From a city with a checkered past to being the North Star of East, Seoul radiates its pulsating energy to the far corners of the world
Full text of the story Seoul – Old School to New Cool published in the March issue of Jet Airways inflight magazine
Seoul is called Special City for a reason. It is a city of contrasts that has something special for everyone. Fourteenth century palaces hold their fort against 21st century skyscrapers, while you can travel between ancient and modern, simply by crossing a street. Han River neatly bisects the old Seoul of palaces, markets, hanoks and government offices from the new Seoul of cloud-piercing high-rises, swanky stores, and avant-garde restaurants. Delivery boys race their motorbikes with Maseratis on the road, while gadget toting fashionistas combat peddlers for walking space. A city as passionate about protecting its 600-years-old heritage as it is about K-Pop, while one moment you are in downtown the next you are in Bukhansan National Park. You can shop till you drop at ritzy department stores or haggle around at labyrinthine markets, while gorging on affordable street food or relishing the cuisine of the kings. It is this diversity which makes Seoul truly special. So if you are visiting Seoul soon make sure you do explore the diversity of this Special City
You never get a second chance to make a great first impression and Seoul gets it right the first time. As I landed at Incheon International Airport, I realised how efficient, hassle free and delightful airports can be. Within an hour of landing I was chilling at my hotel in the city centre.
Starting on a high
Seoul is hemmed in by mountains and draped by waterways. The best place to see that beauty is from the needlelike N Seoul Tower on Mount Namsan. You can either take a cable car or trek for 45 minutes through the stone stairway. As I walked up to the base, I was greeted by the tens of thousands of ‘love locks’ hung on fences, gates, railings and ‘trees of love’. My local friend Kim told me love is a serious business in Seoul. So serious that couples match their blood groups to ensure a compatible long lasting relationship. So don’t be surprised if someone pops up the blood group question.
But I wasn’t looking for love so I didn’t get swayed by love locks and took the elevator to the observatory deck of N Seoul Tower. Flabbergasted by the staggering immensity of Seoul I was looking at the panoramic view like an excited kid. The Seoul skyline was bejeweled with high rises after high rises and four guardian mountains cradled the city from four sides. Velvety mist was trying to play hide-and-seek with the city. Wherever my eyes could reach I saw the manicured landscape of Seoul.
After getting the bird’s eye view, it was time to experience the illustrious past of Korea. I started turning the history pages from the fourteenth century Changdeokung palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was the home of Korea’s last emperor. Cobblestoned corridors, elegant open courtyards, alluring Secret Garden, soothing ponds and pagodas infused a dose of tranquility in a frenetic urban city. I wanted to spend more time exploring the colossal Changdeokung palace but being time-poor I had to sacrifice my wish in favour of attending the Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony at the Gyeongbokgung Palace. At 2 pm sharp the royal guards arrived in their colourful flowing robs, carrying traditional weapons and playing traditional musical instruments. The Ceremony gave goose bumps and transported me to the 14th century Joseon Dynasty, when this tradition was enacted exactly as I witnessed. It further stoked my interest in the Korean history and I spend some time at the National Palace museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea, both housed in the palace itself.
Within walking distance from the palace was Samcheong-dong, where tradition and artistic sensibilities meet. Samcheong-dong is famous for Bukchon Hanok (Korean traditional houses) village. A maze of 900 antique homes with angular roofs, decorative brick walls and heavy wooden doors were weaved together like a beehive. Chic galleries, distinctive cafes and accessory shops were seamlessly integrated in the calm environs of the traditional village.
Grooving to the red-hot energy of K-Pop
The prolific heritage tour had drained me so I needed to refuel. And in Seoul there can’t be a better fuel than K-pop (Korean Popular music) at Gangnam. The flashy section of Seoul, where crème de la crème lives, works, and plays. Thanks to PSY’s ‘Gangnam style’, K-Pop became a viral sensation. But K-Pop is much more than one hit number. It is a cultural movement that brought Korea into the limelight. Upbeat tunes, eye-popping fashion, catchy hooks and sing-along lyrics are the secret sauce of K-Pop. Songs are usually complemented with extravagant videos featuring well-groomed K-Pop megastars or “Idols” showing off their flawless high-octane dance moves.
Shop. Eat. Stroll.
After soaking in the historic and cultural splendour, it was time to go shopping. Seoul is dubbed as the ‘Milan of the East’, where it’s impossible to find a single soul dressed shabbily. Shopping is a favourite pastime of Seoulites and it doesn’t matter where you are in Seoul, there will always be a shopping place next to you. A Mecca for cosmetics, apparels and electronics shopping and there is a market for every pocket – from transitional markets to luxury department stores to street shopping.
I started my shopping spree from Myeongdong, Seoul’s busiest area where tens of thousands of shopaholics indulge in retail therapy at any given time. Hundreds of shops sell international and local labels of cosmetics, apparels and accessories. Sales executives would coax me to have a look at their store and generously give away free samples. I really needed an iron will to say no to their enticing offers.
If Myeongdong was difficult to resist, the 24 hours market of Namdaemun was ten times more difficult. A Google of Shopping where you can find anything at any time at any price. If you can’t find a product in Namdaemun then it probably doesn’t exist on Earth. Other markets worth visiting are Insadong for art and craft items, Yongsan for electronics and Cheongdamdong for luxury indulgence.
Shopping is complimented by street food culture. I would often take a break from shopping to gorge on the delicious street food. Just like K-Pop there is nothing subtle about Korean cuisine. It is a carnival of flavours. The must-try dishes are Kimchi (fermented spicy vegetables), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), Patbingsu (shaved ice topped with red bean paste, ice cream, rice cakes and fruits), dakbal (fiery chicken feet), mindeulle muchim (dandelion salad) hotteok (sweet pancake), bindaetteok (mung beach pancake), odeng (fish cake), and assortments of fried food. The barbecue I had at Hongik Sutbul Galbi was one of the best I ever had. My favourite vegetarian meal was the traditional Buddhist temple cuisine at Baru.
After days of sightseeing, shopping and eating it was hard to bid goodbye. Visiting Seoul was truly special. A must stop for anyone who wants to experience modern Asian city life deeply rooted in tradition.
PRACTICAL TRAVEL TIPS
- You’ll always be connected because Seoul has the world’s fastest internet speed and free Wi-Fi at most places
- Most buildings don’t have a 4th floor because number four is considered extremely unlucky in Korea
- Explore the key 26 attractions with the affordable hop on and off Seoul City Tour Bus
- See the city like a local by taking free customised tours by Meteor Youth Voluntary Club
- Experience the transformation of Seoul from medieval city to a modern metropolis at Seoul Museum of History
- Buy souvenirs with distinctive Korean flavor at Insadong
- Do not tip and place your food order at the counter only
- Order food from any place at any time. The delivery boy will come to deliver food as well as collect trash
- Visit the 24 hours Noryangjin Seafood market if you are a seafood lover
- Try your hand at eating live octopus if you are a food adventurer
Here’s the link to the Jet Wings story – Seoul – Old School to New Cool