The first time I visited Korea was right during the Asian financial crisis in 1998. At that time tickets and prices of stuff in Seoul was cheap and I remembered having a great time in Seoul, being satisfied by the amazing dishes of ginseng chicken soup and bulgogi. However with a guided tour during that time, there was not adequate time for me to explore the city proper. This time round, I had the freedom to plan my own itinerary and on the first day, I visited Yeouido where i was able to visit the National Assembly and its adjoining library. Two other attractions can also be found in the area including the 63 City, one of the tallest skyscrapers in the city which also houses an observatory and an aquarium, and the second attraction being the Yeouido Park which is a large park bisecting the island of Yeouido. I was only able to visit Yeouido briefly before the snow cut my sightseeing short as I headed back to the hotel for my trip to Jeju Island.
On my return from Jeju, I stayed at Gangnam, which is a financial district that also houses some of the wealthiest residents in the city. This area houses some luxury car dealerships as well as the huge COEX mall. Recently it is also famous after being the title of the hit online YouTube MTV ‘Gangnam Style’. This area definitely showcases a modern side to the city compared to the Sindorim district where I stayed on arrival in Seoul. Everything here seems so polished with glass-enclosed skyscrapers and wide boulevards. However these wide boulevards are not enough to handle the traffic that Seoul experiences and this is why the subway is perhaps the best way to traverse around the city.
As I say by the lounge chair watching the sun set over the city with the bright lights taking over, the city remains as lively as it was in the evening. By this time of the day it is best to explore the district of Dongdaemun which translates to the Great East Gate, referring to the ancient eastern city gate which still stands. Though the area is now more famous for the late-night shopping in the numerous clothing markets. This area is famous for being a market where wholesalers buy products from to sell in other parts of the country, thus it is also the place where Seoul’s young and trendy shop! Tourists from all around Asia visit this area for bargain shopping and as it remains crowded till late night, there is also a night market selling traditional street-side snacks and food.
The next morning I started the day exploring Insadong with a friend, with the area being the place to buy Korean art and antiquities, but today it is also a tourist shopping area since it is very close to the city centre. There are also many Korean restaurants around the area which provides some tasty food. Thus this place is also suitable for a lunch break before continuing onwards to explore other places of interest including the Bosingak Belfry which houses a large bell pavilion that is rung every New Year’s eve as Koreans congregate in that area to welcome in the New Year.
One of the main attractions in the city is the well-restored palaces with Gyeongbokgung being the largest of them all. The place to start exploring this palace would be from Gwanghwamun. The large public plaza is frequently used for many activities including political rallies during election season and can be described as the centre of Seoul. A large monument dedicated to Admiral Yi Sun Shin, a respected figure in Korea for being the one who repelled Japan during its naval incursion into the country. Another statue pays homage to King Sejong, considered the founder of the Korean alphabet. Underneath these 2 monuments, visitors could find out more about their accomplishments and gain insight into the tumultous history of Korea and how this small country manage to overcome difficulties and challenges posed by its larger neighbours. They will provide a much clearer picture of imperial Korea and thus allow one to appreciate better the palace itself.
Gwanghwamun also serves as the backdrop for the changing of the guards ceremony which occurs periodically throughout the day and especially performed for tourists. It also serves as the main entrance to Seoul’s largest palace complex. The palace itself is built in the Chinese architectural style and feels like a smaller replica of the Forbidden City Palace Complex in Beijing. Upon passing the Gwanghwamun, visitors can purchase tickets before going through the Geunjeongmun to reach Geunjeongjeon or the main throne hall. This was the main building where the king held meetings with his ministers and formal events are held. The various other main halls line up in the same axis as the Geunjeongjeon and a small hill is also located at the back of the palace to create an imperial aura of longevity and strength.
Visiting the palace in winter has its drawbacks, one of which is the freezing temperature making it unbearable walking around the palace complex. However the snowfall cast a white blanket over the palace courtyard and rooftops, creating a mystical atmosphere over the palace. While in the palace, be sure to take a peek into the main buildings which includes the Geunjeongjeon, Gangnyeongjeon which is the King’s residence and Gyotaejeon which is the queen’s chambers. Beyond these 3 buildings, there lies a garden and the Hyangwonjeong Pavilion and the surrounding small lake is perhaps one of the most scenic spots in the whole palace complex. The pavilion also stands as a landmark as it is beside the entrance to the Folk Museum which one gains entry as well with the ticket into Gyeongbokgung. The folk museum is also a nice spot for a rest and to get yourself warm during winter by getting a cup of coffee or two!
After touring Gyeongbokgung, visitors could walk around the area and visit other nearby attractions such as the recently renovated Cheonggyecheon stream which cuts through the city and will lead through to Dongdaemun, Other worthy attractions in the area is the Seoul City Hall for its modern new annex building.
As Seoul is a huge city that has some similarities of being spread out like Los Angeles, travel between districts can be time consuming, which means that it is essential to plan your journey. An itinerary for the second day could start the morning exploring the various museums around the city though I only managed to visit the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art which is a fine art museum albeit a bit small in comparison to MoMA in New York. The museum’s location in Itaewon is also useful for exploring the various cafes and chic boutiques lining this area. While things are not cheap in this area, it is nice to just window-shop and explore the trends in Korean fashion, or to have a lunch break. The afternoon can be spent exploring many of Seoul’s new malls and the COEX mall in Gangnam, atop the Samseong subway station is probably one of the largest in the city. Another alternative for tourists would be the D-Cube City Mall right on top of Sindorim subway station.
By nightfall, new places of interest pops up, like the Hongik University area. This district is also known as Hongdae to Seoul residents and there is a street full of cheap eats, including a famous galbi outlet called Hongik Sutbul Galbi which serves one of the best meals I had in Seoul. The fantastic owner of the outlet is always very friendly to guests and would even offer tips on how to eat the meat to bring out the taste! However, it should be said that the minimum portion they sell is one for 2 person, though maybe because I was really hungry since I skipped lunch, I was able to finish that portion of beef for 2 person, and I would have to say it was one of my favourite meals in Korea for the atmosphere of the small eatery, the friendliness of the owner and the great taste of the combination of sauces and kimchi with the BBQ beef short ribs!
Seoul has become a different city with a character of its own ever since I last visited. With its wide variety of Korean cuisines, quirky districts to explore, restored palaces to discover and late night shopping till 5 am in the morning at Dongdaemun, there are new experiences to be had by visitors to Seoul. The fast and dynamic pace of the South Korean economy has also promoted development of art and culture in this city, allowing the city to lead in terms of fashion and design trends in Asia. Combined with the tough nature of Koreans, this has created a very unique lifestyle and ambience for the city that gives it a distinctive flavour of its own, and its rise could be linked correspondingly to the K-Pop culture that has swept Asia by storm in the last decade.