be careful – it’s usually packed). However, as there are plenty of charming local cafes just outside the main doors, we suggest grabbing a bite somewhere nearby before or after your visit.

After popping in all of the rooms, make your way back to the bottom floor of the museum and head out the back entrance. You’ll have to walk up a little hill and cross a small path to reach a truly hidden site – Gyeonghui Palace. While not much to look at upon first appearance, the secluded palace boasts a rich history. Originally used as an emergency escape for the King during times of conflict, the size has considerably shrunk due to invasions and colonization. It used to be so widespread that there was a bridge connecting it to Changdeokgung Palace – as most royal households were connected during Joseon – but its current ‘fun-size’ isn’t lacking in charm. This is a fantastic place to go with your rental hanbok, as you’ll be able to get gorgeous photos without large tour groups fighting for the same spot.

Opening Times: Mar-Oct: 09:00 – 20:00 (Weekends & Holidays: 09:00-19:00) (Nov – Feb Weekends & Holidays: 09:00-18:00) Last admission: 1 hr before closing.

Website available in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese.

Address: 55, Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 종로구 새문안로 55 (신문로2가)

4. Get Inspired at Seoul Namsan Gugakdang (Korea House)

As a theatre nerd, I’m always on the hunt for the next best show. When you visit Seoul, you’ll see signs plastered around subways and bus stops for internationally acclaimed musicals like Lion King, Matilda and School of Rock. But why come all the way to Korea to watch something you could see back home? Why not get a taste of the local flavor?

Seoul’s Namsan Gugakdang was established in 2007, although its hanok exterior may try to trick you. The theatre boasts 300 seats in its basement hall, where the state-of-the-art facilities capture every click of the gayageum string and trill of a pansori song. Here you can watch plays based on Korean fairytales, catch fusion shows that blend traditional and contemporary sounds, or see instrumental performances in their original context – costumes and all. The theatre is part of Korea House, a complex comprised of meeting areas, outdoor activities, and a café amongst others. In the main square you can find reenactments of traditional weddings on most Saturdays or get an opportunity to play some traditional games.

Located just outside of the theatre is the stunning Namsangol Hanok Village that sits quietly beneath Namsan Mountain. My first visit here was in 2015, where I snapped some great pictures of red-and-blue paper lanterns, giant oak doors with colorful paintings, and blustering Korean flags. There is also a great café and gift shop with (pricey) handmade goods. You can take home pottery, knots, embroidery and tea sets, to name a few. All of the items are made by over 500 local craftsmen whose specialties vary in 20 different fields (oh, just take my money already!).

Operating hours vary by performance. You can see the full performance listing and make a reservation at the theatre’s website, available only in Korean.

Address:  28, Toegye-ro 34-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 중구 퇴계로34길 28 (필동2가)

5. Soak it in at Seoul City Wall

If you’re anything like me, hiking in foreign countries is one of the best ways to soak in the atmosphere, nature and total vibe of the place. It makes you feel confident as if you know your way around and is a great way to stop and talk to some of the locals – even if you’re just asking for directions. I’ve hiked in almost every country I’ve visited, but I can say without a doubt that Korea is one country you can’t overlook.

The mountains of Korea thrill me – their rocky, red façades are flooded with towering pines and the occasional trickle of water. They have stood here much longer than the city of Seoul, and I constantly imagine their peaks are watchful eyes questioning our strange modernity. You can spot numerous summits from inside the city’s busiest corners, but nothing is as breath-taking as standing on top of one. Can you think of anything more magical than watching a sunset together on these incredible peaks?

Seoul’s City Wall, known in Korean as Hanyangdoseong, follows the peaks of Seoul’s four main mountains: Baegak, Naksan, Namsan and Inwangsan. This pathway has been present since its official construction began in 1396. It was built to protect the new capital of Joseon from outside invaders and to establish Hanyang, now Seoul, as the governing city. One of the most interesting facts is that the wall was damaged in a 1968 infiltration by North Korean soldiers and had sections closed off for nearly forty years. The wall reopened with a full route in 2007, a date too modern for us anxious historians. You can find many excursions along your hike, but make sure to discover the January 21st Tree. The 200-year-old pine is decorated with 15 bullet holes where the South and North Koreans faced off on that fateful day in 1968. The tree still stands alongside a memorial plaque.

For information about full pathways, landmarks and entrance points, please check the official website. Website available in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese.

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