Top Seoul Hotels
For such a major Asian city, its surprisingly short of genuine tourist sights. Sadly much history has been obliterated through invasion, occupation and looting. Often the first stop for visitors is the vast temple complex of Gyeongbok-kung. This large temple complex is a recreation on the site of the original, blown to bits by the Japanese. After the initial favourable impression, it is for the most part rather boring as the structures are literally only a few years old. Others are popping up, but all are hollow and devoid of contents or soul. That said, they are very nice reconstructions set in pleasant parklands. Inside is the National Folk Museum displaying a range of farming tools, national costumes and cultural info. The Gyeongbok-kung complex is not enthralling and may disappoint some temple connoisseurs, but overall it is still worth the time.
Just a short stroll across the broad forecourt of Gyeongbok-kung is the National Museum. This is perhaps the best museum in the land with a full record of Korean history. Since many artifacts have been plundered or destroyed down the centuries during an alleged 900 invasions the display is something of a triumph.
Ask Seoul residents where their city centre is and the most common answer is City Hall, a historic and bold European building. Before it stands a giant rotating football, the focal point of electric celebrations in the recent World Cup. Not far away and today planted in the middle of a roundabout is Sungyemun, the robust historic South Gate.
Across the road from the City Hall lies Deoksu-kung, a restored traditional temple and a green respite from the busy streets nearby. It is smaller but much like Gyeongbok-kung in that it feels far too new to give a sense of history, but again it is pleasing to browse around. There is also a fair modern art gallery inside.
Changdeok-kung is the third of Seouls major temple complexes. Again, it has scale, but feels modern and misses character and depth. The tourism authorities have made a good effort outside with lines of Koreans in traditional dress. To enter you must join one of the guided tours, which sadly are dreadful, at least in English. The accent of the frosty headmistress-like tour leader is almost impossible to understand, and if anyone dares to stray away from the main group theyll be singled out for humiliation. Do it twice and they get Are you going to the exit? The exit is to the left, bye-bye! The temple itself is fair with pretty gardens and some of the few remnants of surviving history left such as roof tiles, but the constrictive tour really ruins it.
One of Seouls landmarks is the proud spire standing on the hilltop of the large, green heart of the city, Namsan Park. The foot of Seoul Tower can be reached by cable car or by trekking half an hour or so up the fairly steep hill through the lush parklands. The observation deck of the tower gives unrivalled views of the lazy river and urban sprawl fading into the distance. Its busy with plenty of excited families with ice cream cones. A few touristy diversions are tacked on downstairs and can be part of a tower package - not really worth the extra unless you are travelling with kids.
The large and sober War Memorial is actually a museum with a thorough historical presentation of the bloody Korean War. It will appeal to all but will be of particular interest to war buffs as the intricate tactics and strategies are described in engaging detail. Every angle seems to be covered, there are walk-through jungles and ship decks, and aircraft dangling from the ceiling. But ultimately this is a memorial to the southern forces and it gives a heroic and patriotic account of the conflict, glossing over the tragedy of a divided nation. The names of the fallen thousands gracefully adorn black marble slabs outside.
Entertainment and Eating Out
Its a real shame but beyond the restaurants in the more international areas, youll find it much more difficult than in other Asian cities to walk into a restaurant that takes your fancy and place an order. English fluency is very poor and the majority of menus are only in Korean. Many restaurants are friendly and make an effort but sometimes waiters panic and leave approaching you to each other whilst serving everybody else. The adventurous will need to be tolerant.
The main tourist centre of Seoul for English speakers is Itaewon, a sometimes cheesy strip of shops, restaurants and bars set opposite the American military base. Itaewon can be considered an Americatown much like the Chinatowns found in many western cities. Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonalds, are all here, plus others such as Danish hot dogs, Italian and Mexican joints, and a string of full-on bars. Nightlife is riotous, GIs from the adjacent base party with the more liberal locals. It can get rough later on, with a few fisticuffs, and there are sleazy backstreet areas such as Hooker Hill. Many Itaewon bars are racially segregated and there is some anti-western sentiment, but for the most part its a good laugh.
The major shopping districts are dining districts too, with the full spread of Korean restaurants. Cheap noodle bars are all over and the local speciality of kimchi, spicy cold cabbage, is inescapable. Stall holders grill skewered meat and sausages in the streets to tempt passers by, and there are some more unusual snacks around like sugar glazed potato wedges.
The second major cuisine is Japanese, and there are almost as many Japanese noodle bars and restaurants as Korean ones. Note that although the noodle joints represent good value, sashimi can be criminally expensive in Seoul.
Apart from Chinese food, theres not that much variety on Seouls streets. The Koreans do seem very fond of Italian food, but only the pizzas come close to authentic. The western food isnt actually bad, but it can be a bit weird. If you seek something western and a little more sophisticated than a burger then its best to stick to the 5 star hotels.
One of the best things about Seoul is the abundance of cosy little coffee shops. There are plenty of them dotted around the city, especially the shopping districts. Some good ones are hidden away on the first floors, above the shops. Note that Koreans tend to serve their coffee rather dilute. Pubs are widespread in the beer swilling capital and signposted Hof.
The blocks around Honggik University filtering down to Sinchon are filled with bright lights, cheap restaurants, pubs and karaoke joints. Its mostly a young and streetwise crowd, with quite a bit of attitude and hanging out.
Seoul has some really cool bars with highly creative themes and a great pulse. The trendiest area must be groovy Apgujong near Kangnam. The pricey district is stuffed with sleek, hip bars and restaurants.
One for the kids, Lotte World sounds and looks rather tacky in the brochures, but actually it isnt that bad. The giant indoor theme park is aging a little but still a hit with candy flossed families, and a good option for when the rain rolls in. The gigantic shopping mall at Chamsil station incorporates Lotte World and from the upper floors you can see whats going on inside if you arent sure about the entrance fee. Besides rides like giant balloons circling high above the mall from tracks on the ceiling, are turbo drops, ice rinks and simple museums.
Seoul has two enormous underused venues, the Olympic Stadium built for the 88 Olympics, and the World Cup Stadium. The Olympic Village area is occasionally lent to outdoor concerts, and the World Cup Stadium presently showcases K-League football matches and the odd international game.
Dongdaemun Stadium is the major baseball stadium, and theres usually a good crowd. The sport enjoys a healthy following in Korea.
The Sheraton Walker Hill Shows provide a wide range of colourful stage entertainment from Latino dancing, cultural plays, and acrobatics, to bourgeois topless prancing around in G-strings. The Sheraton hotel also has Seouls only casino with many visitors spending their entire weekends blowing fortunes.
Seoul is great for girlie shopping with a broad, affordable range of locally produced fashion items popular in neighbouring Japan and further afield. The prime shopping district is probably centrally placed Myeong-dong. The pedestrian district buzzes with a sea of shoppers flowing through the side streets and the larger department stores. There is a strong Japanese influence here with pocket-sized gimmicks and a pervasive bubblegum culture. Kangnam on the south bank is similar with mainstream stores flanking the main road.
Tourists head for Itaewon but this is not the capitals bargain bucket. Prices are nudged up for tourists with a T-shirt going for up to triple what it would at local markets if you look gullible enough. Having said that you can try the next shop or stall along and get the same item for a good price, a lot will depend on you. Itaewon is famous for tailoring, souvenirs and leather jackets.
Exploring the pedestrianised area of Insa-dong is a delight. It is one of the best places to pick up something creative or artistic, and is filled with pottery, art and souvenir shops, but much more tasteful than Itaewon. The little backstreets have some wonderful little teahouses and restaurants.
The best place for bargain hunting is the famed Namdaemun Market. Here you should get things for local prices - haggling is the name of the game. T-shirts are dirt cheap, generally much so than Itaewon, and theres loads of daily junk like alarm clocks and screwdrivers.
Another cheap market area, flanked with huge crossbreeds of indoor markets and department stores is vibrant Dongdaemun Market. This area seems to be almost entirely for local consumption and is jam packed with shoppers picking through the cheap fashion items. This place really gets going late offering 24 hour shopping.
Tours are all dying to include either the Ginseng Centre or the Amethyst Centre. Both are tourist traps and for many, an unwelcome addition on their tours.
A much cheaper option than the expensive hotel business centres are the hugely popular game rooms youll find on many streets. Mainly targeted at the young, these centres offer the latest computer games but also Internet access for only a dollar or two an hour. Keep an eye out for signs with PC on them. Once you see them you realise how common they are. They come in a wide variety - trendy hangouts, smoky dens, you name it. Many are 24hr and are typically found on the 3rd floor via a pokey staircase.
Getting from A to B
South Korean infrastructure is world class and Seoul is well planned, so getting around is straightforward. This is one big city and getting around it can take some time. A good map is essential! Note: Bear in mind that the long and unpronounceable names for many of Seouls districts or attractions have various spellings in English, just to complicate things further. The letters G and K are interchangeable, as are Ts and Ds, and other similar sounding letters. Names may be hyphenated, split up, partially translated or squashed together hence the main attraction Gyeongbok-kung is also known as Kyongbokkung, Gyongbok Gung, Kyeongbuk Palace etc.
The easiest and cheapest way to get around Seoul is to take the swift and reliable underground metro. The tangled network of lines and stops is rather daunting at first but it makes sense. The orange line has most of the historic temples dotted along it, and the green and light blue lines cover Seouls better shopping and business districts. A nice little touch is that some stations even have mini libraries and comfy chairs for lounging around in.
Walking around should be a fine option as the roads and pavements are broad and the noise and air pollution is not as bad as in most Asian cities. But dont be surprised if you suddenly get honked from behind by a car or motorbike whilst walking on the pavement Seouls drivers have a really bad habit of using these as part time roads as they hunt for parking spaces. Also watch out for maniac delivery motorcycles, and take care when crossing roads as zebra crossings seem to be mainly cosmetic.
Taking a taxi is a good way to get around and by international standards its cheap. Note though that if you are going far and hit traffic it will end up being expensive. There are two types of taxis. The silver taxis are the cheaper ones and then there are the more luxurious black taxis, which start at higher rates. Theres not much difference for the price other than the friendlier black taxi service and English ability, plus the fact that black taxis are at your beck and call and will always stop. Silver ones sometimes dont stop, or may refuse fares that dont head in their preferred direction, especially at night.
Seoul is quite spread out so if your hotel is not within 10 minutes of a metro station you can find yourself somewhat marooned. If your hotel has a shuttle bus, take full advantage of it.
Seoul Station links the capital by rail to the rest of the country. The trains are clean, comfortable and great value for money. Regular and efficient services connect with all major cities. Southern port and second city Pusan is less than 6 hours away.
The new Incheon International Airport is a flashy and impressive structure half an hour from the edge of Seoul. How long it takes to get there from your hotel will depend on traffic. The former international gateway, Kimpo, is located in the northwest suburbs and now the domestic terminal.
Several tours rather desperately try to add some variety to what is a fairly obvious itinerary. The only city day tour that is worth calling a tour should cover the temples with perhaps stopping off at Namdaemun Market, but this is only recommended for the lost or the rushed. Other tours clutch at straws, for example shopping tours carting you around shopping districts easily reached by Metro and touristy shops, or visits to the empty World Cup and Olympic Stadiums.
There is one tour outside of Seoul that is completely unique and like no other anywhere else in the world. Indeed, it may be the highlight of a visit to South Korea. It is an escorted trip to the Demilitarised Zone, otherwise known as the DMZ. This is the worlds last cold war frontier, a strip of no mans land between two halves of an ideologically split nation, still technically at war.
The main DMZ tour covers the Anti-Communist Hall, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and the Dora Observatory. The Anti-Communist Hall gives you a short film plus a mini-museum of the conflict. The memorable 3rd Infiltration Tunnel involves a trip underground to see one of the tunnels dug by the North to invade the South. The Dora Observatory is set on a hill overlooking the DMZ to the villages of the North itself. Telescopes enable you to spy on the simple farm life, massive radio jamming tower, proud North Korean flagpole and bizarre dummy settlements. The DMZ tour is an educational experience and an absolute must.
Note: A tour is the only way to approach the DMZ, as the face-off involves thousands of troops, watchtowers, barbed wire, checkpoints and a palpable tension. Full day DMZ tours are not really recommended as the afternoon is spent shopping back in Seoul, just take the morning one. Other tours alternatively visit the enormous 2nd Tunnel, large enough to roll tanks through. Photography is for the most part forbidden - you will be told where you can take snaps. You must bring your passport and of course, behave yourself!
Koreans celebrate Lunar New Year somewhere between late January and early February. This is a national time-out for family gatherings with pretty much everything shutting down. The big lunar festival Chuseok in September or October sees Koreans honouring their ancestors. Much of the population drains away from Seoul to return to their ancestral origins - the biggest festival of the year for the Confucianist society.
The first Sunday of May sees another big colourful festival at Jamgmyo Shrine. A ritual takes place in dazzling traditional dress plenty of beautifully impractical big hats and sleeves.
If you are looking to catch a little ceremony then the every Saturday at 2pm you can watch the Changing Of The Guard at Deoksu-kung. Flamboyant guardsmen in traditional dress make a musical march down the main street to the gate in age-honoured style.
Tourist Information Offices
Tourism authorities made a big effort to ensure the World Cup fans were well looked after and youll find helpful booths in sensible places. Incheon Airport is the obvious place to start. Seoul Station and Itaewon Metro station both have useful desks, and the major tourist attractions are well stocked up on brochures too.