Fashion- and technology-forward but also deeply traditional, this dynamic city mashes up palaces, temples, cutting-edge design and mountain trails, all to a nonstop K-Pop beat.
Over the last decade Seoul has worked hard to soften its industrial hard edges into an appealing urban ideal of parks, culture and design. Glass, concrete and steel are crafted into natural forms at the spectacular Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park and City Hall. The popularity of the beautifully landscaped parks alongside the central Cheong-gye stream and the Han River has spurred on the creation of more green spaces and cycle routes. Join Seoulites enjoying time out shopping in stylish boutiques and drinking at cool cafes and convivial bars.
Gaze down on this sprawling metropolis of around 10 million people from atop any of Seoul’s four guardian mountains and you’ll sense the powerful pungsu-jiri (feng shui) that has long nurtured and protected the city. History clings tenaciously to the ‘Miracle on the Han’, a phoenix arisen from the ashes of the Korean War. So while Seoul has its eye clearly on the future, you'll also encounter fascinating fragments of the past in World Heritage–listed sites such as Jongmyo shrine, in the alleys between the graceful hanok (traditional wooden homes) in Bukchon, and striding along the magnificent Seoul City Wall.
Whatever you want, at any time of day or night, Seoul can provide. An early-morning temple visit can lead to a palace tour followed by tea-sipping in Bukchon and gallery-hopping in Samcheong-dong. Soju (a vodka-like drink) and snacks in a street tent bar will fuel you for shopping at the buzzing Dongdaemun or Namdaemun night markets, partying in Hongdae or Itaewon, or singing in a self-service karaoke noraebang. Follow this with steaming, soaking and snoozing in a jjimjilbang (sauna and spa). By the time you look at your watch, it will be dawn again.
Beyond the Walls
Public transport is brilliant, so there’s no excuse for not stretching your travel horizons beyond the city limits. The fearsome Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), splitting South from North Korea, exerts a powerful attraction and makes for a compelling day trip. To the west, Incheon is a fascinating port where the modern world came flooding into Korea at the end of the 19th century, and today whose Chinatown and waterfront are still an interesting fusion of people. To the south is Suwon, home to impressive World Heritage–listed fortifications, built by King Jeongjo, that snake 3.5 miles (5.7km) past majestic gates and pavilions.