Asia

Seoul: A City of Contradictions and Surprises

World Trade Center, Seoul | Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Founded 600 years ago by the Joseon dynasty, Seoul has a truly Asian heart. The seventh largest city in the world, the dynamic capital of South Korea is a bewitching mix of ancient and modern. A cutting-edge cityscape of glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers tower over traditional wooden houses with tiled roofs and a maze of cobbled alleys in distinct, village-like districts. High-tech electronic equipment, neon signs clamouring for attention and glittering designer stores lie around the corner from night markets, ancient palaces and temples.

Across the Han River the modern city is dominated by Korea’s World Trade Centre. Even the island, Yeouido, in the middle of the Han River, is densely packed with high-rise buildings; this is also the base for the Korean National Assembly. People still visit traditional tea houses, the five elegant palaces host cultural performances, and the extensive museums and successful contemporary Korean cinema with historic, cultural themes keep the ancient past alive.

Although 11 million people live in this city, it’s a safe and friendly place. Its people are one of its best assets; they may be somewhat shy but Seoulites are kind, helpful and polite.

Although influenced by nearby Japan (Seoul is often dubbed the ‘new Tokyo’), Korea has a unique culture. Korea Sparkling, its new global tourism brand, hints at the nation’s vibrancy, concentrated in its buzzing capital, one of the economic powerhouses of Asia. And, underneath the pulsing sociability and industriousness that infuse this bustling city is a strong Buddhist tradition that gives Seoul its soul.

At first glance, Seoul appears to be a sprawling concrete mass of high-rise apartments and modern buildings interspersed with historical treasures. But on closer inspection, the city can be divided into numerous smaller districts with their own distinct character.

Encircled by mountains, the city fathers have made a concerted effort in recent years to clean and green this thriving, prosperous city, also ensuring that the mushrooming of gleaming skyscrapers has not meant the neglect or destruction of centuries-old palaces and shrines. The result is a bustling, but organised city, filled with fascination, where old and new co-exist. Interspersed through the urban landscape are several lush, green parks, the most central being Namsan Park, encompassing the mountain of the same name just to the south of downtown Seoul.

A great deal of the credit for the well-ordered urban planning of Seoul can be given to the ancient Joseon Dynasty, which used great foresight when crafting the city into a capital during the 14th century.

The old Joseon Dynasty city, with its central main palace, is now the traditional downtown heart of Seoul where many of the most popular sights and markets are to be found. One of the most popular areas for visitors to explore is Insa-dong, filled with antique shops, art galleries, traditional teahouses, restaurants and bookshops.

TV scenes of thousands of red-wearing fans going crazy over their national team during the 2002 FIFA World Cup is an image which has helped convince a global audience that South Korea is in fact, a fun place to go, a place with dazzling cities, friendly people and a beautiful, mystical countryside.

Until relatively recently, Korea was an insular place, existing under dynastic rule for centuries. However, the 35-year Japanese occupation from 1910, the split of the peninsula after WWII and the subsequent Korean War shattered all that. Difficult times have however made the Koreans a resilient lot, succeeding economically while still holding onto their unique traditions and fascinating culture.

Korea is rich with fortresses, temples and palaces, many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition, the peninsula it shares with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) is one of the most mountainous regions in the world, and Korea also has a significant beach-dotted coastline.

You will find that Seoul offers visitors an array of colourful cultural experiences – the charm of the city lies in its contradictions and surprises.

Did You Know?

  • The name of Seoul comes from the ancient word “Seorabeol” or “Seobeol,” meaning “capital”.
  • Seoul first appears in history in 18 BC, when the Baekje, one of the Three Korean Kingdoms, established its capital Wiryeseong in what is now south-east Seoul. Modern Seoul descends from the Goryeo-era city of Namgyeong, which then became the capital of Korea during the Joseon dynasty.
  • The city “brand is “Hi Seoul”. The name combines the greeting “Hi” with the name of the city “Seoul,” and aims to convey a friendly image of Seoul to the global community and promote harmony and unity among Seoul citizens. Since “hi” is a homophone of “high,” the brand offers a new vision for Seoul and reflects the city’s commitment to making Seoul one of the world’s leading cities.
  • One-fifth of South Korea’s population resides in Seoul.
  • The daily English newspapers in Seoul are The Seoul Times and The Korea Times

How to Get Here

There are two international airports that serve Seoul. Gimpo International Airport, formerly in Gimpo but annexed to Seoul in 1963, was the only international airport for Seoul since its original construction during the Korean War.

Upon opening in March 2001, Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) on Yeongjong island in Incheon changed the role of Gimpo Airport significantly. Incheon is now responsible for almost all international flights and some domestic flights, while Gimpo serves only domestic flights with the exception of flights to Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) in Tokyo and Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. Meanwhile, Incheon International Airport has become, along with Hong Kong and Singapore, a major transportation centre for East Asia.

An express railway connection is in the final stages of completion and currently operates from Incheon International as far as Gimpo Airport. It will reach Seoul central by 2010.

The airport is located 52 km from Seoul and the drive time is approximately 60 minutes. The airport is connected to Seoul by the Incheon International Airport Expressway, incorporating a suspension bridge, which is the only road to the airport. An expressway toll is payable from / to both Incheon and Seoul.

Passengers can choose between numerous types of inter-city buses, taxis and limousines. The inter-city buses stop at the major districts and hotels around Seoul. Regular, deluxe and jumbo taxis (for up to nine people) can be hired at the airport (journey time to central Seoul is 50 minutes). Taxi stands are situated at the Arrivals floor exit.

A ferry service runs from Incheon to Yeongjong-do, but further transport arrangements must be made to get into the city.

Both local and international car rental companies are located at the airport.

Foreign banknotes and travellers cheques can be exchanged at foreign exchange banks and other authorised money changers. US Dollars are an accepted form of foreign currency.

Major credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, shops and restaurants in the larger cities. You may not be able use credit cards at small businesses and in rural areas. You may also want to check whether your credit card is accepted by looking at door signs before you enter an establishment.

ATMs are available in all major cities, but not all of them will accept international cards. Just keep trying different outlets until you see a logo you recognise on the machine. Cards with the Plus and Cirrus logos are the easiest to use and most widely accepted in Korea. ATMs at banks are usually accessible only during banking hours, and instructions on the machines are generally only in Korean. Public ATMs at convenience stores and subway stations are generally available 24 hours. For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

Traveller’s Cheques are accepted, but may be difficult to change in smaller towns. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller’s cheques in U.S. Dollars.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Seoul has four distinct seasons. Spring and Autumn are definitely the best times to visit. During the Spring season, cherry blossoms make some areas look is if they just received another snowfall. In the Fall, the mountains explode with different colours as the leaves change.

The monsoon season, between late June and late July is rainy. Summer temperatures range from the 30s C to the mid-35s C, and the humidity is high. During August, temperatures drop very little. During the Winter, there is a lot of snow, and temperatures average -1 C. The winds can be biting, so dress accordingly if you are here during the winter.

Getting Around

Han River, Seongsu Bridge | Photo credit: Chelsea Marie Hicks

Your primary landmark is the Han River, which runs east to west and bisects the metropolis. Chongno forms the centre to the north, surrounded by five main tourism districts, and to the south, there are two other districts of interest to visitors, all of which are easy to access by the convenient and economical subway system. Very few streets have names, however, and buildings are not always numbered, so the easiest way to find a place is by locating the nearest subway station or landmark, or by asking the friendly people you are certain to meet in every part of the city.

Note The rechargeable T-money Card, available from convenience stores and subway ticket counters, can be used to pay for public transport and, in the future, even taxis. A one-to-three day Seoul City Pass allows for 20 trips a day on buses and subways and unlimited travel on the Seoul City Tour Bus. The card and also serves as a discount card to some attractions.

The Seoul Subway is one of the fastest in the world and connects with buses. Trains are clean, frequent and punctual and its eight colour-coded lines (and 400 stops) have signs and announcements in English. Trains run from 6:00 AM to 11:30 PM every two – six minutes in rush hour and five-twelve minutes at all other times. A 30-day Metro Pass is available.

City buses are classified by one of four colours: blue, green, red or yellow, and many have bilingual signs. Blue and red buses are the speediest but yellow buses are the most useful for foreigners. Yellow buses travel a loop around downtown Seoul stopping at main rail stations, tourism and shopping areas. Most buses operate until 11:00 PM, and some until 2:00 AM.

There are four types of taxis in Seoul: regular, deluxe, high-tech type taxis and luggage friendly eight-seater jumbo taxis, some with a ‘free interpretation’ online service. Deluxe taxis are black and yellow and offer a high level of service.

To hire a car, foreigners need to be over 21 years, with a year’s experience and an International Driving Permit. Roads are well paved, traffic lights functional, and most drivers comply with basic traffic laws in Seoul. If you want to rent a car, free city maps are available from either the city tourism association or a car rental agency, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

Note The Korea Travel Card (KTC) is a multipurpose prepaid travel card available from KTO offices and the Shinhan Bank. It also offers discounts at stores, shows and attractions, cheaper overseas calls, a preferential exchange rate and free travel insurance. The KTC Transportation Pass can also be used to pay for transport.

In accordance with Camus, it can be said that the beautiful attractions of the city of Seoul would only leave one in despair for the time of his tour is restricted, and he would have to get back to his original place by leaving behind this magnificent city.

Sightseeing in Seoul provides you a glimpse of an eternity that stretches out over the eras. The most charming feature of Seoul is the confluence of millenniums – high-rise buildings towering above ancient temples, oasis of quiet gardens encircled by shining skyscrapers, and splendid palaces hosting traditional ceremonies from centuries ago.

Palaces

Gyeongbok Palace | Photo credit: Rodrigo Verschae

Built at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongbok Palace encompasses 419,100 square metres of halls, pavilions, gates and bridges. The jewel of Seoul’s five historic palaces, Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 by Lee Seong-Gye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, who established the city as the capital of Korea. The magnificent rectangular palace, which now contains the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea, features Royal apartments and staterooms, gardens and elegant lotus ponds. The palace is in a process of continual restoration as new archaeological treasures are uncovered and restored to their former glory. Many of the buildings were destroyed during wars with Japan and North Korea, but much has been restored to its original beauty. The Royal Guard Changing Ceremony (March-November every hour) is worth a look.

One of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung Palace is set within a large park in Jongno-gu. Initially built in 1104 as a summer palace for the kings of the Koryo Dynasty, Changgyeong was burned in 1592, although much of the palace has been rebuilt at least once since then. Located east of Gyeongbok, Changdeokgung is also referred to as the East Palace. It was the favoured palace of many kings of the Joseon Dynasty and in accordance with the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, its buildings blend harmoniously with the natural landscape.

Changdeok Palace and Biwon Garden Registered as a World Heritage, Biwon Garden is typical of palace gardens where kings and other members of the royal family would go to relax and entertain. The erection of Changdeok Palace was resumed in 1405 and in 1463; King Sejo expanded the palace and created Biwon Garden. The main attraction at this UNESCO World Culture Heritage Site is a “secret” garden as well as the adjoining Changdeok Palace. Representative of royal palace parks, the Bowon Garden has shrines, wooden pavilions and ponds.

Deoksu Palace, located in downtown Seoul across from City Hall, contains many scenic areas and is a favourite among wedding photographers who can overrun the area on weekdays, vividly contrasts modern Seoul with traditional Korea. This palace served as the royal residence for many years after other palaces in Seoul were burned during a Japanese invasion in 1592. The palace’s park like grounds in the middle of downtown feature several halls and pavilions from different eras, and there’s also a small art museum.

Jongmyo Shrine and Gardens This UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site houses the ancestral tablets; small pieces of wood inscribed with the names and relationships of a deceased person’s family, for the Joseon Dynasty’s kings and queens. The quiet surroundings and greenery in the middle of downtown make for a scenic stroll, especially on weekdays. According to Confucian tradition, the royal family would perform elaborate rituals here five times each year to pay respect to their royal ancestors. The tradition still holds today, although the Jongmyo Daeje (Royal Shrine Ritual) is only performed once each year in May. The shrine connects to Changgyeong Palace.

Bongeun Temple The oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Seoul, first constructed in the 10th century, was an influential Zen centre. Nowadays, it overlooks the Convention and Exhibition Center (known as COEX Center) and offers a tranquil retreat from the urban melee. Next to the temple is the Building of Scriptures, which contains more than 3,000 Buddhist scriptures printed with a wood-block method.

Museums

The National Museum of Korea is a short bus ride away from major Yongsan attractions. It is the head of all national museums in Korea, and the fortress of historical artefacts and artwork. The massive new structure encompasses six permanent exhibition halls, a children’s museum, three museum shops, a food court, and a theatre. The museum is seated among greenery, fronted by a Gateway Pond and surrounded by the Yongsan Family Park. It is a vast structure (sixth in size around the world), which would require at least a few visits to cover everything. The most famous pieces are congregated at the museum, including numerous national treasures. The permanent exhibition halls are divided into the following sections: the Archaeological Gallery, the Historical Gallery, the Fine Arts Gallery (I and II), Asian Arts Gallery, and the Donation Gallery. Visitors can walk around by themselves or rent a recorded guide in English, Japanese or Korean.

The National Palace Museum is a museum dedicated to the royal culture that infused the lives of Joseon rulers. This impressive and sizable museum devotes itself to relics and stories of the Joseon dynasty. The royal costumes are particularly striking, as is the furniture that was once used within palaces such as Gyeongbok, on whose grounds the museum sits. The museum exhibits art treasures, classical paintings and other priceless artefacts – some 20,000 items in all. Highlights of museum artefacts include royal seals, or eobo, Korean bell carillons or pyeonjong, and a reproduction of the world’s first movable type. The museum is divided into five sections: Royal Symbols and Records, Ancestral Rites, Palace Architecture, Joseon Sciences and Royal Life.

The National War Museum is located across the street from Korea’s Department of Defence. Its impressive granite facade and surrounding park with vintage airplanes and tanks catch the eyes and attention of people passing by along the main road. Opened in 1994, the largely museum-like War Memorial of Korea provides visitors an educational, yet emotional experience of the many wars in which Korea was involved. Many documents and war memorabilia have been collected and are displayed. The War Memorial has several display rooms and an outdoor exhibition displaying military equipment.

The National Folk Museum of Korea exhibits numerous cultural artefacts, including artwork and handicrafts of the Korean people. It’s also a visual feast for casual students of the nation’s history, with exhibition rooms taking you through the chronology of Korea’s 5000-year-old culture. Exhibits include household items from prehistoric times to the Bronze Age and show an in-depth display of habits and customs from Korea’s illustrious Three Kingdoms period .In the Center Hall there are traditional cultures or folk related exhibits. The museum is a centre of performance art as well, with a ‘Korean Folk Concert’ held every Saturday at the museum’s auditorium. Admission fee is waived the first Sunday of every month, which is a designated ‘Visit the Museum’ Day.

Tibet Museum This museum, dedicated to Tibetan Buddhist art, thematically organizes and exhibits its collection of approximately 1,000 pieces of Tibetan artefacts. The founder of the museum, Shin Young-su, began traveling the world and grew interested in Tibetan artefacts, amassing a significant collection through art dealers in Hong Kong. In 2000 he founded the Tibet Museum, and several tea museums both in Korea and China. The lower level of the museum showcases Buddhist ritual items such as prayer wheels (Mani wheels). On the upper level, there are some 300 exhibits including ceremonial attire used in Lama monk rituals. Among the exhibits are such unusual relics as masks made with the skulls of enlightened lama monks and ceremonial conch horns, one of the 8 auspicious symbols.

The Lotte World Folk Museum opened in 1989 to allow urban visitors to experience a taste of folk village life through an eclectic array of exhibits, miniature displays and real-life renditions of architecture. The recreations of major national treasures from the Three Kingdoms period and beyond are a delight for first-time visitors who may want a comprehensive overview of Korea’s rich cultural heritage. There is also a concert area used to stage traditional musical performances. Conveniently located in Lotte World, the Folk Museum is a must-visit for short-term visitors who want a taste of Korea.

Seoul Olympic Museum In 1988, Seoul hosted the Games of the XXIV Olympiad. The games led to a rapid urban development in southern Seoul and raised Korea’s profile in the international arena. Located in the Olympic Park in a three-story building, the first exhibit hall is the Place of Peace. Here you can learn the origin and history of the Olympics from times past, view the 100-year history of the modern Olympics, and learn about the games. You can also watch a 70 mm film at the Simulation Theater about the Seoul Olympics. You can also view Olympic related documents, videos, films and other records and visit the Sports Experience Hall.

Art

The Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) has continued to expand since it’s founding in 1928 and re-location to the former site of Korea’s Supreme Court. From then until now the museum has played an important role as a cultural space to be enjoyed by all the people of Seoul. SeMA has earned its place among the world’s best art museums and is wholly dedicated to making art accessible and enjoyable to the general public. SeMA is an important representative cultural facility in Korea that provides citizens with opportunities to experience art and culture through exhibitions, educational programs, and events. The six main exhibit areas, such as the sculpture exhibit area and the special exhibit area, display collections of Korea’s modern art. In Chon Kyug-Ja Hall, visitors can view 93 donated paintings such as portraits and pictures by artist Chon Kyung-Ja, who is considered to be the quintessential female Korean painter.

Located on a slope of Namsan Mountain, and flanked by a vista of the Hangang, Leeum was established by the Samsung Cultural Foundation to preserve Korean art history and to exhibit modern art by Korean and foreign artists. Leeum is divided into Museum 1 and Museum 2, both of which exhibit Korea’s traditional and modern contemporary art. Museum 1 was designed by the architect Mario Botta, and Museum 2 was designed by the architect Jean Nouvel. Both museums are unique in style. Museum 1 exhibits approximately 120 pieces of art including some national treasures of Korea. Museum 2 features approximately 70 pieces of modern contemporary works from around the world. The gallery also holds various temporary exhibitions. To visit Leeum, visitors must make reservations in advance via internet or telephone. The earliest reservations can be made is 2 weeks in advance. Outside of the museum building on the outdoor terrace, figurative art works are on displayed.

Built inside a remodelled traditional Korean home, the Gahoe Museum features one of Korea’s finest collection of folk paintings, amulets and books that shed light on the lifestyle of the Korean people in years gone by. The museum’s collection includes over 250 folk paintings and related material, and over 1,500 artefacts produced by Joseon period craftspeople. The museum also has possession of rarely seen paintings from the Unified Silla period (57 BCE – 935 CE).

If you have an interest in art or architecture, you will want to take a walk along Samcheongdong-gil, which is lined with famous art galleries. Also here is the temple Beopnyeonsa, Lee Rhee-za Korean Costume Exhibition Hall, the French Cultural Center, Jeong Dok Library, and various cafes and restaurants. Samcheongdong Walkway stretches from Gyeongbokgung Palace to Samcheong Tunnel. Samcheong Park, which is located at the end of Samcheongdong Walkway, is famous for its thick forest and splendid views. Located in the middle of the city, this area is quite peaceful. Also, the galleries and cafes on both sides of Samcheongdong Walkway attract many artists. Since each art gallery building on Samcheongdong-gil has a unique architectural design, appreciating the buildings themselves can be a pleasant experience.

Theatre

Korean culture is alive and well, with traditional performances staged everywhere from palace grounds to night markets. Two of the city’s most prominent performing arts centres are the Seoul Arts Center and the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, National Theater of Korea and the Chongdong Theater also feature regular traditional Korean performances.

The Seoul Arts Center is the most representative art center in Korea, and the extensive programming attracts some 2 million users visit every year. The center presents about 1,500 performances and over 100 exhibitions in 7 specialized spaces of the arts complex, and accommodates popular and internationally well-known performances. The Arts Center constitutes an Opera House, Concert Hall, Art Gallery, Art Morgue, Calligraphy Hall and the Performance Theater which is exclusively for plays. The Opera house, which stands in the middle of Seoul Arts Center, is in the form of a Gat, a traditional Korean hat made of bamboo. The Center is a showcase for the cultural sophistication of a Korean society that is proud of its brilliant cultural tradition.

Sejong Center for the Performing Arts was built in 1978 and it has a capacity of 3,822 people. The performing arts center, the largrest in Seoul, constitutes a large theater, small theater, art gallery, and other spacious places for exhibitions and performances. The building has classic features that are well combined with modern style. The Sejong Center is often used for major national and international events.

Established in order to preserve and promote traditional Korean performing arts, The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts began about 1,400 years ago and was established by Queen Jindeok of the Shilla kingdom. Today’s organization sprouted from Eumseongseo, a music institute during the Shilla kingdom. Since its inception, the NCKTPA has played a leading role in preserving and promoting traditional Korean music. The NCKFPA has been making its best effort to fulfil its reputation as the national music institute of Korea. Its goal is to preserve and develop folk music and dance by offering a variety of events that reflect the balance between central and provincial culture, highlighting the uniqueness of each province.

The National Theater of Korea opened in 1950 and features four associate performance company groups: The National Drama Company, The National Dance Company, The National Changgeuk Company and The National Orchestra Company. It is the most representative performance theater in Korea due to its long history and traditional Korean performances.

Chongdong Theater is also one of the most representative places for Korean traditional art performances. It relocates its stage to ‘Ssamji Madang’, a small park outside of the theater, in the summer. Traditional games, such as Ganggangsuwolae, are played as after party games and leads audiences to participate in its performance.

A variety of cultural performances including music, play, musical, dance, and performing arts take place at LG Art Center. Opened in 2000, after five years of construction at a total cost of 65 billion Won, LG Arts Center is a superb cultural venue. The Center aims to provide artists with one of the best performing arts spaces and to promote Korean performing arts creativity and diversity.

Attractions

N Seoul Tower | Photo credit: Sujin Kim

The Myeongdong Cathedral, the first parish in Korea, is the Cathedral Church of the Archdiocese of Seoul, and is a symbol of the Korean Church. Constructed since 1892, and completed in 1898, the Myeongdong Cathedral, Seoul is a beautiful gothic that attracts visitors from across the world. The Myeongdong Cathedral, Seoul is a grand, building, and is the first brick-laid Gothic building ever built in Korea. The church building was built with bricks, but the colour and shapes of each structure is different. Twenty types of bricks in two colors, red and gray, were used in the construction of this unique structure. Shaped like a cross, with three hallways, the main building of the Myeongdong Cathedral, Seoul is 23m high with the steeple rising up to 45m. Inside, you can view the grand inner pillars, the impressive stained glass windows and the luxurious altar. There is also a graveyard that contains the remains of martyrs.

The traditional heart of Seoul is the old Joseon Dynasty city, which is now the downtown area, where most palaces, government offices, corporate headquarters, hotels, and traditional markets are located. The most historically significant street in Seoul is Jongro, meaning “Bell Street,” on which one can find Bosingak, a pavilion containing a large bell. The bell signalled the different times of the day and therefore controlled the four major gates to the city. The only time it is normally rung nowadays is at midnight on New Year’s Eve, when it rings thirty-three times.

This area is where you will find the valley of Cheonggyecheon, a stream that runs from west to east through the valley before emptying into the Han River. For many years, the stream had been covered by concrete, but was recently restored through an urban revival project.

To the north of downtown is Bukhan Mountain, and to the south is the smaller Namsan Mountain. You can take a cable car up Mount Namsan to the landmark N Seoul Tower with its observation decks, nightly light show and revolving restaurant, which provides an unrivalled view of the city and beyond.

Across the Han River are the newer and wealthier areas of Gangnam-gu, Seocho-gu and surrounding neighbourhoods. The World Trade Center of Korea is located in Gangnam-gu, where many expositions and conferences are held. Also in Gangnam-gu is the COEX Mall, a large indoor shopping and entertainment complex.

Downstream from Gangnam-gu is Yeouido, a large island that is home to the National Assembly, major broadcasting studios, and a number of large office buildings, as well as the Korea Finance Building and the world’s largest Pentecostal church.

The Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park and Lotte World are located in Songpa-gu.

Major modern landmarks include the Korea Finance Building, N Seoul Tower, the World Trade Center, the 63 Building and the six-skyscraper residence Tower Palace. These and various high-rise office buildings, like the Seoul Star Tower and Jongno Tower, dominate the city’s skyline.

Be sure to visit the Dongdaemun Market, which is a traditional market, city icon and Asia’s largest and liveliest market. Start at the ancient East Main Gate, itself a national treasure, and wander through …

Of interest to visitors from around the world, you can travel to the DMZ: Panmunjeom, which is 50 km north of Seoul. The region is the joint security area in the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a buffer between North and South Korea since 1953. Curious visitors can walk through UN exhibitions, gaze at North Korean soldiers just paces away and even walk through the infiltration tunnel on this unique day-long bus tour.

For the kids

If you thought you would have to go to Antarctica to see majestic penguins; then the good news is you don’t. Aquarium 63 Sea World features majestic penguins. Besides housing the magnificent looking fishes and fearsome hammer head sharks and crocodiles; Sea World regularly holds shows by fur seal and harbour seal. You can watch and be entertained by the ball dribbling performance by these seals. Aquarium 63 Sea World is regarded as one of the largest indoor aquariums in Asia. A rich variety of marine life species is housed inside this aquarium. Simulating their real habitats, this aquarium is a safe haven for more than 20,000 types of fish. The aquarium contains more than 400 different species. One of the fun things to see while visiting Aquarium 63 Sea World is the mermaid show. To watch a beautiful female diver swimming in sync with colourful and petite fishes is an experience of a life time.

The National Science Museum was established upon national independence in 1945 to spur Korean youth, the science leaders of today and the future, to consider pursuits in the physical and biological sciences. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the museum closed but was re-opened in its present location in 1972 and returned to the location after the National Science Museum was relocated to Daejeon in 1990. This museum has a large exhibition hall and operates a science class, a computer class, a scientific movie theatre, and so on. It spreads the scientific and technological knowledge for developing and operating various kinds of scientific programs that people and students can register for to explore the fascinating field of science.

Shopping

Seoul is a shop-around-the-clock city. Most shops are open – and busy –until 10:00 PM, most night markets are open until midnight and some stay open 24 hours.

The best buys in Seoul are quality clothes, shoes, blankets and leather goods. Korea also produces a number of specialty items, such as ginseng, tea and bamboo products. Electronics are big export items, but you may not find many bargains.

Seoul is a shopper’s delight. Myeong-dong is the main shopping district, where you will find large shopping malls, the original Lotte department store, side streets crammed with stalls and the Namdaemun Market, Korea’s oldest, where vendors sell everything from silkworm snacks to jewellery and leather goods.

Apgujeong’s Rodeo Street in Gangnam-gu is the leading fashion mecca, stuffed with international designer boutiques, beauty clinics and poodle parlours.

The famous Insa-dong art and antiques district is very popular with foreign visitors. Specialty items include ceramics, paper art, modern versions of traditional Korean clothing, calligraphy supplies and antique crafts. Art theatres, galleries and shops line the alleys. Sunday is especially pleasant for exploring the area because the street is closed to traffic.

Anyone who has gone searching in vain for a cashier in Western department stores will love the numerous employees in Korean department stores. It seems that each section has at least two employees for each shopper. As a result, prices tend to be higher than elsewhere, but the department stores have huge sales several times a year.

Prices in department stores and other large retail outlets are fixed, but bargaining is expected in markets and smaller shops. Make an offer that is lower than what you are actually willing to pay but don’t expect the final price to drop more than 25% below the initial asking price. You’re likely to do better when buying multiple items from the same seller, so negotiate a total price for all your purchases. Many Korean vendors also offer small thank-you gifts for large purchases, known as “service”.

Seoul After Dark

Korea has a long and proud tradition of performing arts. Visitors to Seoul often make it a point to include one or two “on stage, live” performances.

Travelers often enjoy taking in a performance of Korean traditional music and dance at venues such as the National Center for the Korean Traditional Performing Arts or the Seoul Performing Arts Center.

Since Korea’s modernization, Western performing arts have also grown in popularity, with Korea producing a number of world-class opera singers and classical musicians.

But lest you think Korea is living in the past, the nation’s contemporary performing arts scene is one of most vibrant in Asia.

During your evenings in Seoul, you may want to see a performance of the KBS Symphony Orchestra (KSO), the showcase of Korea’s national public service broadcaster KBS (Korean Broadcasting System). The KSO has played a leading role in Korean musical life since its founding in 1956. The KSO has a strong international presence and has toured major world cities throughout Asia and the Americas, including a concert in the United Nations General Assembly to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN.

There are various kinds of traditional Korean dances. Most Korean dances such as Buchaechum and Gungjungmu are focused on the beauty of dance, and the purposes of these dances were to entertain high class scholars or king in their palaces. Traditional Korean dances were ways to express the religious beliefs as well in the past, like Salpuri and Seungmu.

The varied and dynamic nightlife in this city that never sleeps includes everything from 24-hour norebang (singing room) and snacking at open-air night markets or hofs (Korean pubs) to upmarket clubs and international hotel bars. Hongik University (Hongdae), is where one would find Seoul’s most vibrant club scene, the upmarket Apgujeong-dong, the trendiest cafes and bars and the world-class Seven Luck Casino, and Itaewon features the greatest concentration of western-style pubs and clubs.

Nightlife in Seoul is lively and legendary with something to suit all tastes, from a ‘booze-cruise’ through the raunchy red light district of Itaewon, or a sedate sit-down at a traditional teahouse. Eating out, too, is a feast for the senses in Seoul, with an enormous international variety of cuisines to choose from, whether it is succulent steak, perfect pizza, multi-course gourmet, tasty tandoori or classic Korean. Kimchi (fermented spicy cabbage) and Korean ginseng are heralded for their health benefits and popular traditional dishes to try include bibimbab, rice mixed with vegetables and hot pepper paste; bulgogi, beef barbecued on the table; and gimbap, rice with vegetables mixed with seaweed.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

Gwanaksan Mountain Observatory | Photo credit: Flickr user thelearnr

The Republic of Korea has considerable experience in hosting major international sporting events, notably the 1986 Asian Games, the 1988 Olympic Games and the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Seoul. Sports facilities are therefore generally of a high standard, particularly in Seoul and in the larger cities.

The national sport of South Korea is Tae Kwon Do, a bare handed martial arts form that emphasizes physical endurance, a trained mind, self defence, and educated etiquette. Competitions in Seoul are held often, and tickets are easy to purchase.

Following a massive clean-up during the 1980s, Seoul`s Han-gang River now provides a range of water sports facilities and is a popular destination for those wishing to escape a busy city life. Skiing, kayaking and rafting are favourite activities of Seoul residents. Just a short ride down the Hangang River offers some of the most scenic and gentle rapids rafters can find the world over. Naerincheon Stream, just outside Seoul, brings in over a million outdoors enthusiasts to rafting expeditions every year. Traditional kayaking is also extremely popular in this area, both competitively and recreationally.

The mountains in and around Seoul offer dozens of trails for hiking and some for mountain biking. Although these trails get very crowded on weekends and holidays, early risers usually can avoid the busiest times. Several hiking trails lead up to the peaks in Bukhansan National Park, which encompasses the major mountain range north of Seoul. Trails offer different types of terrain, with beautiful, panoramic views of Seoul and the surrounding area. Hikers and rock climbers will enjoy the granite peaks. Some trails lead to Buddhist statues and temples. Gwanaksan is a pleasant place for a day hike in southern Seoul. The highest point reaches 1,500 m. There’s a serene temple with a nice view near the summit.

Meditation and Temple Stays In recent years, the Jogye and Cheontae orders of Korean Buddhism have arranged temple stays for foreigners. If you want to spend a few hours, an overnight or a few days experiencing the life of a monk, you can reserve a place at one of several monasteries around the country.

Located in the northern region of the country, Seoul is not far from any South Korean destination. For this reason, sporting activities requires travelling a distance from the capital, but not too far, and given the sporting opportunities in both the city and the state, the trip is worth the trek.

Visitors will find plenty of water sports along the southern coast and islands. The best time is from June to November, but swimming, paragliding and white-water rafting are possible all year round. There are numerous scuba diving centres along the coast, with diving classes, equipment rental and air tanks all provided. Cheju-do Island (1 hour by plane from Seoul) is the most popular destination for scuba diving enthusiasts; the waters surrounding the island are also considered exceptionally good for deep-sea fishing and a number of companies offer organised fishing trips.

There are more than 90 golf courses in Korea, but the best courses are located near Seoul, Kyongju and Chejudo.

There are 13 ski resorts all within 4-5 hours of Seoul. The principal resorts are the Yongpyong Ski Resort (Dragon Valley International Ski Resort) at Tackwallyong Area and Chonmasan Ski Resort near Seoul.

Local Customs and Etiquette

The Koreans are one ethnic family speaking one language. They share certain distinct physical characteristics which differentiate them from other Asian people including the Chinese and the Japanese, and have a strong cultural identity.

The Korean language is spoken by more than 65 million people living on the peninsula and its outlying islands as well as 5.5 million Koreans living in other parts of the world. The fact that all Koreans speak and write the same language has been a crucial factor in their strong national identity.

The family is the most important part of Korean life. In Confucian tradition, the father is the head of the family and it is his responsibility to provide food, clothing and shelter, and to approve the marriages of family members. The eldest son has special duties: first to his parents, then to his brothers from older to younger, then to his sons, then to his wife, and lastly to his daughters. Family welfare is much more important than the needs of the individual. Members of the family are tied to each other because the actions of one family member reflect on the rest of the family. In many cases the family register can trace a family’s history, through male ancestors, for over 500 years.

Meeting Etiquette

Greetings follow strict rules of protocol. Many South Koreans shake hands with expatriates after a bow, thereby blending both cultural styles. The person of lower status bows to the person of higher status, yet it is the most senior person who initiates the handshake. The person who initiates the bow says, “man-na-suh pan-gop-sumnida”, which means “pleased to meet you.” Information about the other person will be given to the person they are being introduced to in advance of the actual meeting. Wait to be introduced at a social gathering. When you leave a social gathering, say good-bye and bow to each person individually.

Gift Giving Etiquette

  • Gifts express a great deal about a relationship and are always reciprocated.
  • It is inconsiderate to give someone an expensive gift if you know that they cannot afford to reciprocate accordingly.
  • Bring fruit or good quality chocolates or flowers if invited to a Korean’s home.
  • Gifts should be wrapped nicely.
  • The number 4 is considered unlucky, so gifts should not be given in multiples of 4.
  • Giving 7 of an item is considered lucky.
  • Wrap gifts in red or yellow paper, since these are royal colours. Alternatively, use yellow or pink paper since they denote happiness.
  • Do not wrap gifts in green, white, or black paper.
  • Do not sign a card in red ink.
  • Use both hands when offering a gift.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

  • If you are invited to a South Korean’s house it is common for guests to meet at a common spot and travel together.
  • You may arrive up to 30 minutes late without giving offence.
  • Remove your shoes before entering the house.
  • The hosts greet each guest individually.
  • The host pours drinks for the guests in their presence. The hostess does not pour drinks.
  • The hosts usually accompany guests to the gate or to their car because they believe that it is insulting to wish your guests farewell indoors.
  • Send a thank you note the following day after being invited to dinner.

Table Manners

  • Wait to be told where to sit. There is often a strict protocol to be followed.
  • The eldest are served first.
  • The oldest or most senior person is the one who starts the eating process.
  • Never point your chopsticks.
  • Do not pierce your food with chopsticks.
  • Chopsticks should be returned to the table after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
  • Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest.
  • Do not pick up food with your hands. Fruit should be speared with a toothpick.
  • Bones and shells should be put on the table or an extra plate.
  • Try a little bit of everything. It is acceptable to ask what something is.
  • Refuse the first offer of second helpings.
  • Finish everything on your plate.
  • Indicate you are finished eating by placing your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table.
  • Never place them parallel across your rice bowl.

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