Must-see locations in the heart of Seoul
By AMIR BIBAWY | THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: September 4, 2014
South Korea’s hyper-efficient capital doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think of exotic Asian destinations. But this mega-city offers much to tempt travelers beyond a layover from the ultra-modern international airport in nearby Incheon.
You can explore Korea’s rich historic heritage by visiting temples and palaces, wander around the enormous National Museum of Korea, and savor the delights of its surprisingly varied cuisine.
Strategically and culturally, Korea is wedged between East Asia’s superpowers, Japan and China. As you travel around Seoul, you’ll understand the intricate connections among the three countries.
Pick a palace
High on your list should be one or two of Seoul’s five palaces. Most guidebooks recommend Gyeongbok-gung, the grandest. But I headed to Changdeok-gung, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, instead. The sprawling palace grounds can only be visited on guided tours; check the schedule to make sure you catch a tour in the right language. There’s one tour of the famous gardens and another of palace buildings.
Shop, eat, stroll
Koreans love to shop, and there’s nowhere better for it than the pedestrian shopping district of Myeong-dong, where I stayed. Streets are lined with brand-name stores (both Korean and Western) open late into the night. It also has countless restaurants and cafes.
Another essential stop is Gwangjang Market, which bustles with street food vendors and little restaurant-shacks in the evening when its shops have closed. Locals go there for Korean pancakes made from mung beans called bindaeddeok and cheap street food. I opted for one of the ubiquitous dumpling soup places, where for about $5 you get a huge bowl of steaming soup with pork dumplings, freshly made before your eyes. In winter, the stall benches are even heated. On my second visit to the market, I had sashimi and rice wine. The sashimi was near-frozen, a common way of serving it there and different from the Japanese room-temperature tradition.
For traditional Korean food beyond the market, venture into one of the tent restaurants that serve food late into the night in popular nightlife districts. Get your fix of bibimbap — a rice dish with vegetables, egg, meat and chili or soy sauce — along with a traditional seafood stew, which is hearty and warm.
For traditional architecture, Bukchon Village, a neighborhood of traditional Korean houses with slanted roofs, is a nice place to stroll. The area is flanked by two palaces and dotted with chic boutiques and cafes.
Soak up some history
The National Museum of Korea is a must for those seeking to go beneath Seoul’s veneer of technology and learn about the country’s history.
The museum — Asia’s largest and sixth-largest in the world — is suitably impressive from the outside, with a futuristic architectural design that pays tribute to Korea’s modernization. Inside, many of the more than 300,000 pieces are designated National Treasures of Korea. The building design utilizes natural light in many galleries, which makes it easy to explore for hours without feeling like you’re stuck in a vault all day. Highlights include Buddhist bells on the third floor and the Ten-Story Pagoda, a unique marble structure built in the 14th century, looming over the ground floor. It was taken to Japan before World War II (Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945), but was returned to Korea in 1960, disassembled. It’s been painstakingly restored and is an enduring symbol of an architecture style little-known outside the country.
Tackle the tower
Finally, don’t leave Seoul without venturing up to the N Seoul Tower, the city’s highest tourist point, offering a view from the top at nearly 1,600 feet above sea level. You can hike through Namsan Park, Seoul’s Central Park, to the base of the tower or take a cable car up. It’s busy at dusk, but a nice time to watch as the city below you transforms into a stunning and colorful display of lights.