A dynamic city at the centre of Korea’s cultural and economic renaissance over the past generation, Seoul packs in nearly 12 million people within its undulating valleys and peaks. With over 25 million people lying within an hour of the city proper, this megalopolis stands as one of the world’s most intense urban environments, boasting one of the largest subway systems on Earth, and with densely packed districts of business people, artists, and students living, working and playing (quite hard) within close proximity of each other.
Yet, with South Korea’s dramatic opening to the West over the past 20 years, Seoul sticks out as an island of unique creativity in a sea of conformity. At first glance, it can be hard to see this, but a simple 10 minute stroll through the alleyways of Hongdae will confirm the pronouncement in this previous sentence.
Amidst all the modernity of the present era, even in the capital Seoul, the traditions and monuments of the past still loom large among forests of skyscrapers and the snake-like tracks left by countless expressways and overhead trains. Visitors to Seoul will get an overdose of urban grit and charm, mixed in with the Korea of days gone by. Upon your first few hours in this fascinating city, it can be a very intoxicating combination indeed.
Although the ravages of the elements and war over the many centuries had wreaked havoc on the temples and palaces that lie within Seoul, they have been restored to nearly mint condition in recent years, making it a breathtaking experience for those that make the effort to visit. At the top of your sightseeing list should be Gyeongbok-gung, which served as the main palace for the emperor of Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, opening in 1395. While it had been razed by the Japanese twice in 1592 and 1910, its present state of restoration still makes it an excellent place to visit, where you can watch the changing of the guard on the hour between 10 am to 3pm, and explore two museums on the palace’s history and Korean folk culture.
Second in importance to Gyeongbok-gung, but no less spectacular is the palace named Changdeok-gung, which was erected in 1405. The restoration of this structure is more complete, and was so eloquently done that it garnered an UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in recent years. As such, guided tours are the only way to tour the complex (except on Thursday, oddly enough), and an admission fee is charged, with it costing 3,000 ₩ to enter here.
Those looking to get in a bit of exercise with their culture hunting should tick off both boxes by climbing Mount Inwang (Inwangsan). On this 336 metre high mountain, there are a number of small Buddhist temples (including one with a gaudy-looking bronze bell), but the true attraction of this mountain, besides the magnificent view from the top, is the presence of Guksadang, a shamanist shrine which is said to house the spirit of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty.
Finally, those looking to find the work of today’s artists in Seoul have several options to explore. In the neighbourhood of Hongdae, there are many art galleries, coffee shops, and handmade furniture shops that showcase the work of Korea’s younger generations. Those who have their artistic proclivities more rooted in the past can be found peddling their traditional potteries, crafts, and clothes in the historical district of Insadong, where one can also find an overabundance of restaurants serving authentic Korean cuisine.
If you have brought your love interest to Seoul with you, purchase a lock and a sharpie at a hardware store on the streets beneath Namsan Mountain in the centre of the city, then make for Seoul Tower. Commanding a breath stealing view of the sea of urban density that has consumed the lowlands below, the grounds of the tower offers fencing where you can write a message proclaiming your love for each other on your lock, after which you can attach it to a space on the fence. Unlike other love lock destinations in the world, the locks are not disturbed, allowing you and your significant other to come back in the future to find the symbol of your commitment still waiting there for you!
Korean and Japanese anime fans should make time to attend a World Comic Convention event. Unlike other festivals in the world, which are only held once per year, these gatherings go off twice a month at the SETIC convention centre. Even if you don’t dress up, it’s worth checking out for the intricate costumes that fans create to honour their favourite heroes/heroines!
Finally, be sure to make time for the Cheonggye Stream, an urban reclamation project of a former freeway that had overrun the stream previously. Situated at the bottom of an urban canyon of concrete, but carpeted with trees, grass and the free-flowing waters of a surprisingly clean river, this attraction combines elements of the natural environment of Korea with the urban colossus of Seoul to create a place of serenity where you would least expect it.