Much of Seoul bears the distinct stamp of the 21st century: Multilane highways carry a constant stream of traffic among steel-and-glass skyscrapers. But look closer and you'll find ancient temples miraculously spared destruction in the Korean War, as well as painstakingly restored historic palaces whose designs date back centuries. Great effort has gone into preserving Korean history and culture despite a headlong rush into the future. Mere steps away from the bustle of commerce, you can find the serenity of a traditional garden or an open marketplace overflowing with ginseng, jade and dried squid.
Seoul is the center of South Korea, despite its location in the country's northwest corner. It is the hub of the nation's government, economy, education and culture, and it's where everyone wants to be. Seoul's growth has helped it become a major player in the world economy, but its rapid expansion has come with a price. Transportation, housing, utility and recreation resources have been severely strained.
To ease the congestion, in 2012 the Korean government began relocating several government offices to Sejong City, 75 mi/120 km south of Seoul. By 2015, 36 government agencies will be relocated to Sejong City, while the President's office and defense ministry, as well as the center of tourism, business and finance, will remain in Seoul.
Travelers will find that Seoul has luxurious modern hotels, excellent public transportation and an array of colorful cultural experiences. The city is also an attractive and convenient stopover hub in the heart of east Asia—thanks to the futuristic Incheon International Airport—with convenient connections to Japan and China.
Seoul is surrounded by mountains, which offered the city natural protection from invading armies. Namsan (South Mountain) is an easily recognizable landmark in the city's center. (As its name implies, it used to be south of the city, but Seoul has grown around it.) The east-west flowing Han River bisects the city. Though no longer much of an island, Yeouido (do
means "island"), on the Han's southeastern bank, is home to major broadcasting companies and securities firms and is being established as the financial heart of Seoul, with hotels, parks and shops creating a mini-Manhattan and an ever-growing skyline. Existing attractions include the 63 Building—one of Korea's tallest—with its observatory, aquarium and restaurants.
Downtown covers a broad area north of Namsan, made up of the Jongno-gu and Jung-gu areas (gu means "district"). Jongno (lo and no mean "street") is the major east-west thoroughfare. The major north-south artery changes its name from Sejong-no near Gyeongbok Palace to Taepyeong-no south of Jongno to Hangang-no past Seoul Station (the country's main railway hub) farther south. This area is what might be considered "Old Seoul," with the city's palaces, City Hall and most of Seoul's long-established businesses. It's also where you'll find Namdaemun (Great South Gate) and Dongdaemun (Great East Gate), two of the original nine gates in the protective wall that once surrounded the city. Parts of the fortress wall can still be seen in the northern part of the city on Bugak Mountain in the neighborhood of Seongbuk-dong.
South of Namsan, in Yongsan-gu, is Itaewon-dong. Mainly because of its location next to Yongsan Garrison (the headquarters for the U.N. Command and U.S. Forces Korea), Itaewon is the main place where foreigners congregate, with dozens of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Many embassies are located nearby, giving the area an international flavor.
Gangnam (literally "south of the river") is the district that exemplifies the new generation of Seoul. Mostly farmland until less than a generation ago, Gangnam-gu now has the city's most affluent neighborhoods, trendiest cafes and the biggest underground shopping mall. Most of Korea's leading venture-capital firms and high-tech companies are located in the area, on Teheran-no, with COEX, Seoul's key conference center and one of Asia's largest shopping centers, also nearby.
Be aware that transliteration of Korean characters into a Roman alphabet yields many different spellings. The names of streets and sites are sometimes written in different ways. Complicating matters further, the South Korean government switched to a different official system of transliteration for use on signage in 2000, and the transition of signs still isn't complete. Many directions are given using the nearest subway station, and street names are rarely used, even in addresses.
Human settlements have existed in the area of modern-day Seoul for about 6,000 years. However, the city of Seoul really came into prominence in 1392, when King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty (sometimes referred to as the Yi Dynasty), decided to move the capital in an effort to build political stability. For his new capital city, he chose the area known as Hanyang because of its strategic location on the Han River, surrounded by mountains. He renamed the area Seoul, after the old Korean word for capital city, "seorabeol" or "seobeol."
Invading armies repeatedly threatened Korea and its capital over the years. As a result of those threats, the country withdrew from the rest of the world to such an extent that it became known as the "Hermit Kingdom." For the most part, Seoul developed quietly, ruled by a series of kings and dynasties. The isolation was shattered in the early part of the 20th century, when Japan formally annexed the country in 1910. Korea remained under Japanese control until the end of World War II. However, the joy of liberation was short-lived—five years later, the Korean War erupted. Seoul was captured twice by communist forces from the north, and fighting leveled most of the buildings, destroying many of the city's palaces and cultural assets. A cease-fire was called in 1953, but with no formal peace agreement, a state of war technically still exists, and tensions between North and South Korea remain.
Since the time of its nuclear testing into the East Sea in the late 2000s, North Korea has agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and has participated in six-nation talks aimed at ending any nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula. In October 2007, a second historical meeting took place between the two Koreas. South Korea's then-President Roh Moo-hyun made a symbolic gesture of walking over the border between South and North Korea at the start of the summit. He was the first sitting South Korean president to have done so. Most South Koreans are convinced that a peaceful reconciliation is still possible, provided that their allies support the South's diplomatic efforts rather than undermine them with unilateral actions. But for now, the grim fortifications along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea are about an hour's drive from Seoul.
Following the war, Seoul quickly rebuilt, its economy fueled by a voracious demand for industrial products such as automobiles and electronics. Seoul successfully hosted the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, giving the city renewed international attention, and then celebrated its 600th anniversary as the capital in 1994. Growth was slowed by an economic crisis in Asia during the late 1990s, but recovery is under way.
After a few further glitches, Korea's economy continues to show modest growth, with a reputation for high-tech development, rampant consumerism and heavy reliance on exports. The number of foreign companies almost doubled over recent years, an influx of foreigners means more than half a million now live in the country, and Seoul is among the world's most expensive cities.
The city took the international spotlight again in 2002, when it co-hosted the World Cup with Japan. In addition to a continuing love affair with soccer, baseball, golf, shopping, online gaming and karaoke also warm the hearts of the next generation of switched-on Seoulites. A thoroughly modern, mobile-obsessed population—mobile phones even work on the subway—may seem besotted with some elements of western culture and fashion, but they are still very traditional people. Matchmakers maintain an eye out for likely couples, customs are respected, and kimchi remains the flavor of the day.
Hidden among the skyscrapers of modern Seoul are many landmarks of the city's past. The royal heritage is especially visible in the older part of the city, where Gyeongbok Palace and Deoksu Palace can be found in parklike settings with halls and pavilions among the gardens. Biwon (the "Secret Garden"), located within the grounds of Changdeok Palace, is worth visiting in its own right. You also should take time to visit Bongeun Temple, home to one of the largest Buddha statues in South Korea. Museums, palaces and other government buildings tend to close on Monday (or sometimes Tuesday), so plan accordingly. Seoul also is home to sports shrines: Olympic Park, the venue for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, as well as the Seoul World Cup Park and Stadium.
Seoul's museums cover a wide range of subjects from art and history to cuisine. The National Museum of Korea is an enormous and architecturally impressive museum with peaceful gardens to rest in after taking in all the exhibits. The National Palace Museum of Korea is on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace and recounts the life of the Joseon Dynasty. The country's turbulent past, particularly the Korean War, is documented in the War Memorial of Korea. On a lighter note, the Kimchi Museum pays tribute to the country's most popular dish.
Seoul is also a great place for art lovers—there are many places to appreciate Korean and international art, from the Leeum Samsung Museum, to the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Seoul Museum of Art. Endless galleries line Insa-dong, the city's cultural mecca, and Samcheong-dong, where there is a whole street of galleries, is tagged as Korea's SoHo.
Natural landmarks are also highlights of the city. Namsan is the small mountain in the middle of downtown. You can take a cable car up to the top or hike along one of its many trails. Among the attractions at the peak is the landmark N Seoul Tower. Check it out for great views of the city, especially on a clear night.
The city has seen constant change and renovations in recent years. One prime example is the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project, the restoration of a stream downtown that has been covered by concrete for decades. It's now a pleasant place for a stroll, with small parks, fountains, bridges, ceramic wall paintings and activities along the way.
Seoul has a few built-in hindrances to late-night festivities: Some establishments close at or before midnight, most subways and buses only run until 12:30 am, and taxis impose a 20% surcharge midnight-4 am. Some Korean-style bars and nightclubs normally don't charge a cover, but they do require guests to buy a minimum amount of drinks and high-priced side dishes (called anju
). If costs are divided among a large group, it's not too bad; if you're alone, it can be expensive. However, these hindrances do not stop people, especially younger Koreans and the expatriate crowd, from enjoying the nightlife.
For an international crowd, the Itaewon area is the best place to head for after-midnight entertainment. Designated a special tourist area, it has a number of bars, clubs and restaurants that stay open late—some until dawn—but it is also one of the city's less classy areas, with a distinctly seedy atmosphere. On weekends, especially during summer, you can find a big crowd of mostly foreigners hanging out on the "Hill" behind the fire station until well after 3 am. Most places in Itaewon do not require customers to purchase anju.
For clubbing, the best place to go to is the Hongik University area (called "Hongdae" by locals). There are many old dance clubs there, as well as up-and-comers, but the city's club scene is nowhere near as advanced as other global capitals. Nearby in Sincheon, there are many bars and clubs that are popular among young professionals. Daehak-no (University Road), near the Hyehwa subway station, similarly attracts a young crowd. The Gangnam subway station area is also a good nightlife spot to see celebrities or hobnob with the upper class (or the wannabes). Areas such as Apkujeong and Cheongdam-dong are for a more mature and sophisticated crowd. They have a number of great wine and cocktail bars.
Korean food is all about bold flavors and balance. Seeing all those little side dishes (banchan
) can be daunting at first. But a little experimentation will bring many pleasant surprises. Meat eaters should try galbi
(beef short ribs) and bulgogi
(marinated sliced beef)—these dishes are usually cooked at your table. Though Koreans eat a wide variety of vegetable dishes, strict vegetarians will have a tough time, as meat and fish are hidden in many meals, including the broths for vegetable soups and salted seafood in many kinds of kimchi. Opt for temple-style food since the monks eat vegetarian for purity of mind, body and spirit.
Most meals are served with rice, soup and at least one kimchi (salt fermented vegetables). Many Korean restaurants have floor seating where guests take off their shoes and sit on cushions on a raised (and during winter, heated) floor. Sitting that way can get uncomfortable after an hour or more, so try to shift your position frequently.
The area downtown, around Jongno and Insadong, has the biggest concentration of Korean restaurants, with menus both traditional and trendy. The Itaewon neighborhood has a number of international restaurants, catering to the high concentration of foreigners in the area. It also has a number of Korean-style restaurants with English-speaking staff. South of the Han River, in the Gangnam area, you can find many fusion-style restaurants that mix foreign ingredients and techniques with Korean dishes. Also in Gangnam, you'll find a number of international chains. Except for the very top-end establishments, Korean restaurants are generally less expensive than those serving international fare.
Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast; 11 am-2 pm for lunch; 5-10 pm for dinner. Note: Koreans eat the same foods for breakfast as they do at other meals (soup, rice, kimchi and so on). If that doesn't appeal to you, we suggest heading to one of the many bakeries or cafes with dining areas for a quick pastry and coffee.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 7,000 SKW; $$ = 7,000 SKW-15,000 SKW; $$$ = 15,001 SKW-25,000 SKW; $$$$ = more than 25,000 SKW.
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