Central Suwon has but one notable sight – Hwaseong fortress (화성), whose gigantic walls wend their way around the city centre. Completed in 1796, the complex was built on the orders of King Jeongjo, one of the Joseon dynasty’s most famous rulers, in order to house the remains of his father, Prince Sado. Sado never became king, and met an early end in Seoul’s Changgyeonggung Palace at the hands of his own father, King Yeongjo; it may have been the gravity of the situation that spurred Jeongjo’s attempts to move the capital away from Seoul.
Towering almost 10m high for the bulk of its course, the fortress wall rises and falls in a 5.7km-long stretch, most of which is walkable, the various peaks and troughs marked by sentry posts and ornate entrance gates. From the higher vantage points you’ll be able to soak up superb views of the city, but while there’s also plenty to see from the wall itself, the interior is disappointing: other fortresses around the country – notably those at Gongju and Buyeo – have green, tranquil grounds with little inside save for trees, squirrels, pagodas and meandering paths, but Hwaseong’s has had concrete poured into it, and is now a cityscape filled with restaurants, honking traffic and ropey motels. Even on the wall itself, it’s hard to escape the noise, which is often punctuated by screaming aircraft from the nearby military base. Another complaint from visitors is that the wall looks too new, the result of copious restoration work, but as this slowly starts to “bed in”, it will once again don thin veils of moss and ivy, achieving a look more proximate to the original appearance. Most visitors start their wall walk at Paldalmun (팔달문) – a gate at the lower end of the fortress, exuding a well-preserved magnificence now diluted by its position in the middle of a traffic-filled roundabout – before taking the steep, uphill path to Seonammun, the western gate.