What do the UN Secretary-General, the best-selling smartphone and the world’s most watched music video have in common? They’re all exports from South Korea.
The mecca for those who are fans of all things Korean is the capital, Seoul. Here’s a list of 10 things to do in this vibrant and sprawling metropolis:
1. Café culture – Head down to a quiet area of modern art galleries tucked behind to the right of Gyeongbok Palace. As you pass the Cath Kidston boutique, you’ll be forgiven for forgetting you’re in Asia. There are lots of coffee shops, mostly independent, particularly in the side streets where the owners’ painstaking love and care for their establishment can be appreciated through their service and a simple cup of coffee. There are plenty of boutiques selling vintage clothing or handmade jewellery, too, so you can walk off the cake!
2. Appreciate the artisans– The traditional and modern crafts of Korea are on display in Insadong to be admired and bought. Lacquerware, hanji (special paper made from mulberry trees), ceramics, wooden crafts, calligraphy equipment as well as local foods and teahouses can be found in this pedestrianised area. You may even be able to meet the artisan themselves. Note that prices are rarely negotiable here.
3. Heritage sightseeing – Seoul is home to 6 out of 10 Unesco world heritage sites in South Korea, including five Grand Palaces (one of which is on the list as an “outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design”). On the first Sunday of May every year, the Jongmyo Jaerye (said to be the oldest complete ceremony in the world) is performed at Jongmyo Shrine, incorporating songs and dances that originated over 500 years ago. The Shrine is also registered as a heritage site for its well-preserved ancient music and dance.
4. Shopping – From local markets to high-end department stores, South Korea seems to have it all. Those feeling young at heart should head down to Myeongdong or the backstreets of Sinchon. For wet markets, go to Namdaemun which also sells art supplies and electronic goods. If you still have energy, the evening-to-night markets at Dongdaemun offer endless corridors of clothes, textiles and street food.
5. Food – Kimchi, bulgogi and bibimbap are some of the most famous dishes from Korea. Don’t be surprised to find that some restaurants only specialise in one or two dishes! Try a traditional Korean meal with as many as 80 side dishes, each lovingly assembled to ensure that textures, colours and flavours are balanced and complement each other.
6. Sports – Baseball is to Koreans what football is to the rest of the world. Each team is known by the company that sponsors them and the games are as much about the cheerleading by the fans as the on-field action, so prepare to make some noise! Tickets are cheap with regular seats starting around $8 on weekdays.
7. Religious city– Five out of 10 of the world’s megachurches can be found in Korea. The largest in the world, Yeouido Full Gospel Church has over 800,000 members. No surprise that Christians make up around 25 percent of the electoral vote in South Korea. Korea also has a 1,300 year Buddhist tradition and there are five significant temples in Seoul. You can temple stay at Hwagyesa Temple at the foot of Samgaksan Mountain for a more serene experience.
8. “Gangnam Style” – It didn’t feature in a song for no reason – there really is a district called Gangnam and if you go to places like Apgujeong, you will see how the young, free and rich people of modern Seoul keep themselves entertained. Cross the river to Hongdae in the evening as the bars and clubs open their doors for you to dance the night away. Itaewon is your answer for a nightcap in a more foreigner-friendly environment.
9. Outdoors – Whether it’s leisurely cycle or a hike up a mountain, Seoulites love to exercise and take advantage of the freedom of being away from the crowd. Rent a bike anywhere along the river front in Yeouido and enjoy the breeze as you cycle along the banks of the grand Han River. Korea is 70-percent mountainous and Seoul boasts no less than 37 “mountains” itself; Bukhansan Mountain has the highest peak at 836m and is particularly popular with the locals.
10. Night Lights – Like Singapore, Seoul is stunning at night-time, especially along the Han River as each bridge is lit up a different colour. For a fitting end to your trip, make your way up to N Seoul Tower located at Namsan Mountain and you will be rewarded with a spectacular view over the city. If you go up with your special one, be sure to take a love padlock with you (though good luck finding a spot to hang it on!).
Getting there: Six-hour flights from Singapore land at Incheon International Airport, recently voted the world’s best airport by global travellers (Changi Airport finished second). Various modes of transport are available to take you into Seoul.
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