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 Gyeongbokgungand 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.

Brief history

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.

A banging good time

University areas are a good place to get a grip on the “bang” culture that pervades modern Korean life. The term is a suffix meaning “room”, and is attached to all sorts of places where locals – and occasional foreigners – like to have fun. Below are a few of the most popular:

DVD-bang

Imagine a small room with wipe-clean sofas, tissue paper on hand and a large television for movies – if it sounds a little sleazy, you’d be absolutely right. Though people do occasionally come to appreciate plot, cinematography or Oscar-winning performances, these places are more often used by couples looking for a cheap bit of privacy – going in by yourself, or with a person of the same sex, would draw some baffled looks. Figure on around W11,000 per movie.

Jjimjilbang

Popular with families, teenagers and the occasional budget-minded traveller, these steam rooms have sauna rooms, a range of hot and cold pools, and often services from massage treatments to internet booths. Though they might sound dodgy, the reality is somewhat tamer; most are open all night, making them an incredibly cheap way to get a night’s sleep – prices tend to be around W6000. for more information see Staying at a jjimjilbang.

Noraebang

These “singing rooms”, found all over the country, even outside national park entrances, are wildly popular with people of all ages; if you have Korean friends, they’re bound to invite you, as noraebang are usually sam-cha in a Korean night out – the “third step” after a meal and drinks. You don’t sing in front of a crowd, but in a small room with your friends, where you’ll find sofas, a TV, books full of songs to choose from and a couple of maracas or tambourines to play. Foreigners are usually intimidated at first, but after a few drinks it can be tough to get the microphone out of people’s hands. Figure on around W15,000 per hour between the group.

PC-bang

Even more ubiquitous in Korea are places to get online, which cost an almost uniform W1000 per hour. Despite the prevalence of such places, they’re often packed full of gamers, and incredibly noisy – you’re likely to be the only one sending emails.

Building a capital

Rarely can a capital have been built so quickly. On the inauguration of his Joseon kingdom in 1392, the ambitious King Taejo immediately set his minions to work on a truly incredible number of gigantic projects. Even more astonishing is the fact that many of them can still be seen today, albeit in reproduction form, since few original structures survived the Japanese occupation and Korean War.

Gyeongbokgung

Seoul’s first palace completed in 1394.

Jongmyo

the ancestral shrines, built in 1394.

Changdeokgung

Seoul’s second palace, built in 1395.

Namdaemun

the city’s south gate; construction started in 1395.

City walls

built in stages from 1396.

Dongdaemun

the east gate, built in 1396.

Bukhansan National Park

Few major cities can claim to have a national park right on their doorstep, but looming over central Seoul, and forming a natural northern boundary to the city, are the peaks of BUKHANSAN NATIONAL PARK (북한산 국립 공원), spears and spines of off-white granite that burst out of the undulating pine forests. Despite the park’s relatively small size at just 80 square kilometres, its proximity to one of earth’s most populated cities makes it the world’s most visited national park, drawing in upwards of five million visitors per year. While an undeniably beautiful place, its popularity means that trails are often very busy indeed – especially so on warm weekends – and some can be as crowded as shopping mall aisles, hikers literally having to queue up to reach the peaks.

The business district

Looking north from Gwanghwamun, one can see little but cascading palace roofs and the mountains beyond. Turn south again and the contrast is almost unbelievably stark. Looming up are the ranked masses of high-rise blocks that announce Seoul’s main business district, its walkways teeming with black-suited businessfolk. However, there’s more to the area than one might expect – two palaces, a few major museums and art galleries, and one of Seoul’s most charming roads. In addition, the country’s largest market and most popular shopping district lie within this area, as does Namsan, a small mountain in the very centre of the capital.

At the western edge of the business district is Gyeonghuigung, Seoul’s “forgotten” palace, which has an excellent history museum just outside its main gate. A stroll east along the quiet, tree-lined road of Jeongdonggil will bring you to a second palace, Deoksugung, which boasts a superb art museum. East again is Myeongdong, the country’s premier shopping district, followed and counterbalanced by the sprawling arcades of Dongdaemun market.

Deoksugung

Its small size, central location and easy access – take exit two from City Hall subway station – ensure that Deoksugung (덕수궁) is often very busy. This was the last of Seoul’s Famous Five palaces to be built, and it became the country’s seat of power almost by default when the Japanese destroyed Gyeongbokgung in 1592, and then again when King Gojong fled here after the assassination of his wife Myeongsong in 1895. Not quite as splendid as the other palaces, Deoksugung is overlooked by the tall grey towers of the City Hall business and embassy area, and includes a couple of Western-style buildings, dating back to when the “Hermit Kingdom” in the latter part of the Joseon dynasty was being forcibly opened up to trade. These neoclassical structures remain the most notable on the complex. At the end of a gorgeous rose garden is Seokjojeon, which was designed by an English architect and built by the Japanese in 1910; the first Western-style building in the country, it was actually used as the royal home for a short time. The second structure, completed in 1938, was designed and built by the Japanese; inside you’ll find the National Museum for Contemporary Art (덕수궁 미술관), whose exhibits are usually quality works from local artists, more often than not blending elements of traditional and modern Korean styles.

Dongdaemun and Namdaemun: market madness

Between them, the colossal markets of Dongdaemun (동대문 시장) and Namdaemun (남대문 시장) could quite conceivably feed, and maybe even clothe, the world. Both are deservedly high on most visitors’ list of sights to tick off in Seoul. Namdaemun literally means “big south door”, and Dongdaemun “big east door”, referring to the Great Gates that once marked the city perimeter; like the palace of Gyeongbokgung and Jongmyo shrine, these were built in the 1390s under the rule of King Taejo as a means of glorifying and protecting his embryonic Joseon dynasty. Both gates have undergone extensive repairs, but although Dongdaemun still stands in imperial splendour today, surrounded by spiralling traffic day and night, an arson attack in February 2008 saw Namdaemun savaged by fire.

Dongdaemun market is the largest in the country, spread out, open-air and indoors, in various locations around the prettified Cheonggyecheon creek. It would be impossible to list the whole range of things on sale here – you’ll find yourself walking past anything from herbs to hanbok or paper lanterns to knock-off clothing, usually on sale for reasonable prices. Though each section of the market has its own opening and closing time, the complex as a whole simply never closes, so at least part of it will be open whenever you decide to come. Nighttime is when the market is at its most atmospheric, with clothes stores pumping out music into the street at ear-splitting volume, and the air filled with the smell of freshly made food sizzling at street-side stalls. Though some of the dishes on offer are utterly unrecognizable to many foreign visitors, it pays to be adventurous. One segment particularly popular with foreigners is Gwangjang market (광장 시장), a particularly salty offshoot of Dongdaemun to the northwest, and one of Seoul’s most idiosyncratic places to eat in the evening – just look for something tasty and point. During the day, it’s also the best place in Seoul to buy secondhand clothes.

Smaller and more compact than Dongdaemun, you’ll find essentially the same goods at Namdaemun market, which stretches out between City Hall and Seoul station.

Gyeonghuigung

The most anonymous and least visited of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces (even locals who work in the area may struggle to point you towards it) is Gyeonghuigung (경희궁; Tues–Sun 9am–6pm; free), which was built in 1616. Lonely and a little forlorn, it’s a pretty place nonetheless, and may be the palace for you if crowds, souvenir shops and camera-dodging aren’t to your liking. Unlike other palaces, you’ll be able to enter the throne room – bare but for the throne, but worth a look – before scrambling up to the halls of the upper level, which are backed with grass and rock.

Jeongdonggil

Running between the palaces of Gyeonghuigung and Deoksugung is Jeongdonggil (정동길), a quiet, shaded road that’s a world removed from the bustle of the City Hall area. You may notice a near-total lack of couples on this road, as Seoulites have long held the superstition that those who walk here will soon break up. Along this road is the large, modern Seoul Museum of Art (서울 시립 미술관; Tues–Sun 10am–10pm; W700); it’s well worth popping in for a look at what is almost always a fresh, high-quality exhibition of art from around the world. Continuing further up the road, you’ll find a few restaurants and cafés, as well as Chongdong Theatre, which puts on regular pansori performances. There’s also an array of underground shopping arcades in and around City Hall station – one heads towards Myeongdong, while another heads east for a number of kilometres under the main road of Euljiro.

Myeongdong

With a justifiable claim to being the most popular shopping area in the country, Myeongdong (명동) is a dense lattice of streets that runs from the east–west thoroughfare of Euljiro to the northern slopes of Namsan peak. Though visitors to the area are primarily concerned with shopping or eating, there are a couple of sights in the area that are worth a glance while you’re here. Most central is the large Myeongdong Cathedral (명동 성당); completed in 1898, it was Korea’s first large Christian place of worship, and remains the symbol of the country’s ever-growing Catholic community. It wouldn’t win any prizes for design in Europe, but in Seoul the towering spire and red brick walls are appealingly incongruous. Nearby is the Bank of Korea Museum (한국 은행 화폐금융 박물관), though the notes and coins on display are less interesting than the building itself, which was designed and built by the Japanese in the first years of their occupation.

East of central Myeongdong is Namsangol (남산골), a small display village filled with traditional hanok buildings; though a much more interesting and entertaining folk village can be found just south of Seoul, this is a more than acceptable solution for those with little time.

Namsan Park

South of Myeongdong station the roads rise up, eventually coming to a stop at the feet of Namsan (남산), Seoul’s resident mountain. There are spectacular views of the city from the 265m-high peak, and yet more from the characteristic N-Seoul Tower, which sits at the summit. Namsan once marked the natural boundary of a city that has long since swelled over the edges and across the river – some sections of the city wall can still be seen on the mountain, as can the remains of fire beacons that formed part of a national communication system during the Joseon period. These were used to relay warnings across the land – one flame lit meant that all was well, while up to five were lit to signify varying degrees of unrest; the message was repeated along chains of beacons that stretched across the peninsula. Namsan’s own are located just above the upper terminal of a cable car that carries most visitors up to the summit. The base is an uphill slog south of Myeongdong: leave the subway station through exit three, keep going up and you can’t miss it.

N-Seoul Tower

The N-Seoul Tower (N-서울 타워) sits proudly on Namsan’s crown, newly renovated and recently renamed (“Seoul Tower” clearly wasn’t trendy enough). Inside there’s a viewing platform and a pricey restaurant. For many, the views from the tower’s base are good enough, and coming here to see the sunset is recommended – the grey mass of daytime Seoul turns in no time into a pulsating neon spectacle.

Eating

Food in Seoul is cheap by international standards and invariably excellent, while the number of restaurants is nothing short of astonishing – there’s almost one on every corner, and many more in between. Korean food has a well-deserved reputation as one of the spiciest around; if you're looking for something a little blander you can stick to the ever-growing choice of restaurants serving global cuisine, or breakfast at one of the many bakeries strewn around the city (note, however, that Korean bread is rather sweet for many foreigners’ tastes). Restaurants are usually open whenever you’re likely to require food, and some are 24hr; if you do get stuck, head for one of Seoul’s seemingly infinite number of convenience stores – large chains include 7-Eleven, Mini Stop and Buy the Way – which sell drinks and fast food. All have hot water for instant noodles and small tables outside for eating; partaking in this highly Korean activity will endear you to any passing locals. For something even more authentic, head to one of Seoul’s many markets, those at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun being the most popular. Also note that the consumption of food and drink have long been entwined in Korea; many bars, including some of those listed from, serve meals every bit as good as you’d find in a restaurant.

Restaurants

Seoul’s excellent choice of restaurants is growing more cosmopolitan with each passing year. They run the full gamut from super-polished establishments in five-star hotels to local snack bars where stomachs can be filled for just W1000; even in the cheapest places, you may be surprised by the quality of the food. With much of the national cuisine alien to most foreign guests, it may be easier to head for the food courts in department stores and shopping malls, where you can see plastic versions of the available dishes. Also popular are snack chains serving basic Korean staples.

Many parts of Seoul have their own particular culinary flavour. Most popular with tourists are the streets around Insadonggil, where restaurants almost exclusively serve traditional Korean food in an equally fitting atmosphere. Then there’s cosmopolitan Itaewon, where local restaurants are outnumbered by those serving Indian, Japanese, Thai or Italian food, among others. Student areas such as Hongdae and Daehangno are filled with cheap places, while Gangnam is also popular with local youth, and trendy Apgujeong with the fashionistas.

Cafés and tearooms

There are a number of major café chains knocking around, including Pascucci, Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. In theory, all have wi-fi access, but you may need a Korean ID number to get online; with no such identity restrictions and power sockets aplenty, branches of Tom & Toms are best for the internet-hungry and open 24hr, though the coffee itself is poor. Far more interesting for the visitor are the thousands of privately run ventures, which reach heights of quirky individuality around Hongdae and Samcheongdong. Prices tend to be W3000–5000 per cup, though you can usually double this south of the river.

Culinary curiosities

While even “regular” Korean food may be alien to most visitors, there are a few edibles that deserve special attention.

Baem soju 뱀소주

Not strictly a food, but interesting nonetheless – this is regular soju with a snake (baem) marinating in the bottle, which is said to be extremely healthy, especially for the back muscles. Though many may feel that the bottles would make wonderful souvenirs, particularly with the larger serpents inside, international customs officials aren’t too fond of you taking them.

Beonddegi 번데기

When it gets cold, stalls selling this local delicacy – silkworm larvae – set up on pavements and riverbanks across the country. You’ll smell them before you see them – the acrid stench of these mites boiled up in a broth is so disgusting that it may well breach international law. The treat is also served as bar snacks in many hofs, bursting in the mouth to release a grimy juice – perfect drinking game material.

Dak-pal 닭발

So you’ve learnt the word for “chicken” in Korean (dak), spotted it on the menu and ordered a dish. Unfortunately, with this particular meal the suffix means “foot”, and that’s just what you get – dozens of sauced-up chicken feet on a plate, with not an ounce of meat in sight.

Pojangmacha 포장마차

Plastic chairs to sit on, tables littered with soju bottles, and a cackling ajumma serving you food that’s still half-alive – these are the delights of the pojangmacha, ramshackle seafood dens that congregate on many a Korean street. They’re usually distinguishable by their orange, tent-like covering; one good area to find them in Seoul is outside exits three to six of Jongno 3-ga subway station. Just watch out for the octopus tentacles – every year, people die of suffocation when their still-wriggling prey makes a last bid for freedom.

Sundae 순대

Absolutely nothing to do with ice cream, but rather a sausage made with intestinal lining and stuffed with clear noodles – head to the nearest market to try some.

Gay and lesbian Seoul

Seoul’s burgeoning queer nightlife scene has come on in leaps and bounds since 2000, when star actor Hong Seok-cheon came out of the closet – the first Korean celebrity to do so. He has since opened up a whole raft of gay-friendly bars and restaurants in Itaewon, which remains the best gay area for foreigners.

Seoul does have other gay zones; the area around Jongno 3-ga station has long been home to underground gay bars, and recent years have seen the scene becoming more and more open. Unfortunately, few venues are foreigner-friendly, though the Starmoon café attracts all sorts – it’s in the ground floor of the tall Fraser Suites building. Additionally, the university district of Sinchon is popular with the local lesbian community, many of whom congregate of an evening in “Triangle Park”, a patch of concrete near exit 1 of Sinchon subway station (take the first right).

Hongdae

Just west of the city centre lies Seoul’s greatest concentration of universities, but this is no place to be bookish – as with most academic areas around the country, it’s characterized less by what students do during the day than what they get up to at night, and streets are stuffed to the gills with bars, nightclubs, karaoke rooms and cheap restaurants. Though there are precious few tourist sights as such, it’s possibly the best place in the land to get an understanding of what really makes Korea tick.

Hongdae (홍대) is one of the edgiest districts in the whole country, teeming with young and trendy people at almost every hour. The area only truly comes into its own after dark, its hundreds of bars and clubs buzzing with activity every night of the week. During the daytime, it’s fun to explore the streets lined with small shops selling stylish and secondhand clothing, and there are quirky cafés on every corner.

Hongdae university itself specializes in the arts, a fact that’ll be most evident in Nolita Park (놀이터 공원) – actually a triangular wedge of ground with almost no greenery – which plays host to anything and everything from punk-rock bands to choreographed street dance. On weekends there’s an interesting flea market at which local students sell handmade jewellery and other trinkets.

East of Hongdae, and just one subway station away on line 2, is Sinchon, which offers many of the same delights as Hongdae and is fast becoming just as busy.

Itaewon

One of Seoul’s most famed quarters, Itaewon (이태원) is something of an enigma. It has, for years, been popular with American soldiers, thanks to the major military base situated nearby. Expat businessmen and visiting foreigners have followed suit, and until English teachers started pouring into Korea by the planeload it was one of the only places in the country in which you could buy “Western” items such as leather jackets, deodorant, tampons or Hershey’s Kisses. While it remains a great place to shop for cheap tailored suits and shoes, Itaewon’s popularity also made it a byword for transactions of a more sexual nature – hostess bars sprang up all over the place, particularly south of the Hamilton, a hotel that marks the centre of the area, on the affectionately named “Hooker Hill”. Times are changing, however. Most Western goods are available in cities across the country, and the gradual withdrawal of American troops has coincided with the opening of an ever more cosmopolitan array of restaurants, possibly the hippest in the city outside ultra-fashionable Apgujeong. The area is also heaving with clubbers on weekends, and from Hooker Hill also sprouts “Homo Hill”, Seoul’s only real gay area.

Nightlife and entertainment

Koreans love going out, whether it’s with family, colleagues, social acquaintances or old study friends, making Seoul a truly 24-hour city – day and night, it simply hums with life. Those wanting to drink or dance can choose from myriad bars and clubs, with each area of Seoul having its own particular flavour. The city also has a thriving theatre scene that’s surprisingly accessible to foreign visitors.

Bars and clubs

Clubs pumping out techno, trance and hip-hop to wiggling masses; loungey subterranean lairs filled with hookah smoke and philosophical conversation; noisy joints serving up live jazz and rock; neon-tinged cocktail bars in the bowels of five-star hotels. After a lengthy gestation, Seoul’s nightlife scene is finally wide open, and the drinkers themselves are becoming ever more liberal. It wasn’t so long ago that drinking in Seoul was pretty much a male-only affair, taking place in restaurants or at a “hof”, the ubiquitous faux-Western bars that are still winning the battle for street-space, but are increasingly being looked over in favour of more genuinely Western ideas imported from overseas. That said, there are some more local elements that can be factored into a night out: Korean friends are likely to drag you before long into a noraebang singing room to belt out your favourite songs amid a cacophony of castanets.

Most of the action is concentrated into just a few areas. Of these, Hongdae is by far the busiest, its streets lined with bars, clubs and restaurants, and full every day of the week from early evening on. Almost as busy at the weekend is Itaewon, which has some of the best bars, clubs and restaurants in the capital. Its traditional popularity with American soldiers from the nearby base has resulted in a mass of “sexy bars” (expensive venues where the bar-girls wear bikinis, hot-pants and the like, and the customers pay for their company) and brothels, many lining “Hooker Hill”. The side street leading from this (“Homo Hill”) has become the most popular gay area in the whole country, with some excellent bars.

Cinema

Korean cinema has become the subject of growing worldwide attention and acclaim, but because almost no films are screened with English-language subtitles, it’s probably best to hunt them down in your home country.

Wherever you find yourself in Seoul, you won’t be too far from the nearest cinema. CVG and Megabox are the two major cinema chains; foreign films are shown in their original language with Korean subtitles. There are also a few arthouse establishments catering to foreigners.

Theatre and live music

Seoul’s wide array of traditional performances and musicals are particularly popular with foreign travellers. Seoul has a few venues where you can hear more highbrow offerings such as jazz or classical music.

A real Korean night out

The “proper” Korean night out has long followed the same format, one that entwines food, drink and entertainment. The venue for stage one (il-cha) is the restaurant, where a meal is chased down with copious shots of soju. This is followed by stage two (i-cha), a visit to a bar; here beers are followed with snacks (usually large dishes intended for groups). Those still able to walk then continue to stage three (sam-cha), the entertainment component of the night, which usually involves a trip to a noraebang room for a sing-along, and yet more drinks. Stages four, five and beyond certainly exist, but few participants have ever remembered them clearly.

Seoul festivals

APRILInternational Women’s Film Festivalwwffis.or.kr

A week-long succession of films that “see the world through women’s eyes” (even if they were created by men).

MAYHi Seoul Festivalwhiseoulfest.org

With everything from choreographed firework displays and tea ceremonies to men walking across the Han River by tightrope, this ten-day-long celebration of the coming of summer also incorporates the Seoul World DJ festival.

Late MAY Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festivalwwww.sicaf.org

Koreans are cartoon addicts. While most of the national fix is sated by Japanese fare, there’s still a lot of local talent – The Simpsons, Family Guy and Spongebob Squarepants are among the shows inked and lined here.

JUNEKorean Queer Culture Festivalwwww.kqcf.org

Not exactly an event trumpeted by the local tourist authorities – in fact, not so long ago the police were still trying to ban it – this is a great way to see Korea crawling out of its Confucian shell.

JULYJisan Valley www.valleyrockfestival.com & Pentaport Rock Festivalswpentaportrock.com

Two alcohol-fuelled European-style music festivals (think tents, mud and portaloos) which manage to rope in major international acts, though admittedly ones usually on the wane in their homelands.

AUGUSTSeoul Fringe Festivalwwww.seoulfringefestival.net

This fortnight-long platform for all things alternative is very popular with local students, and its semi-international nature means it appeals to overseas visitors too. Hongdae is usually the best place to be.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBERSeoul Performing Arts Festivalwwww.spaf.or.kr

This increasingly acclaimed event has seen performances from as far afield as Latvia and Israel, though its main aim is to showcase Korean talent. It takes place in various locations around Seoul over a three-week period.

OCTOBERDrum Festivalwwww.seouldrum.go.kr& Fashion Weekwww.seoulfashionweek.org

The crashes and bangs of all things percussive ring out at the annual drum event, while Fashion Week has become Asia’s largest fashion event since starting in 2000.

Shopping

Shopaholics will be quite at home in Seoul: the city has everything from trendy to traditional, markets to malls. High on the itinerary of many tourists are the colossal markets of Dongdaemun and Namdaemun.

Clothing

There are department stores all over the city; the bustling streets of Myeongdong host department stores from the biggest nationwide chains – Migliore, Shinsaegae, Lotte and Galleria – and there are also luxury examples in Apgujeong. Perhaps more interesting are the city’s boutiques; these are most numerous (and expensive) around Apgujeong, though there are cheaper versions of the same in Hongdae and Samcheongdong. Itaewon is also worth a mention for its excellent tailored suits, and last, but not least, are the colossal markets of Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, which feature an almost bewildering array of cheap and knock-off brand-name clothing.

Arts, crafts and antiques

The best place to head for anything vaguely arty is Insadonggil and its side streets, which have numerous craft shops selling paints, brushes, calligraphy ink and handmade paper. There are also a few shops selling antiques here, though there are more of the same in Itaewon; these sell cases, cupboards, medicinal racks and the like, many in a distinctively oriental style. Proprietors often speak English, and can arrange international shipping.

Books and music

Most of Seoul’s larger bookstores have dedicated English-language sections stocked with novels, history books and language study guides for those studying Korean or teaching English. Three of these are directly accessible from subway stations – Youngpoong and Bandi & Luni from Jonggak, and Kyobo Bookstore from Gwanghwamun. These are also the best places in which to find mainstream music; fans of anything edgier should head to Purple Record in Hongdae.

Cameras and electronic equipment

Technophiles have two main choices – one is Yongsan Electronics Mart, a multilevel giant rising up alongside the train and subway station of the same name, and the other Techno Mart, near Gangbyeon subway station on line 2. At both, many staff speak a little English (particularly Yongsan, thanks to its proximity to Itaewon). Prices are generally about twenty percent less than elsewhere in the land; this can rise to fifty percent for imported goods.

South of the river

Before Seoul outgrew its boundaries and spread over most of the northwest of the country, the city’s southern perimeter ran through Namsan, north of the river. Accordingly, the capital’s historical sights become sparser on the south side of the Han River; still, to appreciate just how life ticks along in this fine city you’d do well to spend some time here. Each district has its own particular flavour and breed of Seoulite – Yeouido has its mass of suits, Gangnam its fun-seekers and fashionistas. You can also visit regal burial mounds, shop at gigantic malls or upscale boutiques, or head to a couple of huge theme parks.

Sports and activities

Seoul has a small but pleasing range of ways to keep sport nuts entertained, as well as simple exercise equipment on almost every mountainside, as well as in parks, and dotting the banks of the Hangang and other waterways.

Baseball

Seoul has two main professional teams: LG Twins and the Doosan Bears, long-time rivals who both play in Jamsil Baseball Stadium. Games take place most days from April to October, and tickets can cost as little as W3000. Avid players can get some practice at a number of batting cages dotted around the city, particularly in student areas.

Football

If you want to watch some K-League action, catch FC Seoul at the World Cup Stadium (wwww.fcseoul.com; weekends March–Oct); every now and then foreigners can buy special tickets that include a free beer. Seongnam and Suwon, the two most dominant Korean teams, also play near Seoul; the atmosphere at all grounds is fun but they can be on the empty side, unless you’re lucky enough to be around for a major international game (wwww.fifa.com). Those who prefer to play rather than watch can try their luck with the highly competitive foreigners’ football league (wwww.leaguelineup.com/kffl).

Ice-skating

In winter you can skate outdoors at various points in the city: Seoul Plaza and Gwanghwamun Plaza turn into a gigantic ice-rinks for the season (usually mid-Dec to Feb; 10am–10pm). There’s also a year-round rink in Lotte World (10am–9.30pm). The cheapest option is the Olympic-size rink at Korea National University (2–6pm); it’s within walking distance of Korea University subway station.

Swimming

Unless you’re staying at a higher-end hotel or serviced apartment, you may find it tricky to get a swim in Seoul. There are municipal pools in most parts of the city; enquire at a tourist office for your nearest option. In summer, a number of outdoor pools open up around the Hangang; most convenient are those on Yeouido.

Taekwondo

There are a number of ways in which foreign visitors can have a go at the Korean martial art of taekwondo. Training sessions have in the past taken place at Gyeonghuigung palace, but had been shelved at the time of writing. Tourist information offices are the best places to ask about taekwondo action, including longer programmes. There are also occasional performances and tournaments at the home of Korea’s national sport, Kukkiwon (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm; free), a hall near Gangnam station.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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