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.