Due to its population, which exceeds 10 million, Seoul is by far South Korea’s largest city. If you count in all the neighboring cities, the figure doubles. According to some calculations, Seoul and its surrounding area is the second largest urban sprawl on the planet, after Greater Tokyo. Seoul is the country’s cultural, financial and political hub.
Seoul is seen to be, partly undeservingly, engulfed in traffic jams and air pollution. The subway system allows you to escape traffic congestion and provides visitors with an easy way of traversing the city, and the air quality is being addressed by strict emission laws.
The massive city is relatively well organized; it is divided into 25 districts, each resembling its own city, but it is more comprehensible to divide the city into the following areas: Jongno, Gangnam, Yeoui-do, Hongdae and Sinchon, Dongdaemun, Hyehwa, Yongsan, Songpa, and Jung.
Geographically, it is located in the north west of South Korea, 40 km east of the Yellow Sea. From afar, the city seems like a forest of high-rises and modern buildings cut in half in the east/west direction by the Han River. A closer look reveals pockets of traditional dwellings and a city composed of several smaller districts, each with its own characteristic image.
The central district in the north is Jongno, encircled by five districts, which are of main interest to the visitors. There are an additional two districts in the southern part of the city, also of interest.
Most streets are not named and buildings are not numbered so the easiest way to find something is by knowing the nearest subway station or a local landmark.
Seoul’s most notable features are its beautiful royal palaces, delicious food and lively nightlife.
Seoul has a temperate monsoon climate with four distinct seasons. Temperatures vary greatly between the hottest period of the year - the summer (August) and the winter time (January).
In the winter the cold winds bring temperatures down as low as -14 °C. Summer temperature, on the other hand, can soar up to 35°C, accompanied by very high humidity. The heaviest rainfall is during the summer monsoon, between June and September.
January average temperature -2 deg Celsius 22 mm rainfall February average temperature 0 deg Celsius, 24 mm rainfall March average temperature 5 deg Celsius, 46 mm rainfall April average temperature 12 deg Celsius, 77 mm rainfall May average temperature 17 deg Celsius, 102 mm rainfall June average temperature 22 deg Celsius, 133 mm rainfall July average temperature 25 deg Celsius, 328 mm rainfall August average temperature 25 deg Celsius, 348 mm rainfall September average temperature 21 deg Celsius, 137 mm rainfall October average temperature 15 deg Celsius, 49 mm rainfall November average temperature 7 deg Celsius, 53 mm rainfall December average temperature 0 deg Celsius, 25 mm rainfall
South Korea’s largest airport as well as the country’s major gateway is the Incheon International Airport, located on Yeongjong Island in the neighboring city of Incheon.
The best mode of transfer to Seoul is by bus. Limousine buses are available at the airport and provide connections to the main hubs and hotels in the city from where you can catch other means of transport.
The easiest and quickest way of traversing the city is by the extensive network of subway lines. There are currently 9 lines. Signs are in Korean and English. Most lines also have English announcements. Tickets can be bought from vending machines or ticket windows. The subway is very crowded during the morning and evening rush hours.
Seoul has a fleet of taxis available. Regular taxis are white or silver, while black taxis (Mobeom) are luxurious and charge more but also offer superior service.
Seoul has an extensive bus network. There are four different services: yellow, green, red and blue lines, covering different sections of the city. The yellow buses cruise around tourist areas; green buses travel around neighborhoods and are connected with the subway, blue buses travel across town, and the red buses offer intercity travel. Services are frequent but tend to be overcrowded. Buses stop at designated bus stops.
Do not rent a car if you intend to stay in the city. Reckless divers abound and traffic jams perpetually clog the streets. Parking spaces are scarce.
The riverbanks and parks flanking the Han River are popular jogging, cycling and rollerblading areas. Especially convenient is the Hangang Park which features over 30 km pathways amidst beautifully sculpted garden and sports grounds. Bikes and skates can be rented at Yeouido Park, which also features a selection of restaurants for post-sports replenishment. The Olympic Velodrome has a bike racing track open during the summers.
LOTTE WORLD THEME PARK
Lotte World offers family entertainment with numerous amusement and shopping opportunities. (see attractions section) Everland is another modern theme park featuring a zoo, indoor water park and sledding track in the winter. It is located 1 hour’s drive from the city.
Koreans love golf and many new golf courses are springing up in and around Seoul. Fees are lower than in the USA.
A hugely popular pastime, hiking trails web the numerous hills surrounding Seoul. Natural hot springs abound and provide a great way to round out a long hiking day. Inexpensive hiking gear can be bought locally.
Seoul has several ski resorts within reach of 3 to 4 hours drive. Skiing season runs from Late November till the end of March. Ski lifts are in good condition. The sport is very popular so weekends can be quite crowded; week days are a much better time to go. Ski instructors are available as well, fluent in English and other languages. Skiing gear can be rented at the resorts and can also be easily bought in local sports stores and markets.
Seoul has it all – from street-side stalls to sleek shopping malls.
Myeongdong is one of the city’s main shopping districts with numerous department stores, shopping centers, restaurants, upscale shops and boutiques, serving midrange to upscale shopper. Apart from being the center of fashion, it is also a popular nightlife spot. Gangnam district in downtown Seoul offers a selection of designer shops and modern shopping malls. The areas of Itaewon, Namdaemun and Dongdaemun cater to more unusual tastes, as they feature a number of street stalls with bargains and eclectic items. Note that bargaining is limited to small and street stores, whereas prices in department stores are fixed.
Address: 1 Sejong-no, Jongno-gu Web: www.royalpalace.go.kr Phone: (0)2 734 2458 Open: daily except Tuesdays 9:00 am – 6:00 pm; 9:00 am – 5:00 pm November to February
Seoul was the ancient seat of Korea’s royalty and is home to five spectacular palaces. This one is the city’s grandest. Constructed in 1395, during the Joseon Dynasty-era, the palace was the seat of power for several centuries. It was attacked and destroyed twice by the Japanese, first in 1592 and again in 1910. Now it has been largely restored and is open to visitors, although works are ongoing as new treasures are being uncovered. The rectangular palace features magnificent Royal apartments, elegant gardens and lotus ponds. The complex is also home to the National Folk Museum of Korea, one of the city’s biggest attractions.
Open: daily; wholesale midnight – 6:00 am; retail 7 am – 5 pm; closed Sundays Access: Subway line 4, Hoehyeon Station
The market, covering an area of 10 acres, is one of the largest, as well as oldest continually running markets in South Korea. It is located in the downtown area, next to its namesake Namdaemun - the Great South Gate. The market encompasses numerous narrow streets, brimming with all kinds of shops. It is very popular with tourists and is a great place to go souvenir hunting.
The palace was built in 1405 and was the seat of government from 1618 to 1896. Initially it was a summer palace for the kings of the Koryo Dynasty. The buildings have been recently restored displaying a renewed glory. The palace is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most spectacular are the king’s blue office, the royal bed chamber and the Secret (Biwon) Garden. The garden is registered as a World Heritage site and is a typical palace garden where the royal family could relax and unwind.
Jongmyo Shrine and Gardens
Open: daily, except Tuesdays
According to Korean beliefs, the spirits of the dead roam the world for months or even years after death. To placate the spirits and ward off misfortune, a family would build an ancestral shrine. Jongmyo’s function was somewhat different. It was constructed by Taejo, the founder of the Joseon (Chosôn) dynasty, when he established his rule in Seoul. He built the temple to honor his ancestors in accordance with the new ideology, Neo-Confucianism. The temple was also a place where the populous were taught the ancestral rites they were expected to perform. These elaborate rituals are still performed today but only once per year, in May.
Namsangol Hanok Village
Address: 84-1 Pildong 2-ga, Jung-gu Phone: (0)2 2266 6923 Open: Daily (except Tuesdays) 9 am - 10 pm, 9 am - 8 pm (November to March)
The traditional Korean village is located amidst the skyscrapers of the bustling modern day metropolis and represents a peaceful haven with its ancient houses, ponds and pavilions, featuring five restored Korean historical homes. Visitors can enjoy traditional tea, browse souvenirs and crafts, or try the ancient game of 'neolttwigi'. On summer weekends, the place is a very popular setting for traditional-style weddings.
Address: Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu
Jogyesa is the center of Zen Buddhism in Korea and home to the Jogye order, the dominant branch in Korea. It was established in 1395. It is surrounded by tall shady trees, said to be 500 years old. One locust tree is 26 meters tall, and is designated a Natural Monument. In the surrounding area there are many Buddhist shops selling prayer beads, Buddhist writings, incense sticks, and souvenirs.
The National Museum is the major repository for the country’s history and art. Home to over 150,000 pieces, this is one of the largest museums in Asia. Among the artifacts one can find archeological finds dating from the very beginning of Korean culture.
National War Museum
Located across the street from Korea's Department of Defense and next to the U.S. Army's Yongsan Garrison, the Museum has an impressive granite façade lined with columns and is surrounded by a vast park filled with aircraft and tanks. The museum features 6 display rooms where visitors can see the history of foreign invasions of Korea, spanning almost 5,000 years, from the period of the Three Kingdoms (57 B.C. - 668 A.D) to the more recent conflicts of the Korean War (1945 – 60).
Address: 100-177 Hoehyun-dong 1-ga Jung-gu Access: Subway Line 4 (dong Station) then 10-minute walk Open: 24 hours / day Cable car: daily 10:00 am – 10:00 pm Seoul Tower: 9:30 am – 11:30 pm
The park, located just out of town, provides a much needed escape and recreational area for the city dwellers. There is a cable car to the top of the Namsan Mountain. At the top, visitors can view the maritime aquarium, botanical gardens, fountains, and the Seoul Tower measuring 480m in height. The tower features a revolving restaurant offering a spectacular panorama over the city, especially at night.
Address: 40-1 Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu Web: www.lotteworld.com/Global_eng/ Phone: (0)2 411 2000 Open: daily 9:30 am – 11:00 pm Access: Metro Line 2, Jamsil station
This is Seoul’s biggest theme park and also the largest indoor theme park in the world. It is a popular attraction, especially suited for those who travel with kids. The park has indoor and outdoor sections. Indoor, there are various streets offering diverse entertainment, activities, shops, as well as an indoor ice skating rink, and a Folk Museum. Outdoor section features Magic Island with a castle, rides, laser shows and walking trails around a lake.
As expected in a major metropolis, Seoul offers countless dining options. There are restaurants, bars, and cafés to suit everyone's taste and budget – from street stalls to elegant restaurants and everything in between. Cuisines to be found cover a vast spectrum, from traditional Korean to Western and other international cuisines, to fast food. Korean food is well known to be healthy and spicy fare. Although ingredients and spices vary from one province to the other, it is largely based on rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables and meat. In traditional Korean cuisine, meals consist of steam-cooked short-grain rice accompanied by various side dishes called banchan. It is richly seasoned with sesame oil, soybean paste, soy sauce, ginger, and chili paste. Kimchi is a spicy vegetable dish that has been buried in clay pots and is usually served with every meal.
Traditional food, lively ambience, friendly prices and a selection of fish, chicken or vegetarian dishes are good reasons to visit this market alley featuring over 200 stalls selling a rich variety of local food.
This very popular restaurant is famous for its ginseng chicken soup, an iconic Korean dish. The venue’s popularity also owes to the fact it used to be frequented by the Former President. Expect crowds during lunchtime.
The city’s biggest festival is a week long celebration that takes place at numerous venues along Han River.
Lotus Lantern Festival / Buddha’s Birthday
Date: April or early May Web: www.LLF.or.kr Location: Jongno Street & Jogyesa and Bongeunsa Temples
The Lotus Lantern Festival, commemorating Buddha’s Birthday, is one of Korea’s most attractive and beautiful festivals, as well as the most important holiday for Korean Buddhists. Its date changes according to the lunar calendar. The occasion features a beautiful lantern parade accompanied by traditional song and dance performances. There is also Buddhist street fair where all sorts of Buddhist knick-knacks, as well as Korean crafts are sold.
Changing of the Palace Guard
Date: March – December Time: Tue-Sun every 30 minutes, 10:00 am – 1:00 pm Location: Changdeokgung Palace
The guards at the main gates of the Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung and Changdeokgung Palaces are changed in accordance with traditional ceremony.
Seoul Medicinal Herb Market Festival
Location: Sajik-dong Sajikan Date: September
The festival features a shaman street rite, free consultations on herbal medicine use, exhibitions of medicinal herbs and an herb-chopping competition.
Seoul Drum Festival
Location: Seoul Plaza & the Sejong Centre for the Performing Arts Date: October Web: http://www.drumfestival.org
The festival takes place annually, and is a beautiful showcase of Seoul’s percussive arts.
Date: annually; 14 March
White Day in Korea is equivalent to Valentines Day in the West. Men give women such gifts as white or dark chocolate, marshmallows, jewelry and white clothes. One month before, on February 14, women present men with chocolates.
Modafe Dance Festival
Location: Arko Arts Theater, Mary Hall at Sogang University, Dongrang Arts Center Date: end of May. Check website for specific dates Web: www.modafe.org
The International Modern Dance Festival has been held for the last 25 years and has grown to become a prominent Asian event showcasing new trends of modern dance and draws numerous international dance companies and artists. It has recently been expanded to also feature contemporary art, film, architecture and drama, offering a varied program of workshops, exhibitions and performances.
Seoul has a vast array of nightlife venues. There is a myriad of choices. You can sing at the karaoke bars, grab delicious snacks at night markets, chill out with a beer at the Korean pubs called hofs, or be seen at the hotel bars and clubs. The Hongdae area near Hongik University is Seoul's most vibrant club scene with bars and clubs everywhere. The best known clubs are M2, Miroir, NB, Q-Vo, Janes Groove, etc.
The most international district in Seoul is Itaewon, featuring numerous Western-styled eateries, bars, and clubs, lining the main and adjacent streets. It is frequented by USA military personnel as it lies adjacent to the base. The Gangnam district is also a very popular and trendy clubbing area, always buzzing with life and popular with rich kids. The most popular venues are NB, Harlem, 4X, and Eden.
Apgujeong-dong is Seoul’s upmarket area. There are a few bars and clubs but the main stress is on trendy bars and restaurants. The area, mostly frequented by the privileged youth is less of a party place than a leisurely place to see and be seen.
The complex features several indoor as well as outdoor stage areas, and offers a glimpse into authentic Korean culture. The rich and varied program features music, theater and dance, performed by the National Drama Company, The National Dance Company, the National Orchestra, and the National Changgeuk Company
The area of present day Seoul – along the river Han - was already a settlement in Paleolithic times. Gradually the settlement spread inland from the riverside. In 18 BC the Baekje kingdom founded the capital on the site of the present day Seoul. It later developed into one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Remains of that period can still be seen at the Pungnap Toseong, earthen wall in the southeastern part of the city near Han River. During the era of the Three Kingdoms, power struggles over the strategic Korean peninsula resulted in several shifts in rule. The Han River valley was the center of transportation and thus greatly desired. King Sukjong of the Goryeo Dynasty built a palace in Seoul in 1104, but the city was then called Namgyeong, or the southern capital. During this period the city grew in size and prominence. Under the Joseon Dynasty the capital was known as Hanyang, Fortress city on Han, as it was encircled by a protective circular wall, to ward off wild animals and thieves. The wall has long been gone, but some of the gates remain, namely the Namdaemun, the South Gate and the Dongdaemun – the East Gate.
Seoul was isolated for hundreds of years but in the 19th century it opened up to foreign influence and modernization. Trade with the USA was established, and as a result Seoul was equipped with needed infrastructure, all owned by the USA: electricity, water, telephone, and telegraph networks as well as trolley car systems, and was the first one in East Asia to do so.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
Japan colonized Korea and the occupation lasted from 1910 to 1945, making Seoul their colonial capital. After the Japanese occupation ended, the city was officially named Seoul on August 15, 1945, thereafter celebrated as National Liberation Day. In the following years the city has expanded in size and population.
The Korean War broke out in 1950 and reduced the city’s population almost to zero, and by the time the war ended in 1953, almost no building was left intact. The city was flooded with refugees from the Northern part of the country, its population swelled, most were homeless. After the Armistice Agreement was signed, the people of Seoul set out to rebuild their city. Massive modernization and industrialization projects were set in motion. In the following years Seoul continued to expand and flourish, and by the 1970s its size had doubled from the post war era. During the 1980s the construction boom changed the face of the city, with numerous skyscrapers dotting the city skyline. A massive influx from surrounding areas accelerated pollution and traffic jams.
The city has become a massive urban sprawl, home to over 10 million people and continues to expand. It played host to the 1986 Asian Games, the Summer Olympics in 1988, and more recently, co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002. Previously, Seoul was largely home to Korean residents, with only a small Chinese minority, but in the 1990s the city started attracting many internationals, so that today there are over 200,000 foreign residents in the city. Seoul has become a major business and financial center, and one of the most expensive cities on Earth.
Korea has a Confucian culture. Keeping face and honor are very important aspects. Note that Korea can be a conservative and traditional country so it is beneficial to the traveler to show respect and know some of the customs. A good example is the protocols of a greeting. Usually the person of lower class bows to the person of higher class, but the senior person is the one who initiates the greeting. This can be translated into many situations: young and old, visitor and local. Foreigners are usually greeted with a bow followed by a handshake.
Social situations tend to be quite formal. It is polite to wait to be introduced to people. When leaving, bow and say goodbye to each person individually. It is not customary to pour drinks for yourself. Instead, people offer drinks to one another. At a dinner party, wait to be told where to sit. Do not point with your chopsticks. It is polite to eat everything on your plate. Place chopsticks on the table when the meal is finished. Never leave them parallel across the bowl. Only use your right arm for eating.
If invited to someone’s home bring flowers or quality chocolates. Never give anything of four or multiples of four, as 4 is considered an unlucky number. Receive and give gifts with both hands. Also, when entering a home, remove your shoes. The same applies for some restaurants.
Do not write a person’s name in red color, as this signifies death. Similarly, do not leave your chopsticks in the bowl after eating, as this carries death connotations as well.
Despite its size, Seoul is a very safe city, but nevertheless one should practice general precautions. Do not walk around alone at night in badly lit areas, carry valuables in a money belt, or leave them in a hotel safe deposit. Don’t walk around with large amounts of cash. Violent crime is almost nonexistent and pick pocketing is rare, although be vigilant in crowded areas. Be very cautious when crossing a street, as Seoul’s traffic is very hectic. Ensure a valid medical insurance for your travels.
The best time to travel to Seoul is in spring and autumn, when the weather is great, skies are blue and temperatures are moderate. Summers are hot and humid, with heavy monsoon rain and winters can be bitterly cold!