24 hours in Seoul
The city of Seoul is, at first glance, a bewildering composite of extremes. Once experienced, however, it is apparent that Asia’s most eccentric city is truly defined by its dualities. Here in Korea’s capital, a city of over 10 million, the ancient is contrasted with the contemporary in a burst of neon and steel, paper and wood. With about two times the population density of New York City, the small village built 2,000 years ago along the Han River has become one of the top financial and commercial centers of the world. Nearly destroyed during the Korean War, Seoul has been rebuilt with some of the most innovative infrastructures in the world. The remaining vestiges of its traditional past now intermingle with the flashing lights and glossy exteriors of its modern palaces: Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Kia. Poised to become a major international player yet still retaining its ties to history and folk culture, this is an exciting time to explore the city’s eclectic charms.
Located in the Northwest corner of Korea and situated between two mountains, Seoul is bisected by the Han River separating the more traditional and residential north from the modern and commercial south. The city is apportioned into 25 “gu” or districts which are then further divided into “dong” or neighborhoods. Wide avenues, elevated highways, and a sophisticated 12 line subway system form a web throughout making intercity travel an easy task. Pedestrians swarm the walkways at all hours of the day, bringing the city to life with the collective rhythm of their activity. With so much chaos it is easy to feel overwhelmed upon arrival into this thriving urban giant. This Asian Tiger can easily be tamed, however, by any visitor armed with a spirit of adventure and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
In order to gain the right perspective, it is necessary to visit the iconic N Seoul Tower. Perched atop Namsan Mountain, the 777 ft observation tower stands 1,574 ft above sea level. A smooth shaft of white ending in a futuristic circular crown, the building in many ways resembles a spacecraft directing its beam of light into the mountain. After riding the Namsan cable car up the slope it’s only a short walk to the base of the tower and several cafés and gift shops. For a fee, you can explore the five levels of the tower including at its pinnacle, N Grill, a western-style rotating restaurant which makes one full rotation every 48 minutes. Most importantly, you will find the observation deck which features breathtaking panoramic views of the capital with high rises stretching out in all directions until they meet the distant mountains.
Armed with a better understanding of the magnitude of this city, you should next make your way into its heart and explore downtown Seoul. Here palaces, corporate office towers, government buildings, and markets stand together in a unique expression of disordered harmony. Begin with a walk along the Cheonggyecheon, a stream emptying into the Han River that was recently restored in a massive urban renewal project. Today it is a sanctuary of art and natural beauty amidst the industrious city featuring more than 20 elegant bridges and several fountains and art installations. Follow the stream until you reach Changdeokgung, one of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Renowned for its simplistic beauty and harmony with the natural environment, Changdeokgung was a resting place for Korea’s royal families. It is a well preserved and graceful example of traditional Korean palace architecture surrounded by 78 acres of elegant gardens flush with local flowers and trees.
Nearby, visitors will find enchanting Insadong, a perfect microcosm of the city itself due to its effortless blend of the best of Korea‘s artistic past with the promise of its blossoming contemporary art scene. Comprised of a narrow street lined with small alleys, this cultural art market is brimming with galleries, antique shops, and second-hand book stores and is closed to traffic on the weekends. Here is the best place to shop for hand made paper crafts, porcelain, and traditional or current art pieces. It is highly recommended that you stop in at one of the traditional tea houses, catch a calligraphy demonstration in the street and wander over to one of Korea’s most famous Buddhist temples, Jogyesa. If you are feeling hungry visit Sanchon Restaurant (meaning “Mountain Village”) renowned for its Korean temple cuisine. Here traditional music fills the wooden interior as monks in temple dress serve your choice of up to 20 set menus of fresh vegetarian food. Try the tofu made with real seawater or the pots of fresh kimchi.
If it’s nightlife you're after, ditch your shopping bags because Seoul has it in abundance. As the sun sinks in the violet sky and eclipses the mountainous horizon, the conservative grayscale of the city explodes into electric technicolor as thousands of neon signs beckon to pedestrians with the allure of music, food, and drink. Seoul is a city without pause and you can always find an open convenience store, jjimjilbang (bathhouse), noraebang (karaoke room), or bar. One of the most popular areas for young Koreans and foreigners alike is Hongdae, a neighborhood whose universities and dense collection of bars and restaurants attracts huge crowds each night. Stop in the park to listen to live music or visit Free Bird, a bar famous for its Korean rock shows and the bands’ autographs lining its walls. Before you stumble home, visit one of the food carts lining the street for some delicious late-night snacks. If the sky tints pink as you journey toward your bed, take a moment to experience why Korea is known as “the Land of the Morning Mist.” The serenity of the early morning light set against the fading neon is one of the most unique contrasts Seoul has to offer. To know the city is to relive its past, become intimate with its present and anticipate its future. With its art and commerce, history and entertainment, Seoul is a host in the style of its people, providing a lavish yet curious spread for every traveler.