Welcome to Seoul. Now What?
With a population just north of 10 million people — or more than 25 million, if you consider the entire metropolitan region — the South Korean megacity of Seoul is literally one of the largest in the entire world.
The 2,000-year-old Seoul also happens to be the world’s most wired city. And thanks to the economic boom known as the Miracle on the Han River, it boasts the fourth-largest metropolitan economy in the world — only Tokyo, New York City and Los Angeles are wealthier.
What does all of this mean for you, the curious visitor who has taken full advantage of affordable flights to South Korea?
For starters, it means you’re very unlikely to find yourself bored. Whether it’s the ancient Korean tourist sites you’ve come to see or the shining, neon Asia of the 21st century, you’ll find it all at your fingertips in Seoul.
Getting Around Town and Choosing a Hotel
While it’s true that arranging an affordable flight to Seoul is a relatively simple process, many visitors are unprepared for the enormous size and sprawl of the capital city. At roughly 233 square miles, Seoul is more than 10 times the size of Manhattan.
As a result, travelers considering any of the attractions or venues mentioned here should definitely take the time to review bus and rail options before heading out. (Hotel employees are always a good resource.) Depending on where you’re staying, a particular museum or shopping district could be 10 minutes away by train … or two hours by bus.
Speaking of which, choosing a hotel or guesthouse that’s at least somewhere near your top two or three must-see sites is definitely a wise idea in Seoul. If you don’t have a guidebook, you can always fill in the gaps by checking distances on Google Maps.
Shopping in Seoul: Department Stores on Steroids
As is the case in many Asian countries, the most popular department stores in Seoul are really more akin to enormous shopping malls than the traditional American big-box shop.
In Seoul, three of the largest department stores are owned by Shinsegae, Lotte and Hyundai (yes, that Hyundai).
The variety of vendors in Seoul’s largest department stores is simply staggering, and if you’ve never been inside such a store, it’s a sight you won’t want to miss. You’ll see locals hawing the traditional Korean kimchi dish just a few floors below luxury retailers selling designer clothing brands.
While window shopping is obviously the least expensive option, those looking for Korean souvenirs — or just about anything else on earth, for that matter — would be wise to spend a few hours wandering around one of these shopping meccas.
Restaurants and Clubs for the Homesick
For some travelers, it can be a bit tough to spend an entire trip ensconced in nothing but the local culture without some sort of brief break. In Seoul, expats from America and Europe flock to the neighborhood known as Itaewon when they’re feeling especially homesick.
Packed full-to-overflowing with bars, restaurants, and an incredibly wide range of retail, Itaewon offers a familiar taste of home, but with a distinctly South Korean perspective.
Younger visitors will want to check out the Crown Hotel’s Club Able, where some of the world’s top deejays often perform. Visitors looking for a more relaxed experience might want to enjoy a meal at Le Saint Ex, which serves Korean cuisine from a distinctly French perspective, or Maloney’s Pub & Grill, where American-style burgers and comfort food are on offer.
If you go, consider paying a quick visit to the Itaewon Tourism Information Center, where you’ll find tons of great info in English. It’s located inside Itaewon Station, next to the Main Business Office.
Attractions for the History Buff
Built in 1395 and located in northern Seoul, Gyeongbok Palace is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. It served as the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, and visitors can easily spend an entire day taking in the ornate architectural grandeur here. Free guided tours of the palace are offered in English.
The nearby Bukchon Hanok Village, meanwhile, offers a completely different look back at the Joseon Dynasty period. The village is a recreation of a 600-year-old traditional Korean urban neighborhood. Architecture buffs should plan to spend a decent amount of time meandering through the area, which is home to the largest number of classically-constructed wood-frame homes in Seoul.
For something a bit more solemn, consider paying a visit to the 100-year-old Seodaemun Prison. It’s a rather disturbing look at the period of Japanese colonial rule in Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. You’ll learn how prisoners were enslaved, tortured, and eventually executed. It’s certainly not a happy experience, but spending time at the prison will certainly give you a more well-rounded understanding of Korea’s often tumultuous past.
South Korean Etiquette — Don’t Forget!
Regardless of whether you’re visiting Seoul for business or pleasure, you definitely don’t want to be pegged as an ‘Ugly American’ — someone who stands out because they clearly don’t appreciate the local cultural customs.
South Korean customs, it should be noted, are innumerable and sometimes incredibly confusing. And while Koreans certainly understand that most foreigners aren’t familiar with every last local folkway, brushing up a bit on standard conventions will go a long way toward making your trip to Seoul a smoother and much more memorable experience.
If you expect to be eating out regularly during your trip, read up on Korean dining etiquette. You should never stab at your food with chopsticks, for instance, nor should you leave your chopsticks sticking up out of a bowl of rice (or any other dish, for that matter). Remember never to fill your own glass when drinking. And should you need to blow your nose, definitely don’t do it at the table. Instead, politely excuse yourself and head to the restroom.
What else? You’ll need to remove your shoes upon entering a Korean home, as you will at any traditional Korean restaurant where pillows on the floor are used in place of chairs. And because Koreans are just as obsessed with business card protocol as the Japanese, you’ll want to make sure you know what you’re doing in that regard if you’re traveling to Seoul on business.
You might also want to bone up on the practice of bowing, which is incredibly common in Korea, and which will earn you loads of respect from the locals if done right.
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