At first glance, Seoul appears to be a sprawling concrete mass of high-rise apartment buildings and modern buildings interspersed with historical treasures. But on closer investigation, the city can be divided into numerous smaller districts with their own distinct character. Your primary landmark is the Han River, which runs east to west and bisects the metropolis. Jongno forms the center to the north, surrounded by five main tourist districts, and there are two other districts of interest to visitors to the south, all of which are easy to access by the convenient and economical subway system. Very few streets have names, however, and buildings are not always numbered, so the easiest way to find a place is by locating the nearest subway station or landmark, or by asking the friendly people you are certain to meet in every part of the city.
At the heart of Seoul, the
Jung-gu & Dongdaemun-gu
Just south of Jongno is the
Dongdaemun (“great east gate”) is the district immediately east of Jongno, famous for the Dongdaemun Market where you can buy discounted brand-name items and outdoor wear/equipment. Also
Daehangno & Seodaemun-gu
Northeast of Jongno at Hyehwa Station is the
West of Jongno, the lively university district within Seodaemun-gu, spreads along the Ewha University, Shinchon and Hong-ik University subway stations. Shinchon is known for its 24-hour bars, cafes and restaurants, where students (and others) go to chat, dance and eat. The nearby Ewha Women's University area is full of jeans shops, hairdressers, and clothing stores. By contrast, Hongik University, with painted murals along its walls, has a slightly different feeling. Clothing shops are few, replaced instead by restaurants, nightclubs, rock bars and live cafes. In fact, a great cafe in the area is
Within Yongsan-gu, near Samgakji Station,
Gangnam & Apgujeong-dong
A fairly new entertainment and culture center, the
South of the Han River is the
The beginnings of this fast-growing and increasingly important world-class city are difficult to pinpoint, but archaeological evidence indicates human settlement in the area during the prehistoric age, some 6,000 years ago. Artifacts found here reveal an agricultural people, who used stone tools for farming in the fertile Han River Basin.
Seoul—which comes from the Korean word meaning "capital"—was not always referred to by its current name. During the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE to 668 CE) of Paekche, Koguryo and Shilla, the territory was first known by the name Wirye-Song. It was chosen as the capital of the Paekche Kingdom and occupied a site in the northeastern section of what is present-day Seoul.
Shilla, upon conquering the Paekche and Koguryo kindgoms in 668, triumphantly moved the capital south across the Han River and renamed it Hansong. The capital was renamed again, "Yangju," under the unified Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) and then designated Namgyong, or "southern capital," in 1067, as one of the Koryo's three main strongholds. Up to this time, the town was still a small farming community. It was not until 1068, when king Munjong of Koryo built his summer palace here, that a larger settlement formed and began to expand.
At the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), founded by King Yi Song-Gye, the town's name changed once more, this time to Hanyang. It formally became the capital of the unified kingdoms under King Yi upon a lengthy search to find a perfect site for construction of castles, fortresses and people's dwellings. After a couple of years of preparation, the King finally moved his court to Hanyang in October 1394, initiating rapid growth and construction. One of the first places to be built was Gyeongbok Palace in 1392; it remained the Yi kings' residence for almost 200 years between 1395 to 1592. Along with the construction of royal shrines and palace buildings, King Yi also had a 17-kilometer fortified wall erected in 98 days by 197,000 workers. The King established close ties with the Chinese neighbors, resulting in strong Chinese cultural influences during this period.
The social structure during the Chosun Dynasty was very complex, based upon heredity and class. At the top of the social ladder were yangban — the aristocracy or elite. Under the yangban were the commoners, or the middle class, comprised mostly of farmers, laborers and craftsmen. This stratum formed the majority of the population. At the very bottom rung were the chenmin, or base people, made up of slaves, prostitutes and entertainers.
The erection of Gyeongbuk Palace and the fortress wall was followed by construction of other palaces in the Seoul vicinity. Work on the Deoksu Palace, for example, began in the late 15th Century, and it became the residence of Yi kings from 1593-1611. Thereafter, they resided in Changdeok Palace, for which ground had been broken in 1405. In 1872, the then king moved back into reconstructed Gyeongbok Palace, which had been burned down by the Japanese in 1592 and was not rebuilt until 1867.
Owing to its very limited contact with outside nations, Korea became known as "The Hermit Kingdom" during the Chosun period. However, the Chosun Dynasty could not resist incoming foreign influence, and in 1876 the county opened itself to diplomatic contact with the West. For two centuries, the population of the capital city had stood at almost 200,000, but it began to increase steadily in the wake of contact with foreign powers and missions.
The opening of the Hermit Kingdom to the outside world eventually led to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910. The capital city's name was yet again changed to Kyongsong, and its population by 1936 stood at 730,000. Japan used Kyongsong as its center for the occupied peninsula. The Japanese declared that Korea no longer existed and it was now part of Japan. Millions of Korean farmers were forced to give up their land. Not only was the Korean language made illegal, but all Koreans were forced to change their names to Japanese.
Japanese control came to an end in 1945, signaling a new beginning for Korea and its capital. On 15 August 1945, National Liberation Day, the city was given the official name "Seoul," and the following year it was granted the status of "Special City," placing it directly under the control of the national government. By 1949, the city expanded in size to 270 square kilometers, divided into nine "gus" (districts), and increased in population to 1.4 million. The ensuing Korean War, however, reduced Seoul to almost nothing, as it was captured and retaken four times. By the war's end in 1953, only a few buildings were left standing. Only after the signing of the Armistice Agreement did Seoul begin to function again as the nation's capital, with the government and its people laboring hard to rebuild the city into the metropolis it is today.
In 1962, a special legislative measure put Seoul under the direct control of the Prime Minister, allowing it to develop and advance independently from national government supervision. Seoul again grew in population and size, reaching 605 square kilometers by 1973, more than twice the area of 1948. Today, the city is home to over 10 million people in 25 gus and 522 "dongs" (villages). To accommodate this increasing population, municipal precincts have been expanding continuously southward, south of the Han River, where a flourishing middle class now dwells in large-scale apartment buildings and commutes over numerous bridges connecting them to the city north.
Host to the Asian Games in 1986 and the Summer Olympics in 1988, along with the World Cup in 2002, Seoul has come of age as one of the most contemporary cities in the world. Yet the past is always present, as the remains of ancient palaces and fortifications standing side by side with skyscrapers and modern office buildings remind us. History is still Seoul, and Seoul is still history in the making.
From corporate executives to budget-conscious backpackers, travelers to Seoul are sure to find accommodations with services, facilities and prices suited to their needs. What's more, you can be certain that the hotel management will provide not only a clean, comfortable room with plenty of hot running water, but also a high level of service, because to Koreans, guests are considered one of the family and treated as such. This emphasis on traditional hospitality makes being a visitor to Seoul a unique experience.
Jongno-gu & Jung-gu
The city's luxury hotels are really just that—luxurious—featuring all the comforts expected of world-class lodgings. The largest concentration of deluxe hotels is around City Hall Square, conveniently located within walking distance or a short bus ride from Seoul's many sights and tourist attractions. Lavish accommodations include Hotel Shilla and the Seoul Plaza Hotel. With the business traveler in mind, these first class hotels provide business facilities second to none, including special business centers, Internet access, interpreter and translation services, secretarial services and much more. The hotel staff members will make every effort to ensure that your stay is a comfortable one, and most of them speak English. Other hotels located in this district include the Lotte Hotel, esteemed as one of the best hotels in Seoul, as the hotel prides itself on being a stellar example of Korean hospitality. Yet if you seek quality rooms at cheaper prices, try the Jeonpoong Tourist Hotel which also offers an comfortable stay at an affordable price, great for families or travelers on a budget. Also quite popular among budget travelers and students are the city's youth hostels. Rooms are inexpensive, and offer travelers the chance to meet others who are far from home. A great place to visit is Youth Traveller's A, where the rooms are homey and clean. They offer 26 dormitory beds in rooms for two to six persons.
If you are looking for a moderately-priced hotel convenient to nightlife, the Itaewon district may be the place for you. Dozens of local nightspots are located near Itaewon's noticeable landmark, the Hamilton Shopping Center and Hamilton Hotel. The area's large foreign population ensures that many exciting events are happening throughout the day as well. After a night of singing and dancing at Timeout Live Music Club you may end up stumbling upon Wow! Guest House, another affordable accommodation. For something more luxurious try the Capital Hotel.
Great stays around the Gangnam district include the Renaissance Seoul, and Ritz Carlton Hotel. The Ritz Deli, located inside the hotel, is a great place to grab a cup of coffee or tea to jump start your morning. These first class hotels will leave you well rested and dazzled by the staff and amenities. Another beautiful five star hotel that will amaze you with its lounge, bar, and friendly staff is Hotel Ellelui. Not far from Gangnam-gu, you can stay at the Hotel Olympic Parktel, located at Olympic Park. For a more business minded stay, the Young-dong Hotel has great meeting and business room facilities. Lastly, the Intercontinental Hotel will offer the international traveler a stay of a life time, from the fine dining and fitness services, to the beautiful decor.
Mapo-gu & Gangseo-gu
For great service at an affordable price, consider staying at the Best Western Premier Seoul, highly recommended for its quality. Many of the hotel staff speak English, so you should find it easy to have your questions answered or problems solved. Another fabulously featured hotel includes Hotel Seokyo, a fine choice for travelers on business as a coffee and bar are conveniently located inside. This hotel is also located near prominent universities, such as Yeonsei, and popular shopping centers.
Across the Han River, the River Park Tourist Hotel offers clean and cozy rooms. They come equipped with a TV, radio, telephone and private bathroom. Although the facilities may not be as great as those found at higher priced hotels, the staff's warm smiles and kind hearts will make your stay an unforgettable one. At the Best Western Niagara Hotel enjoy the beautiful views of the Han River. This is a central location to the Incheon International Airport and Mount Bukhansan, as well as downtown Seoul.
There is no reason to be bored in Seoul. Whether you are visiting for a few hours or staying for a few weeks, Seoul offers round-the-clock opportunities for shopping, performing arts and cinema, sightseeing, sports activities, nightlife and more, suited to every travel budget.
Shoppers will delight at the range of choices available, from bustling noisy outdoor markets and antique alleys to conventional department stores. Namdaemun Market, close to downtown, is thronged with locals and tourists alike, haggling for the best prices in clothing, outdoor equipment and Korean souvenirs. At Dongdaemun Market you can shop until dawn, then head over to Yongsan Electronic Shopping Town for the latest gadgets and necessities. How about some snake medicine or elks horn? You will find these and other oriental medicines at the Kyongdong Herbal Market. A smile and some body language will go a long way when bargaining at any of these markets. For traditional Korean art, crafts and antiques (lacquerware, brassware, paper, ceramics, paintings and embroidery) the district of Insadong should be number one on your list. When you tire of browsing through these shops, take a break in one of the many traditional tea rooms. Itaewon—the most Americanized district in Korea—is the best place for Western-sized clothing, tailor shops, shoes and leather products, while Myeong-dong and Apgujeong are the fashion districts of choice for Koreans. Visitors to Seoul should not overlook the hidden world beneath the street either. The Gangnam Express Bus Terminal Underground Arcade and Sogong Underground Shopping Center are popular shopping centers, selling inexpensive clothing and other products.
Performing Arts & Cinema
As the cultural capital of Korea, Seoul is teeming with music, dance and theater venues. Performances at the Traditional Performing Arts Center, Chongdong Theater and the National Theater display thousands of years of history. The colorful and elegant "fan dance" and the humorous "mask dance" are examples of Korean cultural treasures. Pansori, a narrative folk story which is sung and performed, is a very powerful musical experience, though to unaccustomed ears the warbling tones may be rather overwhelming. Lively farmers' drum music, accompanied by energetic dancing with flowing ribbons, is a Korean experience not to be missed. Check out the free outdoor performances at the Seoul Nori-Madang. Of course opera, classical concerts, musicals and plays are also readily available in Seoul. The Seoul Arts Center and the LG Arts Center are the largest venues. The Daehangno district has the highest concentration of theaters in Seoul; come here to enjoy a play or musical in the DongSoong Art Center or at smaller alternative theaters, such as Hakchon Blue. If you crave a movie (especially a Hollywood blockbuster), you should have no trouble finding a cinema, especially downtown. Obtaining a seat on the weekends, however, may be difficult; be sure to arrive at least one hour in advance of the show. Films are usually screened in the original language—no dubbing. Movie lovers can check schedules in the Friday editions of English newspapers around the city. Then, for a uniquely Korean experience, try a videobong, a private room where one to six people can watch a rented movie on comfortable chairs or a sofa.
Palaces, Museums & Galleries
Korea's historical relics were partially or completely destroyed in times of conflict and subsequently rebuilt numerous times over the years. The central part of Seoul has the highest concentration of palaces. Gyeongbok, Deoksugung and Changgyeong are well worth the small admission fee, while Changdeokgung Palace and Biwon Garden, or "Secret Garden" (guided tour only), should also be on your agenda. Visitors have a wide choice of museums to look forward to, ranging from the Kimchi Museum (where you can learn more about Korea's favorite food) to the Sodaemun Prison History Center. For an open-air "living" museum, experience the past in the Korean Folk Village. If art is more your style, don't miss the myriad of local galleries displaying traditional Korean art in the alleys of Insadong. The National Museum of Contemporary Art will satisfy your craving for more modern art, while the Hongik University area is known for its creative outdoor murals and small galleries.
The Great Outdoors
"Yaho!" is a cry you might hear at dawn if you are staying near a mountain or hill in Seoul. Koreans are very fond of climbing and making their accomplishment known early in the morning, or at any time of day on weekends. Seoul is surrounded by mountains, easily accessible by public transportation. Well-marked trails exist for both the novice and the more experienced hiker. Bukhansan National Park is known for its rock-climbing as well as regular hiking. Mount Suraksan and Mount Inwang are other good choices. For flatter scenery, pay a visit to Yeouido Park, one of the few places you can rent a bicycle and pedal along the Han River, or stroll through some of the small historical and ecological parks located throughout Seoul.
As the proud co-host of World Cup 2002, Seoul has numerous venues for professional soccer matches. The biggest are the Olympic Stadium and the Seoul World Cup Stadium. In fact, around Olympic Park you can check out the open air Sculpture Garden. Baseball and basketball fans will also be happy to know there are regular games in season. Traditional sports such as taekwondo (martial arts) and ssirum (wrestling) can be seen at Changchung Stadium. For individual sports enthusiasts, bowling alleys, billiard halls and ping-pong rooms abound in most neighborhoods, and swimmers and ice-skaters will be delighted by Seoul's facilities. If you prefer being a spectator, try your luck punting at the Seoul Racecourse. With your winnings, you can play at Seoul's only casino, the Walker Hill Casino, open only to non-Koreans and Koreans who reside abroad. For a hair-raising adventure, visit one of the city's amusement parks, such as Lotte World, the largest indoor amusement park in the world, with its exhibition hall and Folk Village in addition to all the rides you would expect.
Koreans work long hours and like to "let off steam" at the end of the day, contributing to Seoul's lively nightlife scene. Officially, there is a midnight closing time at bars and nightclubs—a remnant of the city's military past—but the reality is that you will find places to linger until dawn if you so desire. Itaewon, declared an "official tourism zone," has some bars that remain open 24 hours a day. Most drinking spots have a selection of local and some imported beers, or you can try the potent potato vodka, soju, or the more traditional rice wines, dong dong ju or makkoli. Music lovers will find a range from jazz to rock or classical in Seoul bars and cafes. Chonnyon Dongan Do in Daehangno is one of the best places for live jazz, while the Hongik area features more alternative and underground clubs in addition to regular bars. Taehangno and Shinchon are especially popular areas for students, being near the largest university campuses. Gangnam, Apgujeong and Myungdong, on the other hand, will appeal to adults of all ages. Don't miss the ubiquitous noraebong (singing rooms), a typically Korean experience where up to twelve friends can cram into a room to belt out songs to the karaoke machine. Night owls can enjoy midnight shopping at Namdaemun or Dongdaemun or take the Han River Boat Cruise to see Seoul after dark. And be sure to take in the night view from Seoul Tower after the sun goes down.