Heart and Seoul

This bustling metropolis will woo you with its melting pot of futuristic architecture, ancient culture and natural beauty

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY Diane Godley Published Mar 15, 2024 16:21:24 IST
Heart and Seoul Visitors to Gyeongbokgung dressed in hanbok, traditional Korean clothing

Two weeks in Seoul, South Korea’s bustling capital, is just not enough time to explore all it has to offer. With ancient temples, palaces and fortress walls rubbing shoulders with sparkling contemporary architecture, exquisite mountain landscapes, parks and forests, plus pumping nightlife and outdoor markets galore, Seoul really has something for everyone.

Founded as the capital of the unified Korean peninsula in 1394, Seoul sits in a basin and is surrounded by four low mountains, which provided a natural defence to the fledgling kingdom. To reinforce this defence, several years into the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) construction started on a wall along the mountain ridges. Much of the fortifications remain today (some have been rebuilt) and are a magnet for tourists.

On our first day in Seoul, we decided to do something cultural and headed to Gwanghwamun Square and Gyeongbokgung—the largest of the five remaining gung or palaces in Seoul—where the history of the Joseon Dynasty began. We were going to take a bus from our hotel in the central district of Myeongdong, but there was such a vibrant atmosphere when we stepped onto the street, we decided to walk. Sejong-daero, the main thoroughfare that passes City Hall and leads to Gwanghwamun Square, was festooned with colourful lanterns—and being a Sunday, the mood was positively festive. We discovered later that many streets and temples across the country are decked out with the lanterns and other decorations during April and May to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.


From Gwanghwamun Square—a public space that boasts statues of King Sejong (creator of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet) and Admiral Yi Sunshin—the palace and Blue House (which, up until last year served as the official residence of the president) can be clearly seen, with Bugaksan mountain making a striking backdrop.

Entry into each of the palaces is a tiny 3000 won or around Rs 186, but if you hire a hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, you can get in for free. To our delight, lots of people, locals and tourists alike, embrace the idea of dressing up so we felt like we were on the set of a Netflix period K-drama. Security guards at Gyeongbokgung also dress in colourful historical costumes, as do tour guides who give free tours in several languages. Looking towards the north from inside the palace grounds, Bugaksan and Inwangsan, the two highest northern mountains, loom close by. Turn 180 degrees and the view is of a sparkling cityscape with Namsan (south mountain) and Seoul Tower in the background.

During my stay, I visited two other palaces, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Changdeokgung and Deoksugung, located across from City Hall. Built in 1405 as a secondary royal residence to the main palace, Changdeokgung is the best-preserved palace of the Joseon Dynasty and is where royalty spent the most time. To the rear of the palace is a secret garden dotted with pavilions for contemplating and writing poetry, a library for learning, ponds for fishing, as well as royal residences. Entry to the secret garden is separate from the palace and needs to be booked online as only a limited number of people are admitted each day.

image-94_031524041938.jpgUNESCO World Heritage listed Changdeokgung, said to be the most beautiful of the five palaces

If you don’t have time to visit all the palaces, make sure the changing of the guards in front of Deoksugung’s main gate is on your to-do list. Performed every day at 11 a.m., the colourful display takes about 20 minutes. From there, stroll along the stonewall walkway the runs alongside the palace. Selected as one of the 100 most beautiful roads in Korea, it is also a popular location for Korean dramas.

On the bus ride back to our hotel, we missed our stop. But we didn’t have any misgivings because we stumbled upon Myeongdong market—streets upon streets heaving with people selling street food, such as tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce), chicken skewers, dumplings, corn dogs and hotteok (Korean pancakes). On every corner people were selling hundreds of types of socks for between Rs 83 and Rs 166— make sure you bring home a pair or 10—as well as souvenirs. At night, fairy lights thread through the laneways and it is even busier than during the day. Dozens of outdoor markets are found around the capital, but Myeongdong is a good place to start for a taste of Seoul.

The next day we embraced the great outdoors and walked along the fortress wall that snakes up Bugaksan. Rising steeply to a 342-metre summit, it is the highest of Seoul’s four guardian peaks and has a difficulty rating of medium—I’m guessing seasoned mountain climbers provided this rating. Bugaksan is part of a military reserve, therefore it is completely off limits after sunset and photography is limited to a few designated spots. You may think them paranoid, but in 1968, North Korean agents attempted to assassinate the then president sparking a gun fight on the mountain. A tree that was hit by several bullet holes is one of the trail’s exhibits.

image-96_031524042041.jpgThe ascent up Seoul’s highest mountain, Bugaksan, takes you along the fortress wall

Several paths can be taken from the summit to descend the mountain, and I think we took the steepest (just happy we were going down and not up like some of the flustered people we passed). At the foot of the mountain we were close to Bukchon Hanok Village. Situated between the two main palaces, it is packed with some 900 traditional Korean houses (hanok) that were originally lived in by the royal family and aristocrats but today are the residences of your average Seoulite. Retaining much of the appearance of the old city, it is a tourist magnet.

A holiday in Seoul wouldn’t be complete without the surreal trip to the DMZ (DeMilitarised Zone between North and South Korea). These can be booked online around three months before you intend to visit. Dozens of buses travel to the DMZ every day. Our bus with Korridor Tours left Seoul at 7 a.m. in the morning and reached our first destination around 8.30 a.m.—yes, Seoul really is that close to the border, less than 40 kilometres in fact.

The highlights of the DMZ were the third tunnel and the Observatory Deck. The third tunnel is one of four dug across the border by North Koreans trying to infiltrate the South. As part of the DMZ experience, tourists get to walk through the third tunnel that the South discovered (hence the name) until you reach a wall, which indicates you’ve reached North Korea. Claustrophobic people may want to think twice about doing this though, as we had to stoop for a good section of the tunnel and hard hats were provided to protect against knocks to the head.

image-97_031524042102.jpgThe great naval commander Admiral Yi Sunshin (1545-1598) watching over Gwanghwamun Square

Our guide delighted in regaling the story about how the North Koreans spent all their time and energy digging the tunnel for nefarious purposes only for the South to reap financial rewards by using it as a tourist destination.

The Observatory Deck was another bizarre experience. From atop the tower, binoculars are lined up so voyeuristic tourists can get a glimpse of North Koreans going about their daily lives. Through the binoculars I could see people working in a rice field, and others walking and cycling around a village. It was all a bit surreal; they seemed so near, yet totally out of reach.

The trip back to Seoul took us west along the border with North Korea before turning south. Separated by the Han River, we looked through the barbed wire fencing to an agricultural setting, which contrasted starkly with the industrialized and high density living south of the border.


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