The past years have seen a phenomenal surge of the popularity of Koreans in mainstream media, from boy and girl groups to Korean television shows. Personally, while I am not too attached to these (think I have passed that age) I can definitely see the pull, with the catchy dance-craze like songs and emotive storylines played out by attractive people.
I, however, have made the trip to South Korea, and can definitely say that the country is every little bit as beautiful as the photographs suggest. We don’t have much time so let’s begin right at the capital, and find out some of the best places to visit in Seoul!
You know the artsy street many cities around the world have, where people young and old gather together to appreciate beauty over all else? Well, this is it in Seoul! It is not the longest street, but boy have they packed a lot of things in here. There is a little something for everyone, and whatever your purpose for going to South Korea, to begin with, you will enjoy Samcheong-dong.
With two palaces on both sides and the President’s office north of the street, Samcheong-dong could not be in a better position. Traditional Korean houses still stand proudly in Bukchon Hanok Village, where they are still maintained to a high standard, allowing for the stark, glaring contrast between the old and the new (1).
Unique, quirky cafes line the street, making this not only a very popular place for tourists but also locals who come here for some time to themselves. Restaurants are aplenty here also, with most selling their personal spins on the traditional South Korean fare.
There is even something for the shopaholics, as shops ranging from the cute craft shops to larger clothing stores give you the option of shopping till you drop.
Samcheong-dong is not a place to be talked about; it is a place that needs to be seen and experienced. The respectful nature of the locals bounce off the ingenious architecture and layout of the street, blending perfectly with local artwork proudly displayed and gorgeous meals and desserts served here (2).
This, however, is dedicated almost solely to the lovers of shopping among us. Shopping is worldwide, but here, it is taken to a whole other level. Myeong-dong sets itself apart from the rest of the competition not only by offering higher-end products but keeping their prices competitive, too!
If skincare products are what you desire, the street is lined top to bottom with shops peddling their wares. Prices are anywhere between 20-50% cheaper than many of the other Asian nations, allowing your budget to accommodate brands you never thought you would purchase!
Food, clothing and many other items can be purchased all along this super busy street, making it a good all-rounder for all tourists (3).
Shopping is not the only thing that brings the 1.5-2million people to the area on a daily basis. Many hotels line the streets, providing their guests with one of the best locations in Seoul. Myeong-dong Cathedral is also popular, drawing large crowds to view one of the most stunning ancient architecture in the country while taking the time to look within their spiritual self for peace (4).
Deviating a little from the top two, it is time for a little history lesson, and for this, you have to go to Gyeongbokgung Palace, representing the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty. The name translates literally to the “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”, and when you see the two mountains guarding its front and rear, Mount Namsan and Mount Bugaksan respectively, it is easy to see why.
During the Japanese Occupation, Gyeongbokgung Palace was torn down and largely destroyed by the Japanese. Ever since then, however, the South Koreans have worked hard in restoration activity, pushing for the removal of the old Japanese Governor-General building and bringing the Palace back to its former glory. It has been 25 years since they began this process, and it continues to this day (5).
Visiting the Palace is rightly grand, and as you walk through the entrances, mythical lion-like creatures stand guard in stone against intruders. Through the doors of the Geunjeongjeon, the main palace building, lie the well-maintained rebuilt quarters of then-king Taejo. It has been around since 1868 (300 years after it was burnt down it was rebuilt) and is mesmerizingly gorgeous to this day.
Take your time with this royal visit, as it really is not every day that you will get to learn about a day in the life of a king, the founder of an empire. The beautiful ornaments and intricate building work are contained within this stronghold make this an unforgettable experience (6).
Namsan Seoul Tower
Namsan Tower needs no introduction these days thanks to the blossoming of social media; almost everybody knows of the ‘Love Locks’ atop this tower. However, whether you are planning for travel with a loved one or traveling alone, there is a reason to visit the tower. While it is not the tallest in the city, it is the highest point in all of Seoul and offers some of the best views of the city.
It is not only the observatory that offers these stunning views, as Namsan Park at its base (before you catch the cable car up to the tower) is also gorgeous and a true testament to a city that continues to keep nature within reach of civilization (7).
Once at the tower, there are many things you can do, including some that are a little odd. The sky restroom is exactly as advertised – a bathroom with unbeatable views of the city down below. Hello Kitty Island is also up this high, with an entire floor dedicated to the popular cartoon cat. High-end restaurants are also up here, serving up some of the best Seoul has to offer close to the clouds.
And if all else fails, there is also the possibility of declaring your undying love at the ‘Love Locks’ moment.
Located just 63km from Seoul, Nami Island is a half-moon shaped isle formed as a result of the construction of the adjacent Cheongpyeong Dam. The island was built with the intention of achieving man-made nature, and thus while there are heaps of amenities on the island, there is a distinct lack of telephone poles and wiring, which are all underground.
There is a lot to see on the way to the island, from two National Treasures in Tapgol Park to Insa-dong, a colorful, popular neighborhood. However, Nami Island proper is well-known for being the setting of one of the first Korean dramas to catch international attention, Winter Sonata. If you have watched the show, you will relish this chance to walk in your favorite character’s footsteps.
Not being a fan of the Korean drama is no excuse not to make it to Nami Island. The colors year-round are phenomenal, especially in the fall, and it is the picturesque nature of the isle that will keep you here.
Guided tours, walking or taking the train are all options when it comes to exploring this beautiful isle, and with all the shopping and touring that goes on in and around Seoul, it is nice to take a step back to breathe in the fresh air.
Of the many trips I have made to South Korea, I have enjoyed Seoul the most. Maybe it is because I am a fan of the big cities, but Seoul, in particular, has a charm about it that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Let me know if you enjoyed this article in the comments below, and of course, share it with your friends and family! If you feel like I missed out on someplace special, do also let me know and maybe I’ll head there next! 고마워 (Gomawo, thank you!)