The Han River, or Hangang (한강), is a fixture of life in Seoul for Koreans and expats alike. Once marking the southern limits of the city, now the Han River cuts straight through the center of sprawling Seoul.
For as far back as you want to go in Korean history, the Han River has been vital to the land and its people. In the Three Kingdoms Era, for example (Mike says in his Teacher Voice as he reads from Wikipedia…), control of the Han River was an important strategic objective for the warring kingdoms of Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla. The river became extremely important because it opened a trade route with China via the Yellow Sea, and it retained this value through three successive Korean dynasties: Unified Silla, Goryeo and Joseon (if you’re up on your Korean dramas, you’ll probably recognize these names. If not, I have some drama recommendations for you!).
I hope you’ll pardon my brief detour into Korean history, when the article I’m supposed to be writing is an easily digestible list of stuff to do for fun next to a pretty river. Still, I think it’s all kinds of awesome that the Han River subtly but powerfully influenced the decisions that raised (or razed) nations, provoked wars, and painstakingly shaped over centuries the amazing city we now know as Seoul. Even the most oblivious of pleasure-seekers wandering along the Han River today can feel that history, can practically smell it… although, in all honesty, that could also be the industrial pollutants in the water. But don’t worry, they’re working to fix that!
In any case, the Han River has a long and storied history and continues to be a source of enjoyment and relaxation for anyone lucky enough to be living in or traveling through Seoul. For the benefit of the latter group, I’ve compiled a short and by no means complete list of stuff you can do in the parks along the Han River. There are a lot of these parks, so no matter what area of Seoul you’re in there should be one that is convenient to get to.
1. Community Sports
If you’re staying in the city for a while and miss playing a sport, don’t worry—the Han River has you covered! Each park has basketball courts, baseball and soccer fields, and tennis courts. Expat leagues in every sport meet weekly, which is a great way to meet new friends. You’ll need to bring your own equipment, or buy or borrow it in the city, but the space is there and it’s free.
2. Walking, running, or biking
If you’re not feeling team sports or just want to break a sweat, you can follow the bike paths or walking paths for as long as you want. Most of the time you’ll be in good company, with bikers passing you in packs and ahjummas (middle age to elderly Korean women) power-walking with their sun visors at the ready. The view across the Han River is always lovely, whether you’re exercising at night when the buildings light up, or in the morning when the sun rises above apartment buildings and mountain ranges to herald a new day. I will say that it gets pretty darn hot this time of year, so if you must go out during midday, bring your sunscreen (and possibly a sun visor of your own!).
3. Going to an exercise park
The exercise parks may be my favorite parts of Seoul. Not just by the Han River but anywhere you go in Seoul, you can find public parks with exercise equipment ranging from stretching and free-stepping to pull-up bars and bench presses. And I’m not kidding about them being everywhere; I once found an exercise park on the summit of a small mountain! There’s no need to lay out a lot of money for a gym membership, especially if you’re only in Seoul for a short time. And the company is great; most likely you’ll find yourself working out alongside the chillest (and fittest) senior citizens you’ve ever met in your life.
4. Eating at a floating restaurant
I admit I have not yet done this, but it’s on my bucket list. If you walk along the river in one of the public parks, you will see a lot (seriously, a LOT) of boats that are really restaurants tied to the dock. I don’t know what the prices are like, but I imagine that the food is pretty darn good. If you’re in need of a place for Date Night or are just looking for a nice dinner with a great view of the water, be sure to check out one of the floating restaurants! (Here’s where I do my anime nerd shout-out to the Baratie—any One Piece fans out there?)
5. Have a picnic
The Han River is the perfect place for a picnic. You can bring your own food or buy it once you get to the park. There are convenience stores with a dizzying array of snack foods, drinks and surprisingly complete meals; basically, victuals of all description. Here’s a next-level picnic move I learned from a Korean friend: Pick a nice grassy spot, spread your blanket, then order delivery fried chicken. That’s right; restaurants in Seoul will deliver food TO YOUR PICNIC, providing you have someone who can order in Korean and there is a recognizable landmark nearby.
6. Reserving public space for an event
Many of the Han River parks have shaded gathering areas that can be reserved for events or gatherings. Barely two days after arriving in Seoul, I went to just such a gathering in Mangwon Park (망원항강공원, or Mangwon Hangang Kongwon), which is quite near the lively expat-friendly Hongdae neighborhood. The event I went to was for Korean adoptees (which I am not), but they were extremely welcoming and gave me more food than I could ever hope to eat. But that’s not my point. My point is if you have an event you’d like to throw, the Han River has many beautiful venues.
7. Listen to live music
If you’re lucky, you can find musicians or performers in one of the many open spaces along the bike paths. Sometimes the larger gathering areas have seating arranged around a small stage, where bigger performances can be held. Sometimes when I ran along the Han River I would see a performer and stop to listen; I told myself it was because music is good for the soul, not because I’m a lazy bum.
8. Visit a water park
In the summertime, water parks all along the river open to the public. I’m not sure what the price is for admission, but I’m sure of one thing: It’ll be worth it! Bring a few cheap water guns and duke it out with your friends in defiance of the summer heat.
9. Camp out under the stars city lights
Most parks along the river have public camping grounds where people can pitch tents. This is another item on my Seoul bucket list that I have yet to check off, but I intend to make it happen soon. The camping grounds near the Han River are eminently family friendly, although you’ll also see groups of younger (or much older) folks gathering in tents to chat, eat, and drink. It’s not quite the same as actually getting out into nature (you’ll have to paint stars on the roof of your tent and pretend), but it might make a nice change from a cramped apartment or lodging house.
10. Eat ramen and drink soju outside of a convenience store by the river
This might be one of my favorite things to do, period. Convenience stores in South Korea are fabulous and deserve an article all their own, but the convenience stores along the Han River go beyond convenient into hallowed territory. There are tables with plastic chairs outside the stores with a view of the river, so you and your friends can fix some delicious ramen and grab a bottle of soju or a few beers and just chill. Seoul is justly famous for its night-life; however, some of the best nights I’ve experienced here weren’t “in da club,” but just relaxing by the river with friends and good food. Give it a try some time!
That’s it for my list of ten things to do by the Han River. I hope you’ll get a chance to try some of them out, or even expand the list with your own ideas and adventures.
Editor’s note: Have you been to the Han River? What is your favourite thing to do there?