South Korea’s hectic capital, The Seoul Special City, to give its official name, is a buzzing metropolis with a thrilling 24 hour culture and a fascinating history. Seoul possesses a chaotic charm, which comes from the feeling of being in the past, present and future all at once. Visitors will marvel at the sheer size of the world’s 4th largest city (by population). Seoul is packed with things to see and do, from traditional temples to modern art galleries and weird yet wonderful theatre attractions. Rounding up a megacity of 10 million people in one article is no easy feat, but here is our selection of the things not to miss when you come to stay in Seoul.
War Memorial of Korea
The War Memorial of Korea is actually a large museum dedicated to the country’s military history, located on the former site of the Korean Infantry Headquarters. The Museum is comprised of 8 different exhibits, focusing on different aspects of the country’s war history, military complex and troops. The most important part is the Hogukchumo Exhibit, which honours the spirit of those who have perished on the battlefield. The Memorial is open from 09:00 until 18:00 and closed every Monday. Entry is free and audio guides are available in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese.
Visit a Market – Day or Night!
Like many Asian cities, Seoul is packed with outdoor and indoor markets, many of which never seem to close. Whether you plan on buying anything or not, exploring a few of these fascinating microcosms is a great way to spend a day in the city. Namdaemun is Seoul’s best known market and the place to go for souvenirs; This is the tip of the iceberg. Noryangjin, Garak and Majang Markets are the best for fresh food: during the night thousands of restaurant owners descend on these to haggle over supplies. One of the best features is that you can buy a piece of meat, fish or tofu from a market stall and take it over to a restaurant, where they will cook it right in front of you. Dongdaemun night market is the best place for clothes and Korean fashion. For a local perspective Yongsan or Geumcheongyo Markets are centrally located and less frequented by tourists.
Eat like a local!
South Korea takes great pride in its cuisine, and no visit to the country would be complete without sampling some of the massive variety of exotic dishes on offer at restaurants, kiosks and markets all over Seoul. Small, friendly restaurants serving traditional ‘set menu’ meals are dotted all over the city and serve cheap, authentic food. The meals usually consist of a tasty fried pancake starter, a curry main course and a couple of interesting ‘Banchan’ – side dishes which are carefully partnered to the main course. Korean food is best consumed alongside a cup of Makgeolli – a sweet, alcoholic drink made from fermented rice or wheat.
Nanta is a lively show that was conceived in 1997 and has since proved incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike, so much so that Seoul now has three separate theatres dedicated to the performance. The show has a simple backstory involving three cooks trying to prepare the food for a wedding, with an incompetent supervisor slowing them down. Nanta combines traditional Korean Samul Nori music with comedy, acrobatics, magic and a bit of audience participation. There is very little speaking in the performance, and what there is usually done in English. The most famous Nanta Theatre is located in Myeong-dong, with 2 shows at 17:00 and 20:00 every evening, plus an additional afternoon show on Saturdays.
The World’s Largest Indoor Theme Park
Every city needs its entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, Seoul’s is found at the Lotte World Complex, where the indoor theme park is just one part of a complex including another outdoor theme park, shopping centre, sports facilities and more. Seasoned thrill seekers might not find the parks rollercoasters worth taking the time for, but Lotte World can make an excellent day out for the family. Lotte World is open 365 days a year.
Bukchon Hanok Village
A Hanok is a simple, single story house, made from clay, wood and stone and topped with a curved tile roof. As recently as the 1980s, there were almost a million of these traditional homes all over the city. Seoul’s rampant development throughout the late 20th Century has led to most of these beautiful buildings being bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers. Bukchon Village is the only significant cluster of them remaining. The village is right next to the trendy Samcheong-dong district, so a stroll around here can easily be combined with a visit to an art gallery, wine bar or restaurant.
South Korea is packed with ancient Palaces and Temples, and while many of them are pretty incredible to behold, it’s easy to get architecture overload in Seoul, and beautiful buildings are not all the city has to offer. If you only visit one Palace during your stay, Gyeongbokgung is probably the best bet. The original site dates all the way back to the 13th Century, although the Palace has been rebuilt multiple times in between. English tours are available, the Palace is closed every Tuesday.
South Korea’s rocky relationship with its neighbor is well documented in the news these days, often seen as one of the most pressing global issues in modern times. Just an hour’s drive north from Seoul lies the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the land border between the two countries, which is the most heavily fortified in the world. Tours of the zone can easily be booked including travel to and from the capital, and due to the strict controls in place; these are the only way to visit most of the Demilitarized Zone. Don’t forget to bring a valid ID with you! Undoubtedly the highlight of the tour is Panmunjeon, or the Joint Security Area. This is a neutral ground where officials from both of the Koreas meet for diplomatic discussions. Recently, birdwatchers have also flocked to zone, as the lack of human presence on the 4km strip which separates the two countries, seems to have provided an excellent wildlife habitat.
The Jongmyo Shrine is the oldest and best preserved Confucian Royal Shrine in the whole of Asia. The current building dates back to the 16th Century; when the original, built in 1392, burnt down. The shrine was used for hundreds of years for the King and other members of the Royal Family for rituals wishing for the safety and security of the country and its people. Although today just 0.2% of South Koreans identify their religion as Confucianism, and Buddhism and Christianity are the country’s main religions, the Confucian philosophy still plays an important part in their culture. Visiting the shrine is an excellent way to increase your understanding of South Korea’s history and national identity.
Korea was ruled as a colony by the Japanese from 1910 until 1945, and the Seodaemun Prison stands as a testament to the brutality of this rule. The prison features lifelike exhibitions of the torture and interrogation which prisoners were subjected to. Most of the place has been left much as it was when the prison was open.