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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrSeoul is one of Asia's most powerful cities, in every way imaginable. The city of almost 10 million souls (over 25 million in its greater reaches) is as overwhelming as it is enticing, with its eclectic mix of old and new, traditional and modernist. No visit to South Korea could ever be complete without a few days spent here. Not only is the city itself insanely interesting to explore at length, but this is also the best base for all trips to the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the most ironically-named historical site on the entire planet.
What's so good about Seoul, we hear you ask? Well, at the risk of sounding cliché, it;s a city which has something for everyone. Shoppaholics could literally LIVE inside one shopping mall or other during their entire vacation (some of them never close!), history lovers can swoon for days as they hop between fantastic museums, architecture buffs will salivate at the sight of the Royal Palaces and food afficionados could, instead, feast their way through the city for an entire week and still not tried it all.
HistorySeoul has been an important trading city for at least 2,000 years, since it was proclaimed to be the capital of the Baekje Kingdom in 18BC. Its greatest claim to fame however, was as the capital of the mighty Joseon Dynasty, the longest-running reign in history and the very last to rule over Korea. For five centuries this city and country were ruled by a feudal system, with forced Confucian ideals (and forced slavery) and where Buddhism and Christianity were banned. Nevertheless, this was a city which prospered and one beautified by a vast array of construction work, including stunning temples and utterly opulent palaces.
The invasion from Japan, which lasted from 1910 until the end of WWII, saw Seoul be ransacked, pillaged and almost destroyed to beyond recognition. Even after independence, the city went through much upheaval, mostly due to the Korean War , yet thanks to foreign aid and support it managed to get up off its feet and flourish once more.
Nowadays, you’ll see an incredibly modern city with a very distinct, charming side. Amazing ancient palaces stand alongside super-modern skyscrapers; old historic quarters vying for attention from dazzling mega-malls.
Among all this chaos, are the South Koreans, some of the kindest, gentlest, gracious and most hospitable people you’re likely to ever meet.
Top attractionsSeoul can be intimidating to first-time visitors, so it helps to have a plan of action or (at the very least) a rough idea of what it is you’d like to see and do. You can barely hope to skim the surface of Seoul in three days but if you don’t think you’ll be getting back anytime soon then do plan a whole week in this bustling city. Between the attractions, shopping, dining and drinking, this will be just enough time to get a feel for the place.
Following are the city’s most popular landmarks you really should not miss:
N Seoul TowerBuilt atop a hill, this is the highest point in the city and a fantastic place from where to get your bearings upon arrival. The 236m tower (which measures just under 500m above sea level) grants breathtaking views of the city in its most magnificent glory. Hike up on foot if you feel game (otherwise take the cable car), as this gives you several fantastic viewpoints along the way. Head here at 5.30pm and you’ll see the city at dusk and as the bright lights come on, but do pick a clear evening to come up or you’ll risk seeing nothing much at all.
MyeongdongThe undisputed shopping and people-watching mecca in the city, this district is phenomenally crazy and filled to brimming point with fashion, accessories and cosmetics shops, as well as an infinite array of beauty spas and just as many eating and drinking outlets. A historic cathedral and theatre provide a non-shopping respite, although don’t be fooled: this is the third most expensive shopping hub in the world and no amount of history or culture will take the focus off that.
Five Grand Joseon PalacesThe Joseon Dynasty lasted for over 600 years and, ending in 1910, was the very last reigning empire of Korea. It was during Joseon’s reign that Seoul was made capital and right here that the Emperor built several magnificent, yet near impossible to pronounce, palaces. Five of these are open to the public and, combined, make up Seoul’s aptly named Five Grand Joseon Palaces: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung , Changgyeonggung , Deoksugung and Gyeonghuigung . The names are much more beautiful in Korean, and roughly translate to Palace Greatly Blessed by the Heavens, Palace of Prospering Virtue and even Palace of Flourishing Gladness.
All five are unique in their own way and offer something special, whether it’s a splendid Secret Garden (Changdeokgung), the site where the Emperor died (Deoksugung) or simply the biggest and most grandiose of all (Gyeongbokgung). The latter is the one most tourists choose to visit and the most famous of all. Admission to each palace is about USD3.
The War Memorial of KoreaThe War Memorial of Korea is Seoul’s most famous landmark and was inaugurated in the mid-90s on the site of the former army headquarters. Koreans are a proud lot, at least about their military might (this is true of both halves), and if you wish to see how a humble ‘memorial’ can be turned into a ginormous temple-like museum then this is the landmark you need to see. The museum is free to entre which is incredible, especially when one considers how great it really is. The displays on the Korean war are comprehensive, interactive and very informative. A definite must-see-first for all those planning to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Plan to spend at least 3 if not 4 hours here, and note that there’s a great little snack shock next to the gift shop if you get the munchies.
National Museum of KoreaIf you want to know all about the archaeological, cultural and artistic history of Korea, then there’s no better place to visit than the National Museum of Korea . Rated as one of Seoul’s best attraction by over 3 million people a year, this phenomenal museum is perfect for those who land in South Korea without any prior knowledge of the country at all. Seriously, you could have been living under a rock for five decades, spend a few hours here, and emerge perfectly informed. This museum is also free to enter and boasts lovely gardens, ideal for a spot of R&R in the bustling city. This national museum holds temporary exhibits of borrowed artwork from some of the world’s best museums, and charges a modest fee (KRW12,000 at most) to enter at these times.
Bukchon Hanok VillageThis splendid traditional village is a suburb wedged between two major Royal palaces and has been maintained and restored to perfection. If you want to see what life was like during the Joseon Dynasty (at least for high-ranking officials and their families) then you must not miss your chance to visit the Bukchon Hanok Village. This maze of narrow cobble stone streets and authentic Korean houses (hanoks) and tea-shops is arguably the most charming place in the whole city. Get lost through its alleyways, admire the striking architecture and absorb the still-present atmosphere of yesteryear in Korean.
Korean Demilitarized ZoneNot an attraction in Seoul itself, yet by far the most popular trip to be taken from the capital. The Korean Demilitarized Zone, a heavily militarized buffer zone (yes, the irony of the name is golden) between North and South Korea has been the subject of much press since it was first established back in 1953.
The subject of countless movies and documentaries, this hot-zone is one of the most harrowing places you could visit, but infinitely interesting if you hope to understand anything about the incomprehensible relations between the two halves of one country. A basic tour includes ascending into narrow, claustrophobic tunnels, observation decks, the freedom bridge, as well as a bulletproof vest and hard helmet. One of the most exciting trips you’ll ever take, even if not all for good reasons. Book your trip from Seoul (which cost anywhere between $ 50 USD and $ 150 USD depending on inclusions) and don’t forget to bring your passport.
ShoppingIt is often said that shopping is an art in Seoul and that if you visit and leave without buying anything, then you’ve done something seriously wrong. The city is brimming with amazing shopping malls, yet if you’d like to experience a more authentic shopping trip, you ought to check out Seoul’s top three best markets.
Namdaemun MarketsThe Namdaemun Market is the largest and oldest traditional market in the country and found just outside the old Southern Gates of the city. Traders have been converging here for six centuries, although various fires and several years of mismanagement during the country’s wars left it all but totally destroyed. The market has been recently restored yet due to logistics beyond anyone’s control it is, for the most part, quite the frantic scene. You’ll find anything and everything on sale (day and night) and will discover one of the best and most affordable eating hub as well.
Dongdaemun MarketsThese modernized ‘markets’ are just as old as Namdaemun, yet nowadays comprise both traditional outdoor stalls and state-of-the-art super-malls. In total, there are over 20 malls spread out over 10 blocks, with tens of thousands of retailers. If you want a one-stop-shopping destination, Dongdaemun is definitely where you should head to.
Insa-dongThis was once upon a time Seoul’s arty headquarters , and the best place to buy antiques. Nowadays, this is considered the most touristy spot in the country, yet is still the best place to get all your souvenir shopping done in one, swift, shopping spree. Head down Insading-gil, the main artery, and get lost in the endless alleyways which shoot off it sides.
Dining & Drinking OutFor the epicurean adventurer, Seoul is an absolute haven. From traditional Korean to Western and fusion cuisines, everything is on offer here, both in exclusive restaurants and holes-in-the-wall eateries. Having said this, while it is near impossible to go hungry in Seoul this becomes a distinct possibility if you insist on English-language menus, and recognizing every single ingredient in a meal. Your best course of action, as in all of Asia is to simply point and nod, either at a menu picture or a fellow patron’s dish. Food quality in the capital is above excellent, so if you are fearless you’re bound to have some unforgettable foodie-moments.
Korean BBQ restaurants and beloved by locals and foreigners alike, so do make sure you splurge on a BBQ meal at least once during your stay. They’re also a safer option for fussy eaters, as raw chicken, beef and pork looks the same in every language. Expect to be served boiled rice and several delicious side dishes with your meats.
It may surprise you to learn that Seoul is considered the best clubbing and drinking city on the planet, with a mind-boggling array of bars found in every single district of town. The nightlife scene in Seoul is something to be experienced at least once in life. FYI, the number of bars in this city is only matched by the number of fantastic coffee shops.
FestivalsSouth Korea hosts dozens of festivals all year long, most of which are traditional, centred around the agricultural history for which this country is best known and falling on specific dates of the lunar calendar. Many of the religious festivals here are a quiet, family affair, so perhaps not the most interesting for visiting tourists. To this end, here are the most interesting festivals which we think all visitors would very much appreciate attending.
Seoul International Fireworks FestivalThis fireworks extravaganza was inaugurated in 2000 and has, since its inception drawn more than a million spectators each and ever year. There's something about seeing the dark skies light up by innumerable colourful fireworks that has the ability to awe young and old alike. This internationally acclaimed festival has attracted competitors from all corners of the world, bringing to get the best pyromaniacs from countries such as Japan, Italy, Australia and the United States. Music, laser and multi-media presentations round off the visual spectacular. This festival is held on the bay over just a single night in October.
Hi Seoul FestivalThe city's best festival of performing arts is also held in October (over five days), and set in different locations around the city. The aim of this festival is to showcase all the beautiful ways in which people of all races, ages and backgrounds can communicate without a common language. Dance, music and theatre performances are held and organised by international art groups from all over the globe.
Seoul Kimchi making and Sharing FestivalThe festival dedicated to the most revered dish in Korean cuisine is, itself, a revered celebration. At least it has been since UNESCO included kimchi in its list of Intangible Heritage treasures in 2013. There's no arguing that kimchi is the most famous (and for many, most delicious) dish you can enjoy in the country and this two-day festival is meant to revitalise the love of the dish, which the government feels is falling in popularity among locals. Kimjang, the art of preparing and preserving kimchi is a tradition which has existed here since pre-modern times, with the addition of chilli arising from the first contact Korea had with Japan in the 16th century. Various workshops are held over two days, and are a fantastic opportunity for tourists to get a hands-on lesson on the art of Kimjang.
Seoul Lantern FestivalThe soon-to-be-renamed lantern festival would have to be one of the most stunning of the year. A stream of intricately made paper lanterns (hanji), some small, others metres tall, are set alight along the Cheonggyecheon stream every afternoon for a period of three weeks. the festival attracts artists from all over the country and abroad, and showcases this most enticing aspect of local culture. throughout the days, special music and recital performances are held around town, and foreign visitors are encouraged to attend lantern-making workshops. For photography buffs, this is without a doubt the most beautiful festival to attend.
Where to staySeoul is a sprawling city dissected in half by the Han River, and comprising hundreds of districts.
Gangbuk is the northern half of town, the more traditional, authentic and historic center; whist Gangnam is the modern, hip heart of the metropolis. Although accommodation options are infinitely varied and suitable for all budgets, it’s fair to say that the northern end is the cheaper part of town and the southern the more expensive or, at least, where most of the 5 star digs are to be found.
Jongno and Jung make up the city’s historic centre and the area where you’ll find the Five Grand Joseon Palaces. This is also commonly known as the Palace Quarter. The University Quarter, on the other hand, is where all the night-time action happens and found just south-west of the Palaces area. Bars, clubs and trendy but inexpensive eateries are the calling cards of this area, one which is brimming with youthful exuberance.
Although Seoul can be said to have no definite city center, the area squeezed in between the Palace and University Quarters is the most ‘central’ of all. Youth Hostels abound here, as do shopping and sightseeing options.
TransportSouth Korea boasts a very comprehensive public transport system, so getting in and around is very easy, even for first time visitors.
Get inMost visitors choose to reach South Korea via the Incheon International Airport, which is the country’s largest, situated only 45 minutes away from Seoul by express train. The AREX Express Train runs non-stop in between the airport and Seoul’s city center, and tickets cost 8000 KRW. The airport’s Limousine Bus Service operate a very effective and comprehensive transport option, with buses heading to just about every suburb in Seoul. Bust ticket prices vary greatly depending on destination, so do check online before deciding on your best option.
Taxis, of course, are the most convenient way to reach your hotel in Seoul, yet these are quite expensive, especially when you consider that you’ll have to add the toll fees, which cost the same as an express train ticket. Taxi fares into town can cost upwards of 50,000 KRW.
Get aroundOnce you’re in Seoul’s city center, getting around will be very easy. Seoul boasts one of the best subways systems in the world (and the reputed 2nd busiest) with punctual, efficient, and frequent services run on color-coded lines, all displaying signs in multiple languages. A single fare ticket costs 1,150 KRW (plus a 500 KRW deposit on the card which you can return at the end of your trip), with this base fare covering about 10kms of the city’s center. You can keep topping up the card. The T-money card can be used on the subway, as well as buses and even some taxi rides. Much like Octopus Cards in Hong Kong, the T-money can be topped up in various stations and shops, and are even accepted by some convenience stores.
The subway runs from 5.30am until midnight, so do get familiar with the extensive bus system if you plan a few nights out in town.
To move around the country, the cheapest way is by KTX (Korean Train Express), which runs services linking Seoul to the southern parts of the country. Do note that week-end rates are about 10% more expensive than week-days.
Dangers & annoyancesFor a city this large and populated, Seoul is an extremely safe place to visit. Normal travel-related warnings apply, which consist of bringing enough medication with you if you must take something specific and, perhaps, avoid drinking tap water even though it is fine, for the most part. Do come properly insured and note that although Seoul’s medical services are top notch, they are expensive and require upfront payment, so be prepared for all eventualities. Carry toilet paper and wet ones with you at all times, as some public toilets may be lacking in both.
Your biggest danger will actually arise from the traffic, both of cars and scooters. Koreans are maniacal drivers, stop for no-one, and seem to always be in a terrible hurry. Keep your wits about you when crossing the street and you should be fine.
The city also hosts several protests every now and then, most of which are aimed at the still-present US Army Base. Some of these have turned nasty in the past, so do keep that in mind and stay well away.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: May 21, 2015