I had always wanted to visit South Korea and I recently had the chance to spend a week in this amazing country. Unlike its northern neighbor which is pretty much closed to visitors, South Korea is a welcoming and hospitable country. It is an interesting place with a unique culture and a highly developing economy.
I flew into the capital Seoul. On arrival in the city, it was the marked contrast between modern skyscrapers and high design shopping malls and shanty towns that was immediately striking. Wide streets lined by fancy boutiques lead to a labyrinth of narrow alleyways with tiny traditional shops and eateries and there is a clutch of great tourist attractions.
My tour itinerary began on Seoul’s main boulevard, Sejongro, because I wanted to see the Royal Palace (Gyeongbok), the President’s residence, known as Cheongwadae or the Blue House, and the American Embassy. From here it’s a fairly short walk to Bukchon where there is the city’s largest collection of privately owned traditional wooden houses. It’s a charm with beautiful architecture and small courtyards, with the houses interspersed with quaint cafes and art galleries.
Taking the same route the next day, I took a trip into the mountains that peak behind the President’s House, and climbed the one known as Bugaksan. This affords the opportunity to pass through the Sukjeongmun Gate and through the city’s ancient fortress wall. From here the Seoul Fortress is easily accessible and there are also amazing views of Seoul.
Shopping in the Orient is an amazing experience so I made sure to pay a visit to the Shinsegae downtown department store. This huge emporium sells probably everything you can imagine and is a complete charm in the way the bottom floors sell all the basic staples of daily life – including the ubiquitous kimchee (fermented cabbage) and are frequented by Korean housewives while the upper floors cater to the well-heeled and brand conscious. As fascinating as it is, the new rooftop garden is a welcome respite. But, if you are going to shop in Seoul, it’s a must to visit the street stalls and hawkers of the Namdaemum Market where the wares seem to be spread out in a blanket of never-ending stalls. Be prepared to be seriously jostled by the crowds, but it’s also the chance to feast on the best street food.
One of the most surprising sights and a rue delight is the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Running for just under 4 miles through the city, the stream is remarkably quiet given its location, because it is 15 foot below street level. The serene setting, accentuated by waterfalls and bridge is a favorite strolling spot for romantic couples.
With a flying visit to Itaewon, the popular ex-pat neighborhood near to the main US army base, my time in Seoul came to an end. I was enthralled and captivated and hope I get to return one day.