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Seoul is a vibrant metropolis of over 10 million people. Once the capital of a nation called “the hermit kingdom” due to its isolation, the city is now becoming more international as people from around the world are drawn by its economic dynamics. The attempt to find a balance between cosmopolitan modernity and cherished tradition gives Seoul an edginess and energy that is drawing an increasing number of visitors. For the best time in Seoul, be sure to combine elements of the traditional and the modern for your visit.
In addition to the attractions of the city itself, the mountains surrounding Seoul offer excellent hikes of varying difficulty with many of the trails punctuated by Buddhists temples, ancient fortifications and stunning views. Bukhansan, located on the northern end of Seoul, is an especially fine climb with craggy peaks and a mountain fortress. For those who want a little less sweat from their mountains, you can take a cable car up Namsan to Seoul Tower, which offers splendid views of the whole city.
A day in the life
What should you do if you only have 24 hours?
Get a good pair of walking shoes and start the day off at Deoksugung Palace, across the street from Seoul City Hall, in the heart of the city. The palace is a mixture of traditional Korean and western neoclassical buildings, one of which hosts the Deoksugung Annex of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. After a morning checking out art and relaxing on the palace grounds, check out the changing of the guard ceremony at Deoksugung’s main gate at 11:00 AM (also at 2:00 and 3:30 PM).
After the ceremony, go northeast for about 20 minutes to the uniquely shaped Jongno Tower next to Jonggak subway station. On the 33rd floor (in the part on the three legs above the main building) is Top Cloud restaurant. The menu is western and expensive, but the quality is good and you will get great views of the city from your table. If you are in the mood for something Korean and much cheaper, there are a host of Korean restaurants just south of Jongno Tower.
After lunch, head north a couple of blocks to Jogyesa, the headquarters temple of Korea’s largest Buddhist order. While not as spectacular as some of the older temples located in the countryside, its traditional Korean-style halls are worth a visit.
Just east of Jogyesa is Insadong, a small area filled with art galleries, antique shops and stores selling traditional crafts. You can also enjoy traditional tearooms and modern coffee shops. When your hunger returns, find Min’s Club (AKA: MingaDaheon) in the eastern end of Insadong. It is located in house built in 1930 in a fusion of Korean and western styles and has been restored to its original look. The cuisine is similarly a fusion of western and Korean food.
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From Insadong you can walk 20 minutes east or take a taxi to Dongdaemun, one of Seoul’s main shopping areas. Be ready to fight the crowds and spend some cash because there are plenty of bargains on quality clothing to be had and plenty of people there ready to take advantage of those bargains.
After a couple of hours shopping, you will probably need to head back to the hotel to drop off your spoils and get a little rest. If you still have the energy, go to the Hongdae area to enjoy a night of rock, jazz, electronic or whatever music suits your fancy. Many of the clubs are open until dawn on weekends.
On the edges of many entertainment districts, you can find tents erected on side streets or some of the wider sidewalks. These “soju tents,” as they’re affectionately known by Seoul’s English-speaking residents, serve simple and cheap but often surprisingly good food.
As the name implies, these tents are also a good way to get your spirits well-lubricated on soju, Korea’s rot-gut of choice for folks who want to get drunk fast and cheap. Beer and makgeolli (a traditional rice liquor) are also often served. You are expected to order pajeon or some other food with your soju as Koreans almost never consume alcohol without also eating.
When the weather is warm and the sides of the tents are rolled up, soju tents make excellent platforms for people watching while you plot your next round of partying. You will encounter your fair share of drunks but the friendly, laid-back vibe of soju tents means that they are (usually) friendly drunks. And, yes, the toilet paper is for wiping your mouth.
Seoul offers a range of accommodation for travelers of all budgets. Towards the lower end of the scale are youth hostels, family-run homestays known as minbakand low-end inns called yeogwan. In these places it’s worth specifying on booking that you want to sleep in a bed and not the Korean-style ondolrooms which have thick blankets on the floor. A lot of accommodation in this category is grouped near Dongdaeum. Prices range from W25,000-35,000 (USD $22-31). Hostels in the Hongdae entertainment district cost USD $13-18 for a dorm room. A decent private room in a mid range hotel in downtown Seoul will cost USD $30-40. A stylish selection of luxury hotels will set you back anywhere above USD $200 per night.
Seoul at night
Dining – There is a great deal of variety to Korean food. Okay, almost everything has red pepper, garlic, or both, but other than that there is a great deal of variety to Korean food. There are multitudes of different ingredients and cooking methods.
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However, the Korean food that has become the most popular overseas are grilled meat dishes. Bulgoki is Korea’s most famous meat dish, consisting of thinly sliced marinated beef grilled at the table. It is usually served with various leaves, with the beef being wrapped in a leaf before being eaten. That, along with the compliment of rice and side dishes that usually come with it, make this a much healthier way to enjoy your beef than your typical steak and potatoes. Galbiis a similar, if more substantial dish of beef or pork ribs and thicker cuts of meat.
For something a little simpler, try bibimbap, a single large bowl of rice mixed with various vegetables along with an egg or ground beef. It is simple, fast and satisfying.
If chicken soup is good for you, then how about soup featuring a whole young chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, ginger and medicinal herbs? Samgyetangis popular all year but especially so in the heat of summer since it is believed to restore vigor. Another good summer dish is naengmyeong, cold buckwheat noodles served in an icy broth or with a mildly spicy sauce.
All of these dishes are common and can be found in all parts of Seoul.
If you are in the mood for some central Asian cuisine, slide on over to the Central Asian Village near Dongdaemun Stadium Station. The meat, cream, potatoes and dumplings (stuffed with meat of course) dishes are sure to satisfy your appetite but get ready to loosen the belt a notch or two.
Nightlife –Hongdae (the area near Hongik University) is home to Seoul’s most vibrant nightlife. Located near three major universities and home to studios for Seoul’s young and (sometimes) up-and-coming artists, Hongdae is the center of Seoul’s indie music scene, with music venues for a wide variety of tastes.
The best time to go is on the last Friday of each month, when you can buy a W20,000 (USD $17) pass that will get you into twenty different clubs. The clubs don’t start hopping until about 11 PM, but you will want to get there earlier since the passes tend to sell out fast. A good place to start is Watercock Jazz club near the main entrance of Hongik University.
Hongdae is located near Hongik University Station on the Number 2 (Green) Line.
Itaewon is the center of Seoul’s expatriate community. The area gained a reputation for hard partying and bawdiness as the main entertainment district for American soldiers in the city in the decades after the Korean War. The soldiers are still there but have been joined by English teachers, migrant laborers and travelers from around the world, making Itaewon Seoul’s most eclectic neighborhood. The crowds in Itaewon’s numerous bars and nightclubs reflect that mix.
If you are in the mood for what is left of Itaewon’s old and seedy scene, head up to “Hooker Hill,” an alley just behind the local fire station. If you mange to work your way past the gauntlet of juicy bar girls, you can find a couple of “nice” hole-in-the-wall joints at the top of the hill. For something completely different, try “Homo Hill,” confidently located in the next alley.
You can get to Itaewon by getting off at, shockingly enough, Itaewon Station on the Number 6 line.
Both Hongdae and Itaewon have clubs that are open until dawn.
Seoul has something to suit almost any shopping need. Insadong hosts a multitude of art and antique shops, as well as tea houses, coffee shops and restaurants. It is one of the best places to stock up on uniquely Korea “touristy” items. It is located a few blocks east of City Hall.
Myeongdong is Seoul’s leading fashion shopping district, featuring many boutiques and several major department stores. The area is popular with Japanese tourists who come for major brand fashion at much lower prices than they could find back home. If you enjoy people watching, you can enjoy a game of “spot the Japanese tourist.” It is often easier than you think it would be (hint: if you see a woman walking around in January wearing big fur boots and what looks like lingerie, she is probably a Japanese tourist).
Dongdaemun is Seoul’s largest fashion shopping area, featuring tens of thousands of specialty shops. The combination of relatively cheap major brands and a host of specialty shops selling unique creations make this another must-visit for fashion junkies. The downside of Dongdaemun being so good is that everyone knows it is so good. The place is absolutely jammed with people on evenings, especially on weekends. While the crowds can be suffocating, they can be entertaining as well. If the crowds are not your idea of fun, the outdoor stage shows that are often run by musical acts or Korea TV stations in the area may be more your style. Many of the shops are open well past midnight.
Namdaemun, located just east of Myeongdong, is more traditional than most other major shopping areas in Seoul, meaning that haggling is a must. You can find a nearly anything you need here, from clothes to electronics to medical supplies. The quality can be uneven and there are some problems with pirated goods, so if a bargain seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you want high-end, quality fashion, go to Myeongdong or Dongdaemun. If you want a half-dozen sturdy wool socks that will keep your toes warm all winter, eyeglasses at a fraction of the price you will pay back home or traditional ginseng products, Namdaemun is the place to go.
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Getting there & away – International flights land at Incheon International Airport which was voted the world’s best airport in 2009. Come and see why. Buses and taxis provide ready access to/from the city 52km away. There is a new train line, the A-Rex that connects Incheon to Gimpo International Airport, Seoul’s domestic airport despite the name (there is one international flight to Tokyo from here). South Korea has a number of domestic carriers including Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and budget airlines like Jeju Air. Domestic flight fares are pretty reasonable or you can utilise long distance buses for getting around the country.
Getting around – Seoul’s subway system is fast, safe and can get you almost anywhere in the city. If you have to get somewhere in a hurry (except during rush hour), you may be better off taking a taxi. While the city’s bus system is efficient, people unfamiliar with it are better off sticking with the subway.
Andy Jackson has lived in the Seoul area for nine years and has been writing on East Asian issues and Korean politics for four years. He is a columnist with the Korea Times. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Campaigns & Elections (now Politics) magazine, among other publications. Read more from Andy at his blog, Flying Yangban.