The city of Kimchi (fermented cabbage) and Soju (cheap, toxic potato liquor), Seoul is manically fast-paced, yet home to some of the most tranquil temples and palaces you’ll ever see. It’s modern, yet sprinkled with sites that date back thousands of years; conservative, yet home to an every-night-of-the-week party culture.
For foreigners, this closed off country can take a bit of getting used to. Seoul’s an intensely of-the-minute city, yet when you hand over money it’s offensive not to use both hands; women still play a noticeably secondary role, and politics is still more about corruption, fist fights in parliament and public protests than sitting down to debate.
Start off in the old city, taking a tour of the presidential ‘blue house’ - where North Korean snipers were once discovered waiting in the hills – then head to the magnificent Gyeongbokgong Palace, clamber amongst the patterned pagodas and wallow in a peaceful corner of one of the world’s largest cities. Head for Hongdae for nightlife that shuts down when you do, or the traditional restaurants and teahouses of Insadong for sensual fruit teas or heavy, meaty, cook-them-yourself barbeques.
Seoul’s streets at night are something special, home to endless food stalls (just point at what you want), signs in the arty native alphabet, baseball nets, comic photo booths and (in the summer) a heartwarming outdoor-eating culture. On Buddha’s birthday millions parade the streets on floats, clutching lanterns or dancing in their flowing traditional Hanbok dress, while Chuseok – Korean Thanksgiving – sees Seoul empty to the countryside, with residents returning to the birth places of their family to feast on rice cake and kneel before the graves of their elders.
While you’re in town, don’t miss the awe-inspiring views of relentless tower blocks from the heights of Seoul Tower (and, if you’re with a loved one, add your own ‘love locking’ padlock), take a tour of the World Cup Stadium, check out the passion at a local baseball game, see The Seoul Museum of History or climb one of the craggy peaks that surround Seoul on every side. Then there’s always the harrowing DMZ experience. Seoul’s off-the-wall, and different to any other city you will ever visit. And that alone makes this place wonderful.
Suwon is essentially a commuter town of Seoul, but has its own charms. It makes a good day trip from the capital (on the subway line), and has a strong and long-standing association with Sams…