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.
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Like a phoenix, Seoul’s premier palace has risen several times from the ashes of destruction. Hordes of tourists have replaced the thousands of government officials, scholars, eunuchs, concubines, soldiers and servants who once lived here. Watch the changing of the guard ceremonies at the main entrance Gwanghwamun, then set aside at least half a day to do justice to the compound, which includes a couple of museums, ornamental gardens and some of Seoul's grandest architectural sights.
The World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung is the most beautiful of Seoul's five main palaces. You must join a one-hour guided tour to look around. English tours run at 10.15am and 1.15pm; if you don’t care about the commentary, Korean tours are at 9.30am, 11.30am and 3.30pm. To see the palace's lovely Huwon (Secret Garden), join tours at 10.30am, 11.30am and 2.30pm (also 3.30pm February to November). Book online or come early as the Huwon tours are restricted to 50 people at a time.
Amid the celebrity-owned apartments on the leafy southern slope of Namsan is Korea's premier art gallery. Beautifully designed and laid-out, it balances modern and contemporary art with traditional Korean art across its three distinct areas. The big draw is Museum 2, a rusted stainless-steel structure designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, showcasing early- and mid-20th-century paintings, sculptures and installations by esteemed Korean and international artists, including Nam June Paik, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
The focus of Jogye-sa is the grand wooden hall Daeungjeon, Seoul's largest Buddhist worship hall and the epicentre of Korean Buddhism. Completed in 1938, its design followed the Joseon-dynasty style. The exterior is decorated with scenes from Buddha’s life and carved floral latticework, while inside are three giant Buddha statues: on the left is Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise; in the centre is the historical Buddha, who lived in India and achieved enlightenment; on the right is the Bhaisaiya or Medicine Buddha, holding a medicine bowl.
One of Seoul's five grand palaces built during the Joseon dynasty, Deoksugung (meaning Palace of Virtuous Longevity) is the only one you can visit in the evening and see the buildings illuminated. It first served as a palace in 1593 and is a fascinating mix of traditional Korean and western-style neoclassical structures. The palace’s main gate is the scene of the entertaining changing of the guard ceremony at 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm. Free one-hour guided tours in English start at 10.45am and 1.30pm.
This vast and imposing concrete slab of a museum takes visitors on a fascinating journey through Korea's past from prehistory all the way to the Korean Empire period (1897–1910). If you're short on time, prioritise the Joseon Dynasty gallery (1392–1897). Among the must-see exhibits in the ground-floor galleries are the Baekje Incense Burner, an extraordinary example of the artistry of the 6th- to 7th-century Baekje Kingdom; and the Golden Treasures from the Great Tomb of Hwangham.
This huge museum documents the history of the Korean War (1950–53) using multimedia exhibits and black-and-white documentary footage, along with artefacts like weapons, uniforms, and maps. Outside, a sombre memorial walkway is inscribed with the names of every casualty from the allied forces. There are plenty of tanks, helicopters and planes too, and just to remind you that the war remains unresolved, you can clamber aboard a replica of the patrol boat sunk by North Korean forces in 2002.
Surrounded by dense woodland, the impressive buildings of the Confucian shrine Jongmyo house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings and queens and some of their most loyal government officials. Their spirits are believed to reside in a special hole bored into the wooden tablets. For its architecture and the special ceremonies that take place here, the shrine has been awarded World Heritage status: the most famous ceremony is the Jongmyo Daeje in early May.
This overpass-turned-park is a green space in the heart of the city. About 24,000 plants are grown here, including various types of flowers and trees, all labelled. Seoullo 7017 provides an interesting, airy (though sun-exposed) view of the city centre, its highways and architecture. Cross-country locomotives snake across a web of train tracks, then at night the old Seoul Station glows and the overpass itself is lit up in moody colours.