It’s a common misconception that Seoul isn’t really a sightseers’ city; that it’s mostly traffic, concrete, and steel and lacks iconic structures like those found in the region’s other metropolises, such as Bangkok’s Grand Palace or the Forbidden City in Beijing.
This is to some extent understandable—centuries of conflict and rapid development have indeed taken a toll on Seoul’s historic resources, and the focus in Korean aesthetics on modesty and harmony with nature means its greatest expressions adopt a relatively low profile, tending to charm rather than overwhelm. But they are no less exquisite for all that, and in reality there are few places where the past is such a living part of the city’s fabric, or so accessible to the visitor.
Rather than a single overwhelming spectacle, the old city center houses an entire network of palaces, gates, and pavilions that chronicle the rise and tumultuous fall of the Joseon empire (1392-1910), their great halls and elegantly sculpted gardens standing surprisingly intact.
Extensive efforts on the fortress wall that once ringed Seoul and the Cheonggyecheon stream allow visitors to trace the ancient capital’s veins, and Seoul’s many museums, including the magnificent National Museum of Korea, house a history that’s stunning in its depth and scope.
But perhaps the best thing about the city is that visitors can also get swept up in its headlong rush towards the future. The polyglot lanes and nightspots of the Itaewon district provide a glimpse into a formerly homogenous city’s growing cosmopolitanism. Hyper-modern business and entertainment districts such as Gangnam crackle constantly with energy.
Space-age flights of fancy like the Dongdaemun Design Plaza have helped Seoul claim a place on the architectural leading edge, and its lifeline, the Han River, has been spruced up with man-made islands, grassy parks, and laser-light-equipped bridges.
Even amid all the urbanity, nature manages to assert itself in the mountains that ring (and rear up in the middle of) the capital, realms of forests, trails, temples, and landmarks like the soaring N Seoul Tower. Any effort to explore Seoul should take in all these aspects, which at some times appear to clash and, at others, combine seamlessly.
Finely tuned, inexpensive public transport, safe streets, and generally helpful locals mean visitors are largely free to uncover the delightful contradictions of this bustling metropolis at their own pace, with little standing in the way of themselves and the rhythms of a place that marches to several different drummers at once.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition