Our trip to South Korea was a bit unexpected. Our travels tend to be thematic and this year the theme was China and Japan. It turned out that the best way to go from Shanghai to Osaka was through Korea, so we were delighted to squeeze 8 days to visit this interesting country. By no means as geographically diverse as China or culturally sleek as Japan, Korea has a cool rhythm that’s worth exploring in detail. We landed at the Incheon Airport and hopped on the train that takes you across great muddy landscapes to Seoul’s main railway station. We stayed at the nearby super cool Manu Hotel, towering above Seoul’s hip new hotspot: Seoullo 7017. In the middle of the action!
Just like Taipei, Seoul doesn’t conquer you immediately. The first image we got was that of a typical world metropolis full of traffic and high-rise buildings. But at every corner there was something new and surprising. Seoul is home to 5 Royal palaces (one of them a Unesco World Heritage Site), 2 old city gates, several old Buddhist temples, Churches, gorgeous parks and cool high-tech buildings. Our favorites: the traditional neighborhood of Bukchon packed with stylish cafés and bars, the artsy neighborhood Ihwa Mural Village, the wholly pedestrian Myeogdong in the city center and two cool projects: Seoullo 7017 and Cheonggye Stream.
Seoul’s city center is entirely within the Jongno and Jung districts. This is where most of the historical sites are: All royal palaces, Namdaemun and Dongdaemun city gates, and a few remnants of the Japanese rule like Old Seoul Station and the Bank of Korea Museum. The main Catholic Cathedral Myeongdong is here too. The area known as Myeongdong is the heart of the city. It is comprised of numerous pedestrian alleys with shops and restaurants offering just about everything. It is especially lively at night with food stalls and a young hip crowd decorating the scene.
Seoul’s Royal history is represented by five palaces built during the Five Century long reign of the Joseon Dinasty. They are: Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeong huigung. Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace, home of the kings and the government. We enjoyed so much watching the guards changing ceremony with all the elegant costumes parading in front of Mount Bugak. Changdeokgung Palace was the favorite of many princes. Just like the other palaces it was destroyed during the Japanese rule, although to a lesser extent and in 1997 Unesco recognized it as a World Heritage Site.
Seoul’s main charm lies in its numerous neighborhoods. East of the Gyongbokgung Palace and north of Myongdong you’ll find Bukchon, one of Seoul’s coolest neighborhoods. If you follow the main street Samcheong-ro you’ll find yourself in coffee heaven. Climbing the little streets eastwards takes you to the top of a hill surrounded by traditional Korean houses and overlooking the city. If you follow the city wall up the hill starting from Dongdaemun city gate you’ll end up in Ihwa Mural Village packed with street art. Paintings, murals, graffiti, sculptures and again cool cafés are all around, yet it’s somehow intimate. Also, worth visiting are the Sinsa-dong Garosu-gil Road in Gangnam district, packed with fancy restaurants, shops, and coffee houses.
Parks and Mountains
On the first look Seoul seems like a giant scary metropolis. Buildings, buildings and more buildings in an endless urban sprawl. But then again you would be surprised just how important nature is to Koreans. Several mountains and natural parks surround the city, with some hills reaching into the city’s very center. Namsan Park is a gorgeous green oasis south of the main pedestrian area and from its top you can enjoy an unobstructed 360º view of Seoul. On the other side of the Han River the Olympic Park built in 1988 is something else. Mostly flat and filled with lakes it is a perfect spot to watch the locals enjoying their free time. You might actually be the only tourist there!
High Tech Architecture
When we talk about cool new hi-tech architecture China and Japan come to mind. However, South Korea’s capital has nothing to envy. There are loads of unique skyscrapers all around (especially in Gangnam district) and quite a few outstanding individual projects. Seoul City Hall is an interesting example of old and new: the old built during the Japanese rule while the new in 2012. Shades of leaves inspired Its curvy surface. Even more interesting is the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park built in 2014 by Zaha Hadid. Its elegantly fluid shape houses many exhibition halls and includes several squares, parks and underground spaces. It has become so popular that it feels like the whole Seoul is there! For a fantastic view of this masterpiece, go to the shopping center across the street and take the transparent lift.
New Urban Projects
Just like many other cities around the globe Seoul seemed to run away from nature. In 1968 an elevated highway was built over the centrally located 8,4 km long Cheonggyecheon creek. But the times are changing and in the past decades Seoul’s citizens pressured authorities to open new public spaces. Thus in 2005 a 10,9 km long public space around the creek was opened including a lavish green area, little squares and fountains. This same year, just before our visited they opened another fascinating public space: Seoullo 7017. It is essentially a pedestrian corridor over-passing the railway corridor. The place is quite innovative: it includes green areas, fountains, showrooms, educational space, open air exhibitions, an info center and a café.
Coffee Houses & People
Coffee houses in Seoul all have different styles, from fancy to bohemian, and offer delicious coffee and cakes. Perfect places to relax and people watch. Koreans come in different styles too; they have quite a sense of fashion. Most young people speak English and it’s super easy to move around, a coffee house waiting for you at every corner. Of all the major Asian cities, Seoul feels the most relaxed and that has to do with its inhabitants: courteous and elegant.