Published: January 4th 2011January 2nd 2011
Small photos hanging from the walls in 'Rainbow'
Ah Seoul…the gargantuan concrete jungle at the heart of Korea. Perched in the county’s North West, Seoul is not just one of the biggest and most densely populated cities in the world, with a population standing at over 10 million citizens, but as a metropolis (which includes our home city of Incheon) it stands as the second largest metropolitan area in the world, ahead of more renowned giants like New York and Mumbai. It’s second only to Tokyo!
Located on the Han River, it has existed at the capital city of Korea since the 15th Century during the Joseon Dynasty, the last royal and subsequent imperial dynasty in Korea’s colourful history.
The reason we have waited this long to write about Korea’s most obvious attraction is simply due to the size, and thus multitude of things available to do in Korea’s capital – we wanted to do it justice! So we offer you insight into some of the most enjoyable aspects about the city…
During our first weekend in Seoul, we took a short cable car ride up the centrally based Mount Namsan. At only 262m high, it stands as a base for the re-named N’Seoul Tower, a
At Cheong Gye Cheon
place from which the enormity of the city can be appreciated. Around the tower itself, there are numerous traditional shows with music and martial arts keeping the locals (and us) entertained on a warm afternoon. Considering the view from the top of the tower, Seoul appears a uniform blend of simple concrete apartment blocks, rambling on for miles. However, exploring the city further revealed much more.
Certainly, one of the most beautiful and peaceful parts of Seoul is the Cheong Gye Cheon, an historic stream that actually dates back to the aforementioned Joseon Dynasty. During this period, women would gather at the stream to perform laundry duties while their children played! However, in ensuing centuries, the stream as we see it now is modern in appearance, in no small part due to the citizens of Seoul in the late 20th Century complaining of a lack of aesthetic beauty in the city. It is certainly true of Seoul that compared to some of the more beautiful cities, such as Buenos Aires or more modern cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Seoul is simple a vast expanse of raised concrete, save for one or two areas. Thus a vast restoration project was
undertaken on the stream to provide an element of tranquillity in the big bad city!
This is a perfect place to relax in Seoul on a sunny weekend day…indeed it is a convenient five minute walk from Seoul City Hall, and we have spent whole Saturdays and some nights relaxing by the cool water, switching between holding a smoothie, ice cream or simply our camera! At night, the stream is illuminated and we were lucky to visit at a time when preparations for Buddha’s birthday festival where well underway and the water was covered with lanterns and colourful Korean folk creatures. It was relaxing to sit with bare feet in the water, enjoying the surrounding skyscrapers and watching the local people, all the while discerning an element of peace from an otherwise chaotic city. Indeed, such warm memories seem distant at the moment given the winter temperature outside (including wind-chill, it was measured at -22 degrees Celsius just last week!!).
Another of our favourite areas in Seoul is the Insadong area. This is based very close to the Jogyesa Temple where the celebrations for Buddha’s birthday began and ended. On the face of it, Insadong is a scene
of frenzied tourists snapping up gifts for their friends and family back home, and indeed, a good bargain can be had here. However, the most appealing aspect of Insadong for us was the plentiful teahouses hidden away in the alleys off the main high street. One in particular, which we visited a few times, has numerous tiny birds flying around the tea shop as you sit with your drink. With a traditional and peaceful interior, it was a great place to enjoy some hot cinnamon or jujube tea.
The aforementioned City Hall area is place for all seasons and occasions in Seoul. On ‘usual’ days it is a large open space of grass surrounded by some impressive buildings. However, it is a venue to suit all occasions. One of the better experiences there was during the FIFA World Cup in the summer; we watched the South Korea v Greece game on the huge screens at City Hall. To say that Koreans are crazy for football is an understatement! Nut, we had great fun and were naturally welcomed by all the Korean supporters, encouraging us to chant along and support their team! During the winter, the City Hall area is
We saw this guy sitting in the street in Insadong writing music
transformed into a large ice skating rink, where we were able to rent skates and brave the ice for an hour (I take pride in the fact I didn’t fall, despite moving at snails pace!).
Northwest of the city centre, we also visited Seodaemun Prison, a tragic leftover from the Japanese occupation of Korea during the early 20th century. Korean-Japanese political relations have been historically bad. This prison displays how suspected Korean independence fighters were housed, tortured and executed. I guess we should be thankful for the current political peace between the South Koreans and Japanese!
Along the Han River itself is Yeouido Island. From this small island, we were able to rent bicycles and take a casual ride down the riverside. For my birthday, Amy bought tickets for us to take a night cruise along the Han which, despite the November cold, was really fun and relaxing.
As for the nightlife is Seoul, Hongdae is the most popular area with young people and students, given its proximity to Hongik Universty. Hongdae is a jungle of bars and restaurants welcoming both Koreans and foreigners in droves. Its cheap prices and ‘open all night’ reputation are well justified,
and we would generally roll in at 8 or 9am the following day.
South of the Han River is the more upmarket Gangnam area. It was in this area we had some of our best nights in Seoul. Not only can you find lots of shops and restaurants, but great Mexican food! It’s actually quickly becoming my favourite food and one of the first things I do upon returning to England will be to find a good local Mexican restaurant. Exploring the bar scene in Gangnam, we found what became our favourite bar in all of Seoul. ‘Rainbow’ has a cool, ‘travellers’ feel to its interior, with the walls decorated in small travel photos and other artefacts one would find from the journey. Here, you can also buy flavoured hookah, brought to your table in large bras pipes to enjoy with a drink while listening to the music. It’s just a really good place to chill out and spend a few hours amongst relaxed company.
Furthermore, in the Gangnam area is Seoul Arts Centre, the heart of the Arts scene in Korea. It’s a newly built facility will multiple theatres and an opera house for all different types
of performance, be it ballet or symphony. Feeling festive, we bought tickets for ‘The Nutcracker’ which was to be performed in the Opera House and we were not disappointed. It was a great performance and for the price (£11), an absolute bargain. I would recommend seeing it for anyone who may be in Seoul during the Christmas period.
Overall, we found Seoul to be a great city with so much to do. We have highlighted a few of our experiences here but there really is something for everyone. We are fortunate to be based just outside the city, away from the hustle and bustle, but not too far away!
As I write this, we only have 58 days remaining in Korea before we embark upon a journey we have been planning for some time now. It’s very exciting being so close…
There are more photos below