Han River

You’ll see scores of other runners and people on bikes along the Han River. (Photo: Alamy)


Running Seoul: Lace Up Your Sneaks for a City Escape

Whether you’re up for relaxing riverside routes or more testing mountain trails, South Korea’s capital offers something for every runner.

These runs are favorites: they’re part of my day-to-day and I use them for marathon training.

Within the city things can get very busy, but if you’re okay with a stop-start style of running, downtown is a vibrant place: you’re accompanied by smells of street food sizzling as you dodge businessmen and -women, and there’s the constant hum of cars and buses.

Personally, I prefer to leave the downtown area and train along the Han River, which runs through the center of the city. I also like a couple of trail runs within Seoul. There are running and cycling paths, and motorized vehicles are not permitted in these areas, so the running is free flowing.

Thanks to the unique scenery, you can free your mind and think only of putting one foot in front of the other.

Route 1 — Han River (Easy; 4.5 Miles)

The starting point for this route is the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Yongsan-gu. From the hotel, it’s a short walk to Seoul station, where you should take the light blue line four stops to Ichon station. Use the time on the subway to stretch: it’s normal to see people doing just that here.

Take exit four at Ichon station. It’s then about a .3-mile walk to the river. Follow the yellow signs as you go straight out of the exit and it’s as easy as pie. The riverbanks are busy at all hours.

You’ll see other runners and people on bikes or working out on the outdoor gym equipment. In summer, half the city comes here for a picnic—the air will be thick with the smell of barbecues, and doing soju shots is also popular. Soju is Korea’s national drink, a bit like vodka and traditionally made from sweet potato.

Once at the river, the run begins. Head left so that the river is on your right side and continue for a little more than 1.2 miles. Here, cross Banpo Bridge to the other bank. Banpo Bridge has a spectacular water show at set times on summer afternoons and a ‘rainbow fountain’ in the evening. Once on the other side of the river, you’ll be turning right.

The huge glass-and-steel buildings are built on the manmade islets of Some Sevit. The three buildings represent a seed, a flower in bud and a flower in full bloom. This is the 1.8-mile point—head along the river for 1.2 miles more until you reach the blue, arched Dongjak Bridge.

It offers great views and in summer makes a good viewpoint for the Banpo Bridge water show. There’s also a train running across it. The only real incline on this run comes as you climb the stairs to cross the bridge back to the other side of the river.

At the bottom of the stairs, a small tunnel gets you back to the river from the roadside. This is the 3.7-mile mark and you’ll be ending the run along the same stretch that you started with. This run has plenty of toilets, drinking-water fountains and convenience stores. I always end my runs with an energy drink, and might have a small workout session at the outdoor gyms along the river as well.

Route 2 — Namsan Mountain (Intermediate; 7.3 Miles)

The starting point for this run is the The Westin Chosun Seoul in downtown Seoul. It’s located near Namsan, a mini-mountain that is slap-bang in the city. You’ll be running to the base of the mountain, up and over, then back along its base to the hotel.

Starting with the hotel behind you, head left onto Sogong-ro road. After about .18 miles, take a right onto Namdaemunno road. Take this road until you come to Sungnyemun Gate (also known as Namdaemun Gate), a pagoda-style gate that was one of the old entrances to the city and dates back to the 14th Century.

At Sungnyemun Gate, turn left onto Sowollo road and continue until the base of Namsan mountain. Just after the 1.2-mile mark you’ll find the entrance to the paved mountain run. You’re now in for a .6-mile uphill battle with other walkers, runners and cyclers. At the bus stop, it’s just a little farther until you’ve reached the top, where there are drinking-water fountains, stores and toilets. You’ll also have 360-degree views of Seoul, and on a clear day you can see for miles.

Messages are commonly padlocked to the trees and fences on Namsan: if you’ve remembered to take a lock up, don’t forget to throw away the key somewhere along the run.

Next, it’s back down the other side of the mountain, where you’ll come across multiple viewing decks. At the T-junction at the base of the mountain, take a right onto Jangchungdan road. Carry on along the base of the mountain until a fork in the road: stick right and you’ll be back on Sowollo road. From here it’s a windy 1.8-mile run until you’re back at the entrance of the Namsan mountain run. Just 1.2 miles more and it’s back the way you came to the hotel. Once there, reward yourself with a great coffee. You’ve earned it.

Route 3 — Ansan, Yeonhui-Dong (Difficult; 2.9 Miles)

The hardest of the three runs in terms of incline and surface: about 80 percent of it is gravel and dirt. Trail-running shoes would be good, but it’s still possible in regular running shoes.

To get to the start of this run, take a taxi to Seodaemun-gu. The name of this district comes from the Great West Gate, one of four great gates to the city, which was located here in the Joseon dynasty.

Start from Seodaemun Museum of Natural History. The trail entrance is about 109 yards further from the museum on the right-hand side. This is a well-marked route and signs can be found at all intersections, so don’t worry about getting lost.

The first sign to follow is for the Yeonheung Mineral Spring: this just leads you past some hammocks where, if you’re like me, you might want to loop back to add some distance to the run.

Next, look for signs to Muakjeong Pavilion. This portion of the run is beautiful, especially in autumn, and you’ll come across badminton courts, outdoor exercise stations and a natural spring where the water is totally drinkable.

Take advantage: it’s the only water on the run. Just a little farther and you’ll be at the 1.2-mile mark, where you’ll find Muakjeong Pavilion itself. Take a left and follow the signs to Beacon Mound, the peak. This spot is my own personal favorite place for views of Seoul.

From the top, you’ll be heading down the mountain in a southerly direction to the Bongwonsa Temple (its roof can be seen from Beacon Mound). This decline is the most technical part of the run—the gravel is loose, so take it slow.

Follow the signs to Bongwonsa Temple and remember to keep the volume down as a courtesy to the monks whom you’ll see, and hear, praying and chanting.

Once you’ve taken in the area you can opt to run along the base of the mountain—nice and flat—or back up to the peak and down the way you came. To get a taxi back, walk down to the main road where catching one will be easier.

Running Tips

I run all year round in Seoul, but spring and autumn are super-comfortable and my favorite seasons to run. Summer is humid and hot, and gents running with their tops off is considered a big no-no in Korea, so keep clothing as light as possible.