Seoul is a bustling metropolis of 11 million people. At times, the city can come across as all modern: steel, strange interpretive art, hurried Koreans cramming on and off the never late subway trains; and then around the corner to find a 3,000 year old pagoda or pavilion tucked between two 21st century skyscrapers. Seoul has character, history, personality, and quirkiness if you know where to look. Any traveler can get a big slice of pure Korea in Seoul – the modern Korea that is the 10th largest exporter in the world and the ancient Korea with its 5,000 years of tradition. Here is a compilation of the 10 ways to experience Seoul and return home with a lifetime of memories.
1. Take a night stroll along the Cheong-gye-cheon Stream. Lined with busy eateries and shops that stay open well
into witching hours, Cheong-gye-cheon is a place to take in Korea’s creatively chic architecture and modern art. Located in downtown Seoul, it culminates at the cotton-candy pink and baby blue spiral shell designed by artist Coosje Van Bruggen and Claes Oldenbrug.
2. Marvel at 5,000 years of Korean history crammed tastefully into the 1,480,000 sq ft of the National Museum of Korea‘s floor space. With 220,000 pieces in its collection (13,000 pieces on display at given time), there’s something for everyone. From the first crampons made of gold for Korean kings to wear on icy winter days to Joseon period legends depicted in still vibrant reds and greens on scrolls – this museum both captivates the imagination, crams in a full history lesson on Korea and requires some patience and fortitude to make it through all displays.
3. Try your hand at climbing ice at the Ice Palace. The only indoor ice facility in the world, this 60m tall (2 pitches) industrial grade deep freezer let’s die-hard Koreans ice climb all year round. Taking a few swings into the freezer-burned ice at the Ice Palace gives the visitor a taste of one of Korea’s top extreme sports and also the unique experience of climbing at this one-of-a-kind facility. The Ice Palace offers classes and gear rentals for newbies or climbers without their own gear.
4. Savor a sweet Chapssaltteok pastry while locating the ever illusive Hwangudan Pavilion. This Joseon era pavilion is all that remains of King Gojong’s complex dedicated to the Rite of Heaven ceremony. It looks a little lost, dwarfed by the forest of glass and metal buildings stretching hundreds of feet into the air. Hwangudan is hidden off to the side, up some stairs and behind the Westin Chosun Hotel. An excursion to locate it is made all that better by this tasty bean paste filled pastry.
5. Hop the cable care to the top of N Seoul Tower for panoramic views of South Korea’s ever growing capitol city. Watch the city come alive at night as the sun sets and the lights come on. Seoul is just as bustling and noisy at night as it is during the day hours – testament to this modern city’s determination to burn the candle at both ends and get the most out of life.
6. Window shop at the Shinsegae Department Store where the latest tech gadgets from Asia rub elbows with European high fashion, much to many a Milan designer’s chagrin. Shinsegae meaning, “New World”; this department store is all about the new, the innovative and the must-have.
7. Wander through Gyeongbokgung Palace, former home of the Joseon Kings and one of the largest and grandest royal complexes still standing in Korea today. 40% of it has been restored since the Japanese demolished the wood and jade tile buildings by in 1911. Today it looks much like it once did during the Joseon height of power with sweeping slate roofs, a massive throne room, brightly red and green colored walls, and little statues of the “ten signs of longevity to wish for a long life” on the roof of the Queen’s buildings.
8. Ride the subway on a Sunday morning out to Bugaksan, a forested peak of hiking trails that lead to a summit overlooking Seoul. This is a key piece of Korean identity – the mountains. The subway cars on weekends are packed with locals sporting packs and trekking poles all headed out to part-take in the Korean national sport of hiking. With a set of poles and a pack you’ll blend right in.
9. Make a traditional Korean lantern at the Jogye-sabuddhist temple. Lotus lanterns are lit every year on Buddha’s
birthday to symbolize devotion to performing good deeds and lighting the dark parts of the world that are filled with suffering. Visit the Temple Stay office for classes on Korean lotus lantern construction and take home your very own Korean lantern. Warning: Flash backs to 5th grade may ensue.
10. When it comes to Korean dining it’s all about Kimchi. There are many different kinds of Kimchi, some more mild in taste while others are not for the faint of heart. Try your taste buds out on this fermented dish of pickled vegetables and seasonings, which comes in over a hundred creative variations. The most popular kind of Kimchi is the burn-off-your-taste-buds spicy Kimchi. Kimchi is THE staple of Korean diet. The joke among local Koreans is that without Kimchi there would be no “K” in Korea.
With this list in hand and an adventurous curiosity any visitor can have an authentic experience in Seoul; walking away with a lifetime of memories. And a few more nuggets of understanding and insight into the Korean culture.