Seoul: A Guide to South Korea’s Capital of Cool

After the Winter Olympics, head to Seoul, where grannies pile plates with local Korean food, and ancient palaces live on in trendy hoods.  
South Korea
The traditional village of Bukchon lies between two significant Seoul landmarks: Cheonggyecheon Stream and the historic district of Jongno. Photo by phonephoenix/Shutterstock.

Watching the Winter Olympics is the perfect excuse to head to South Korea’s capital of cool: Seoul lies just over 100 kilometres from the venues of Gangwon-do, and is a great place to end the Olympic party.

Seoul can feel like walking through a time-lapse video: crowds are constantly moving, trends change as you blink, and the markets don’t seem to need any shut-eye. Deep-rooted Confucianism easily mingles with consumerism; shopping plazas circle centuries-old palaces and temples. Everybody loves soaking at a public bathhouse, some lively karaoke, a bottle of soju. Emotions run high on the latest Korean drama or K-Pop chartbuster. For those who aren’t tuned into it all, here’s a list to help you find your feet in the city.

 

Eat, Repeat

Gwangjang Market. Photo by Izzet Keribar/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images.

Gwangjang Market. Photo by Izzet Keribar/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images.

Navigate mindboggling Seoul by planning your day around the next meal. Kimchi is just the beginning; street stalls across the city sell Korean tempura, hot dogs crusted with ramen or French fries, and waffles bulging with sweetened red bean. The best grub is sold at Gwangjang Market. Aproned ajummas pile plates with japchae (stir-fried glass noodles), and slather sesame oil on mayak kimbap (Korean sushi with rice, turnip, radish, and carrots rolled in seaweed). Bite into bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), and wash down tteokbokki (fried rice cakes drenched in tongue-scalding chilli sauce) with makgeolli (Korean rice wine).

One morning, I join a crowd milling around a tiny kiosk in Myeongdong. Isaac Toast is a local legend for breakfast. Two aunties swiftly flip bread slices on a stove, top them with blobs of butter, slap patties of bulgogi (beef marinated and grilled on a barbecue), bulgalbi (marinated beef ribs), chicken, ham, or bacon. Then they place an omelette each, throw in fresh cabbage strips, and drizzle sweet-and-spicy chilli sauce as the stove sizzles. It is a deceptively simple recipe, yet mouthwatering and gives me something to mull over this early in the day: its paper wrapping is printed with a verse from Genesis 26. “Isaac planted grain and had a good harvest… {he} was so successful that he became rich.”

 

Love Thy Neighbourhood

A performance at Nanta. Photo by Seongjoon Cho/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images.

A performance at Nanta. Photo by Seongjoon Cho/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images.

Myeongdong is for strolling along cosmetic stores, allowing sweet-talking salespersons to coax you into sampling lotions with snail slime, bee venom, or pig collagen. Dry skin? Try horse oil. Another attraction in this neighbourhood is the Nanta theatre. The hit 21-year-old kitchen drama is a high-energy comedy of errors involving Korean folk music and no words.

In Insadong, teashops are housed in hanoks, and folksy art galleries make shopping decisions doubly difficult. Browse antique shops, ceramic stores, and collections of street-side silver and metalsmiths. Ssamzigil, the four-storey spiral shopping complex, is worth a visit, too.

Hongdae, home to Hongik University, has a youthful and easy vibe. Here buskers croon on streets, hipster cafés abut trendy boutiques, bars overflow, and markets are never empty.

Itaewon caters to expats and travellers alike, and is chock-full of restaurants serving international cuisine. It is part of the Yongsan-gu neighbourhood, which is home to the National Museum of Korea. The museum houses ancient Korean calligraphy, woodwork, and Buddhist paintings and sculptures.

 

Outer Space

Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a popular venue for fashion weeks and farmers markets alike. Photo by Albert Tan Photo/Moment/Getty Images.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a popular venue for fashion weeks and farmers markets alike. Photo by Albert Tan Photo/Moment/Getty Images.

Trust Seoul to have a sinuous, silvery leviathan that resembles a UFO parked in the middle of what is Korea’s largest wholesale and retail shopping district. Sprawled over almost 9,32,000 square feet, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) was designed by the late illustrious Iraqi-British architect, Zaha Hadid. It holds design shops, galleries, halls, and the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. After window shopping at its open-air stalls selling jewellery and trinkets, I picked up some beef and chicken sizzling on skewers from a food truck parked inside, and gaped at the Rose Garden: a field of 25,550 artificial white roses glinting at night, each embedded with an LED light, casting a surreal glow on every face that bends for a closer look.

However Seoul has a somewhat troubled relationship with the DDP. The city’s beloved 1925 Dongdaemun sports stadium was razed to make way for it, and DDP met much ire from locals who felt that the 450-million-dollar, bulbous modern structure did not reflect Dongdaemun’s cultural ethos. As construction began, sections of the 14th-century Seoul City Wall, and remnants from the Joseon dynasty were unearthed. They are now displayed in the park’s Dongdaemun History Museum. The Dongdaemun Stadium Memorial recalls the stadium’s Japanese colonial history (www.ddp.or.kr).

 

In Memoriam

Photo by Pietro Scozzari/Age Fotostock/Getty Images.

Photo by Pietro Scozzari/Age Fotostock/Getty Images.

The city’s manic energy is muted when you enter The War Memorial of Korea. This is a place of reflection and remembrance of Korea’s troubled history: life-like dioramas with chilling sound effects, video interviews of teenaged soldiers barely ready for war, and other exhibits tell a stirring story of the Korean War (1950-53). Rooms are dedicated to Korea’s war history from the Japanese colonial era, its involvement in the Vietnam War, and the army men it has lost over time. But the memorial’s biggest draws are the aircrafts, tanks, submarines and artillery on display outside; they were used in WWII, the Korean and the Vietnam wars (www.warmemo.or.kr).

 

Live Stream

Cheonggyecheon Stream. Photo by Park Ji-Hwan/tringer/AFP/Getty Images.

Cheonggyecheon Stream. Photo by Park Ji-Hwan/tringer/AFP/Getty Images.

It is possible to walk on water in downtown Seoul. The 5.8-kilometre-long Cheonggyecheon Stream winds its way through the heart of the city 15 feet below street level. Its sunken banks brim with amorous couples, and mothers reining in their toddlers from hurling themselves onto its fountains. Musicians perform beside the stream’s bridges, sculptures, gardens, and waterfall. I jostle my way through people around food trucks selling beef burritos, mango ice flakes, and sandwiches at one end of the stream, which forms the Cheonggye Plaza. It is the weekend, and it feels like most of Seoul has descended here, checking out quirky jewellery and handmade articles at the flea market in the square.

Like the DDP, Cheonggyecheon Stream too has a bittersweet story. At first glance it appears to be a successful urban renewal project, a pedestrian-only haven that reclaimed a stream and made the city greener. However, the stream’s water is pumped artificially, resulting in hefty maintenance costs, something Korean environmentalists are critical of.

 

Past in Present

Gyeongbokgung Palace. Photo by Topic Images Inc./Topic Images/Getty Images.

Gyeongbokgung Palace. Photo by Topic Images Inc./Topic Images/Getty Images.

In Seoul, you can walk backwards in time just as easily as you can step into the future. I could feel 600 years of history as I strolled past hanoks at the Bukchon Hanok Village. Eaves of their pagoda-style roofs curve delicately and carved wooden doors gleam in the afternoon sun. I can almost picture how the sunlight floods the homes through the crisscross-patterned wooden windows, and how people inside warm their feet on the ondol (under-floor heating) ground in winter.

Many hanoks in Korea were torn down in the early 1900s to make way for more urbanized neighbourhoods, but conservation efforts have now lent hipness to their history. Some of these 900 renovated hanoks house elegant boutiques, design studios and art galleries. There are tea houses that stir nostalgia, and homes that conduct workshops in traditional Korean folk painting and gilding fabrics. One hanok smells like somebody’s well-tended backyard, and sea breeze. I follow aromas of cedar, musk, and toffee leading to it, and find a parfumier inside. Bukchon is touristy yet feels like a cocoon amid Seoul. “You can hear the silence in Bukchon… feel the coolness of wood. I can’t say that about most other neighbourhoods in Seoul,” smiles Sun Woo Ahn, who hands me the coffee at Gallery Sai café (hanok.seoul.go.kr).

Another historic must-see is the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The grandest and largest of the five palaces in the city, it was built in the 1390s and rebuilt in the mid-1800s after being destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s. I walk along rows of cherry blossoms leading to storeyed pavilions, lotus ponds, gardens, and painted roofs. I bump into teenage sisters Jasmine and Natasha from Australia, who like a lot of tourists around, have rented the traditional Korean costume, hanbok, for two hours today. Their billowing silk skirts and full-sleeved tops will give them free entry to all heritage sites. “We’d experienced South Korea only through The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (a popular Korean drama) and the Big Bang boy band,” they say, squinting at the guard changing ceremony underway at the palace gates. “I can’t believe we are actually here,” beams Natasha (www.royalpalace.go.kr).

To explore more of South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics, read our guide here.

  • Kareena Gianani is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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