Seoul, South Korea
Seoul is a city with an ancient heartbeat in a modern body.
Here, capitalism is embraced at no expense to history, and instead intertwine into a cohesive and celebratory cityscape. Youthful and curious vendors are sprinkled along ancient city sights, while tech giants and neck-breaking skyscrapers stand ground amid grand palaces and rustic hanoks. The capital city and its surrounding area is home to 25.6 million people, making Seoul the 5th largest metropolitan area in the world after Tokyo, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Delhi, and the 4th most economically powerful city behind Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles. Coming from Incheon airport and into the city, you're greeted with a cornucopia of tech industry buildings such as Samsung, Hyundai, and SK Corporation, immediately putting the region's technical superiority on the map. Visiting Seoul for only a couple of days should guarantee your fill for modern marvels, historical curiosity, and transcendental dining.
Residential Life // Culture, History, and Perspective
Staying in Jongno-gu was a window into the historical apex of the city. This residential community is nested deeply in culture and history, housing two of the most popular Joseon Palaces, the Gyeongbokgung and the Changdeokgung. I visited Gyeongbokgung the morning of my first day in Seoul, avoiding the large school groups and hanbok-clad parties. Going early in the morning also guarantees that the sun will hang lower in the sky, offering some solace to the rays beaming down on the otherwise exposed palace grounds. Built in 1935, the Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the five palaces, and was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty. Catching the guard changing ceremony is one of the best parts of visiting the palace, regularly filling the entrance with a vibrancy of music, movement, and flags. The guards are also happy (alright, perhaps not happy but willing) to take photos with tourists, akin to what you’d expect at the Buckingham Palace. Although I didn't visit inside the Changdeokgung, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also a major tourist attraction and is revered for its successful blending of architecture with the natural topography of the site. This palace is also home to Huwon, or the Secret Garden which is the ideal spot to catch the cherry blossoms blooming in mid-April.
After wandering around the palaces in the morning, I furthered into the city to see the Bukchon Hanok Village -- a maze of narrow alleyways and traditional Korean houses called hanoks. Exploring this area in Jongno-gu is the closest to a time-machine stepping back to Seoul 600 years ago. The hanok is a traditional Korean house, first built in the 14th century Joseon Dynasty. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the hanok is their environmentally-friendly architecture with materials made from recyclable soil, wood, and rock. The serpentine curvature of the Cheoma rooftops are not only characteristic of the Korean design, but also allows the dweller to adjust the amount of sunlight coming into the home. The traditional Korean paper, hanji, is coated with oil for waterproofing while maintaining breathability. Another merit to its versatility is the Ondol, or a floor-based heating system. Since Korea is known for its hot summers and cold winters, the Odol is ideal for cooling the interior in the summer and keeping it warm in winter. Many of the hanoks have exposed entry-ways, adding another layer to its blend of minimalism and nature. This historic village was once home to members of noble families and high-ranking officials but is now a vibrant residential community full of cultural centers, guesthouses, and tea houses.
Culture meets Capitalism // A Love Affair (There’s Food)
There might be one thing I love more than traveling and that's food. Granted, those might be two interrelated conquests, so perhaps they are equal in my heart. If you are hungry in Seoul, I recommend traveling to Insadong - one of the best places for traditional Korean food. Not only does this neighborhood house a host of bibimbap, Korean barbeque, and sweets-galore, it's also the arts and crafts capital of Seoul. The shopping plaza Ssamziegil is bustling with performers, hand-crafted souvenirs, jewelry, and perhaps my favorite toilet café. And no, I don't mean a café that has a toilet, I mean a café whose theme is the toilet. I get it. You're turned off, but trust me, it’s one of the most adorable cafes around, and the only place where drinking out of a toilet is publicly acceptable.
My first mission in Insadong was to find bibimbap, a word in Korean that translates to "mixed rice." While that may not sound exciting, the textural variation, as well as the forward spices of namul and gochujang will titillate your taste buds. Every bite is a little bit different, and I recommend ordering it with a plate of beef Bulgogi to share with a friend. One of the best aspects of ordering Korean food is that it is often served sizzling hot. While this will make you wait in agony for your Bulgogi to cool, it ensures that that you'll be eating it the way it was meant to be. Another fun aspect of Korean dining is the sheer amount of plates harboring banchan, or Korean side dishes. A modest portion of food will be compartmentalized into five or six smaller dishes of seasonal vegetables, kimchi, or mushrooms, filling your table to the brim as fit for a king.
After having my fix of bimimbap and Bulgogi, I made my way to Myeongdong -- a sprawling grid of shops donned with florescent street signs and vendors. It's one of the best places to purchase cosmetics, and mid- to high-end labels anywhere from Lotte to Louis Vuitton. You can also find great bargains on the street-side tucked away in smaller alleys. The best time to visit this part of the city is just as the sun is setting with the streets packed, the neon lights brightly lit, and the smell of street food wafting around.
Night Sights // The Fortress Wall and Other Heights
In the past 600 years since Seoul became Korea's capital, the city has evolved in many ways save one: the original city wall. The wall was first built in 1396 to defend and demarcate the boundaries of the city surrounding Hanyang. The wall stretches 18.6 km along the ridge of Seoul's four inner mountains, Baegaksan, Naksan, Namsan, and Inwangsan with six gates (originally eight) in the cardinal and intermediate directions. Some adventurous travelers aim to hike the entire perimeter along the Bugaksan Mountain, which is undoubtedly one of the best ways to experience the city's ancient history and beauty. For those travelers who don't have the time to hike the entire wall but still want to capture its essence, Namsan Park is the ideal destination.
From its peak, the Seoul city skyline is illuminated in the gentle dusk. The fortress wall is trimmed with lights to guide casual walkers, making it ideal for a night hike. Along the trail, there are very clear signs that say "No Climbing the Fortress Wall" in multiple languages, along with helpful illustrations of a lad plummeting to a quarry of rocks (he obviously must have not read the sign).
As if that wasn't enough heights for one night, I decided it was time to see the Namsan Seoul Tower which ascends 480 meters above sea level, making it the tallest tower in the Orient. One does not climb the tower itself, instead a skylift at its base will take you to the observation deck which affords you a 360-degree panoramic view of the metropolis. Namsan was built in 1980 as a communication and broadcasting tower. Once you make your way to the observation deck, there are also shops and restaurants inside the tower. One of the most curious exhibits is the Teddy Bear museum which depicts teddy bears in various scenes like a royal wedding, the hustle of a marketplace, and even modern street dancing (I later came to learn that the Korean obsession over teddy bears is due to a myth that depicts Koreans originating from bears). At night, the observation deck is brightly lit up, which makes for good photos of travelers and companions, but unfortunately not of the skyline. The tower is lit up a neon green at night and can be seen from miles away across the city.
Coming Close to the Edge // The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
One of my last destinations while in Seoul was to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), just 35 miles from the city. The DMZ is a border barrier that divides the Korean peninsula roughly in half and intersects the 38th parallel north. The DMZ is lined by tank traps, electrical fences, landmines, and guards. The area is only accessible with authorization from the Korean government, which can only be obtained through a tour agency. For history buffs and collectors of unsettling experiences, this one is for the books.
I booked a half day tour which was enough to visit to the Dorasan Train Station, Dora Observatory, and the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The train station looks like any regular station except for one important component missing: travelers. Rather than function, the purpose of the station connecting the North and South is instead largely the symbolic hope for eventual Korean reunification. Save for the fellow tourists and the station attendants, the building was eerily empty. However, it did house rows of seats for people awaiting ticketing, a security check line, and a time table showing hypothetical train times.
The most unsettling experience was perhaps at the Dora Observatory. Ascending Mount Dora on the way to the observatory, I noticed that the sides of the roads were lined with inverted red triangles with a skull and cross bone - a warning against landmines. Once at the pinnacle, binoculars line the outskirt of the deck. Looking through the binoculars offers a rare glimpse of Kijong-dong, the remnants of the old prosperity of the North. Catching the Panmunjom flagpole with the North Korean flag waving atop sent shivers down my spine.
Close to the Observatory is the Third North Korean Infiltration Tunnel, which was dug by North Korea as a planned pathway for invasion to the South if war was to erupt again. Entering the tunnel required walking down a long, steep incline which then turns into a low-hanging cavernous route, slick with granite and rock. The incomplete tunnel is approximately 1 mile long, and a maximum of 6.5 ft in height, though some places are barely 5 foot. When the tunnel was discovered, the United Nations Command accused North Korea of threatening the 1952 Armistice Agreement signed after the Korean War. The North denied it being a tunnel of aggression, instead claiming it was part of a coal mine. Signs on the tunnel's mainly granite interior suggest that finding coal there would be unlikely.
Final Notes on Seoul // Farewell
The three days I spent in Seoul were truly a whirlwind of whimsical experiences. One aspect that I did not mention was my short escapade to Hongdae, one of the most youthful and hip neighborhoods in the city. Home to oddities and peculiarities, the streets are sprinkled with animal cafes, dance clubs, and late-night shops. If Jongno-gu is the cultural heart, and Insadong is the stomach, then Hongdae is the vein pulsing life and vibrancy into the city. Depending on what you are interested in exploring in Seoul, many tourists decide to stay in Hongdae to fully experience the nightlife.
Regardless of where you end up in Seoul, you'll be sure to have a unique experience. The city is very friendly to travelers, and while many do not speak English, the locals are willing to help you find your way. After a mere 72 hours, one thing I realized beyond a doubt was that Seoul would have to be a place I revisit again.