Up until recently, Seoul was never on my “to visit” list. As an Air Force veteran, I have always associated South Korea with a remote (non-accompanied) assignment, which service members usually regard as a bad thing. I have also tended to have bad experiences with how other Asian nationalities have regarded me as a wheelchair user (i.e. with no small amount of disdain). However, I kept reading over and over in accessible travel groups on Facebook how amazing and accessible Seoul was, so I bit the bullet and booked a trip back to Asia. That resulted in one of the most amazing accessible travel experiences I’ve ever had around some of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever encountered. Thanks to a LOT of help from Paul Chang at Korea Wheelchair Tour, I’d love to share with you several incredible wheelchair accessible things to see and do in and near Seoul, South Korea.
1. Gyeongbokgung Palace. Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is also commonly referred to as the Northern Palace because its location is furthest north when compared to the neighboring palaces of Changdeokgung (Eastern Palace) and Gyeonghuigung (Western Palace) Palace. Gyeongbokgung Palace is arguably the most beautiful, and remains the largest of all five palaces. The premises were once destroyed by fire during the Imjin War (Japanese Invasions, 1592-1598). However, all of the palace buildings were later restored under the leadership of Heungseondaewongun during the reign of King Gojong (1852-1919). Remarkably, the most representative edifices of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion and Hyangwonjeong Pond have remained relatively intact. Woldae and the sculptures of Geunjeongjeon (The Royal Audience Chamber) represent past sculptures of contemporary art.
To increase ease of accessibility from Gyeongbokgung Palace to Seochon and vice versa, the palace’s western gate, Yeongchumun, was opened to the public on December 2018. For the past 43 years, there were only 3 entrances to Gyeongbokgung Palace – the southern gate Gwanghwamun, the northern gate Sinmumun, and the eastern entrance of National folk Museum of Korea. However, with the opening of the western gate Yeongchumun, entry to the palace from all directions has been now made possible. Be sure to see the colorful Changing of the Guard ceremony, which takes place at the top of every hour from 11:00 to 15:00. The palace buildings are not accessible, but the grounds around them are. Beware of the large cobbled pavers, as it can be a rough ride. There are ramps everywhere for wheelchair users, but they do have a one-inch rounded lip. Accessible restrooms are available on site.
2. Jogyesa Temple. Jogyesa Temple is located in central Seoul and it is one of Korea’s major Buddhist temples. The temple also serves as headquarters for the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest sect of Korea Buddhism. The temple’s main hall is called Daeungjeon Hall and the famous statue of the seated Buddha is enshrined here (the statue is Tangible Cultural Heritage of Seoul No. 126). Baeksong, a white pine tree that is more than 500 years old stands next to Daeungjeon and it is Natural Monument of Korea No. 9. Due to Jogyesa’s location in the heart of Seoul, huge numbers of tourists visit the temple to experience Buddhist culture. The temple hosts a temple stay program and the annual Lotus Lantern Festival. There is a ramp up to the entrances of the Temple itself, but there are a few steps to enter. When there are no services in progress, the large glass doors are open and you can see inside from the surrounding deck. The grounds are paved and hard-packed gravel, so it’s easy to roll through the beautifully manicured gardens and grounds.
3. National Folk Museum of Korea. The National Folk Museum of Korea displays the culture and folk history of the Korean people from prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Since its establishment, the museum has dedicated itself to studying and researching the folk history of Korea, and collecting artifacts from different Korean regions in order to pass on an insight into the lifestyle and culture of Koreans. The museum achieves this by offering visitors various seminars, exhibitions, performance art, concerts and hands-on activities. Located on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, the National Folk Museum of Korea is well known for its beautiful architecture. The building was constructed in the traditional Korean style comprising several stories with a pagoda on top. The three main exhibition halls at the museum cover different aspects of Korean life, as well as displaying various local costumes, musical instruments and festivals. The museum has a ramped entrance, as well as a spacious accessible toilet.
4. Gwangjang Market. Gwangjang Market is one of Korea’s largest traditional markets and is renowned for its quality silk goods, linen bedding and hand-made goods. These days, the vintage clothing arcade in the market has become a very popular attraction among young people and wholesalers searching for unique vintage fashion. Gwangjang Market has over 100 years of history. The origin of the market can be traced back to the establishment of the Gwangjang Corporation in 1905 which was created with the purpose of reclaiming Korean sovereignty during the period of Japanese occupation. At that time, traditional Korean markets were only temporary marketplaces that were periodically held every few days. Gwangjang Market was the first permanently established market that was open everyday. In 1962 the market was divided into Dongdaemun Market and Gwangjang Market and modern buildings were constructed. The market continues to thrive today and is especially popular among young people for its vintage clothing arcade. The vintage arcade offers a variety of unusual, unique designs that attract many people including many famous Korean celebrities. While personal space is at a premium, the entire market is flat. Just beware of crowded surrounding sidewalks that may be partially blocked by merchandise.
5. Everland. Everland Resort entertains visitors all year long with various rides, festivals, theme areas, and Zootopia, perfect for a great amusement park. It’s basically Korea’s version (via Samsung, its owner) of Disneyland. Everland houses diverse attractions which are available to enjoy with no age limits, different themed festivals including Tulip Festival, Rose Festival, Summer Splash, Halloween Festival, Romantic Illumination, and other festivals all year long. One of the park’s most famous rides is T-Express, Korea’s first wooden roller coaster, popular among young visitors. Zootopia is a must-see as it spans over an area of 15,000㎡ and exhibits 2,000 animals of 201 species. Lost Valley opened in 2013 and features the largest ecological safari world and offers a tour by amphibious car to see 150 animals of 20 species. A pair of giant pandas given from Chinese president Xi Jinping as a symbol of friendship between Korea and China can also be seen at Panda World.
Rides are only accessible if you can transfer from your chair to the ride vehicle, but all shows have designated wheelchair spaces. The park is built on the side of a mountain with some steep downslopes, so make sure you start at the top of the park and work your way down or your battery (or arms) will suffer. Fortunately, the tram is wheelchair accessible and will take you back to the top of the park. There are also accessible toilets located throughout the park.
6. Ho-Am Art Museum. Located inside Yongin Everland, Ho-Am Art Museum is a popular destination for tourists who desire to enjoy a theme park and artwork at the same time. The art gallery is available on the second floor of a traditional Hanok building, showcasing artwork from the pre-historic age to contemporary artworks. About 100 of Korea’s national treasures are on display along with Buddhist art, calligraphy, folk paintings, ceramics and other various pieces. It’s not very big, but has an elevator and stunning views from the garden and grounds of the surrounding scenery.
7. Dongadaemun Design Plaza. Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is the newest and most iconic landmark of the Korean design industry. Located at the center of the Dongdaemun area, the DDP will serve as a key venue for design-related shows and conferences, exhibitions, and other events and gatherings. Designed by world renowned architect, Zaha Hadid, DDP is the world’s largest atypical architecture. The DDP is comprised of five halls: Art Hall, Museum, Design Lab, Design Market, and Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. The Art Hall is the primary launch pad for the Korean creative industry. The hall is a key venue for conventions, trade shows, exhibitions, fashion shows, concerts and performances. The Museum Hall brings together Korean design and global trends. The Museum Hall is comprised of five sections: Design Playground, Design Dulle-gil(trail), Design Museum, Design Exhibition Hall, and the Design Rest Area. The Design Lab serves as an incubator for rising Korean and international creative product designers. The Design Market is a multipurpose space that combines culture, experiences and shopping. This hall is open 24 hours a day to provide added convenience to visitors of Dongdaemun Market, the town that never sleeps. The Dongdaemun History & Culture Park is the newest park in downtown Seoul. The park gives a glimpse of how the area was once used as a military training ground during the Joseon dynasty. The park seamlessly extends onto the rooftop of DDP, making it a truly unique park in Korea. There are elevators inside the DDP, but the building interior is one large (accessible) spiral.
8. Cheonggyecheon Stream. Cheonggyecheon is an 11 km long modern stream that runs through downtown Seoul. Created as part of an urban renewal project, Cheonggyecheon is a restoration of the stream that was once there before during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The stream was covered with an elevated highway after the Korean War (1950-1953), as part of the country’s post-war economic development. Then in 2003, the elevated highway was removed to restore the stream to its present form today. The stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular cultural arts venue, and passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Hangang (River), with many attractions along its length. Cheonggyecheon’s turbulent history is on display at the Cheonggyecheon Museum which opened in September 2005. The museum offers visitors the chance to learn about the many changes the stream has seen, including being buried underground and being restored. The story is told with the help of a scale-model and period photographs. The Cheonggyecheon has now 55 access points: 31 stairs, 17 ramps, and 2 elevators. The lower level has some spots with rough pavers and cobblestones, but is mostly smooth.
9. Myeong-dong District. Myeong-dong is Seoul’s shopping mecca and is a must-see for tourists, but it is not just a shopping destination; Myeong-dong is also a hub of commerce, banking and culture with a daytime population of 1.5-2 million. For shoppers there is a mixture of street stalls and retail outlets selling everything from high fashion to casual attire, as well as many Korean cosmetics stores offering high-quality products at competitive prices. Myeong-dong is very popular with international visitors and fills with Japanese and Chinese tourists during the holiday period known as “Golden Week” which takes place in spring and is called golden week due to the week-long holiday period that takes place in Japan and China.
Part of Myeong-dong’s popularity stems from relatively affordable prices here, especially compared to the other shopping meccas of Apgujeong-dong and Cheongdam-dong. I was pleasantly surprised at how many shops had ramps to enter. Space can be tight in some stores, but the salespeople are extremely courteous and more than happy to bring you anything you want to see.
10. War Memorial of Korea. The War Memorial of Korea was established to remember the Korean War (6. 25. 1950 ~ 7. 27.1953) and to symbolize the desire for peaceful reunification of Korea. The museum consists of 6 individual exhibition halls and a combat experience room, a screening room and an outdoor exhibition area with memorial statues and vintage aircraft, helicopters, and tanks. There is an extensive garden area around the memorial with an artificial waterfall, and a lake where visitors can picnic whilst enjoying the beautiful landscape. The museum houses more than 10,000 artifacts in the indoor and outdoor exhibition areas. It takes visitors about three hours to complete the tour. The first floor exhibition hall features a history of war from prehistoric times up to the Korean War. The combat experience room on the third floor offers visitors a special opportunity to experience a simulated life and death situation on the battlefield through special effects. Visitors in wheelchairs can either use the elevators or wheel up/down the ramps that square/spiral between floors.
11. Imjingak Park. Imjingak Resort, located 7 km from the Military Demarcation Line, is now at the forefront of tourism related to the Korean War. Imjingak was built in 1972 with the hope that someday unification would be possible. The three-storied Imjingak is surrounded by several monuments, Unification Park and North Korea Center. Over 400 photos and documents showing the stark reality of North Korea are displayed in the North Korea Center of Unification Board. Outside Imjingak, there are 12 unique tanks and warcrafts on display that were used during the war. Mangbaedan Alter, which stands opposite Imjingak, is famous as the place where Korean’s separated from their families in the North visit to perform ancestral rites by bowing toward their hometowns every New Year’s Day and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). The Bridge of Freedom, which South Koreans crossed when they came back to their mother country from North Korea after the signing of the Armistice Agreement, stands behind Mangbaedan Alter. In front of Imjingak is the Gyeongui Train Line which was destroyed during the Korean War in 1950. It has been under reconstruction since 2000. Every year many events for unification are held at Imjingak. It is now one of the more famous DMZ tourist spots for foreigners because it is possible to visit without going through any security check points. The main building, outdoor exhibits, and both bridges are fully wheelchair accessible.
12. Sunset Cruise on the Han River. The Hangang Eland Cruise is one of the best ways to enjoy the Hangang River. There are 8 different docks from which to board, including Yeouido, Jamsil, Yangwha, Ttukseom, Sangam, Seoul Forest, Jamdubong and Seonyudo. The cruises have different themes, including a pirate theme for children and a K-Culture cruise for Hallyu fans, allowing passengers to enjoy live performances and fine dining as they admire the scenery. The romance of the Hangang makes river cruises very popular with lovers all throughout the year. Taking a cruise is a great way to enjoy the fresh air and get away from it all. Enjoy spectacular nighttime views of the Hangang on themed cruises with live magic and delicious food, guaranteed to create unforgettable memories for families, lovers and friends alike. There are also seasonal events including a flower cruise in spring and a migratory bird cruise in autumn. Only the bottom deck is accessible, but wheelchair users have plenty of space to enjoy the view on the open-air portion.
13. N Seoul Tower. Namsan Seoul Tower was built in 1969 as Korea’s first integrated transmission tower beaming television and radio broadcasts across the capital. Since opening to the public in 1980, it has become a much-loved Seoul landmark. The tower’s main attractions include multi-colored digital art projected onto the tower at night, a digital observatory, a roof terrace, the HanCook restaurant, the n.Grill restaurant, and the Haneul (Sky) Restroom. Namsan Seoul Tower’s mountain surroundings on Namsan Mountain have made it a popular place to unwind for locals and tourists alike. Seoul has a number of viewing platforms where visitors can enjoy the nighttime cityscape or gaze out onto the Hangang (River) but the tower’s Digital Observatory is unique, offering an astonishing 360 degree panorama over the city, and 32 LCD screens recounting the 600-year history of Seoul. That is why the observatory is so popular and such a source of pride. The observation level is accessible by elevator, and for a small fee you can rent an audioguide that will explain the view from 16 different spots around the deck.
14. National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung was originally built as an annex to the National Museum of Contemporary Art. It specializes in seeking out and researching modern art, and also in exhibiting and preserving it. You can see classical works of modern art when you visit National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung. Because it uses the Seokjojeon annex inside the Deoksugung Palace as its exhibition space, the center maintains a unique traditional atmosphere. On the first floor are the administrative office and the audiovisual room, and the second floor has planned exhibitions of modern art in exhibition rooms one and two. The third floor has exhibitions three and four, where works selected as best modern art by the National Museum of Contemporary Art are displayed all year around. You can see modern works such as paintings in Indian ink, colorings, oil paintings, and sculptures. National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Deoksugung has “Art Center With the Citizens” as its motto. Besides the exhibitions, the center has various performances such as music and mime. Lectures or seminars on artists’ works are also held often and are popular with tourists. The “Citizen’s Park” outside the museum is frequented by many people who go there to relax. The museum is fully wheelchair accessible, including accessible bathrooms.
15. Namdaemun Market. Opened in 1964, Namdaemun Market is the largest traditional market in Korea with shops selling various goods. All products are sold at affordable prices and the stores in this area also function as wholesale markets. Most of the goods are made directly by the storeowners. Namdaemun Market is even open overnight, from 11:00pm to 4:00am, and is crowded with retailers from all over the country. When day breaks, the site of busy shoppers bustling around the market creates a unique scene that attracts tourists worldwide. Namdaemun Market sells a variety of clothes, glasses, kitchenware, toys, mountain gear, fishing equipment, stationery, fine arts, accessories, hats, carpets, flowers, ginseng, and imported goods. The paths and streets within the market are wide and flat, but you’re better off visiting when the market first opens to avoid large crowds. The market is closed on Sundays, and most shops open between 9AM and 10AM.
16. Insa-dong District. Insa-dong, located in the heart of the city, is an important place where old but precious and traditional goods are on display. There is one main road in Insa-dong with alleys on each side. Within these alleys are galleries and traditional restaurants, teahouses, and cafes. The galleries are the heartbeat of Insa-dong. There are about 100 galleries in the area and you can see every example of traditional Korean fine art from paintings to sculptures. The most famous galleries are Hakgojae Gallery, which functions as the center of folk art, Gana Art Gallery, which promotes many promising artists, and Gana Art Center. Please note that many galleries have a step to get in, but a small travel ramp can help you get inside. The shops in Insa-dong are very popular among all age groups, because each one is unique, and many have a flat entry. Every Saturday from 14:00 to 22:00 and Sunday from 10:00 to 22:00, the main street is blocked off from traffic and it becomes a cultural space. Stores set up booths outside and Korean candy merchants and fortune teller stalls can easily be found; there are traditional performances and exhibits as well. Insa-dong is especially popular among international tourists. This is where they can experience and see traditional Korean culture firsthand, and also purchase pieces of fine art. On the street you can eat Korean taffy and traditional pajeon (green onion pancake), and lose yourself in all the joyous festivities of the street.
Are you ready for a wheelchair accessible adventure to Seoul, South Korea? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!