Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a postmodern city that deftly balances traditional culture with the futuristic. On one hand, the city designates 14th century Namdaemun Gate as National Treasure number one, on the other, it showcases to the world the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a convention hall with futuristic look and a rooftop park. More on the global business map than on the tourist map, Seoul is refreshingly different from the other capitals of south east Asian countries.
The history of Seoul extends back to the 14th century. Then known as Hanseong, it was the capital under the Joseon dynasty, who ruled from 1392 to 1910. Most of Seoul’s older attractions, including the Five Grand Palaces and the Namdaemun, were built by the Joseon dynasty.
The city lies in the valley created by a circle of hills. The Han-gang (Han River) divides Seoul into two sections. Gangbuk (north of the river) is the older part, with hills, national parks, Buddhist temples and palaces. Gangnam (south of the river) is the newer section, mostly home to top industrial houses, designer high-rise buildings, tony malls, etc.
Seoul covers over 600 square kilometre, with the main city seamlessly merging with the satellite towns. However, the dense subway network connects the entire city and most places in Seoul are within walking distance of a subway exit.
The Incheon International Airport, located on Yeongjong Island, is connected to Seoul by road and rail. You can take the high-speed Arex Airport Express to Seoul. For the first time visitor, taking one of the shuttle bus is a good option. Although this cheaper option is a little time consuming but these buses go to major points in Seoul as well as to most prominent hotels. Most buses have convenient luggage racks.
Your Korean tour can begin from the glamorous airport itself. It houses the Korean Culture Museum, Traditional Culture Experience Zone, Traditional Craft Gallery, and Arrival Hall Culture Street.
The Temporary (C3) visa is for non-profit short-term stay and therefore can be availed by tourists and those in transit. The VFS Centre (http://www.vfsglobal.com) in New Delhi and Kolkata handle visas to South Korea.
From India, Korean Air operates direct flights between New Delhi and Incheon.
What to See & Do
While you can take in the major attractions in a couple of days, an extensive tour of the city can take a week at least. It may be a tad hectic to visit all the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul — Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, Gyeonghuigung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace — in a day. So you may opt for one or two of them. Check english.visitkorea.or.kr for details of timings and entry fees. Interestingly, all visitors attired in South Korea’s traditional ‘hanbok’ (available on hire) are eligible for free admission during daytime hours to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine and a few other places.
With its buildings in harmony with surrounding nature, the Changdeokgung Palace (eng.cdg.go.kr; closed on Mondays), a masterpiece of Korean palace architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace area includes the Injeongjeon Hall, Daejojeon Hall, Seonjeongjeon Hall, and Nakseonjae. The Secret Garden occupies two-thirds of the 110 acre compound. Guided toursare compulsory for garden visit (prior online booking required). The Gyeongbokgung Palace (closed on Tuesdays) is the largest of the five palaces and is often considered the most beautiful. It is a recreation of the original 14th century palace that was destroyed in a fire. However, the most representative edifices of the Joseon Dynasty, the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion and the Hyangwonjeong Pond remained relatively intact. Woldae and the sculptures of Geunjeongjeon (The Royal Audience Chamber) showcase art from that era. You can combine a visit to the palace with visits to The National Palace Museum of Korea (located south of Heungnyemun Gate) and the National Folk Museum (located on the eastern side within Hyangwonjeong).
The Jongmyo Shrine (closed on Tuesdays), also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is devoted to the memory of the royal family. Located in the wealthy Gangnam neighbourhood, the Bongeun Buddhist Temple is said to be one of the most visited and richest temples in Seoul. Trek up Mount Inwang to visit the Inwang Temple. Further uphill is the Guksadang (a famous Shamanist shrine) and the Zen Rocks.
Do not miss the traditional Korean houses, known as hanok. One of the key aspects of Korean architecture is to position the building in relation to its surroundings. Therefore the style of the hanoks differ. Some of the popular hanoks of Seoul are Haepungbuwongu Yun Taek-yeong Daek Jaesil, the Choi Sunu House, and the Ihwajang House (currently under renovation).
Named Korea’s National Treasure number one, the Namdaemun Gate (formally known as Sungnyemun Gate; closed every Monday) is the symbol of Seoul. The 14th century gate, destroyed in a 2008 arson attack, was opened in 2013 after massive restoration.
Nature lovers and trekkers must visit the hilly Bukhasan National Park (english.knps.or.kr). Apart from gorges, streams and forests, the Park contains many historical sites, including a fortress and temples.
Hangang Ferry Cruise (tel: +82-2-3271-6900) is one of the best ways to enjoy the scenery along the Han River, including small islands, Jeoldusan Park, 63 Square, N Seoul Tower, Jamsil’s Sports Complex, etc.
If you are fond of adventure sports, you can visit the Mangwon Riverside Terrace. In summer, you can try windsurfing and water-skiing. In winter, the Sled Park is perfect for enjoying snow-related sports. The Seoul Marina provides one-stop yacht services with everything from yacht rentals to yacht maintenance, repair, and mooring and yacht education.
Gangnam is more representative of modern Korea with showy skyscrapers, restaurants, scores of neon-lit billboards, shopping malls, nightclubs, etc. COEX (coexcenter.com), an above-ground convention centre, has a huge underground shopping mall with a movie theatre, aquarium, hotels, food courts, and a Hyundai Department Store. Located in the heart of Seoul, busy Myeong-dong is one of the city’s premier shopping destinations, especially popular with younger people. Namdaemun Market is the largest traditional market in Korea. The upscale Apgujeong and Cheomdang areas are popular for departmental stores and luxury goods.
One of the much-visited attractions of Seoul is the Demilitarized Zone or the DMZ. Lying to the north of Seoul, it is an area that separates South Korea from North Korea. Bookings have to be made through a tour company. If that's not to your taste, other great out-of-town options are an overnight trip to Busan for its beaches and seafood and the stunning Jeju Island (ijto.or.kr/english/), known as one of the world's New 7 Wonders of Nature.
Where to Eat & Drink
Koreans are fond of bonding over food and so restaurants abound in Seoul. On weekdays, you will find groups of office goers catching up over Korea’s own Soju (a clear, slightly sweet distilled spirit) or regular international brands. But strictly vegetarian Indians may find it a tad difficult to sift through Korean cuisine, which uses eggs and assorted meat liberally. Loving Hut Achasan, part of a vegan chain, serves vegan Korean and international dishes. Rogpa Tea Stall is a vegetarian cafÃ©.
One Korean dish that has travelled around the world is Kimchi, essentially a side dish made of seasoned cabbage and radish. A common Korean delicacy is the stone pot rice, which often leaves many non-Koreans baffled. Hot rice is scooped on to the plate while the stone pot with crusted rice is left on the table. Usually, diners pour soup or Korean tea in the pot and drink it separately.
Bap (steamed rice) is a key ingredient of many dishes. A must try is Bibimbap, where a bowl of warm white rice is topped with namul (sautÃ©ed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste go-chew-jung), soy sauce, or doenjang (fermented soybean paste dane-jung); a raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are added to it. You have to stir the ingredients thoroughly while they are hot and then eat. Some of the places famous for their bibimbap are Gogung (tel: +82 2 776 3211) and Jeonju Jungang Hoekwan (tel: +82 2 776 5889). If you're brave enough to try raw beef or coagulated animal blood soup, then try out Sae Byuk Jib (tel: +82 2 546 5739).
Korea also has a legacy of royal cuisine. Surasang or the royal table of Joseon dynasty consisted of 12 dishes, including rice and soup, stew, hot pot, kimchi and sauces. You can try Bongraeheon (tel: +82-2-2660-9020) for select royal Korean dishes.
Try tteok-bokki (stir-fried rice cake) in Sindang-dong Tteok-bokki Town, where every restaurant has its own interpretation of the dish. Mokmyeoksanbang (+82 2 318 4790) is a hanok restaurant built by the Seoul administration to promote Korean culture and cuisine. At the Tongin Market Box Lunch CafÃ©, you can buy brass coins and then exchange them for pancakes, gimbap (rolls of rice packed in seaweed), rice cakes, rice and soup, etc.
If you are fond of fish, lobsters, squid, etc, you may visit the Noryangjin Fish Market. Yes it stinks, and the fish smell is likely to cling to your clothes. Be prepared to bargain but you must buy if they agree to your deal. You can then take the seafood up to the restaurants above the market place and they will cook it as per your liking.
Where to Stay
There are various kinds of accommodation in Seoul. From luxury to budget hotels, motels, guest houses and hostels, there are plenty of options. Korea Tourism Organisation has devised several logos to indicate reliable and affordable accommodation — for example, Goodstay and Koreastay for motels and inns. Operated by Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) in association with the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, BENIKEA (a portmanteau of the phrase Best Night in Korea) is a hotel chain in Korea. You can also stay at traditional homes or hanoks.
Generally, prices of accommodation vary according to locations, as well as seasons. If you are looking for budget hotels, then try Jongno in north-west Seoul (also directly lined with Incheon and closer to the major attractions) and Sinchon/ Hongdae in the western part of the city. Myeongdong and Namdaemun has a mix of luxury and middle range hotels. For list of hotels, online offers and booking, check sites such as hotels.com, booking.com, airbnb.com, etc.