A 5,000-year-old culture blended with startling modernity makes South Korea’s capital, Seoul, a fascinating place to visit. You’ll find old-fashioned tea shops and centuries-old temples with ornate roofs sitting between skyscrapers and smart malls selling the latest electronic gadgets, while the rocky peaks of Bukhansan National Park form a scenic backdrop.
Tradition is important to Koreans, and even among hip young Seoulites, Confucian principles like respect for elders still hold sway. Visiting a Buddhist temple, sampling some fancy royal cuisine or tucking into a tabletop barbecue are simple ways you can get a taste of the local culture for yourself, even on a short visit. You might even choose to hang out with the friendly locals in the steam rooms and lounges of one of the popular bathhouses.
Not far from Seoul is the Demilitarized Zone, a fascinating spot that marks the divide between South Korea and its secretive northern neighbors.
The National Museum of Korea includes some beautiful artifacts like Buddha statues, calligraphy and an intricate 5th-century gold and jade crown. Admission is free.
Full- and half-day tours to the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ outside Seoul are popular. This is the weapon-free no man’s land that has separated North and South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. You can descend into the “Third Tunnel,” which North Korea is believed to have dug in an attempt to breach the border and peer across to the neighbors through telescopes. Some full-day tours will also take in Panmunjom, the site of the armistice signing, where, under the gaze of soldiers, you can walk around a conference table into North Korean territory. You will need to book in advance and bring your passport.
Looking for a pleasant day trip? Check out the seaside atmosphere of Wolmido Island , which has a fun fair and stalls selling seafood, including dried octopus tentacles.
If you are interested in the Korean War, take a stroll in Jayu (Freedom) Park in Incheon, which features a monument to General MacArthur, who organized the pivotal U.N.-led Incheon landings. There’s more information in the Incheon Landing Operation Memorial Hall. In Seoul, you can visit the War Memorial of Korea, which includes a Korean War exhibition. Admission to both is free.
Buddhist Jogyesa Temple in Seoul gives tours and offers visitor activities like lotus lantern-making.
N Seoul Tower is a landmark on a forested hill with fine views over Seoul. At the top are a restaurant and an observation deck decorated with thousands of padlocks left by lovers, inscribed with their initials.
Seoul’s Bukchon heritage district showcases traditional hanok houses. You can wander the streets, popping into cafes and museums.
Experience one of Seoul’s traditional bathhouses, where you can alternate between hot and cold water and steam, relax or get a massage. Those called jjimjilbangs offer more comfortable facilities — even places to lounge watching TV in your pajamas. Among the most famous is Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, which includes a rooftop cinema, an arcade and horseback riding simulators.
Once covered by a highway, Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream is now part of an urban park lined with walkways and crossed by 22 bridges. At night, waterfalls and fountains are illuminated at several points. For a respite from hot weather, join it at Insa-dong, and follow the locals strolling or even paddling.
The carved tablets at UNESCO-listed Jongmyo Shrine are thought to house the spirits of dead kings and queens. Each May, the ghosts are honored with food offerings, mass ritual bowing and dancing.
Despite being majorly reconstructed in the 1970s, the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress is UNESCO-listed for its faithful recreation from 18th-century records. The massive walls stretch for more than three miles.
Korean food is generally beautifully presented, healthy and fun to eat. The ubiquitous kimchi makes an appearance at every meal and is considered so important that Korean astronauts were sent into space with a freeze-dried version. Chili-spiced fermented vegetables (cabbage, most commonly) may sound unappetizing, but give it a go — it’s a refreshing side dish.
Bokbunjaju, a raspberry-flavored, wine-like liqueur, is very palatable. Soju is Korean vodka. For more international tastes, there are 40 varieties of vodka and 200 wines on offer at the WooBar at the trendy W Seoul Walkerhill hotel. Popular Korean meals include:
Bibimbap: A large bowl of rice, vegetables and sometimes minced beef, into which you stir an egg and chili paste using your chopsticks.
Tabletop barbecues (bulgogi): A not-to-be missed experience. This generally includes beef or pork, grilled before you with an extractor fan pulled low to suck up the smoke. The meat is traditionally cut into small pieces and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with roasted garlic and chili paste.
Royal cuisine: A fancy feast of small, delicate taste sensations that arrive like a Mediterranean meze, in small dishes spread across your table.
Seoul’s royal cuisine restaurants include the tourist-oriented Korea House cultural center, where you can also learn about tea ceremonies, dress up in the national costume and see traditional dance performances.
Byeokje Galbi specializes in Korean tabletop barbecues and made a Wall Street Journal list of top five Asian restaurants.
If you need a break from Asian food, you can get European favorites and Australian steaks with a city view at Top Cloud on the 33rd Floor of Seoul’s Jongno Tower Building. Nashville Sports Pub & Restaurant serves up steaks, burgers, kebabs and chops and offers barbecues in the rooftop beer garden. Many of the city’s large malls include a food court with a good choice of Western and Asian food.
Eat “temple” food created by a female monk, and learn something about Buddhist etiquette as you sit cross-legged at Balwoo Gongyang restaurant above the Templestay information center, opposite Jogyesa Temple.
Insa-dong and Jongno districts have snack stalls where you can join locals waiting in line for particular specialties like egg rolls, pancakes and fish skewers.
Shopping in Seoul
Note that credit cards are widely accepted in most stores, but some merchants prefer cash and will give you a discount for using it.
The bustling Myeongdong district is where you’ll discover most of the department stores and international chains in Seoul. Aside from the brands you’ll recognize (think H&M and GAP), you’ll also want to check out Lotte and Shinsegae, two of the biggest Korean department stores.
A favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike, the Insa-dong (also known as Insadong) neighborhood is known for antique and ceramic shops, art galleries, traditional tea shops and street stalls where sweet sellers and the like ply their trade, some dressed in national costume.
You can shop just about all day and night long in Dongdaemun, a commercial district that’s home to numerous malls and markets. This is where many merchants in other parts of the city buy their wholesale goods. Be prepared to bargain!
Name it and you’ll probably find it at Namdaemun Market, the city’s largest traditional market. Affordable goods on offer include clothing, ginseng, sporting equipment, kitchenware and much more.
For inexpensive and fashionable items, consider shopping where the local college kids do. Hongdae (near Hongik University) and Edae (near Ewha Women’s University) are two spots to find interesting goods at great prices.
–written by Debbie Ward