Seoul, the capital and the largest metropolis of South Korea, is a fascinating blend of history, modernity, culture and values. This city is all the more amazing considering that it was nothing more than ashes and rubble following the devastating Korean War just a few decades ago. The city has developed rapidly and it has a lot to offer, especially to a first time visitor.
1. Gyeongbokgung Palace
Probably Korea’s most famous royal palace, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the former seat of power. It is located at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, just step away from the Blue House and the U.S. embassy. The palace was built in the 1300s and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times. English tours are available about three times a day and as a landmark of the capital, it would be a shame not to book and hour or two to stroll around the pavilions and halls of the palace’s spacious grounds.
2. Bukchon Hanok Village
Bukchon is a Korean traditional village with a long history, located between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jongmyo Royal Shrine. This picturesque village has the largest cluster of privately owned tradtitional Korean wooden homes or “hanok” in Seoul. Bukchon is structured with many alleys that have beautifully restored architectural features like small courtyards, decorative outer walls and dark tiled roofs. The neighbourhood is also peppered with cafés, art galleries and restaurants and is one of the most visited places in Seoul.
3. Shinsegae Department Store
One of the “big three” department stores in the city (the other two are Lotte and Hyundai), Shinsegae Department Store is a dazzling emporium that sells manner of merchandise. From prepared dishes and fresh fish to brand shoes and Hermes silk scarves and up to the rooftop garden, this department store is a perfect location for avid shopaholics.
4. Bugaksan Mountain
Bugaksan is the peak behind the presidential mansion Cheongwasdae or Blue House and it is 342 meters high. Even though hiking is limited due to the proximity of government buildings and military installations, the Bugak Skyway, a 19 km long driving course, is a popular alternative. The trailheads take hikers through reconstructed 15th century gates and along Seoul’s ancient fortress wall. Because it is a high security area, you’ll need your passport to get on the trails.
This expat-friendly neighbourhood which is located in the vicinity of the main U.S. Army base is popular place with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops selling everything from Korean furniture and tailored suits to jewellery and Korean pottery. The restaurants serve international dishes and it is essentially known as “Western Town” which can be associated with Chinatowns in many Western countries.
6. Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market is a large traditional market in Seoul and is the oldest and largest market in South Korea. The market dates back to 1414, during the reign of King Taejong and is seemingly open round-the-clock and it is a fantastic place to but inexpensive clothes, house wares, fabrics, jewellery, accessories, toys, food, flowers, stationery and appliances. Namdaemun market is very crowded on a daily basis so be prepared to get bumped around. If you get hungry, try one of the dozens food stalls.
7. Cheonggyecheon Stream
After a long-busy day strolling around on the streets of Seoul, what better way to end your day than a walk along this 3.6 mile stream? Although it is just off Sejongro, Cheonggyecheon is remarkably quiet because it is more than 15 feet below street level and feels a little like a dugout. You can take an organized tour for which you will have to register in advance or you can walk by yourself to clear your mind. Small waterfalls and almost two dozen bridges do not be too surprised if you see more couples there than in New York’s Central Park.
8. War Memorial of Korea
Korea has a very troubled history, being invaded numerous times. War Memorial of Korea is a wonderful place to learn about the history of this beautiful country , especially about the relations between Korean and the neighbouring countries. The memorial opened in 1994 on the former site of the army headquarters and it has six indoor exhibition rooms and an outdoor exhibition centre displaying over 13,000 war memorabilia and military equipment.
9. Korean Feasts
I think it is safe to say Korean cuisine is absolutely marvellous. For an excellent full-course Korean lunch, hit the quaint Baedongbaji in Samcheong-dong, where for about 15$ you can sample many popular dishes like japchae (cellophane noodles stir-fried with sliced beef and veggoes), doenjang jjigae (stew made with bean paste, tofu and veggies or meat) and sengsun ya-chae jeon (fried fish with vegetables). The restaurant is inside a hanok and is quite close to the main street.
10. Seoul City Tour Bus
If you’re feeling lazy and you want to visit most of Seoul’s major attractions, these bus tours are the way to go. For a mere 10$ you can see two palaces , the major markets and Seoul Tower, a communication tower that rises 497.7 meters above sea level and it has a revolving restaurants and spectacular views of the city. Along the way you’ll get some history and cultural lessons and you can choose to do the tour at night.