Just south of Seoul is the beautiful walled city of Suwon. In the old days it guarded the southern approaches to the capital. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The over six kilometers of wall have been lovingly restored and are fun to walk around. There is also a palace and other historical place to look at. What makes it really great is that it is just a short train ride (actually part of the Seoul subway system) from Seoul and it is easy to get around once you arrive.
It is also set up to cater to tourists with maps and information available in several languages (including English) from numerous tourist information kiosks. In this article I will talk about one of my trips to Suwon and the sites I saw while exploring this historic city.
My first visit to Suwon was back in the early 1980’s while working on some fuel facilities in the area. So my initial impression of the city consisted of rail yards, airfield, and tank farms. In my free time I did hike the walls of the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress; however, they were in disrepair at this time and were undergoing their restoration. I always wanted to go back to see the restored fortress when I had more time to explore. I recently had the opportunity to return and was amazed at the detail and beauty of the restoration.
We were able to catch a subway train at Seoul Station and took a several hour ride on a straight shot to Suwon station. Suwon station is a major rail hub and shopping center. It has a huge food court where we grabbed a snack before heading out to the city. There were also many stores and you could spend the entire day shopping there if that was your goal; however, my goal was the fortress and the palace.
In the train center was one of the tourist information booths. Here, I picked up city maps and information books for the places we were interested in. We also got information as to what buses to take to get to the fortress. The bus stop was located right outside the train station main entrance. At the bus stop you had to stay on your toes to make sure you got on the correct numbered bus. Still, we were able to catch the appropriate numbered bus and used our Seoul transportation card to pay the fare. We to the bus to the main south gate (Paldalmun) using bus 11,13,13-3,36, or 39 (any of these buses will get you there
Upon arrival at the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress we purchased our tickets at one of the four or five ticket offices located at key points around the walls. You need a ticked tour the walls. The tickets were inexpensive and included a small circular sticker that your placed on the outside our your clothes so that personnel stationed on the walls know that you paid. The Hwaseong Fortress was built under orders from King Jeongjo (22nd King of the JoseonDynasty). It was built between January 1794 and September 1796. The fortress has 41 major emplacements all but seven of which have been completely restored.
Key among these emplacements are the four main gates. Of the four main gates, the north and south gates are the most interesting. The Janganmun and Paldalmun (mun means gate)are massive structures with curtain walls and towers that are very impressive. Also of interest is the Hwahongmun that is bacically a protected water gate that allows a stream to run through the fortress walls. The Bongdon is an old smoke signaling devise used for emergency communications (similar to one located on Namsan in Seoul).
Also used for command and control are the two jangdae’s (jang is general, dae is big or loosely translated command post). There is one in the west (seojangdae) and one in the east (dongjangdae). Both give commanding views of the fortress and it is easy to see why they were useful for command and control of the installations. Other installations include the Poru’s or bastions that would allow the defenders to engage attackers who were close to the curtain walls. Along the walls are old cannons, flags, and other items of interests.
When walking along the wall you are inside the fortress and don’t really get the feel for how high and formidable the walls are. That’s why there is a trolley ride you can take that takes you outside the walls for about a third of the fortress. This requires a separate inexpensive ticket; however, I recommend taking it so that you can fully appreciate the scope of the fortification.
Also located inside the fortress is the 1789 detached place called the Hwaseong Haenggung. The palace was built at the foot of Mount Paldalsan (san is a mountain). It was built by King Jeongjo who also had the fortress built later on. It requires additional tickets to go on self-guided tour. The palace has over 600 rooms that all open out onto court yards. The palace also has numerous martial arts and changing of the guard ceremonies from spring to fall;
however, you need to check for specific days and times during this period. These are lots of fun and well worth seeing. It is also nice to walk up the hill behind the palace. There is a nice path that takes you to the top passed a small temple to an observation pavilion. The top gives you a great view of the palace, fortress and city.
It took us an entire day to tour the fortress and the palace. As darkness settled in we headed back to the train station and back to Seoul. However, there is much more to do and see in Suwon. There are city tours available that take you around in a more efficient manner than the self-guided touring we did. There is the Suwon Museum, Suwon Hwaseong Museum, Suwon Art Gallery and a lot more. It is a nice change from Seoul and a good place to get away if you have the time.
By William Harlow/ Photo by Jungchan Lee & KTO