Part 2 in Daehangno District, Seoul; Maronnier Park
Located on the former site of Seoul National University, Marronnier Park was opened in 1975 after the campus relocated to a new location in Gwanak and the area was redeveloped. I found a miniature replica of the university near the center of the park, which gives visitors an idea of what the area looked like before the university was moved.
Marronnier Park is named after many horse chestnut trees (marronniers) growing in the park (maronniers originated from the Mediterranean). The horse chestnut tree tradition began with three trees that were left when Seoul National University moved and most of the buildings were demolished.
This small park has become the center of Daehangno. It has pretty fountains, a large children’s playground and an open-air performance stage, used by street artists and young musicians or dancers. Every week, there are various different performances, both traditional and more modern. Many restaurants, galleries, museums and theaters cluster around the park and famous Daehangno Street starts from one corner of the park.
In the park is a coffee shop (where I stopped and it was very pleasant) and along the main street you’re very likely to see impromptu street stalls—the day I visited the park area, there was a large stall selling shoes, hundreds of shoes of all kinds, and many people were trying on shoes and buying.
You can also rent bicycles here (similar concept to the Vel’ibs in Paris), but I have to admit I would be way too afraid to try and ride in this traffic!
Get there on Metro Line 4, Hyehwa Station, exit 2.
Part 1: Introduction and Daehangno Street
Our Korean hosts at Seoul National University told us that the campus at Gwanak is relatively new and that it used to be located in Seoul city center. So, one day I decided to explore and find the original location. I did, and it turns out that this is a really interesting part of Seoul today—the center of performance culture, with a lovely park, and colorful murals.
Daehangno Street is the center of performance culture in Seoul, with over 150 small theaters. This area is called the “Play Mecca”, “Theater Mecca”, or “Young Street” as well. This is where you an enjoy theater and impromptu performances by young artists. Daehangno area bustles with people who come to enjoy plays or musicals or just to stroll along the streets and soak up the ambience, especially on car-free weekends. Not many performances are in English, but attending one can still be an enjoyable spectacle. There are also many restaurants, bars and movie theaters.
At first this district was popular with mainly the twenty-something crowd but now it attracts diverse age groups as well. Young people still dominate the scene, but more families with children and middle-aged couples are coming, due to the variety and abundance of attractions offered.
But the area was not originally planned as a theater district. Keijo Imperial University was located here, during the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese occupation (Keijo, or Gyeongseong in Korean, was the colonial-era name of Seoul). When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Seoul National University opened in its place. In 1975, the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and College of Law moved to its current Gwanak campus south of the Han River, and many of the school buildings were demolished.
But, the modern red brick building that had housed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was spared, plus three horse chestnut trees (marronnier) that are still reminders of the former university site. A park was created at this site, which people began to call Marronnier Park.
More red brick buildings were built around the park, to complement the previous university building. These include Munye Theater (current Arko Arts Theater), which opened in 1981. In the 1980s, many theater groups started moving to Daehangno. At the same time, movie theaters, live-cafes, regular cafes and pubs sprung up and the area developed into a cultural and entertainment center.
When the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially adopted the name Daehangno in 1985, it hoped to create a global cultural destination like Montmartre in Paris, once the world’s mecca of modern art; or Tokyo’s fashion hotspot Harajuku; or London’s Piccadilly Circus. Daehangno has become a theater district widely known among performing artists around the world, so maybe the city’s ambitions did come true!