Seoul is a fairly safe city that buzzes alive at night from all the neon lights wrapping the city. Here is a recommended route to stroll around the city, from the city center stream to the shopping district.
Start the walk from Jongno 5-ga station and head a couple of block south to reach Cheonggyecheon – Seoul’s testament to enervate the city by going ‘green’. Also used by Seoul’s former mayor Lee Myung-Bak as a vehicle to capture the interest of Korean initiative to push forward the country’s environmental agenda and urban renewal – they demolished an elevated motorway in the middle of the city to give precedence to restoring the stream. Lee received much criticism then, but was lauded afterwards for such brave efforts. It is now one of Seoul’s major landmarks and highlights.
After reaching point B on the map, walk slightly north to view Dongdaemun gate, one of the remaining fortress-gates to ancient Seoul that is fully intact (Namdaemun in the west was damaged in a fire last 2008 and is currently being restored).
Just south of the gate is a massive construction site for Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park. It was meant to be completed in early 2010 in line with Seoul being awarded as World Design Capital. Instead, the park is not set for completion by end 2011. It may look like an inverted shoe, or an alien embryo (not that I know what an alien embryo should look like), but I think it’s pretty funky the way the park will turn out. My only photo is from the construction site, so click on this link to get a better visual of the architect’s vision.
Finally, you’ll be spoiled for choice at Dongdaemun’s Fashion district, with floors and malls of shopping area. There are many arcades and stalls selling mostly clothes at the shops, so what a better way to end the evening stroll. My personal suggestion will still be jumping into Dragonhill Spa, a jimjilbang (truly an authentic Korean experience! try sleeping on a block of wood as a pillow!) to reward yourself with a walking tour well done.
It’s always amazing to how centuries’ worth of history is melded into a technology advanced city. Seoul is an excellent example this. Despite heavily hinged on technology (hailed as the world’s most connected city by means of the internet), its traditional roots are never forgotten as evidenced by its numerous Confucian and royal temples scattered around the city.
My personal favourite is Gyeongbokgung Palace, located at the northwest section of the city – an expansive complex set against a mountain backdrop and facing the city’s modern skyline. Try accessing it from the Gyeongbokgung subway station, and admire the subway art on the way to the palace grounds. Like most palaces and fortifications, there is an elaborate showcase of the changing of the guards, make sure to see the parade of colours and drum beating. There are two daily, check local times for a more accurate schedule.
Across Gyeongbukgung palace you will find a memorial to King Sejeon, South Korea’s most admired person, and also the creator of the national language, Hanggul. There’s an underground museum right below the roadways that details the life and achievements of King Sejeon, and a language institute. There’s a film on how their language came about, and a scientific process on how to learn Korean. It’s not as difficult as you think, and you can learn to read the signs in Korean in as little as 45 minutes.
Jongmyo shrine is regarded as the most sacred grounds for Korea – though the palace grounds are open to the public (only by guided tours, and at designated times), most of the buildings are off limits. It contains the spirit tablets of the royal family and their ancestors, hence the increased reverence and seclusion (and World Heritage Site status). A short walk from Jongmyo shrine through touristy Insadong Street (pick up your souvenirs here) will lead you to Jogyesa.
Finally, a hidden shrine at the south section of the city behind COEX Mall is Bongeunsa Temple. It’s particularly beautiful in the spring where the place is decked with lanterns to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Its hillside location also provides great views of the city. Best to visit this at night and see Seoul all aglow from the lights.
Said it before, and I’ll say it again – Asian cuisine is tops. From the intricate kaiseki ryori of Japan, to the vibrant colours of Indian curries and the flaming spices in Thailand, nothing beats the dazzling variety of cuisine available in the region. Korean cuisine is no let down in this department either – from steaming stews to sizzling barbecues to lovely mung bean pancakes, there’s something for everyone. Don’t worry, not everything in Korea is covered in that red bean paste.
First things first: Korean barbecue!!! There’s a lot of things you can roast in Korean restaurants, whether over flames or hot coals. Strips of beef, chicken, or pork, covered in salt, teriyaki sauce, or soy sauce; together with roasted garlic, leaves of lettuce and the ubiquitous kimchi. My favourite part of the Korean eating regimen is that appetisers are free. You only need order the mains and stews (and rice and drinks), they will provide you with free appetiser of various vegetables and small bites. A special shout out to ordering samgyeupsal – pork belly flavoured with sesame oil and salt, thinly sliced like bacon.
A bibimbap is regional specialty of Jeonju, but still found every across the country. It’s a bowl of up to 28 garnishings (ground beef, egg, carrots, corn, spinach, etc) on top of rice to enjoy. A special version is the dolsot bibimbap where it is served in a stone bowl, and the bottom turns out nice and crispy. This is a very colourful affair with shades of yellow, green, white, brown, and of course that red paste. According to Confucian philosophy, a full meal must contain the essential five colours to be a complete meal.
Finish it all off with a swig of soju, and excellent mix with fruity drinks and the like. For a more authentic Korean experience, toast on bowls of makgeolli, that milky-white drink that’s a fermentation of rice that tastes like and alcoholic 7-Up (careful on the drink, it normally ranges between 10-15% alcohol) . Make sure that the bottle is well shaken as sedimentation is normal for the drink.
As with most Asian cultures, eating is a communal affair, food meant to be shared, so if travelling alone, do not be surprised if the restaurant owner turns you away if you’re a solo eater. Also, it is expected to order food (anju) when drinking soju or makgeolli in a bar.
As a final dare, try the local sausages called sundae (pronounced soon-dey, not the creamy variety). It’s filled with rice noodles, and it’s coloured black…get your soju ready.