One of the world’s largest metropolises, Seoul has risen into a sophisticated city where whitewashed towers are surrounded by verdant parks. The air is always crisp with the new and the now, with faces of Korea’s famous celebrities gracing storefronts and entire districts devoted to K-pop fuelled shopping. But centuries of history are still alive in pockets of Seoul and tradition is loved and relived in festivals and special occasions.
Best of Seoul
1. Changdeokgung Palace
Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for the masterful blending of the architecture and nature, this lovely 15th century palace complex is nestled in an auspicious site at the foot of Mt Eungbongsan, inspiring Korean buildings over the generations.
Small-scale crafters and shiny arcades line Insadong, the largest market for Korean folk arts. Thousands of visitors pop into the galleries and trendy boutiques tucked into quaint alleys branching out from this walking street on weekends, as performers do their best to showcase traditional culture while entertaining the crowds on the main road.
A hip hangout in the 1970s, Myeongdong district remains one of Seoul’s major shopping areas. Aside from Lotte Department store and the Migliore shopping centre, Myeongdong hosts international luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, high street brands Zara and H&M, as well as Korean cosmetics giants including The Face Shop. The Gothic-style Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral, a popular historic attraction, is a short walk away.
4. Bukchon Hanok Village
Perched on the slopes in between Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung Palaces, hanok (traditional houses) offer a glimpse of life in the Joseon Dynasty, as well as beautiful views of the city. After walking up and narrow roads, rest your legs at cafes and shops in between the residences.
5. N Seoul Tower
N Seoul Tower’s 360-degree panorama of Seoul is an unparalleled in this megacity. The tower’s observatory and restaurants are also popular with couples, who hang thousands of padlocks on the tower fence as a symbol of their love. Peek into the Teddy Bear Museum and take the cable car to complete your Namsan mountain experience.
Amidst the modernity of the Gangnam district, the Buddhist temple is a quiet refuge for meditation and a welcoming centre for monastic living. Best known for its overnight stay program, Bongeunsa also offers day tours with tea ceremonies and lotus flower making.
With Mt Bukak as your backdrop, savour authentic Korean dishes and royal cuisine made with fresh seasonal ingredients in a traditional hanok building. Whether serenaded by court music and dance or attending a traditional tea ceremony, you’ll feel like a king (or queen ) here.
8. Gyeongbokgung Palace
The grandest of the Joseon Dynasty royal palaces and largely destroyed by imperial Japanese forces, Gyeongbokgung has been restored to its former glory. Catch the colourful changing of the guard ceremony and explore the National Palace Museum and the National Folk Museum on the palace grounds.
9. Cheonggyecheon Stream
Cheonggyecheon is proof that a simple waterway can do wonders when life flows back into the great outdoors. Once ignored, it is now popular for walks and picnics, with events and seasonal décor sprucing up this pleasant green space only a few minutes’ walk from Insadong and the palaces.
10. Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
The buffer area separating North Korea from South Korea is ironically the most heavily militarised border in the world. See the peace villages on either side of the fence and, if you are granted permission, go on a tour of the tunnels and Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area, where armed soldiers watch over your every move.
11. Skiing and Snowboarding
Mountainous Korea is the perfect place to hit the slopes! Great ski and snowboard resorts are only one to four hours away from Seoul, offering a variety of challenges to beginners and experts alike, day through night.
The seaside town of South Korea, Busan is another popular spot for tourists, located a quick three-hour train ride away. Home to the world famous International Busan Film Festival, come and visit the Busan Cinema Center that boasts state-of-the-art theatres, stages and architectures. Beaches Gwangalli and Haeundae are great sun-basking spots, and the Jagalchi Fish Market is the largest seafood market in Korea, with the hawkers comprising mostly of the womenfolk.
So beautiful that many claimed it to be the eighth wonder of the world, this island accessible by local flight from Seoul is where you’ll find yellow canola fields spread above towering cliffs. Walks in the great outdoors will make for wonderful experiences, or rent a car to explore the nooks and corners of the beautiful island. Get up close and personal with nature at the Hallasan National Park or if you’re looking for something quirky, visit the world’s kinkiest theme park Love Land (sex is the main theme in this sculpture park).