The capital city of Seoul in the Republic of Korea is a bustling metropolis home to over ten million people. That’s more than three times the size of Los Angeles! While most of the city has been built up and modernized, there are still pieces of it’s ancient past among the soaring high rises. Korea is a country of contradictions – simultaneously honoring the past by wearing traditional clothing, hanbok, at wedding ceremonies while also embracing the future, like having the fastest WiFi in the world for example.
When I was living in Korea, my friends and I took an impromptu trip to Seoul. One of the greatest things about Korea is how cheap and easy it is to travel. There are several ways to travel around the country including bus, train, and the KTX – the bullet train. Cheonan, the city I lived in, is about an hour south of Seoul by regular train. But by using the KTX you cut your travel time in half.
We didn’t have much of a plan before leaving Cheonan, so everything we saw was basically on the fly. Sometimes those trips can be the most rewarding.
Our first stop was the Namsan Tower. The tower was originally a broadcast tower for TV and radio, built in 1969. It’s no longer used for that purpose, but has become one of the symbols of the city of Seoul. The top of the tower is over 1,500 feet above sea level being located on the top of Namsan Mountain. The top of the mountain around the base of the Tower has become a tourist area, nestled between the mature trees covering the mountain you’ll find shops selling snacks and souvenirs, ‘trees’ covered with love locks, a traditional Korean pergola, and Haechi, Seoul’s mascot.
To get to the top of Namsan you can take the traditional route of walking (nope) or car/taxi, or you can take the cable car. We decided to take a taxi to the cable car station, at about the half way point up the mountain. Tickets cost 8,500 Korean won (about $8 USD) for a round trip ticket, or 6,000 won one way. It’s a great way to see the city as the gondolas are all glass. The weather was pretty overcast and foggy that morning so we didn’t get the best view, but from the top of the tower you’ll have a panoramic view of Seoul.
Bukchon Hanok Village
Buckchon in the northern part of Seoul was once home to the nobility of Korea during the Joseon period (1392–1897). Hanok is a traditional Korean house. These particular houses were spared when the city began expanding and building modern skyscrapers in the 1930s. The houses are all occupied and have been renovated over the years with modern materials in the traditional fashion. It’s effect is transportive. That is, until you catch a glimpse of Seoul over the curving tiled rooftops of the hanok and you remember what year you’re actually in.
We took a taxi to the Gyeongbok Palace and walked a few blocks behind the Palace to the village. In addition to the houses in Buckchon there are shops selling art and other hip items and bohemian style cafes, even a historic Soju distillery you can tour. Soju is a fermented rice alcohol similar to Japanese Sake. It’s the traditional drink of Korea, and it’s very popular. Tastes like vodka/rubbing alcohol but with no after burn. It’s an acquired taste for sure.
Gwanghwamun Square runs between the major thoroughfare leading up to Gyeongbokgung Palace. The public space features statues, fountains, and a museum honoring Korean history and is lined with official buildings including the US Embassy and Seoul City Hall. One of the statues is of King Sejong, looming high above onlookers and covered in gold. Sejong is one of the most beloved historic figures because he is credited with creating the Korean written language. Considered the easiest of the Asian languages to learn, King Sejong famously created the language in a single day.
Seoul is a huge city with so much to do, I was lucky to have the experiences that I did with the short period of time I was in South Korea. Each of its neighborhoods is different, from the extremely westernized neighborhood of Itaewon, filled with American military members and western style food restaurants, to the night club neighborhood of Hongdae, where I ate Taco Bell at 3am after leaving my coworker’s birthday celebration. One of these days I will make it back to Korea to spend more time exploring the country.
Have you been to Seoul? What’s your favorite thing to do/see? Let me know in the comments!