Seoul City Guide

Seoul

One third of Korea’s entire population either lives in or commutes to Seoul. The city’s population – on a weekday at least – edges past 20 million, making the capital one of the largest cities in the world. Like all metropolises, the size comes with up and down sides. Seoul is the heart of everything in South Korea, from major business to entertainment, and you’ll find pretty much anything if you look hard enough. There’s even a tiny, high-class French district. If you’re visiting as a tourist, you’ll find the city provides more of a multicultural outlook than the rest of the country; as a place to live it buzzes with energy, though some of the more ancient traditions that prevail in the rest of South Korea have long since disappeared.

In truth, Seoul is not the most attractive of cities. While we developed a deep love for the quirks of the nightlife, the energy of the business side of life and the ability to go somewhere if you’re truly motivated, at first glance the groups of tower blocks and wide avenues are far from the attractive tourist destination you probably hoped for. Having said that, Seoul bridges the Han River and stands on one of the only flat pieces of land in all of South Korea. That means that you’re never far from a great bit of hill walking, with challenging peaks found at the ends of several of the subway lines. During spring the banks of the Han come to life with Cherry Blossom – and the festivals that accompany it – as do the parks below the central ‘Seoul Tower’. Come summer, the Han is a centre for water sports and the city’s parks provide massive open air swimming pools to cool off in the engulfing heat.

Seoul is not without its historical side, too, and there’s plenty in the way of sites to explore. Most would consider the trip north to the DMZ to be the essential experience (there is something extremely surreal at staring over the heavily guarded border into the volatile North), though there are plenty of impressive spots in the city, too. A walk through the traditional district of Insadong is one must-do activity, which takes you past a host of stunning wooden restaurants, ample arts and crafts stores and an array of irresistible window displays featuring noodles being made by hand. Don’t forget to dive into the street stalls, too, where you’ll find anything from hand-made finger puppets to freshly cooked donuts stuffed with gooey bean paste.

If you’re into your history, try exploring the aging palaces around City Hall, now ranked as South Korea’s most important cultural assets (oddly enough, they do rank them) since the burning down of traditional city entrance Namdaemun Gate in a vicious arson attack a few years ago. Namdaemun is slowly being rebuilt, but you’ll find the protected palaces, are peaceful enclaves amongst a buzzing city, and hide beautiful relics such as water clocks, oversized brass bells and skilfully painted roofs. Head east and you’ll come across the theatre district of Hyewha, which has a slightly hippie edge to it amongst the normally conservative city centre, or south to find the big business, baseball stadiums and (still impressive) Seoul Olympic Park.

Like all of South Korea, Seoul is heavily seasonal, but unlike many other parts it’s also perfectly located. With ample transport options, you’ll find yourself able to go skiing for the day during winter, or to the beach for the day in the summer. Regular direct buses and high speed trains also run to almost anywhere in the country, and there’s no need to books ahead (except during holidays), so this is the perfect place to base yourself for a major trip.

At the weekends, do as the locals do. In large parts, that means drinking and hiking (Koreans have the second highest average alcohol consumption in the world after Russians, and Seoul’s businessmen have a large part to play in that). Saturday nights are best spent down the Noraebang with a few friends, supping beer and singing out of tune pop songs, before heading to one of the Hongdae district’s boisterous array of clubs. You can easily stay up until breakfast, as many bars close when the last customer leaves, and you’ll find a lively atmosphere until at least 6am. Many revellers take the first morning subway home and spend the following day sleeping off the effects of potent local spirit Soju. Other districts with a party vibe include the pricy fashion centre at Apgujeong and the backstreets around Gangnam. Don’t forget the foreigner district of Itaewon, either, a party hub that’s just down the road from the US military barracks, though it’s largely avoided by the locals, and most eventually conclude Hongdae is more fun.

In fact, not to eat, drink and spend most of your time out on the streets is to miss the point of Seoul: the city has a real manic vibe to it, and few people spend much time in their apartments, seeing them as simply places to rest your head at the end of the day. You should treat your hotel room in the same way. If you’re stuck for something to do during the day, the two baseball teams – Doosan and LG – share a stadium in the south of Seoul, and for most of the year there’s a game on almost every day. Tickets start at very little (around £4). The Seoul World Cup Stadium – a hugely impressive 80,000 seater – hosts both local team FC Seoul and the South Korean national side, as well as being home to the Peace Cup, an annual tournament hosted by K-League side Seongnam (who invariable perform extremely well), and featuring a host of big name club teams from around the world during the off season.

Travelling around the city is a relatively simple exercise, with an extensive subway network both cheap and fast. The buses can be good, too, though the system is far more difficult to follow when you first arrive. If you prefer, taxis are relatively cheap, too, though if you haven’t picked up any Korean yet, have a dual language map and some gestures ready, as very few drivers are able to converse in English.

All-in-all, if you came to party, or to experience the beehive atmosphere of a big Asian city, Seoul will certainly fulfil those requirements. If you came to see the sites, they’re more dense here than anywhere else, too, though perhaps without the ambience of some of the more isolated temples and countryside attractions. Many visitors learn to love Seoul, though to many other’s it’s not immediately apparent why. The answer, in the long run, probably comes down to just how much you like cities: this is a huge one, but a great one, and it has some wonderful quirks to uncover. You’ll just need to get used to the night-time neon glow, and don’t bank on a lot of personal space!