Where to Go
Seoul’s historic heart houses most of the city’s magnificent old pavilions and palaces, including Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, the crown jewels of royal Korean architecture. Until a few years ago it had a somewhat neglected air, having been displaced by newer areas south of the Hangang (Han River) as the city’s commercial engine.
That’s changing fast, however, with slick new buildings sprouting up and major redevelopment projects such as the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon waterway, a stream coursing through some of Seoul’s busiest districts. Still the capital’s political nexus and home to its most storied restaurants, department stores, and markets, this is the best place to begin an exploration of Seoul and to get acquainted with its characteristic juxtaposition of the contemporary and the ancient.
Insa-dong and Samcheong-dong
With the city undergoing such breakneck development in recent decades, there are too few areas conducive to a leisurely stroll, where the low-rise, laid-back Seoul of old seems to survive—but this is one of them. One of the capital’s best-loved tourist destinations for years, Insa-dong is a compelling mix of galleries, handicraft vendors, and tranquil teahouses, all linked by a winding network of alleys that beg to be explored.
Farther north, trendy Samcheong-dong has established itself as Insa-dong’s up-and-coming competitor. Barely on the map a few years ago, it’s now chock-a-block with cutting-edge art spaces, such as the Kukje Gallery; innovative restaurants; and specialist coffee shops, many with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. Nearby, tranquil Bukchon Hanok Village has the city’s highest concentration of traditional Korean hanok houses.
Seongbuk-dong and Buam-dong
The areas north of Gyeongbokgung (a royal palace) and Cheong Wa Dae (the official residence of the president) have a bucolic, almost rural feel, despite being a short hop from the city center. These are districts of mountains, gardens, stately old homes, and tranquil temples like Gilsangsa, perfect for an in-city getaway. They’re also justifiably renowned for their restaurants, where food tends to come in hearty, country-sized portions.
Dongdaemun and Daehang-no
The main university that gave Daehang-no (literally “University Street”) its name may have relocated long ago, but the district retains a youthful, creative spirit. It’s one of the few places in the city where outdoor performances are commonplace, and it is Seoul’s undisputed hub of live theater.
Nearby, Dongdaemun serves a similar function for South Korea’s textile and fashion trade, with Dongdaemun Market sprawling over several city blocks and teeming with clothing bargain-hunters into the wee hours every night. While it’s a heavily commercial area, some of Seoul’s lesser-known treasures are found in Dongdaemun’s labyrinth of streets, including a Central Asian district that serves up some of the best Russian and Uzbek food this side of the Silk Road.
Mapo and Yeouido
The Mapo district is best known as the home of three of South Korea’s top universities, all in close proximity, which has created a sort of youth-fashion corridor where a good chunk of the city’s cutting-edge art and musical output is concentrated. By day, the area, with its abundance of boutiques, cafés, and flea markets, has a slightly bohemian air, and at night, the streets are full of revelers making their way to Seoul’s trendiest bars and clubs.
Just south of the Mapo, the Hangang island of Yeouido is one of Seoul’s great development success stories; formerly a barren patch of land, it’s now the location of the mammoth National Assembly, the gigantic Noryangjin Seafood Market that’s something of a shrine for seafood lovers, and the beautiful riverside Yeouido Park.
The Yongsan district is the place where Korea most visibly meets the outside world. This is the home of a majority of Seoul’s foreign population, and that’s reflected in the diverse range of cuisine and shopping available in the area, as well as its mosques, schools, and bookstores. From the Japanese pubs of Ichon-dong to the Middle Eastern and Mexican restaurants of the brightly lit Itaewon strip to the high-end nightclubs and polished wine bars, Yongsan has something for all tastes. Yongsan is also an important destination for history buffs, housing the poignant War Memorial of Korea and the National Museum of Korea, which has one of the most extensive collections in Asia.
Apgujeong and Cheongdam-dong
Long synonymous with wealth and prestige, this area is where the Seoul elite tend to work, live, and play. Posh stores and ritzy restaurants line its often broad, tree-shaded streets. However, this doesn’t mean it’s all aloof or inaccessible—it’s got some great cultural outlets, fantastic shopping opportunities, and some truly exceptional places to people-watch.
This district south of the Han River is where much of Seoul’s development has been concentrated over the past decade, but it’s got much more than towering office blocks and traffic tangles. Many of Seoul’s best hotels, stylish shopping complexes, amusement parks, historic tombs, and lovely Buddhist temples are found here. A high concentration of young, upwardly mobile office types also ensures that Gangnam’s not lacking when it comes to fine dining and nighttime buzz.
Seoul’s urban sprawl can seem endless, but outside of the city core it often makes way for nature. Bukhansan National Park is among its greatest resources, a near-inexhaustible territory of peaks and forests connected by an extensive network of trails. The many new parks lining the Han River are not only scenic but host a wealth of activities and attractions. There are also a few important cultural facilities located in the city’s outskirts, such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition