In 1960, when South Korea’s GDP was at par with Ethiopia’s, nobody would have guessed a country 1/33rd the size of India would become one of the world’s top 10 economies in less than fifty years.
But as the famous Korean proverb goes, 고생 끝에 낙이 온다 (Go-saeng Ggeut-eh naki eun-da) - At the end of hardship comes happiness - South Korea moved on from the wounds of Japanese colonisation and the devastating aftermath of the Korean War to become the 21st century’s economic powerhouse.
Call it ‘Korean Collectivism’ or ‘Korean Wave’, the engine of ‘the Miracle on the Han River’ was ignited.
Seoul is called Special City for a reason. It is a city of contrasts that has something special for everyone. Fourteenth century palaces hold their fort against 21st century skyscrapers, while you can travel between ancient and modern, simply by crossing a street.
Han River neatly bisects the old Seoul of palaces, markets, hanoks and government offices from the new Seoul of cloud-piercing high-rises, swanky stores, and avant-garde restaurants. Delivery boys race their motorbikes with Maseratis on the road, while gadget toting fashionistas combat peddlers for walking space.
A city as passionate about protecting its 600-years-old heritage as it is about K-Pop and K-dramas, while one moment you are in downtown the next you are in Bukhansan National Park. You can shop till you drop at ritzy department stores or haggle around at labyrinthine markets, while gorging on affordable street food or relishing the cuisine of the kings. It is this diversity which makes Seoul truly special. So if you are visiting Seoul make sure you visit all the popular and offbeat places listed here.
A First-Timers Impression of Seoul
You never get a second chance to make a great first impression and Seoul gets it right the first time. As I landed in South Korea, I realised how efficient, hassle free and delightful airports can be. Right from immigration to baggage collection to getting a train to the city, it was a smooth ride. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if I were to stay at Incheon International Airport, which comes loaded with facilities like a golf course, spa, ice skating rink, indoor garden, casino and world-class restaurants among many others. No wonder Skytrax rates it as one of the best airports in the world year after year.
Starting on a high
Seoul is hemmed in by mountains and draped by waterways. The best place to see that beauty is from the needlelike N Seoul Tower on Mount Namsan. You can either take a cable car or trek for 45 minutes through the stone stairway. As I walked up to the base, I was greeted by the tens of thousands of ‘love locks’ hung on fences, gates, railings and ‘trees of love’. My local friends Scott and Megan told me that love is a serious business in Korea. So serious that couples match their blood groups to ensure a compatible long lasting relationship. So don’t be surprised if someone pops up the blood group question.
But I wasn’t looking for love so I didn’t get swayed by love locks and took the elevator to the observatory deck of N Seoul Tower. Flabbergasted by the staggering immensity of Seoul I was looking at the panoramic view like an excited kid. The Seoul skyline was bejeweled with high rises after high rises and four guardian mountains cradling the city from four sides. Velvety mist was trying to play hide-and-seek with the city. Wherever my eyes could reach I saw the manicured landscape of Seoul.
Soaking in the historic splendor
After getting the bird’s eye view it was time to experience the graceful Confucian palaces and ancient walls of Seoul. I started my tour exploring the 600-year-old palace, Changdeokung, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its chiseled gardens, embellished with ponds and pagodas infused a dose of tranquility in a frantic urban city where everything is “pali pali” (which means “Hurry up!” or “Faster!”).
One thing that topped my travel list was to attend the much famed Gyeongbokgung Palace Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony. At 2 pm sharp the ceremony began with the guards arriving in their colourful royal uniforms, carrying traditional weapons and playing traditional musical instruments. I had time travelled to 14th century Joseon Dynasty when this tradition was enacted exactly as I witnessed. So if you too want to revisit the Royal charm be there at either 10 am or 2 pm.
The rest of the day was spent learning about the country’s history at the National Museum of Korea, walking in the quaint neighborhood of Samcheongdong, marveling at hanok (old style Korean houses) of Buckchon and in between satiating my hunger pangs with a bowl of patbingsu and other street treats.
Shop. Eat. Stroll.
It doesn’t matter where you are in Seoul, there will always be a shopping place next to you. Seoulites are one of the best dressed people I have come across. These faithful devotees of beauty would go up to any length to look beautiful - from going under the knife to spending bulk of their salary on cosmetics.
Seoul is the best place to shop for cosmetics, apparels and electronics. Seoul’s markets suit every pocket – from transitional markets to luxury shopping malls to street shopping. Some of the markets worth visiting are Myeongdong for international and local labels of cosmetics, apparels and accessories, Namdaemun for 24 hours shopping at wholesale prices, Dongdaemun for bargain hunters looking for fast fashion at its best, Insadong for art and craft items and souvenirs, Yongsan for electronics, Apgujeongdong for birdwatching the trendsetters and Cheongdamdong for luxury indulgence.
Your visit to Seoul is incomplete without visiting Gangnam, the flashy section of Seoul where Seoul’s crème de la crème live, work, and play.
In Seoul you will not find any Korean who is not a foodie. And why not, when the Korean cuisine is a carnival of flavours. The must-try dishes are tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), dakbal (fiery chicken feet), mindeulle muchim (dandelion salad) hotteok (sweet pancake), bindaetteok (mung beach pancake), odeng (fish cake), and assortments of fried food. If you are a lover of barbecue then there can’t be a better place than Hongik Sutbul Galbi. My favourite meal was the traditional vegetarian Buddhist temple cuisine at Baru.
After days of sightseeing, shopping and eating I couldn’t leave Seoul without pampering myself at Dragon Hill Spa. Visiting Seoul was truly special. A must stop for anyone who wants to experience modern Asian city life deeply rooted in tradition.
Unique facts about Seoul
- Seoul is amongst the top ten most visited cities in the world. Over 10 million people visited Seoul in 2016.
- The Seoul National Capital Area is the world's second largest metropolitan area.
- Seoul accounts for 21% of the country's GDP and 50% of the country’s population lives here.
- Seoul has one of the world’s best transport systems. Over 10 million people ride the metro daily. The subway is continuously rated as one of the best and cleanest systems in the world.
- Seoul has the world's fastest average internet connection speed - 26.7 Mb/s. About 45 million people or 92.4% of the population are Internet users.
- Half of the population has identical surnames and people with the same surname can’t marry each other.
- In Seoul you can order food from any place at any time. The delivery boy will come not only to deliver food but to collect trash too.
- A 24-hour city where you can get whatever you want and whenever you want.
- Most buildings don’t have a 4th floor because number four is considered extremely unlucky.
- You can eat live octopus in Seoul.
Travel tip shared by Travel See Write