Seoul, South Korea, a head-on convergence of past and future, can be a utopian wonderland for travelers. Beyond the surrounding mountain ranges, this Northeast Asian city features World Heritage palaces and massive Buddhist temples. Sprawling parks and untouched traditional hanok neighborhoods give way to amusement parks, chic restaurants and a downtown that resembles an amped-up Times Square.
Though Seoul is comprised of 25 districts which are bisected east to west by the Han River, there are only five neighborhoods which focus on the city’s tourism and culture. Jongno-gu lies at the heart of the city and is considered to be the economic and political center of Seoul. Attractions found on these busy streets include government buildings, traditional tea houses, art galleries and ancient royal palaces such as Deoksu and Gyeongbok. Gangnam-gu is a large entertainment district where restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and movie theaters flank the main tree-lined avenue.
Itaewon is the most Americanized (as well as international) area of Seoul where English is widely spoken and a plethora of local and Western cuisine and brands can be easily found. Dongdaemuun-gu is a shopper’s paradise with hundreds of vendors, markets, stores and boutiques carrying bargain and high-end goods. Hongdae is a hip area full of cafes, galleries and late-night bars. It’s frequented by flocks of students and young professionals, and is home to Seoul’s alternative art scene.
Lively folk festivals, museums and ancient structures such as Mongchon Fortress, which dates back to the early Joseon Dynasty, will give a good head start into understanding this brilliant city. The city, dating back to 18 BC, has left behind a giant historical footprint for visitors to examine. The National Museum of Korea is the nation’s premier museum displaying Korean history and art. Housed in an enormous, earthquake-proof building that boasts a collection of over 150,000 pieces, the museum contains exhibits and galleries that include archaeology, fine arts and modern Korean culture.
Visitors cannot escape the myriad shopping centers that envelop Seoul’s many distinct neighborhoods. Namdaemun and Dongdaemun are two popular traditional street markets. Both sell fresh food products, clothing, accessories and traditional handmade souvenirs. Myeong-dong is the largest area for tourist-friendly higher-end shopping. Here, South Korea’s most popular brands as well as international labels are found in the rows upon rows of stores and boutiques.
Much of Seoul’s social culture revolves around food. Between street food vendors, Korean barbecue joints, curbside soju tents serving kimchi bowls and swanky Asian-fusion restaurants, it would be nearly impossible to starve here. For barbecue lovers who don’t mind a smoky atmosphere, check out Hongik Sootbul Kalbi near Hongkit University. For a more refined meal in Seoul, try Gaon for a wonton and noodle soup called kalgusku, or the haemool pajun -- a thick pancake filled with squid, scallops and octopus.
Most travelers arrive into Seoul by way of the Incheon International Airport. The best way to get into the city from here is by bus. These shuttles are stationed at the airport and will take passengers directly to major areas and hotels within Seoul for around $11. For navigating around the city, the subway is the most popular and accessible mode of transportation. The 11 lines running through Seoul are color-coded and all station signs are labeled in both Korean and English. For an extended stay, visitors should purchase a rechargeable T-money card that can be used for the subway, cabs and buses.
With four clearly defined seasons, Seoul has a continental climate. The summer months tend to be fairly humid, and June and July is monsoon season. The best times to visit are in the spring when temperatures remain pleasant and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and in autumn, with the city’s crisp, comfortable air and colorful foliage.