Korea is famous for its cutting-edge electronics, fashion products, and shopping-themed tourism. But you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a much greater range and scope of charm that Seoul has to offer as the political and cultural capital of Korea.
Here are the 10 best venues and features you can explore to really get to know Seoul, according to a release by the city's metropolitan government.
1. THE BEATING HEART OF SEOUL
Having been the capital city of Korea for over six centuries, Seoul is the beating heart of the country that embodies the past, the present, and the future of one- fourth of the entire Korean population.
In particular, Sejong-ro, stretching for about 600 meters southward from Gwanghwamun, the main gate to the central palace of the Joseon Dynasty, has been ever since the centre of administration, economy, culture, and history of Seoul, and houses almost all the major institutions of the city in a 1.5-kilometer radius.
All the major royal palaces of the Joseon Dynasty is located within this range, as well as major governmental organisations, foreign embassies, and financial institutions of modern Korea. The City Hall is located just south of Sejong-ro; Myeongdong, the centre of commerce and shopping, to its immediate southeast; and Jongro, another cultural centre of Seoul, to its east.
You can take in the view and feel of the central district of Seoul in just an hour or so of walking, starting from Gwanghwamun and strolling along the pedestrian path along Sejong-ro. At the end of this promenade is the Cheonggye Plaza, housing the entrance to the Cheonggyecheon Trail, an eco-friendly hiking path that runs along the Cheonggyecheon stream.
A leisurely walk on this promenade will reveal the diverse aspects of Seoul, which is one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, but at the same time, still houses traces of history and preserves a calm and clean river ecosystem.
2. ONE CARD TO RULE THEM ALL
Seoul's Transportation Card System
There are many cities around the world that boast architectural masterpieces, exotic sights, and retail districts devoted to quintessential luxury. Not all of these cities, however, run on a single integrated public transit pass system.
One of the most unique and attractive features of Seoul is its well-ordered public transit pass system, which allows users to enjoy all modes of public transit (buses, subways, and even taxis) using only a single type of card.
Seoul is an enormous city with more than 10 subway lines and innumerable bus types and routes.
No one living in Seoul, however, has to worry about purchasing different types of tickets or tokens to use these diverse types of public transit.
They can simply go into any nearby convenience store, purchase a public transit card, and charge it to the amount they want. With a little more effort, they do not even need this card.
Any user of smartphones that support near-field communication (NFC) can either purchase a USIM chip or download an application that instantly allows their phone to function as a public transit card. Countless scientists and theorists have speculated about how advanced information technology will profoundly re-shape urban life.
Seoul appears to be the closest approximation of their wildest imaginations.
3. WHERE YOU GET MORE THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR:
The Dongdaemun District is Korea's largest and trendiest center of fashion, featuring a perfect network of design, manufacturing, and distribution in a 5- kilometer radius. Offering quality products at good bargains, the district also draws over 2.5 million foreign visitors each year.
At the heart of this fashion district is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or DDP.
Designed by the world-renowned, Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Zaha Hadid, DDP embodies the history, economy, and environment of the Dongdaemun District and boasts a perfect ensemble of urban design, landscaping, and architecture.
First-time visitors are often amazed at the sheer size of DDP, which encompasses the whole surrounding district.
They are also startled to see huge crowds bustling in this gigantic fashion mall at all hours, whether day or night. See DDP, and you will never equate fashion with Paris again
4. SERVING SHOPPERS SINCE 1906:
Myeongdong is Seoul's oldest and most famous fashion town, thronged with countless apparel shops, department stores, and other retailers selling fashion accessories.
Myeongdong was the first part of Seoul to undergo intensive modernization, as the Japanese colonial regime sought to turn the area into the heart of commerce and finance.
The best way to enjoy Myeongdong with leisure is to take a walk between the Euljiro Entry Station on Subway Line 2 and the Myeongdong Station on Subway Line 4.
The area between these two subway stations, about 600 meters wide and long, is the most expensive piece of land in Seoul, and features everything that shoppers need.
You can take a walk around this area bustling with young energy and enjoy window-shopping, watching people, or actually buying things.
If you feel tired after all that movement, walk a little more eastward, and you will run into the Myeongdong Cathedral, Korea's first gothic- style piece of architecture. Also home to the Archdiocese of Seoul, the cathedral was completed in 1898, and provided a safe haven and a sanctuary of solace throughout the colonial period and the struggles for democratization.
Enjoy the rare peace and quiet in this heart of the city.
5. THE CORRIDOR OF FASHION AND LUXURY:
Exit by Gate 8 from the Shinsa Station on Subway Line 3, and walk for about 250 meters.
Then you will discover the beginning of a corridor lined with lush green trees. This famous corridor, known as Shinsadong Garosu-gil, takes strollers for about 10 minutes of a leisurely walk until it meets the entrance to Apgujeongdong.
Shinsadong and Apgujeongdong are relatively newer fashion districts than Myeongdong or Jongro. Garosu-gil connects these two new fashion districts, and itself houses Seoul's trendiest cafes, restaurants, apparel shops, and art galleries. Bagstage, the museum of Simone handbags, is a must-see on this street.
If Myeongdong is the symbol of youthful energy and activity, Garosu-gil caters more to the need for high fashion and luxury.
6. THE FRAGRANCE OF TIME
Royal Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty
Seoul was the capital city of the Joseon Dynasty from the 14th century to the early 20th century.
Although Seoul underwent dramatic transformation and rapid economic growth after liberation from Japanese colonial rule, it still retains vestiges of the old royal era, most apparent in the form of well-preserved royal palaces.
Seoul is home to five royal palaces: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Gyeongheegung, and Deoksugung.
To the east and west of these palaces, respectively, the city also features Jongmyo, which houses the mortuary tablets of members of the Joseon royal house, and Sajik, which houses symbols of the five grains and land that represented the fundamental base of the Joseon nation.
The hourly gatekeeper exchange ceremonies take place at two of the old palaces, between 10am and 4pm every day at Gyeongbokgung, by far the oldest main palace of Joseon where the dynasty began and government affairs were decided; and also at Deoksugung, in front of Daehanmun.
These ceremonies are a must-see for history buffs who would like to get to know Seoul better.
7. ON AND OFF, AS YOU PLEASE:
Seoul City Bus Tour
The Seoul City Bus Tour features shuttles that travel back and forth between all the main tourist attractions of Seoul.
The most attractive aspect of this program is that passengers can get on and off the tour buses at any time they want during the day for the price of a single ticket.
You can buy a city bus tour ticket, take the bus, get off at a destination for a tour at your own pace, and take another city tour bus afterward to get to the next destination of your journey.
The Seoul City Bus Tour features five main routes. The Downtown Circle Course is the most popular, as it encompasses almost all tourist attractions in downtown Seoul.
The Seoul Panorama Course encircles the entire city, providing passengers a panoramic view of its charms.
The Night Course is a perfect addition to a romantic night out, as it offers the beautiful view of the Han River at night.
The Traditional Market Course takes passengers to the thriving old markets of Seoul, including the Namdaemun, Gwangjang, and Yaknyeong Markets, and introduces them to aspects of traditional Korean culture, food, history, and shopping opportunities.
The Gangnam City Tour Course features major tourist attractions south of the Han River, and is recommended for passengers interested in Seoul's latest innovations and trends, in terms of cafes, restaurants, and shopping venues.
8. LIVING OLD STYLE
Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong
The Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul is a neighborhood specially designated for the preservation of its historic buildings and aesthetics.
The neighborhood won recognition from UNESCO in 2009 as an important part of cultural heritage in Asia-Pacific. It is still a living neighborhood with numerous inhabitants, but also preserves the tradition and history of old Seoul.
The name, which literally means "the northern neighborhood," comes from the fact that it was located to the north of Cheonggyecheon and Jongro, which formed the center of old Seoul during the Joseon era.
Bukchon at the time was an upscale neighborhood, featuring mansions of members of the Joseon royal family and high government officials. About a 20-minute walk to the south of Bukchon is Insadong, where tradition is given modern interpretations.
A representative district of traditional culture in Seoul, Insadong was famous in the past for its antique shops, and draws visitors of all nationalities and generations today with its unique contemporary art galleries. These two are the destinations you must not miss out on if you want to know more about the history, culture, and art of Seoul.
9. CHARMS OF OLD
Tongin and Gwangjang Markets
"Traditional market" (jeontong shijang) is a term commonly used in Korea to refer to any marketplace that is not a department store, a shopping mall, or a supermarket.
Traditional markets in Korea, however, often have long histories. Seoul is home to innumerable such traditional markets, the most famous of which being the Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, Tongin, and Gwangjang Markets. The Tongin and Gwangjang Markets, in particular, are located in less than two kilometers away from the Gwanghwamun area and are therefore especially easy to find. The Gwangjang Market is famous for its imported vintage goods shops that go back more than five decades.
The increasing specialization of the vintage shops in this marketplace and the additions of road shops and online shopping malls contribute to their increasing popularity.
The majority of the 75 shops making up the Tongin Market are those of food vendors specializing in traditional Korean food and snacks.
The Tongin Market was named a "Seoul-Style Culture Market" in 2010, winning recognition for its cultural and artistic significance.
10.THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS:
N-Seoul Tower and Itaewon
N-Seoul Tower, located atop Namsan, is one of the most famous landmarks of Seoul. The tower features an observatory and restaurants. Although it is open to the public during the day, it is best to visit and enjoy this tower at night. Invite your special someone to a romantic late-night dinner in front of the panoramic nightly landscape of Seoul, and you will instantly win his or her heart.
Seoul is indeed a city that never sleeps. It is even more insomniac than New York. If you are young and bustling with energy that keeps you awake late at night, Seoul is the city for you.
To the south of N-Seoul tower is Itaewon. The Itaewon District, which begins at the Noksapyeong Station on Subway Line 6 and extends eastward from there for about a kilometer, is the heart of Seoul's night life.
The most cosmopolitan of all areas in Seoul, Itaewon features shops and vendors from all nations.
The restaurants, food vendors, tailor shops, department stores, bars and nightclubs in this district serve customers until morning.
In terms accessibility and ease of travel, it is difficult to deny that Seoul is simply fascinating.
The best part of all this, would be that these ten venues can be experienced in a day or two.
Assuming you arrive at Korea via the Incheon International Airport, an hour and half of driving will bring you to any major accommodations within the City of Seoul, preferably a hotel around Sejong-ro.
From the moment you arrive and unpack, you are ready to experience Seoul on the get- go.