The Korean capital of SEOUL (서울) is an assault on the senses. Even small streets find themselves quite alive with frenzied activity by day and searing neon after sunset, while eardrums are set pounding by clamouring shop assistants and the nighttime thump of a thousand karaoke rooms. Restaurants serving Korea’s delectably spicy national dishes lure you in with their amazing aromas and tastes while doing minimal damage to your figure (or wallet), and for tactile bliss, the hot pools and ice rooms of the ubiquitous jjimjilbang bathhouses have no equal. With over twenty million souls packed sardine-like into a metropolitan area smaller than Luxembourg, this is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, but for all its nonstop consumption, Seoul is also a place of considerable tradition and history. Joseon-dynasty palaces, displayed like medals in the centre of the city, proclaim its status as a seat of regal power from as far back as 1392; the tiled roofs of wooden hanok houses gently fish-scale their way towards the ash-coloured granite crags of Bukhansan, the world’s most-visited national park; the ancient songs and dances of farmhands and court performers are still clashed out in a whirligig of sound and colour along the street of Insadonggil. A city with a hyper-efficient transport system, a negligible crime rate, locals eager to please foreign guests and an almost astonishing wealth of locally produced modern art: it’s little wonder that so many visitors come away so impressed.
Top of most tourists’ agendas are the half-a-dozen sumptuous palaces dating from the late fourteenth century that surround the city centre; these include Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, together with the nearby ancestral shrine of Jongmyo. Situated in the middle is Insadong; by far the most popular part of the city with tourists, its warren of tight streets is littered with traditional restaurants, quaint tearooms, art galleries and trinket shops, and makes for a great wander. Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok Village are two areas offering similar delights, though with fewer tourists. The amount of art on display in all three areas can come as quite a surprise – contemporary Korean work receives a fraction of the international press devoted to art from Japan or China, but is just as creative. Also offering a modern-day fusion of Korea old and new are the colossal markets of Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, in whose sprawling reaches you’ll find anything from pig intestines to clip-on ties. The more modern facets of the city can be seen in the shoppers’ paradise of Myeongdong or achingly fashionable Apgujeong, while the number of American soldiers hanging out in cosmopolitan Itaewon hint at Seoul’s proximity to North Korea – it’s even possible to take a day-trip to the border.
To get a sense of what makes Seoul so unique, however, you’ll need to do more than tick off the sights. To truly appreciate the subtle facets of this distinctive society, take a leap of faith into the local cuisine, follow the Korean lead on a wild night (and early morning) out, and spend a decent amount of time simply walking the streets.
Contrary to the expectations of many a visitor, Seoul possesses a long and interesting past; after first rising to prominence at the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period, it was then ruled over by almost every major power in Korean history. In 18 AD, then named Wiryeseong, it became the first capital of the Baekje kingdom; the exact location is believed to be a site just east of present-day Seoul, but this was to change several times. The kings and clans were forced far south to Gongju in 475, having been squeezed out by the rival Goguryeo kingdom; less than a century later, the city completed a Three Kingdoms clean-sweep when King Jinheung expanded the domain of his Silla kingdom far to the north, absorbing Seoul – then known as Hanseong – on the way. By 668, Silla forces held control of the whole peninsula, but having chosen Gyeongju as their capital, Seoul faded into the background. In the tenth century, Silla was usurped by the nascent Goryeo kingdom – they chose Kaesong, in modern-day North Korea, as the seat of their power, though Seoul was close enough to become an important trading hub, and soon earned yet another name, Namgyeong, meaning “Southern Capital”.
It was not until the end of the Goryeo dynasty that Seoul really came into its own. In 1392, the “Hermit Kingdom” of Joseon kicked off over five centuries of power; after running the rule over a few prospective candidates, King Taejo – the inaugurator of the dynasty – chose Seoul as his new capital, impressed by its auspicious location. He immediately set about reorganizing the city with a series of major projects. Exactly two hundred years after its birth, Joseon was invaded by Japanese forces from 1592 to 1598 under the control of warlord Hideyoshi; Seoul was pillaged in the course of the battles, and many of its most beautiful buildings lay in ruins. Though the country survived this particular struggle, mainly thanks to the heroic Admiral Yi, the Japanese proved more obdurate on their return in the late nineteenth century. After making tame inroads with a series of trade treaties, an escalating series of events – including the assassination of Queen Min in Gyeongbokgung – culminated in outright annexation of the peninsula in 1910, which lasted until the end of World War II, and closed the long chapters of Korean regal rule. During this time, Japan tried its best to erase any sense of Korean nationality; part of this was a drive to wipe out the Korean language, and earned Seoul yet another name – Keijo, which roughly translates as “Walled-off Capital”. The city was to suffer greater indignity when its beloved palaces were modified in an attempt to make them “more Japanese”; a few of these alterations are still visible today. After the war, peninsular infighting and global shifts in power and ideology resulted in the Korean War (1950–53). Seoul’s position in the centre of the peninsula, as well as its obvious importance as the long-time Korean capital, meant that it changed hands four times, coming under North Korean control twice before being wrested back. Seoul finally ended up under South Korean control, though most of the city lay in ruins, but despite – or perhaps, because of – all these setbacks, there has been no stopping it since then. The economic reforms inaugurated by president Park Chung-hee in the 1970s brought it global attention as a financial dynamo, and Seoul’s population has ballooned to over ten million, more than double this if the whole metropolitan area is taken into account.