South Korea’s capital city has roughly as many people as New York City and yet it manages to mix the modernity of tech giants like Samsung and LG with a history and architecture that traces its roots more than two millennia back. Travelers who truly want to enjoy their stay when they visit Korea should try to incorporate elements from the modern and the medieval to see how a culture can stay true to itself century over century. Here are some sights that tick one or the other of those boxes.
In partial ruins, travelers who are looking to travel to Korea still need to consider Gyeongbokgung, or Gyeongbuk Palace, priority one if they have any interest in South Korean history. It is the grandest example of a royal residence in the country and traces its beginnings to the late 14th century. The entire facility included several thousand rooms and while just under half of it has been restored, the architecture is still impressive regardless of whether or not travelers can see inside some of the buildings.
One particular high point is the changing of the guard in an elaborate ceremony. It happens every hour while the site is open and is a great photo opportunity. To make sense of the sprawling grounds and the outer and inner courts that housed various members of the royal family, take advantage of the free tours from students to fill in the gaps. Look out for orange shirts or jackets before you make your way around the gardens and then through the Geunjeongjeon throne hall among others.
While skyscrapers tower over several sections of Seoul, people who plan to visit Korea need to make sure they spend time in Bukchon Village. Preservations fought to keep the area free from massive development and the result is winding road upon serpentine avenue of classic South Korean housing with wood frames (hanoks in local parlance) and small restaurants and cafes. Those offer ample opportunities to take in the serene environment. Vacationers who already have packed itineraries should still be able to fit the village into their plans as well: it is bounded on two sides by the Gyeongbok Palace mentioned above as well as Changdeok Palace.
Create a Shopping List, Then Be Amazed
South Korea does not think of department stores as anchors of a strip mall. Rather, they are imposing edifices to commerce with food courts and restaurants and vendors that seem to fill the buildings that dot Dongdaemun even before a single shopper passes through the doors. Things can be a bit rowdy but that seems to be part of the appeal. There is the covered market of Gwangjang and then the massive department stores including Lotte.
Speaking of Lotte, the shopping giant has created an entity like few others in the world. The eponymous Lotte World can handle massive festivals, concerts and more alongside numerous shopping options. To stop there would not be fair, however, as the sprawling complex has not only the world’s largest indoor amusement park but a massive indoor skating rink. It’s a great way to take a break from shopping, or for families, a way to keep kids interested in a full day at a single location.
The Hills Surrounding Seoul
Seoul is relatively flat considering the mountains in which it’s located, but those same hills are definitely worth a visit. There are a number of temples that occupy a high position overseeing the city as well as many inside Seoul proper. However, from the ground around the Korean equivalent of the White House one can see Bugaksan as it towers over the landscape. Yet you can also make your way up there without too much effort.
Up there, you can see what interested North Korean special forces, a vista of the entire city below that has been known as a military strong point for years. Things have calmed down enough that travelers planning a trip to Korea can see the Seoul Fortress, used for centuries to protect the royal family and citizenry attack from invaders of all strikes. It has been expanded over time and architectural and archeological buffs will be able to note the subtle and occasionally distinct changes in construction from earthworks to impressive stones fit together with little margin for error.
From the solitude of the commanding views of the rolling hills around the capital, many expats and those who are just playing the part for a day will find a lot to like in Itaewon. It includes fusion restaurants and those offering cuisine from around the world. Yet the entire neighborhood trends younger, so be mindful that there will be some boisterous patrons at nearby clubs. Visiting the quirky neighborhood during the week is a good idea as servicemen and women from U.S. military bases often empty into the area on the weekends.