One of the great joys and respites of travel is curling up for a good night’s sleep after a long day exploring. For a long time, hotels and motels have been the preferred places for many travelers to put up their feet, while backpackers and budget travelers visited guesthouses and hostels for cheaper and less luxurious accommodations. But one of the points of hotels is that they offer a homogenous experience of travel, differentiated by levels of luxury rather than style: a bed, nightstands, TV, chair, and a sameness that extends around the world.
Enter the hanok guesthouse. Offering a unique experience that gets straight to the heart of Korean traditional life, these new guesthouses range from luxurious and palatial houses with amenities to rival four-star hotels to humble but welcoming homes run by families who want to share the true warmth of Korean hearts. These traditional Korean houses have been transformed into places of hospitality that welcome both domestic and foreign visitors and allow them to experience firsthand the beauty of tradition, while trying out comforts that hotels can never offer.
The traditional hanok consists of a beautiful interlocking wood frame, wattle and daub construction, and a thatch or tiled roof. The interiors are usually finished in a clean and soothing white plaster, with the exposed wood of the frame left gleaming and visible. Most rooms have waxed paper floors that allow the underfloor heating to shine through and efficiently warm an entire room, and one or more rooms with wood floors that help create a cool atmosphere in the summertime. Elegant sliding doors made of paper and carved wood separate the rooms, and the doors to the exterior can be folded to the side or up to allow breezes to effectively cool the entire house in hot weather.
But Seoul is one of the most densely populated cities on earth, and many people came to prefer the ease of apartment living. Tall apartment towers have become typical housing for Korean families, leading to the destruction of many hanok in the cities. The remaining homes, concentrated in older parts of the city like Bukchon, Seochon, and Seongbuk-dong, were still loved, but many people questioned their relevance to modern lifestyles.
The rise of the hanok guesthouse has been a vindication for Korea’s architectural heritage. While some homeowners were welcoming international guests in their homes for decades, new regulations helped promote the conversion of hanok homes into guesthouses as a way to promote the preservation of the buildings, help house the rising number of international tourists, and aid the families trying to hang onto their homes. It has also encouraged people to build new hanok, showing them that traditional forms can be a part of modern lives and modern comforts.
Now there are hundreds of hanok guesthouses throughout the country, opening up their doors and the way of life inside them to outsiders. It has helped save the architecture, preserving them for the world and making them sustainable for Koreans.
Staying in a hanok is a different experience than being in a hotel or hostel, and for many visitors, they are the most direct route to not just seeing, but feeling and directly experiencing traditional Korea. While some hanok guesthouses have beds and Western furniture for the comfort of their guests, others still use traditional mats called yo for sleeping on the floor, and cushions for sitting at low tables to eat and drink during the daytime. Most hanok have also expanded to include cultural programs, including lessons in traditional music, handicraft experiences, dressing up in traditional Korean clothes called hanbok and trying Korean foods and teas. Many families also give tours of their neighborhoods, showing the hidden corners and sharing the special knowledge that only comes from long-term residents.
Hanok guesthouses allow visitors to not just glimpse, but truly experience life in Korea. By staying in a hanok guesthouse, people can immerse themselves in the beauty of the architecture and the warmth of the people. They help connect the past and the present, the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, all while bringing people together.
Written by Jennifer Flinn
46 Yulgok-ro 1-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul