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.