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South Korea: What is a hanok?

In traditional houses up and down the country you can sleep in style — or just bed down on the floor

By Monica Williams
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 12:17 BST
Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul

Photograph by Alamy

With their timber frames and curved roofs, hanok are unapologetically photogenic. But they're not just for marvelling at; many of these traditional Korean houses have been reborn as hotels, homestays and holiday rentals.

Back in the 1970s, when the country turned its attention to technology over tradition, a large number of old buildings (some dating back to the 14th century) were demolished, with modern apartment blocks and skyscrapers thrown up in their place. But some managed to avoid the wrecking ball, and today you'll find pockets of perfectly preserved hanok all over the country. According to tradition, they should face a river, with a mountain to the rear, and while in chillier northern regions they're typically built around a courtyard in order to keep in the heat, in the milder south they tend to be more open.

As for the driving force behind the revival of the hanok, we partly have historical K-dramas to thank. Homegrown TV shows have been filmed on location at sites such as Seoul's Bukchon Hanok Village, and Jeonju Hanok Village, in the west of the country — areas which have become sites of pilgrimage for diehard fans.

Yet, even if you're not up on your K-drama, checking in for a night in a hanok offers a glimpse of Korean history. The government's official Hanok Stay programme lists more than 100 options, and you'll find plenty more to choose from, whether you're happy with the classic mattress-on-the-floor setup or you're in the market for something rather more luxurious.

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Published in the South Korea guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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