Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world, like most other great Asian cities, is a bewitching mix of ancient and modern. This dynamic capital of South Korea was founded by the Joseon dynasty some 600 years ago. Since then Seoul has traversed a long path, that can be witnessed in its glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers and in the fact that the city seems to rebuild itself after each passing decade.
High-tech electronic equipment, glittering designer stores and chic malls clamor for your attention, yet amidst this din, the traditional wooden houses with tiled roofs and a maze of cobbled alleys, ancient palaces and temples too make their presence felt.
People still visit traditional tea houses to relax or enjoy cultural performances in the World Heritage Palaces. Colorful festivals, folk villages and folk museums allow the visitors a peek in Korea’s feudal past when the noblemen lorded it over their wives, concubines, peasants and slaves.
Come evening and the entire city seems to sweep into entertainment districts complete with nightclubs, bars, and pubs. The smoky barbecue restaurants, teashops, plush mugwort saunas, DVD mini- cinemas and more open a whole new world at your feet.
Things To See
The city is well connected by a public transport system that provides convenient access to its attractions. Visit the Gwanghwamun district with its palaces, pagodas, temples and museums or enjoy a complete sensuous pleasure sampling the city’s unique food. From dipping into teahouses, indulging in a shopping extravaganza, to experiencing a nightlife that is simply rocking, there is no place like Seoul.
For the nature lovers too, Seoul does not disappoint. Enjoy a fun-filled day along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, wander through the woods below Mount Namsan or climb the rock faces in the national parks in the city surrounds.
Note that many tourist attractions and the Seoul City Tour Bus are closed on Mondays.
Gyeongbokgung Palace: Considered to be the most beautiful of the five historic palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung Palace owes its existence to Lee Seong-Gye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty who established Seoul as the capital of Korea. The palace features Royal apartments and staterooms, gardens and elegant lotus ponds. It also houses the National Fold Museum of Korea, a major attraction in its own right.
Namsangol: Namsangol is a refreshing change from the skyscrapers. This traditional folk village is centred on five restored Korean historical homes and takes you back into the times of the Joseon Dynasty. The historical homes are built of materials that have been designated as Seoul City Folk Materials and they are all decorated with authentic furniture and decorations from the period. You can admire the pond and pavilions, enjoy a cup of tea in the traditional teashops and shop for souvenirs and traditional crafts. You can also try your hand at some ancient games of Korea.
Deoksugung: Deoksugung Palace is one of Seoul’s many royal palaces and is located right in the centre of Seoul. The buildings in the compound date from a variety of eras but most had to be rebuilt after they were burned by the Japanese in 1592. The palace is definitely worth a visit as there’s something amazing about seeing an ancient palace surrounded by modern skyscrapers.
Changdeokgung: One of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung is located east of Gyeongbok and for this reason it is also referred to as the East Palace. In accordance with the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, the architecture of the buildings blends effortlessly with the natural landscape. Changdeokgung was considered to be the favored palace of many kings of the Joseon Dynasty.
Insa-dong: The colorful alleyways of Insa-dong are well worth a visit. Considered to be Seoul’s artistic soul, Insa-dong district, also colloquially known as ‘Mary’s Alley’ is home to more than 100 antique shops and countless art galleries, delighting collectors and casual browsers alike. From ancient Chinese pottery to yellowed books and delicate jewelry, you can find some really great souvenirs or special gifts in these quaint stores. The area also has a fair share of restaurants, taverns and traditional teahouses. On Sundays, you can also catch a special cultural performance.
Lotte World: Lotte World, in central Seoul, is the world’s largest indoor amusement park. It is one of the world’s most popular theme parks, drawing in more than six million visitors each year. While a large part of the park is indoors, there is an outdoors section as well. Magic Island is an island on a lake, dominated by a fairy-tale castle. It can be reached via monorail from the indoors section of the park.
Namsan Park: The Namsan Mountain, standing sentinel in the centre of Seoul, is also the venue to numerous recreational activities. From here you can take a cable car right up to the landmark N Seoul Tower. From the observation deck of the tower you can admire the brilliant views of the city. The revolving restaurant on top of the tower is very popular with diners because of the breathtaking view it affords of Seoul by night. There are several other attractions including the Maritime Aquarium, botanical gardens, and fountains.
Kimchi Field Museum: This one of a kind museum came into being in 1986 and ever since it has displayed historical relics related to kimchi, different types of kimchi and mock-ups of kimchi-making. Korea’s ‘national food’ kimchi is considered as a cure-all by the people. This unique museum details its history and also how kimchi is prepared. Also located in the COEX Mall is the aquarium.
Bongeunsa: This Buddhist temple in Gangnam-gu was founded in 794 by Yeon-hoe, the highest-ranking monk of Silla at the time. It was again reconstructed in 1498 and soon became the main temple of the Korean Seon (Zen) sect of Buddhism. Today Bongeunsa offers a ‘Temple Stay Program’ where visitors can live as monks do for a few hours.
The Seoul Olympic Park: The Olympic Park, or Olpark, as it is known, was built to host the 1988 Summer Games. The arena occasionally hosts shows, such as a Michael Jackson concert. Other attractions include the Seoul Olympic Museum, Mongchon Fortress and the World Peace Gate.
Festivals and Events
Lotus Lantern Festival: Seoul celebrates Buddha’s birth anniversary on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month with lanterns. There is a Buddhist saying that goes, “You can attain Buddhism in your next lifetime by lighting a lantern in this life.” In accordance with this teaching, Jogye Temple in Seoul, the headquarters of the largest Jogye Order of Buddhism, holds a special Lotus Lantern Festival every year.
Boryeong Mud Festival: Held in the month of July, the festival includes events ranging from therapeutic mud massage to mud-sliding at Daecheon Beach, located at about two and a half hours by bus south of Seoul.
Insa-dong Festival: Held in October, the festival showcases pungmulnori or folk musical instrumental performances. There is a food court where you can enjoy countrywide cuisine.
Icheon Rice Cultural Festival: This festival is also held in the month of October. There is a feast to celebrate the good harvest.
Visitors to Seoul can easily find accommodations with services, facilities and prices suited to their needs. Guests are treated as part of the family and no matter whether you stay in a luxury hotel or a guesthouse, you will definitely get the opportunity to experience the famed Korean hospitality.
You can find many world class hotels around City Hall Square. In Jongno-gu & Jung-gu. High-end options include Hotel Shilla, Seoul Plaza Hotel, and the Tower Hotel. The Lotte Hotel, billed as one of the best hotels in Seoul is also located here.
If you are looking for something cheaper, you can try the Jeonpoong Tourist Hotel, great for families or travelers on a budget. The budget travelers and students can also choose to stay in youth hostels such as Youth Traveller’s A.
The Itaewon area is extremely popular with those who wish to experience vibrant nightlife. You can find a number of moderately priced hotels and guestrooms in this area. You can also find clean and cozy room in the River Park Tourist Hotel, located across the Han River. At the Best Western Niagara Hotel, you can enjoy the beautiful views of the Han River.
Seoul is the perfect place to experience a wide range of mouth-watering foods where it’s local dishes or international flavors. Local food includes bibimpab (vegetables mixed with rice and hot pepper paste, topped with a cooked egg), kalbi (succulent beef ribs marinated in a special sauce, then char-broiled) and the country’s staple food, kimchi (Chinese cabbage or radish, salted with various spices, including red hot pepper powder and pickled fish sauces). The importance of kimchi can be gauged from the fact that there are some 200 varieties of the dish in existence. The distinctive taste of the local cuisine is largely due to the use garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, red pepper powder and fermented soybean paste.
Jongno-gu: For sampling some excellent international cuisine, try Dimatteo. For sumptuous Seoul food, you visit Sanchon, which specializes in vegetarian menu. Stop by the traditional tea houses, Chogyesa Temple and Samhwaryong. For something really traditional, try Arirang Minsokgwan, where you can watch classical Korean performances over your meals. Yeongbin Garden is a popular Korean style restaurant in the heart of Seoul. Unwind with a glass of soju in the Colossus bar.
Jung-gu: The revolving tower restaurant in the Seoul Tower provides excellent views of the city. The Top Cloud in the Millennium Plaza also offers a fine dining experience. The restaurants located inside Hotel Shilla provide Western, Japanese-Chinese, and Korean cuisine in classy settings.
Daehangno and Apgujeong: Chin Chin is very popular with the university students. For American food, try Kraze Burgers, which has a wide selection of gourmet burgers, salads, pasta dishes, and steaks.
Itaewon: Try some great Asian cuisine in Thai Orchird. The Tajmahal is another excellent choice for spicy food. Italian fare can be found in La Cucina. Some popular nightclubs in the area include the Big Electric Cat and Del’s Disco, popular amongst the gay crowd.
Gangnam-gu: Siena, a fine Italian restaurant, serves some mouth watering Tuscan cuisine. For Korean food, try Samwon Garden, hailed as one of the largest restaurants in Seoul.
Seoul is a shopper’s paradise and adding to its attraction as a shopping destination is the fact that most shops are busy and open until 22:00 hours, most night markets stay open until midnight and some are open 24 hours. You can shop to your heart’s content in the night markets or in designer boutiques and bargain stores.
Dongdaemun Market: The market is nothing less than a city icon. Considered to be Asia’s largest and liveliest market, it is home to about 20 shopping malls (fashion segmented by floors), 30,000 stores, and around 50,000 wholesalers. It is a great place to shop for trendy and traditional clothing. You can start at its ancient East Main Gate, which is considered to be a national treasure. Also check out the Gyeong-dong Herbal Medicine Market within.
Myeong-dong: Considered to be a paradise for shoppers, Myeong-dong is home to massive department stores, boutiques, restaurants, fast-food outlets and malls. For branded clothes and accessories, you can check out the Lotte or Shinsegae Department stores, and malls like U-too Zone. If you are looking for a good bargain, you can visit outlet stores like Migliore and Avatar. If you are tired out browsing through the various stores, you can sit back and relax in the peaceful garden of the famed Gothic style Myeong-dong Catholic Church.
Namdaemun Market: Korea’s oldest market is also a great place to shop for everything from silkworm snacks to jewelry and leather goods.
Apgujeong’s Rodeo Street: Located in Gangnam-gu, the street is a fashion Mecca where you will find international designer boutiques, beauty clinics and poodle parlors.
Insa-dong: You can shop for Korea’s historical artifacts. Insa-dong is also the largest market for Korean artwork. Korean artists hold one to two-week exhibitions in the many galleries, during which you can purchase the exhibited artwork. The colorful alleys are filled with restaurants and traditional teahouses, galleries and antique shops.
Cheongdam-dong: The area is considered to be the Champs-Elyses of Seoul. It is lined with luxurious brand-named boutiques, exquisite restaurants, top of the line hair salons, and high-class galleries.
COEX Mall: This huge shopping arcade is located beneath Samsung-dong Trade Center in Gangnam-gu. The mall offers shopping, culture, and entertainment options.
Excursions From Seoul
DMZ: Panmunjeom is located 50km (31 miles) north of Seoul. This joint security area in the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a buffer between North and South Korea. You can walk through UN exhibitions and see the North Korean soldiers’ just paces away. You can also even walk through the infiltration tunnel.
Temple Stay: The Buddhist Temple Stay program provides you with the perfect opportunity to learn Zen meditation and be part of community work by staying as a monk in one of the Buddhist temples on the cities outskirts. Traditional tea ceremony is also part of the day’s routine. The stay ranges from half a day to four days and can also include learning traditional crafts or Buddhist martial arts.
Kaesong, North Korea: Just because the two sides are perpetually on the verge of war doesn’t mean visitors can’t also visit North Korea. Kaesong, located just across the DMZ, is a special economic zone and the only part of North Korea that doesn’t require a visa to visit. Organized tours regularly depart from Seoul and last the entire day. The tours tend to fill up fast, so it’s best to book well in advance. For more information, read one of our correspondent’s article about traveling to North Korea.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Seoul has a reputation of a city that never sleeps. Once the sun goes down, all venues lead to the 24-hours norebang (singing rooms), open-air night markets or hofs (Korean pubs) upmarket clubs and international hotel bars. While Hongik University (Hongdae) promises a vibrant club scene, the upmarket Apgujeong-dong, has cinemas, the trendiest cafes and bars and the world-class Seven Luck Casino. There are no dearth of live music and jazz bars. You can enjoy everything from Hip-Hop and Electronica to Salsa-Latin-Tango. The city also has its share of gay bars.
Hongdae: The area surrounding Hongik University, or ‘Hongdae’ as it is affectionately called, attracts a young, international crowd. The area is home to many clubs, and on the last Friday of every month these clubs host a ‘Club Day.’ This concept first got under way in 2001 and has since them become a youth culture. You need to purchase a 15,000 won ticket to gain admittance into 11 clubs, with one drink on the house. Hongdae is a great place for hitting the floor and enjoying irresistible music. As already mentioned, there is a wide range of bars and clubs in this area, however we noted the following:
Club M.I: The clubs boasts an impressive sound system and has brilliant laser lights and attracts a very style-conscious crowd. Trance, Progressive House, House is played.
SK@: Boasting a welcoming and liberated atmosphere, the club is popular with both the young and mature crowd. The music played includes Rock, Pop, and Mixed.
DD: DJs play the familiar repertoire of Hip Hop and R&B hits. The walls are decorated with neon lights and the dance floor is just perfect for rocking away the hours.
NB: Reputedly the largest club in the Hongdae area, NB is mainly a Hip Hop venue but has separate rooms that play House and other genre of music. Another attraction is the shower system installed in the ceiling which is perfect for water parties.
Hooper: Hooper’s main claim to fame is that it is the only club in Hongdae that plays Korean Pop music.
Other Areas: Besides, Hongdae, other venues for night action include Apkujong and Itaewon. Most hotels also have their own bars and pubs.
Itaewon: Probably the most famous nightlife district in Seoul, and is very popular among the American military crowd. However around midnight the action dies down quite a bit as that’s when the soldiers curfews forces them home.
Apgujeong-dong: Where the fashionable natives head for a night out. The area consists of several blocks and is packed with restaurants and coffee shops where chic locals spend the early evening before they head to the areas clubs and bars. Not a lot of Westerners go out in this area so be prepared to stick out from the crowd.
Bars: The futuristic Woo Bar at W Hotel is the hottest bar in town. Then there is Above, a swanky wine bar with a candlelit indoor pond in Itaewon. Gecko’s Terrace, also in Itaewon-dong, is one of the most popular pubs in Seoul, serving good food.
Live Music: Once in a Blue Moon in Apgujeong is the best known jazz bar in the city. Rock and Roll, in the heart of this district, plays rock music.
There are four distinct seasons: Spring from April to early June is warm and the trees are ablaze with cherry blossoms. Autumn, from September to November, is usually sunny, and the surrounding hillsides a riot of autumn colors. In winters average temperatures hover around zero from December to February. The city receives rainfall during the summer months and some weeks in August are unpleasantly hot and humid.
By Air: Incheon International Airport (ICN) is located 52km (32 miles) west of downtown Seoul. The airport has the largest, state-of-the-art passenger terminal in the world and operates 24 hours. It was ranked as one of the top airports in the world on the Travelers Digest list of world’s best airports!
Airport facilities: These include ATMs, banks, bureaux de change, post office, left luggage, restaurants, cafés, shops, golf course, hospital, pharmacy, car hire, business centre, Internet lounge and mobile phone rental. All the major airlines such as Quantas, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and many others have direct flights to Seoul. The airport is the home to airlines such as Korean Air and Asiana.From the airport: By far the easiest way to get from Incheon to downtown Seoul is to take a KCat Limousine bus to the COEX Air Terminal located in Seoul. From there a taxi can easily and affordably take you to your final destination. A rail link from Incheon Airport to Seoul is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2010. A taxi from the airport to Seoul would cost at least $30 USD.
By Domestic Air: Gimpo International Airport (GMP) is the main domestic airport in Seoul and also serves a few regional routes to Japan and China. The airport is connected to greater Seoul via the subway system. There is also a rail link between the airport and Incheon International.
By Boat: Ferry companies operate between the international port of Incheon and eight cities in China, including Shanghai.
By Rail: Seoul Station is the main railway station and is the central hub for the über-modern high-speed Korean Train Express (KTX). You can book tickets in advance. Korail, the Korean National Railroad operates fast, comfortable and reliable trains to most parts of the country. You can purchase the KR Pass, which offers discount rail travel to foreigners for limited periods. The Korail Pack includes accommodation and sightseeing and can only be purchased through AJU Incentive (website www.ajutours.co.kr).
By Bus: Seoul Express Bus Terminal is the main depot for regular and deluxe inter-city express bus services. Deluxe services have spacious seats, mobile phones and on-route movies.
Public Transport: The buses in the city are classified under four colors: blue, green, red and yellow. While the blue and red buses are the speediest the visitors should often opt for the yellow buses because they travel a loop around downtown Seoul and stop at main rail stations, tourist and shopping areas.
The Seoul Subway: One of the fastest subways in the world, it also connects with buses. Trains run from 0600-2330 every two-six minutes in rush hour (0700-0900 and 1600-1900) and five -12 minutes at all other times. A 30-day Metro Pass is available for purchase.
The rechargeable T-money is available from convenience stores and subway ticket counters. It can be used to pay for public transport. A one-to-three day Seoul City Pass allows for 20 trips a day on bus and subway and unlimited journeys on the Seoul City Tour Bus and also acts as a discount card on tourist attractions.
Taxis: You can hire regular taxis, deluxe taxis, high-tech brand taxis and luggage friendly eight-seater jumbo taxis to travel around the city. Taxis are quite affordable, however Seoul is a very large city and traversing the city even late at night can take hours.
Car hire: You need to be over 21 years of age and should possess an International Driving Permit and one year’s driving experience is required to drive in Seoul.