With a population exceeding fifty million, it may be hard to conceive a small peninsula-country – one that juts into the East China and Yellow Seas - boasting some of East Asia's most breathtaking scenery. Yet it does. More interestingly, despite a penchant for catapulting the Republic's populous headfirst into the twenty-first century - seen in a tidal wave of quirky-cum-cutting edge fashion, savvy technological advances and the iconic K-pop - Koreans consistently uphold traditional values, maintaining and promoting them unwaveringly, nationwide. From centuries-old Buddhist temples to charming coastal fishing villages, fertile emerald rolling hills, a mega metropolis and sub-tropical islands, the Republic of South Korea has a little of everything. I was hard pressed to see it all in two and a half weeks, as the further I lifted the lid on the K-trove, the more treasure I uncovered.
Whether a foodie, a history buff, a technophile or simply a curious traveller, Seoul is South Korea's mega-metropolis capable of catering to every variant of human inclination. It's not hard to see why it's reported to be experiencing an identity crisis: the city is drenched in diversity and is a melting pot of east-meets-west and old-meets-new. However, unlike the chaos of other similarly mixed Asian cities, Seoul soulfully blends the mix with subtle sophistication. The choices are endless: indulge on gastronomic cuisine at a seemingly unending stream of cafes and restaurants, explore ecclesiastical foundations by visiting architecturally-resplendent temples, or engage less tenable senses by visiting a spa or a meerkat cafe. There is, essentially, no limit to Seoul's multifaceted soul. To circumvent the acquisition of decision fatigue, here are a few noteworthy sights to fill up one's 'must-see' three to four day Seoul itinerary.
Built many centuries ago, the palace – one of many in Seoul - attests to the architectural prowess of the country’s predecessors. It’s an heirloom of yesteryear, a relic to admire and a beatific sight not to be missed. Although it’s the only one of the five palaces I visited in Seoul, I heard whispers that it is the most impressive. I spent hours traipsing the perfectly manicured grounds, surrounded by Korean antiquity – bedecked in oriental trimmings - at its finest. Don’t forget to hire and don traditional attire upon arrival; sashaying through the grounds will be more entertaining dressed akin to native visitors.
Set aside half a day to see the palace in its entirety. Some guide books recommend two hours however, in order to embrace the essence of the Korean institution, taking one’s time is paramount. Take water, and wear a hat, as the heat can be intense. The palace is closed on Tuesdays.
Bukchon Hanok Village
For an opportunity to step back in time without leaving the confines of the city’s periphery, head to Bukchon, a short walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s here that one can discover a traditional village comprising Hanok, homes designed in an architectural style synonymous with Korea of yesteryear. Purpose built to be in harmony with the surrounding environment and the ever-changing seasons, they utilise ondol and daecheong, one for keeping warm in winter and the other for staying cool in summer. A stroll through the village felt like stepping back in time several centuries. Aside from the Hanok, the view of Seoul from the top of the mildly precipitous hill is stunning.
Anyone who enjoys shopping should not miss letting loose in Namdaemun Market. Shopaholics beware: there are over thirty multi-storey buildings comprising thousands of stores ranging from clothing to fabrics, jewellery, toys, food and more. In fact, there are so many goods upon which to feast one’s eyes, escaping unscathed without burning a hole in one’s wallet or purse is the only danger. Even those without a penchant for the illustrious pastime will enjoy wandering aimlessly through the market, as it’s a visual spectacular of Korean life under a public magnifying lens.
Namdaemun Camera Shops
For photography aficionados, there is no missing the side-by-side Sony, Canon and Nikon shops at Namdaemun. Most goods are second-hand, but generally in very good condition. It’s a nirvana for anyone interested in purchasing competitively priced, quality goods in the pursuit of refining their craft. I purchased a second-hand Canon SLR along with two lenses, all of which are still helping me capture moments of life around the world.
If new to the photography biz, however, ensure one’s knowledge is adequate before entering the vulture’s nest. If concerned, as English language skills among staff can be scarce, recruit a bilingual Korean to take along for the ride and negotiation. Although the staff are seemingly friendly, if they detect a novice, the price will automatically increase disproportionately. It’s a haggling game, to the end.
Although Seoul is comprised of multiple districts, many of which are worth visiting, Hondgae – according to personal opinion – is the energised core of the city’s soul, its lifeblood being beat rhythmically by the eclectic, upbeat and unruffled youth inhabiting its streets. Take a stroll along Hongik University Street (grabbing a delicious bite to nourish oneself en route) and admire the crucible of Korean life unfold on the street: students, from all walks of life, sit together on the grassy strip laughing, gorging fragrant food, embracing their loved ones and enjoying the vitality of youth. On the other side of the main road, there are copious shopping streets to be found, replete with everything one’s heart may (or may not) desire. It’s also where one can find Meerkat Friends Café.
Bukhansan Mountain Summit Hike
Visible from most standpoints throughout Seoul, the three-horned mountain lives peacefully on the city’s northern periphery. A hike to its highest peak - Baegundae - is a must. Aside from the exhilaration one will derive from arriving at the top, ceaseless amusement will be provided by the droves of Koreans taking a leisurely stroll to the top – it’s quasi-free entertainment. After all, hiking is to Koreans as beer is to Germans. It’s a favourite pastime, particularly popular at the weekend. The hike isn’t as gruelling as one may think, so don’t be put off: I made it without having trained, two months after contracting pneumonia. Take it slowly, stop intermittently to eat the carbohydrate-laden snacks one has brought with, and enjoy the journey. It took approximately five hours to complete the circuit, with additional time required to get to and from city-centre accommodation.
Arriving at the starting point is simple. Take Seoul’s metropolitan line three to Gupabal station. Leave the station via exit one. Take bus 704 towards the fortress, and get off at the park entrance. Don’t be concerned about where to get off: one will see a bus full of people bedecked in full hiking paraphernalia pile off, so just follow suite.
Dragon Hill Spa
Getting completely naked surrounded by others is never personally enticing, however it is a trademark of Korean culture, and a necessary K-experience while visiting Seoul. Recently made internationally renowned by William Shatner and his entourage in ‘Better Late Than Never’, the jjimjilbang – or Korean bathhouse – requires little local promotion: visited daily by hundreds – if not thousands – of Seoul residents, finding a possie in the bubbling 35-degree Celsius spa at certain times of day may prove challenging. The seven-storey complex – that’s also gender segregated in the ‘nudie’ areas – is an institution, a place in which to escape the city’s chaos and drift into a world of serenity. From hot and cold baths, saunas and salons in the respective ‘no clothes’ areas to salt rooms, quiet areas, a cinema and a restaurant in the unisex zone, there’s no possibility of getting bored. In fact, some people I met found it so addictive, they spent the night – sleeping on the floor in true Korean style, of course.
Based in Jongno-gu, the traditional undercover market is home to five thousand shops; a shopper’s paradise, yes? As one of the largest markets in Korea, it plays host to nearly seventy thousand visitors each day. Don’t fret: as it covers an enormous surface area, the crowds are manageable, and escaping – although difficult – can be done by dropping into one of the many diverse shops selling a host of items from food (particularly fresh seafood) to textiles, traditional medicine, souvenirs and clothing. It was here that I tried chicken feet, a common addition to dinner plates across the nation.
If it’s more serenity one is after, especially following the clamour of Gwangjang Market, then a walk along this 5.8-kilometre stream is akin to visiting Dragon Hill Spa. Despite its position beside one of Seoul’s busiest roads, it’s surprisingly quiet thanks to a trench-like location a few metres below street-level. A meander along the ‘banks’ of the stream cleanses the soul, frees the mind and – after passing under several bridges – prepares one adequately for a visit to the intergalactic-like Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
An eyesore to some, being imbued by a sense of neo-futurism is guaranteed as one approaches –from any angle - the Hadid-Samoo masterpiece. Built to serve as a launch pad for Korea’s creative industry, it embodies design at its greatest. From futuristic retail stores to eclectic exhibition spaces and a park on the roof, there is no single space – externally and internally – that leaves visitors without mouths agape in awe. I spent hours going from one artistic space to the next, getting lost in a plexus of creative hideouts.
Leeum Samsung Museum of Art
Not as futuristic as Dongdaemun Design Plaza on the outside, the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art comprises two galleries, one of which slings art admirers well ahead of the 21st century. However, step across the foyer to the other half of the modern construction, and it becomes possible to rewind clocks to a distant time in Korean history. There is no shortfall in eclecticism. Don’t be surprised – for true aficionados – if one gets trapped in an art-warp and loses him or herself entirely for a day – or more.
There’s no surprise – given the country’s propensity for gearing entertainment to an eccentric population – that, along with other animal cafes, there exists one almost wholly devoted to the African meerkat. Despite the obvious controversial – and ethical – considerations, stopping by the Hongdae establishment is actually worthwhile. Aside from the opportunity to get up close and personal – for ten restricted minutes – with the pint-sized animals, all proceeds from the entrance ticket go towards keeping the foraging insectivores happy and healthy, a task assumed by the fanatical staff who run the cafe.
See this article for full details regarding a visit to the famous café.
Namsan Seoul Tower
Located on Namsan Mountain, the observation tower is the second highest point in Seoul. Half the fun in visiting the tower is the cable car ride up the side of Mount Namsan. Granted, one can walk, but obtaining breathtaking broad-sweeping views of Seoul while being hauled up the mountain in an almost-flying metal box - squashed inside like a sardine - is far superior. The fun does not stop there. Once at the top, aside from the exquisite views – best seen at dusk – from the observatory on level three, there are numerous other ways to be entertained: dining on delicious fare at one of the many restaurants, throwing coins into the wishing well on level two, spending up in the shops scattered throughout (including the sweet store on the observatory level) and hanging a named padlock on the Tower fence to symbolize one’s undying love for his or her precious other are but a few.
The demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA)
For an opportunity to get up close and personal with the Republic of Korea’s infamous northern counterpart, book a tour (which is obligatory) to the Demilitarized Zone and the Joint Security Area. Several operators run half and full day tours, most of which can be booked through one’s accommodation or directly with a city-based travel agency. Hurry, as things are deteriorating in North Korea and, based on the current media output, a visit may soon be impossible.
I was personally unable to go, thanks to a bout of food poisoning the night before. However, travellers I met in Seoul who’d visited both zones all highly recommended the excursion.
In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Seoul, a two-and-a-half-hour bus journey to South Korea’s east coast transports nature enthusiasts to Sokcho, a coastal city that’s also a stepping stone to Korean paradise: Seoraksan National Park. A feature on the peninsula, it is filled with all essential national park requisites: peculiarly shaped mountains, native fauna and ancient temples dating to the Shilla era. There’s no wonder it was recently dubbed a Biosphere Protection site by UNESCO; it’s a Korean nirvana, of sorts.
Seoraksan National Park
For most east coast-bound travellers, Sokcho is simply a stepping stone to Seoraksan National Park. The park-cum-biosphere reserve boasts some of the country’s most jaw-dropping sights, and abounds in nature appreciation experiences to behold. Mountaineers at heart can rise early and leg it to the top of Korea’s third highest peak, Daecheongbong, on top of Mount Seoroksan. Less energetic visitors are not left without choice: from waterfalls to swinging cable cars and ancient temples, activities – and photographic opportunities - abound.
See this article for further details regarding things to do and see in Sokcho as well as transport options.
A hop, skip and a small Korean jump south of Sokcho lies the city of Andong. Akin to its northern counterpart Sokcho, Andong’s prizeworthy features reside outside of the city’s expansive periphery. The key drawcard to the region is, in fact, Hahoe Folk Village: it’s a historic masterpiece curated so brilliantly stepping inside makes one believe Korea stopped in time – several thousand years ago.
Hahoe Folk Village
The authenticity prize should be awarded to this centuries-old well-preserved village, alive and buzzing with two hundred and thirty current Korean residents. Assisted by the Government, the town’s inhabitants have been able to preserve tradition, culturally, naturally and in the finer details of the built environment. Now classified – justifiably - by UNESCO as a world heritage site, a journey down the dirt path, through fields replete with vegetable vines and around perfectly designed homes will transport one elsewhere. Stay overnight in a traditional home, and the magic – particularly when silence ensues following dusk – continues. Simply put, visiting Hahoe Folk Village is akin to flipping Korea’s history book back several chapters to the fourteenth century. It’s hypnotic, and frankly, unmissable.
While southward-bound, circumventing the mystique of Gyeongju would be asinine. In fact, even with its multiple palaces, not even Seoul can compete with Gyeongju’s historical legacy and grandeur. Affectionately known as the ‘museum without walls’, it’s not shy on ruins, statuary, temples and tombs. One will be hard pressed to see every finite artefact, especially if time is of the essence. The following are notable sights worthy of a spot on a two-to-three day Gyeongju itinerary.
Donggung Palace and Anapji (Wolji) Pond
A great example of Silla architecture, the ancient – and recently reconstructed – secondary palace to the royal entourage is best visited at dusk. It played host to royals during the time in which Gyeongju was the capital of the country. Stroll languidly around the pond, and occasionally pull out a tripod to capture the changing light of the sky – reflected brilliantly in the still waters - as dusk morphs to night. The palace, with its pond, exemplifies the grace and elegance of those who ruled the nation from the first to the tenth century.
A short walk from the beauteous pond, the National Museum will dazzle even the least historically-imbued at heart. Home to a gold crown, displays of ornate jewellery, relics of the Shilla dynasty and the most resonant bell in Asia, it’s possibly the most impressive museum in all of pint-sized South Korea.
Built originally in the sixth century, the temple has been renovated and reconstructed several times in various dynasties following its original creation under the Silla. Despite its facelift, the religious architectural site is exemplary, outshining its Korean counterparts in terms of grandeur and beauty in other corners of the country. Despite the hordes of Korean tourists creating a flurry of dense activity on any given day, the maze-like temple provides many opportunities to hide, and seek out new treasure.
Take bus number 10 from Gyeongju, and arrive within an hour.
Testament to the ingenuity of its builders, the grotto – inside of which stands a giant non-photographable Buddha – is set high on the slopes of Mount Toham. Looking out to sea, the Buddha – who is surrounded by granite – sits with a concentrated mundra, and is said by some to be protector of the region. Even without underlying Buddhist aspirations, visiting the grotto is worthwhile simply for the view. Contemplating its creation high in the hill is also inspiring.
Getting to the grotto is easy: one can hike the steep trail between Bulguksa and Seokguram, or take bus number 12. I lazily chose the latter (which departs hourly), and enjoyed the ride, particularly as the bus wove its way around the precipitous and bendy mountain road.
Gyeongju Hyanggyo Confucian School and Neighbourhood
Located in Gyodong, a short walk from the Cheomseongdae Observatory, the provincial school (or hyanggyo) was commenced during the Joseon period, and now commemorates the Confucian scholar who resided there. The school aside, the entire neighbourhood oozes historic charm, replete with stone paved roads and architecturally notable homes. Restaurants – albeit overpriced – abound, as do stores exhibiting all kinds of Korean paraphernalia.
A prized possession of the Republic, Jeju-do – Korea’s largest island - is notably the jewel in the nation’s sparkling crown. A short flight from the mainland (or longer ferry ride), it caters to a broad spectrum of variant inclination, and boasts the country’s best beaches, lushest landscapes and most rewarding bucolic activities for true nature enthusiasts. As the country’s most popular domestic travel destination, one is guaranteed to get up close and personal with Koreans: overcrowding, in summer, is likely. However, thanks to kilometres of accessible beaches and walking trails, escape is no mere dream.
Comprised of twenty-one connected (and numbered) routes that weave their way mostly around the coastline, the Olle Trail is one of the local government’s most impressive achievements. It’s a form of nature-porn in terms of untouched beauty and sprawling landscape. The hilly core often gives way to forests, farms, beaches and oreums (such as Seongsan Ilchulbong). The views all along Olle Trail One were otherworldly, particularly as I inched closer to the tuff ring of Ilchulbong rising out of the sea. It’s understandably one of the island’s major drawcards.
Don’t forget to collect a stamp at the outset of each trail, a scrapbook-able keepsake. There is an information point at the outset of route one, however most hostels and hotels can provide adequate details for interested parties.
The bus to the starting point of each trail depends on the route one chooses to complete. Ask at respective lodgings for full details regarding public transportation options.
For broad-sweeping views of Jeju-do, haul it 1950 metres to the summit of Mount Hallasan, Korea’s highest mountain. Designated a national park by the government in the late twentieth century, hiking – at least part way to the summit - is a priority itinerary item. Replete with vibrant flora, it’s a picturesque ‘walk in the park’ despite the gruelling large stone steps leading to the top. Do check the weather forecast carefully, as arrival at the summit on a hazy day - despite the sense of satisfaction derived from one’s accomplishment - can be spirit-crushing.
Unlike Rome, not all trails lead to the summit. Seongpanak (the ‘softer hike’) and Gwaneumsa go all the way, whereas the other four – despite indulging various senses – only go part way. Seongpanak trail, despite the large stone steps over which I had to climb at times, was generously covered by broadleaf trees, and surrounded by kaleidoscopes of colour.
Bus 781 transports hikers to the starting point of Seongpanak trail, a ride of approximately forty minutes from the city’s Intercity Bus Terminal (and various other stops along the route). For information regarding access to the other routes, ask at respective lodgings.