Tradition still at the heart of sprawling, modern Seoul


Despite all it has to recommend it, Seoul, South Korea -- a sprawling but immaculate, world-class city of 10 million -- fails to exert the pull on Americans' collective travel imagination enjoyed by other Asian capitals, such as Beijing, Tokyo and Bangkok. But tourism officials charged with promoting the South Korean capital think it's about time that changed.

"We are promoting the whole country, but the focus is obviously on Seoul," said Deok Hyun Jo, director of the Chicago office of the Korean Tourism Organization. "The majority of tourists to Korea arrive at Incheon International Airport, and about 80% of them are visiting Seoul.

"The city is the primary destination in Korea and not only its economic center but also its cultural and political heart."

Indeed, Seoul is, plainly put, huge. It takes time to get around, whether through heavy traffic by taxi or via its spotless and speedy, yet enormous, subway system (with signage and announcements in Korean, Japanese and English).

Yet the city runs like clockwork and, despite its size, is secure and user-friendly. There doesn't seem to be one no-go zone for tourists. The American visitor finds acclimating here -- at least on a superficial, everyday level -- easy. That may have something to do with a half-century of globalization in South Korea and the U.S.

Sightseeing in Seoul

Largely rebuilt in mid-20th century fashion after the Korean War, Seoul nonetheless sports many beautiful and historical spots that survived the hostilities. These include five Joseon Dynasty palaces, such as Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeonghuigung and the stunning, expansive Gyeongbunkgong complex, which adjoins the National Folk Museum.

Ancient earthen and stone city walls as well as wooden gates, such as the 14th century Heunginjimun, also remain.

Korea's 5,000-year-old culture can also be seen and sampled at attractions of more recent vintage, such as the city-center Namsangol Traditional Village folklore park and the adjacent Korea House. The latter offers regular programs of Korean performing arts and is home to a restaurant serving dishes based on ancient recipes favored by the country's aristocracy.

Seoul is known for its lively market districts; good bets are the famous Namdaemun and Dongdaemun. Trendy shopping areas popular with foreigners include Myeongdong, with high-end designer shops; Itaewon, packed with U.S. soldiers and the bars and restaurants they frequent; and Insadong, where quaint, winding lanes house traditional teahouses and souvenir shops.

A pleasant way to get around on foot between many neighborhoods and attractions is the 3.5-mile, landscaped Cheonggyecheon Stream walk bisecting the city.

Culture, old and new

KOR-SeoulPalaceBehind the modern facade dotted with historical remnants here and there, Seoul is fairly bursting with culture, both contemporary and traditional, day and night. Theatrical shows that are heavy on action and light on dialogue (for foreigners' sake), such as cooking spoof "Nanta" and "Jump," a comic take on tae kwon do and other martial arts, make for a fun evening out.

Korea House's sophisticated cultural programs of song, music and dance are a must-do. Some pieces are reminiscent of Chinese or Japanese performance art; most, however, are delightfully different, with rhythms and costumes seemingly more African or European than Asian. Korean drumming, in particular, must be heard to be believed.

Overnight options

As a world capital, Seoul offers outposts of the usual accommodations suspects, from Hilton, Sofitel, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton on the high end to Best Western, Holiday Inn, Ibis and Novotel.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts operates two upscale properties: the Grand Hyatt Seoul, on the tony slopes of Namsan above Itaewon, and the sleek, ultramodern Park Hyatt Seoul, in the Gangnam business district near the Coex convention center (see Room Key at top).

Jo pointed to the Korean-owned Shilla Seoul, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, as a classic high-end choice. "In the 1960s and '70s, the Shilla was the guesthouse for foreign diplomatic delegations," he said.

Growing in popularity are stays in a hanok, or traditional Korean house, which usually has five to 10 "beds" -- actually sleeping pads and quilts -- as well as classical interiors and a small garden.

The KTO recommends six hanoks in Seoul, including Bukchon Guest House, Tea Guest House and Rakkojae. Rates usually average under $80 per room per night, with breakfast, but at Rakkojae the $150 tariff also includes a tea ceremony, laundry and an alcoholic beverage made on site. In addition, visitors can choose a stay in a monastery with the Korea Tourism Organization's Templestay program.

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