Seoul, South Korea, a city with an interesting and rich cultural tapestry that has been knitted over centuries of tempestuous yet fascinating history.
History has been done, undone, and redone in this bustling city that has been invaded countless times and that has redeveloped itself with a free and forward thinking mentality; going from the poorest Asian country to one of the richest in the last 50 years.
Today, skyscrapers dwarf shantytowns and technology play with ancient history. Here are 10 places you can see that can help you capture the essence of what Seoul is.
1- Gyeongbokgung Palace
This is probably Korea’s most famous royal palace. Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1394 and has been destroyed and reconstructed numerous times during periods of war and invasion.
A complex of pavilions spread along its walled, landscaped grounds composes this palace; so, couple hours are well spent here.
This palace is tough to miss since it is located at the northern end of Seoul’s main boulevard –Sejongro– and next to the Blue House (the President’s residence).Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station.
2- Changdeokgung Palace
This is one of the “Five Grand Palaces” built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. Changdeokgung was constructed in 1405 as the secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, the main palace.
This palace is not just a single building, it is an immense complex filled with courts, halls, bridges, pavilions, and secret gardens. It is the only palace designated as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO.
Here, you can also relax in its beautifully landscaped botanical garden.Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station, walk 5 minutes.
3- Bukchon Village
Situated between two palaces –Gyeongbokgung to the west and Changdeokgung to the east – this utterly picturesque neighborhood makes it easy to imagine the days of yore in this city.
This village has the largest cluster of privately owned traditional Korean wooden homes (“hanok”) in Seoul, all connected by alleys and beautiful small courtyards. This neighborhood also counts with quaint cafés, art galleries, and restaurants.Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station.
Insadong is a very busy shopping street located in the middle of the city. It is full of restaurants, art stores, antique stores, and traditional souvenir shops lined along the main street.
Off of the main street, alleys full of galleries, traditional restaurants, traditional teahouses, and cafes abound. There is free classical music every Sunday.Getting there: Take Subway Line 3 to Anguk Station or Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station, or Line 1 to Jonggak Station.
This is an expat-friendly neighborhood near the main U.S. Army base. Itaewon is full of bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops. Here you will find one of the best dance clubs in the city, Club Volume, located in the basement of the Crown Hotel.Getting there: Take subway line 6 to Itaewon Station.
6- Namdaemun Market
This market has existed for over 600 years and counts with thousands of shops. This is a great place to find inexpensive clothing, fabrics, houseware, accessories, jewelry, food, etc.
It is also surrounded by dozens of multistory buildings full of specialty shops; so the shopping experience here can be a little overwhelming. This market is always crowded, so, prepare to get bumped around.Getting there: Take Subway Line 4 to Hoehyeon Station.
7- Dongdaemun Gate (Great East Gate)
Originally called Heung-injimun (“Gate of Uplifting Mercy”), it once served as the main eastern gate in the wall surrounding Seoul. The original gate was built in the 14th century, but it was rebuilt in 1869 to its present form. Detailed and delicate decorations represent the original post-Joseon Dynasty style of architecture.
Dongdaemun is one of only two main gates that have survived, the other being the North Gate, Sukjeongmun.
Located nearby are the Dongdaemun Market (one of Korea’s largest and most popular) and the Dongdaemun Sports Stadium (which has an interesting flea market on Sundays). Just like Namdaemun, the shopping experience here can be overwhelming.Getting there: Take Subway Line 1 or 4 to Dongdaemun Station.
8- War Memorial of Korea
South Korea has been invaded so many times – too many to count – and it is still on guard with neighboring countries, ahem, North Korea.
This memorial presents the troubled history of this country and its relationship and influence with the rest of the world.Getting there: Take Subway Line 4 to Samgakji Station.
9- N Seoul Tower
N Seoul Tower is a communications tower that opened to the public in 1980. The tower is located at the Namsan peak and measures 236.7 m (777 ft) in height (from the base) and tops out at 479.7 m (1,574 ft) above sea level.
To get there, you can ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain and then walk to the tower.
The tower features gift shops, restaurants (one of them is a rotating restaurant), and four observation decks. This is a popular place to go on a clear day to see most of Seoul.Getting there: Take Subway Line 1 or 4 to Seoul Station.
Several trails take hikers through reconstructed 15th-century gates and along Seoul’s ancient fortress walls. Once at the summit, you’ll get one of the most impressive views of Seoul’s skyline, from shantytowns to skyscrapers.
At the fortress, you can follow the steps of North Korean commandos, where they climbed the mountain some 40 years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the president. Note: You need your passport to get into the trails.Getting there: Take a taxi to Sukjeongmun gate, where you can access the best of the three trailheads.
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