Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals *****
Spring in Seoul
When you think of the far east, chances are you think of some of the major cities in China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. It's probably why I was shocked to discover Seoul is the 9th most visited city in the world. What surprised me even more is the size of the city; its population density is twice that of New York and in terms of numbers is larger than almost all major western cities.
It's not a city that automatically comes to mind when thinking about a trip. Think about it, can you name a major Seoul landmark? I couldn't before I went. In fact, despite being founded over 2000 years ago, the city has very historical sites of note - although the ones it does have are incredibly beautiful (more on that later).
As with the rest of the peninsula, Seoul experienced a tumultuous 20th century - beginning the century subservient to Japanese, followed by a bitter civil war in which the city experienced much devastation being on the border with what would become the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or, as it's more commonly known, North Korea) and ending in the 'Korean miracle', where the country - and the city - experienced breakneck growth to go from an underdeveloped third world country, into one of the most economically successful in the world.
I spent a week in the city and began to get to grips with a fascinating city. There weren't a lot of non-Koreans, and those that were tended to be Chinese. Language was a bit of a problem, street names, maps, restaurants, bars - everything - was Korean with very little English. It added to the feeling of being in a very different place. It also meant that I had to meet locals quite quickly to show me around, and I was successful in that. A new friend I made commented on how impressed they were that I had covered all the key districts in Seoul in a very short period of time, more than many locals do in a lifetime. But I felt like I barely scratched the surface.
The Five Grand Palaces (or at least some of them)
While the city doesn't retain its history as well London, Rome or Paris, the sites and historical landmarks that it does have are spectacular.
Perhaps the most famous of Seoul's historical sites are the Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon dynasty - all of which are helpfully in just two of Seoul's 25 districts; Jung and Jongno.
I visited three of the five during my week in the city. The largest, and most spectacular, is Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasy and dating back to the late 14th century. The palace was destroyed twice; once during the Imjin War in the 16th century, and then in the last century during Japanese occupation. Since then, the palaces have been restored over a space of 40 hectares. The entrance is through the Gwanghwamun Gate, a large gate almost as beautiful as the palace inside. Outside, Royal Guards keep watch performing two 'changing of the guards' ceremonies a day.
I always feel like a bit of a giant whenever I return to the far east. The average height is considerably smaller than back home in England, and despite Koreans being taller than most of their neighbours, this trip wasn't any different. On the whole it wasn't something I dwelled on too much, but noticing the Royal Guards were standing on raised platforms to make them seem taller was a little strange. The changing of the guards ceremony was fun to watch, providing an insight into a bygone era with a loud war drum (similar to a nagara), colourful flags, and a display of discipline..
But it's when you go inside that you really get an idea of the scale of the place. Anyone can go through Gwanghwamun Gate and to the outer courtyard, but it's 3,000 Won (or, roughly £2.50) to enter the main palace area. The most famous building is also one that I came across near the start of the complex, and that's the Throne Hall. A double storied structure constructed mainly of wood, it's almost picture perfect.
There's a whole load of other buildings within the complex, from the King and Queen's quarters and even a library. A favourite of mine was Gyeonghoeru, a hall used to host banquets, in the middle of a lake. It looked incredible, serene and being surrounded by a large body of water gave it a mysterious quality.
I spent a few hours walking around the complex, seeing the many different buildings. Even though the palace is in the middle of the city, going deep inside the walls of the complex made me feel like a million miles from the hustle and bustle. It was peaceful and relaxing in a way very different to parks in London or New York. In fact, the grounds themselves were relatively quiet with few tourists - a huge contrast to their equivalents in Bangkok that are full of people.
It might be the largest, but it's another palace that's been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that's Changdeokgung. It's smaller, and in my opinion a little less visually impressive - although it's fame is based on how well it blends into its natural environment. As with Gyeongbokgung, there's a small entrance fee, unless you wear traditional Korean attire, the Hanbok. I saw quite a few Hanbok rental stores and a fair few locals (and even some tourists) who were wearing these colourful clothes. I paid a little more and also visited Changgyeonggung - located close by - and together with Changdeokgung known as the eastern palaces.
A traditional village in the middle of a modern city
A short walk from the palace is the Bukchon Hanok village, preserved to show what village life was like 600 years ago. Located on a hilltop, the views during the walk to the village are incredible, but it's the narrow village streets and the traditional houses themselves that are the main attractions. As I walked up the streets, I saw a number of men in uniforms asking visitors to be quiet, and there were signs everywhere saying speak only in whispers. Only then did I realise that this wasn't some sort of museum - it's actually where people live to this day.
While I'm sure the revenue brought in from tourism is welcomed, I can't imagine residents are happy that their houses are constantly being photographed, their streets covered with people..
From there I walked south heading through Insa-dong, a beautiful area full of small shops, galleries and tea houses. The neighbourhood is connected by a series of alleys that take you deeper and deeper into the area. The vibe was a lot less formal than the shopping in Myeong-dong and I felt very relaxed and took my time exploring the different streets and narrow alleyways. It's a part of Seoul I'd definitely recommend visiting.
Shopping in Seoul
Insa-dong is just one of many shopping areas around the city. The Gwangjang night market was a personal highlight from my time in Seoul. If you've read my articles before, you'll know I'm a huge fan of night markets. There's something electric about the atmosphere, and I love the sounds and smells. Gwangjang was no different and it was about as full-on as a night market gets. Although the night market is fairly large, I was amazed with the number, and variety of vendors inside. Unlike some other markets in the far east, Gwangjang is covered, which I appreciated on a particularly cold evening.
You can buy all sorts of things from the market; clothes, blankets, hot food, raw ingredients, souvenirs and even pots and pans. As you get toward the centre of the market, the lights get brighter, the smells of hot food get stronger, and the corridors become clogged with people. By the time I got the to centre I could barely move.
There were very few tourists, with locals sitting down at various food stalls eating all sorts of food. Some of it looked amazing, others not so much. Perhaps the most distressing thing was looking at a fish tank and seeing a lone small octopus trying to escape the tank and repeatedly bumping its head against the side. It got a little more horrific when I looked down and saw the bodies of at least 15-20 dead octopuses. They are pretty smart creatures, and no amount of wanting the food to be fresh makes up for the torturous ways seafood is killed here.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dongdaemun with its design plaza and shopping centre. The whole Dongdaemun area is filled with shopping centres and large designer outlets, from the futuristic design plaza which looks like the Birmingham bullring on steroids, to the more traditional markets. I visited a few of these which hammered home the point - Seoul is expensive!
But the most expensive shopping district is Myeong-dong, the upscale shopping street that is the Seoul equivalent of Oxford Street, Fifth Avenue, Orchard Street and the Magnificent Mile. The whole area is covered in neon signs, incredibly dense and is very lively. I hate these kind of shopping districts, but this felt somehow different. During my first night, I met with some locals to present on work I have been doing, and after that they took me around the Myeong-dong area, and a traditional bibimbap restaurant.
I loved Korean food and bibimbap was one of my favourites. The word literally means mixed rice, and it can be served hot or cold. Usually it's rice and vegetables and you can choose between adding meat and eggs. The dish itself was good, but it also came with a load of smaller side dishes (something I found they do with almost every meal), which included salad and my favourite, kimchi. It's a form of pickled cabbage, which is made slightly spicy. It's meant to aid in digestion and it tastes so good!
Another dish that I enjoyed is Bulgogi, which I tried in the Dondaemun area. The waitress brought over the side dishes (including kimchi), and then a big pan of water to be boiled with noodles and protein (this can be meat or non-meat). You wait for the water to boil, then cook the noodles and protein on top. I had something slightly similar in Cambodia.
Finally, there was Korean BBQ. I tried some during my visit to GangNam and really enjoyed it. Similar to the Bulgogi, you're given some side dishes, rice and meat, which is then cooked on plate in front of you. A suction fan hangs from the ceiling and takes up the smoke produced by cooking - every table had one of these. Finally, there were large plastic bags given to guests, which is where you put your coats and jackets - turns out the smell from Korean BBQ, much like Panjabi tadka, will stay on you for hours afterward.
Seoul is aiming to become one of the most 'liveable' cities in the world, and some of the work being done to make that vision a reality is ambitious. Perhaps the most ambitious project done in the city was the opening of the Cheonggyecheon stream, a 5 mile stream flowing through the city. The funny thing is, this area was initially an open stream hundreds of years ago, but was filled in with concrete about 50 years ago as the area had become an eyesore, full of household waste.
The stream was 'restored' in 2005 and has been seen as a huge success. The calming sound of the stream is coupled with the lower temperatures near the water. There are various art installations running along the sides of the stream, and you can cross at various points using either stream level or street level bridges, as well as rocks in the middle of the stream that you can jump across.
As you get closer to the western edge, there's a small waterfall that keeps the water flowing. This really reminded me of the Chicago Riverwalk, which I really enjoyed in that city and this was hands down one of my favourite places that I visited in Seoul.
Nights out and new friends
I got quite lucky during my trip to Seoul - I used an app to make friends with a local who showed me around for a few days, and I also knew of a delegation from England going out there for a week of work.
I met the latter for a baseball game one evening. I've only ever been on to one baseball game and that was the Yankees during my stay in New York. If you've read my review of American sports, you'll know it was one of my more enjoyable sports experiences in the city. It was laid back, proper chill and a few hours of relaxing. This was totally different, but no less enjoyable. The Korean league is to Major League Baseball, what Major League Soccer is to the Premier League - it's where older sports stars tend to go for one last payday. I was told the quality of the game would be low, but also the game was secondary to the spectacle of the event.
We drove to the Olympic stadium, south of the river for an evening game. You can bring your own food and drink, and it seemed like absolutely everyone did. We went shopping to pick up some food and that was an experience in itself. Korea is run by a small number of large conglomerates known as chaebols. These tend to be fairly old family owned businesses and includes internationally recognised names like Samsung and LG. One of the chaebols I saw everywhere was Lotte and it was a Lotte supermarket that we visited. Firstly, the size of these supermarkets is unreal. Each store is the size of a shopping centre back home. More strangely the experience is completely different. At the end of each aisle there are free samples - people cooking food, free samples of drinks, even milk and orange juice. No catch - just go up, wait for the food to cook and eat it. I easily ate the equivalent of a small meal.
Unlike the passive atmosphere of the MLB this was entirely different. A male cheerleader with a microphone and massive speakers was whipping the crowd into a frenzy with female cheerleaders joining him on stage. Tens of thousands of fans were singing Korean songs, to the tune of 80's and 90's music. It was....weird, but definitely an experienced I enjoyed. I honestly couldn't tell you what happened in the game - but I think that was the point.
We also went out in the Myeong-dong and Insa-dong areas. Karaoke is a big thing in Seoul, but I honestly can't think of anything less fun. We ended up in a bar with futuristic darts boards and it was a lot of fun - not cheap - but fun.
My new Korean friend also showed me around and was very welcoming. We visited the N Seoul Tower, the second tallest structure in the city, and the tallest north of the river. In form it was similar to the Berlin television tower, and there's two sets of viewing platforms, as well as shops and restaurants. To get to the top we took a cable car ride from near Myeong-dong which was relatively short buberlin-germany.htmlt gave a great view of the city. However, it's the view from the top that's truly spectacular. It's a 360 view in the open air and it gave me a bit of an idea of just how big this city is. A fence near the top of the tower has become a beacon of 'love padlocks' the kind you now see in almost every major city in the world, it seems.
It also made the pollution problem really obvious. Seoul suffers from an extremely high level of pollution, and even on a cloudless evening a thin smog covered the city. My Korean friend blamed the Chinese, but it might have something to do with the thousands of cars on the streets. The greater Seoul area has almost 20 million people, most with cars. The city itself is connected by a series of very broad roads, some 5-6 lanes across filled with cars. I think these might have something to do with the pollution problem.
One of the places I got introduced to was Itaewon, an area next to the US base. Over 50 years since the Korean War (technically, there's never been a conclusion to it), it's amazing how much it continues to shape life in the capital. I asked my new friend how locals feels about such a large foreign base in the city centre and she told me it was about 50-50 for and against, which was actually more positive than I would have thought.
The base means there are a lot of foreign restaurants in the area as well as a lively nightlife. It felt a little like parts of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. A street full of very quirky bars, packed closely together with bright lights and music from every establishment. It wasn't too busy although it was on the pricey side of things.
I also went to Hongdae in the Mapo-gu area to the Hongik University and really enjoyed my time there. Hongik is a large art university in Seoul, and wherever there is a uni, there is usually a fairly cheap night out. As far as the rest of Seoul goes, the cost here was a little lower, but as I quickly found out - there's no such thing as a cheap night out in Seoul.
I spent half a day in GangNam, a high end area full of plastic surgery, high end stores and large businesses - and of course, made famous by the GangNam Style song a few years ago. That one song really brought K-Pop to the mainstream, and it's the rise of K-Pop that has led to a rise in the amount of youngsters visiting Korea. But as my friend told me, it's not the only reason.
Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Building a bridge on the nose is the most popular procedure and my friend taught me a new game - "spot who's had plastic surgery". It's not a hard game, turns out almost everyone in GangNam has had it. I saw a lot of people, usually girls, walking around with plastic covers on their noses, sunglasses on a cloudy day or face masks. What really gave me an understanding of the scale of surgery was at the airport.
As I was waiting for the check-in desk, the assistant asked me if I had surgery. I thought I was hearing things, and she repeated, and pointed at my nose, and said have you had surgery. I'm brown, I have a big nose. So I pointed at my nose and said does it look like I've had surgery and she laughed. She told me she had to ask as she wanted to sit me in the emergency exit row so I could get more leg room. It was nice of her, but looking around the airport and seeing the obvious amount of plastic surgery made me realise why she asked.
GangNam is pretentious but as I mentioned, is where I tried the BBQ. The main streets in the area are full of luxury shops, and smaller streets radiating from these have bars, clubs and restaurants.
I mentioned Lotte earlier, and on my final day I visited the Lotte World Tower, the tallest tower in Seoul and the 5th tallest in the world. The scale of this building is immense and in terms of form looks similar to the Shard in London, just much, much bigger. The inside is like an even more wealthy Canary Wharf. Even the door handles to enter the shopping centre had velvet handles!
Is Seoul worth visiting?
Arriving in late March, I saw varying temperatures, warm days and very cold nights. Seoul has extremes of temperatures with very cold snowy winters and hot and humid summers. I was told that mid-April is the perfect time to visit as it coincides with the annual cherry blossom.
An almost 13 hour flight means it isn't easy (or cheap) to get to Seoul, and once you get there, prices aren't much cheaper than an English city. I had no issues in the airport as a Sikh, and although I didn't see many foreigners, I was made to feel incredibly welcome and never felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
Almost everything is in the native Korean script, and even Google Maps has little in the way of English. That being said, I found it very easy to get around. Taxis were relatively cheap, but public transport was even cheaper. I caught a slow train from the airport to the city, it took just over an hour and cost a handful of pounds. On the return journey I took an express train which almost cut the journey in half and cost less than a tenner.
The subway was very modern, although the stations were huge - take the wrong exit and you could easily find yourself a couple of blocks from your intended destination. The trains themselves, although less regular than those in London, were very modern and spacious, and always on time. Each train has a special tune that it plays before arriving in each station which I thought was a nice touch.
Buses are less comfortable but cover a lot of ground, and I took a near one hour bus journey to GangNam. Seats on the bus are made for smaller butts, and I was sitting there with a leg hanging into the aisle. Nevertheless, it was both cheap and efficient.
I really enjoyed my time in Seoul. There's a lot to do, and even though I only feel like I scratched the surface, I'd covered a lot of ground. I think I could live here - not forever, but I could definitely spend more time. It's got everything you want in a major city and I can see why youngsters are increasingly attracted to it.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.