Looking at it now, it is hard to believe that before its incredible 2005 transformation, Cheonggyecheon (청계천) — which translates to "Clean Valley Water" in English — hadn't been a proper stream for decades. Instead, it was a concrete covered sewer topped by a surface road and an elevated freeway.
However, in the 2002 Seoul mayoral election, Lee Myungbak promised to lead the city on an urban renewal project for Cheonggyecheon, and after winning the election, he delivered. When combined with a strategy that increased mass transit, demolishing the elevated freeway and restoring the stream resulted in significant benefits for Seoul. The restoration increased biodiversity, increased bus and metro ridership, increased property values, and increased business in the area. At the same time, it decreased the urban heat island effect and decreased air pollution.
With results that nearly everyone can agree were positive, unsurprisingly, Cheonggyecheon has become a textbook example of a successful urban renewal project. Whether you live in Seoul or are just visiting, Cheonggyecheon certainly is a nice stroll.
Although there are many entrances along its 11 km (6.8 mile) or so length, the primary entrance for Cheonggyecheon, especially for tourists, is its downtown "head" at Cheonggye Plaza (청계광장). Cheonggye Plaza effectively is a concrete slab, but it is well decorated and used for a variety of performing arts events and festivals. The programming is excellent and almost always something interesting is underway.
If you have time and are able, travelgasm.com would encourage you to walk well beyond Cheonggye Plaza, though. The stream itself becomes a little bit more organic and the neighborhood becomes less big business and more small scale industrial as you head toward the shopping district of Dongdaemun (동대문) and beyond. It is interesting both to see the character of the stream and the neighborhood change.
If you really want to learn more about Cheonggyecheon, the excellent — and free — Cheonggyecheon Museum (청계천박물관) covers the history of the stream, its development, redevelopment, and future plans in detail with photos, video clips, models, and more. Because it had barely a mention on the big tourist advisory sites or in reviews on the world's search engine at the time we first wrote this piece, we definitely could have gotten away with calling it one of our "7 Things Tourists Don't Do in Seoul, But You Should." When we visited on a rainy day, we practically had the place to ourselves.
For those who enjoy Cheonggyecheon — and certainly for those who would like to see elevated freeways demolished where they live and replaced with something better — the Cheonggyecheon Museum is a must visit to learn more about how such a transformation was possible not just physically, but politically, as well. It even has free coffee in the reading room. Just go there, already. But not on Mondays. It is closed on Mondays.
Although you certainly can walk along the stream, it is about 5.5 km (3.4 miles) from Cheonggye Plaza to Cheonggyecheon Museum, which is a pretty long hike, but a fairly short bike ride. We don't believe that bikes are permitted within the stream itself (although we spotted people on bikes from time-to-time), but following test runs in 2013, Seoul added dedicated bike lanes to the street along Cheonggyecheon Stream. Although the bike lanes are not protected, the street is flat and relatively small scale and won't be a challenge for those with urban biking experience.
In 2016, Seoul added bike share — locally called Ttareungi (따릉이), based on the sound a bike bell makes — and several bike share stations are available near Cheonggye Plaza. Two bike share stations are available immediately in front of the Cheonggyecheon Museum, also. It is possible to rent a bike as a visitor for one or two hours as long as you have a credit card. A deposit is reserved for the bike and refunded when the bike is returned.
Be sure to check out the details on the official website and the real-time map of bike availability, but based on personal experience, bikes probably will be available in the morning during the week around Cheonggye Plaza. On the weekends, though, bikes likely will be snapped up by locals quickly if the weather is nice.
If bikes are not available, or you would rather use the metro, we cover that option below, too. Unfortunately, the walk from the metro to the museum involves ducking under a portion of an unpleasant elevated freeway, but that may just make you appreciate the best part of Cheonggyecheon even more. Before 2005, the entire area would have involved walking under a freeway. You also could reverse the route and take the metro first and then grab a bike at the museum (which almost certainly will have bikes available), and head back toward Cheonggye Plaza.
There literally are hundreds of restaurants, cafes, and bars within a couple blocks of Cheonggyecheon, so there are plenty of places to eat nearby. Perhaps most notably, the alleys to the sides of Cheonggye Plaza are full of small restaurants where office workers eat lunch. A couple of places Koreans regard well include Mukyodong Bukeoguk Jip (무교동북어국집) for soup and Nakdonggang (낙동강) for BBQ. In the evenings, the self-described "Avenue of Youth" (젊음의거리) hosts plenty of street food and nightlife, as well.
Immediately around Cheonggyecheon Museum is pretty sleepy, but there is an inexpensive Korean BBQ restaurant practically next door, Bulccot Hanu (불꽃한우), and a handful of other local restaurants in the alleyways behind it, as well.
We've mapped out the route on Cheonggyecheon between Cheonggye Plaza and the Cheonggyecheon Museum below, complete with the most relevant bikeshare stations and the alternate "cheat" route using the metro.
How to Get Here: Although a number of other stations also will get you to within a couple of blocks of some portion of Cheonggyecheon, the closest option for Cheonggye Plaza is Gwanghwamun Station (Purple Line, Line 5). Take Exit 5 and Cheonggye Plaza will be on your left. Jonggak Station (Dark Blue Line, Line 1), Exit 5, also is a convenient option to arrive at Cheonggyecheon within a block of Cheonggye Plaza or to depart for the Cheonggyecheon Museum. The closest metro station to the Cheonggyecheon Museum is Yongdu (Green Line, Line 2). Take Exit 5. Make a 180-degree turn to your left after exiting and turn right after crossing under the freeway to reach the museum, which will be on the left-hand side of the street. Note that Yongdu Station is small and actually isn't listed on some online metro maps, but you will have to transfer from Sinseol-dong Station (Dark Blue Line, Line 1) to the Green Line. Yongdu Station is the first station after Sinseol-dong.
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