After such impatient wait, the day finally has finally arrived! Our second time in Asia this year with a span in between trips of barely 4 months. Another two different countries, two well marked different cultures. Starting with the capital of South Korea then moving on to mainland China to cover the triangle cities of Shanghai, Xi’An and Beijing, and other secondary small ones in between.
This was not only the first time I would visit South Korea, but it was also the first time I would fly on such a long haul in business class. Although it was not one of those super offer tickets this time, it was at least one of these British Airways flights we could manage when they, from time to time, launch what they call “luxury sales” or “the world is on sale” where all their business and first class tickets have some sort of discount. I do strongly advice you to check around some flights whenever they have such a sales, you can grab some really great deals! Another purpose for us to have chosen business class was to boost our Executive Club membership to the next level, to become and retail the Silver status.
Now to what really matters here, the city of Seoul. It is the second largest metropolis in the world at over 25 million people, and has only became so rich and successfully over the past 30 years. It was not many years back, even poorer than their neighbour North Korea. This incredible unprecedented development is what is known as the “Miracle on the Han River” when it was transformed from the ashes of the Korean War after 1953 in what is today the 4th largest metropolitan economy in the world.
This development also came at a price. Constructions were of poor and low quality in order to save material and build as quick as possible. Many fails and catastrophes happened, being the collapse of the Sanpoong Department Store one of the most notorious. An structural failure that costed the lives of 502 people. Ever since this date strict construction measures are the norm.
Seoul hosts several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this gives you a hint of the enormous cultural richness the city has, not to mention the dozens of other temples and constructions from many eras and ancient dynasties. This combined with the charm of the old town streets, and the huge size of the city, means that you will require no less than 4 days to fully explore and enjoy the city and this is, counting that you will access only the principal museums as otherwise plan more days.
Talking about food? Welcome to paradise. South Koreans really know about food and are obsessed with it. The quality is superb pretty much everywhere, and so the cleanliness of the places (of course rule of thumbs here and anywhere in the world, trust your senses for the look of it. Any dodgy looking like, avoid). They love something called Bibimbap. This translates as “mix well”, and it’s a very hot clay pot containing rice, vegetables and then either pork, beef, chicken, and can be topped with an egg, generally row and you might think how awkward is this (if you are European). Well, remember this is an extremely hot pot, therefore your egg is going to really cook well while you eat. You will find this dish almost anywhere, but be careful in not committing the same mistake as we did by ordering a cold bibimbap! Totally different to the one explained above.
Another of their dishes, kind of national dish to be honest, is bulgogi. This is, very thin cut beef marinated in special sauce with vegetables. You can have this as a separate dish the meat on its own, or with vegetables, rice or part of a bibimbap.
Needless to say you will find plenty of street food vendors and lots of noodles and vegetables, but also dumplings. They are delicious and with so much varieties. Gladly on this I can strongly recommend a chain of restaurants which we happened to find while visiting Taipei back in April this year. What we did not expect was for it to be an Asian chain. The only 1 Michelin star restaurant chain! OK, definitely more expensive that any other place, but the quality of the dumplings is something you probably never had before. They are to die for! The place is called Din Tai Fung, and you can find 9 across Seoul. It is a must, trust me.
For more information about Seoul check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. South Korea’s currency is the WON (₩, KRW). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Seoul
The current city centre of Seoul, the Downtown, occupies the former Joseon Dynasty City and it is where you will find most of the historical landmarks, specially the palaces, temples and old buildings. Below are listed and sorted by region.
- North West
-Seodaemun Independence Park Is a nice park, memorial to the independence where one can find a former prison, the independence hall and most visually important, the Independence Gate, built in 1897 following the first Sino-Japanese war, located right by the exit of Dongnimmun metro station.
-Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁,景福宮) It is the grandest of the Joseon Dynasty-era palaces and the seat of power for centuries until it was pretty much destroyed in both Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1910. This was the first palace used by the Joseon Dynasty. For ₩3,000 admission fee you can visit the Joseon Palace Museum and the Korean Folk Museum. Open from 09.00 am to 18.00 pm daily except Tuesdays. Nearest metro station Gyeongbokgung on line 3.
-Gwanghwamun Plaza Is one of the largest squares in the city, recently renovated and more tourist friendly and embellished with statues and fountains.
-Gwanghwamun Gate Is the main and largest gate for access to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The royal changing of the guard ceremony is held in front of the main gate every hour from 10:00 am to 15:00 pm.
-National Museum of Korea Next to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. As a first time visitor to South Korea this is your best bet in order to get a glimpse of the culture, history and heritage of the country. It hosts the best collection of artefacts from all the periods on the Korean history. Open from 09:00 AM until 18:00 PM, closed on Mondays. Free admission. The nearest metro station is Gyeongbokgung.
-Statues of Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Joseon Dynasty and King Sejong the Great of Joseon.
-Sejong Center for the Performing Arts Is the largest arts and cultural complex in the city. Built in 1978 in a fusion of Korean national symbols and western architectural designs.
-Sukjeongmun Gate The name translates as Rule Solemnly Gate, although it’s better known as the Great North Gate. Is one of the great gates of the former Joseon Dynasty walls.
-Jogye Temple (조계사, 曹溪寺) Is the main temple of the Jogye order of Buddhism and one of the most important in the country as overall.
-Bukchon Also known as the North Village is located between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces not far from Insadong and Anguk metro stations. It is a neighbourhood formerly used by the relatives of the royal family, important officials and other powerful and rich families for over 500 years. What you see today is a great collection of those traditional Korean houses (known as hanok) making the area one of the most picturesque and desired tourist sight.
- North East
-Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁,昌德宮) Second in importance after and to the east of Gyeongbokgung, this was first built in 1405 pre-dating the other and was the seat of power between 1618 and 1896. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its importance, history, architecture and beauty. You can admire today rooms like the King’s Office (Seonjeongjeon) with its characteristic blue roof, the Great Making Hall (Daejojeon), the King’s apartments or the Secret Garden (Huwon). In order to access the palace you need to be on a guided tour. It costs ₩3,000 and are available in different languages, being English only at 10:30AM and 14:30PM. Bear in mind this palace closes on Mondays. Located at 99 Yulgong-ro, Jongno-gu Nearest metro stations Anguk and Jongno-3ga.
-Changgyeonggung Palace (창경궁,昌慶宮) Literally in the same compounds of the Changdeokgung Palace, to the east of it. Although much older than any of the other palaces, built in 1104 as a summer residence for the Kings of the Koryo Dynasty; it became during the Joseon Dynasty one of their main palaces. It was the home for the King during the construction of the Gyeongbok-gung palace. It is connected to the Jongmyo Shrine, holy place during the Joseon Dynasty. Entrance fee ₩1,000, closed on Tuesdays. Nearest metro stations Hyehwa (then 10 minute walk) and Changdeok-gung (around 20 minute walk).
-Jongmyo Shrine Just to the south of Changgyeonggung Palace. As the oldest Confucian shrine preserved dating from the 14th century and still in use, it is no wonder it was designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most famous shrines devoted to the royal family members of Korean dynasties. Admission fee ₩1,000, closed on Tuesdays.
-Tapgol Park One of the oldest parks in the city and where the Korean constitution was first read aloud by the public during the 20th century.
-Wongaksa Pagoda one of the finest examples of Joseon dynasty art built in 1467, designated as the second national treasure of Korea on December 12, 1962.
- Central West to East
-Gyeonghuigung Palace (경희궁,慶熙宮). Very near the Gwanghwamun Plaza, to the south west of it. Originally built in the 17th century but heavily damaged by fire and parts destroyed during the Japanese occupation, it was restored in 1985 and now also hosts the History museum. Free admission. Between Gwanghwamun and Seodaemun metro stations.
-Deoksugung Temple (덕수궁,德壽宮) Just south from the Gwanghwamun Plaza. Built in the 15th century it differs to the other palaces in that the interior design of the rooms are a blend of Korean and Western designs. Entrance fee ₩1,000, closed on Mondays, 09.00 am to 17.30 pm. Nearest metro stations City Hall or Gwanghwamun, right in the heart of Seoul across the street from the City Hall.
-City Hall Plaza Opposite Deoksugung Temple was also recently refurbished as part of modernising the city to make it more pedestrian and tourist friendly is one of the largest public squares in the city with nice gardens and fountains.
-Old City Hall Building Now the Metropolitan Library, was built in 1926 during the Japanese occupation of the city. It’s a registered landmark building.
-New City Hall Built right behind the old one with a shocking 21st century architecture.
-Jongno District Located just east and in between of both Gwanghwamun Plaza and City Hall Plaza. Is a major administrative centre in the city with some landmarks old and new.
-Insadong-gil Is the main street in the Jongno district with many galleries, shops and restaurants in a rather traditional settlement.
-Bosingak Pavillion It hosts the bell originally constructed in 1396 that announced the opening and closing of the city gates during the Joseon Dynasty and was located at the centre of the castle. Nowadays it is only sounded once a year, to mark the New Year.
-Jongno Tower Is one of the most characteristic skyscraper of the area for its design. At the top a restaurant and viewing platform offers great views over the city. Near Jonggak metro station.
-Cheonggyecheon Is an almost 9 km long water stream which was recently refurbished and given back to the public. A great place to stroll and enjoy a walk among the many street performances, cafes, bridges and greenery space.
-Dongdaemun Gate (which translates as the Great East Gate). Is second in importance after the South Gate and one of the last 3 original city gates still standing today (while the other 5 are nowadays reconstructions of the originals). Right at the east end of Jongno.
-Dongdaemun Market Although a street market itself, there are also many shopping departments in the area making it the largest shopping district in the city. Originally was a night market only, although now only opens during the day. The nearest metro station is Dongdaemun.
-Gwanghuimun Gate (Which translates as South Small Gate) although formally the Southeast Gate. Was the only gate to survive intact through the Japanese occupation although damaged later on during the Korean War, fully restored since 1976. The nearest metro station is Dongdaemun History & Culture Park.
- Central South West
-Namdaemun Gate (which translates as the Great South Gate). Just south of the City Hall Plaza. Was the oldest wooden gate in the city until and arson attack in 2008 destroyed much of the upper wooden part. The complete restoration to the very same design was re-opened in 2013. It is one of the major symbols of the city and National Treasure Number 1. Nearest metro stations City Hall or Hoehyeon.
-Namdaemun Market Located right next door to the Namdaemun Gate, it is the oldest and largest market not only in the city but in South Korea. Dating back to 1414 during the King Taejong reign. Nearest metro stations City Hall and Hoehyeon.
-Old Train Station Built in 1925 in eclectic Byzantine-style, it is nowadays a cultural centre after the transformation and after it lost its original use on behalf of the new one.
-Fountain Square A beautiful small square retaining its colonial era style buildings and surrounded by new and modern glass buildings of the financial district.
-Bank of Korea Originally built in 1912 in Japanese colonial style now hosts the economics and numismatics museum.
-Namsan Park Literally meaning South Mountain, is a 262 metres peak to the south of the the city centre offering one of the best panoramic views of Seoul.
-Namsan Cable Car In order to reach the peak you can take the cable car. Definitely a nice ride with great views.
-N Seoul Tower Is a communication and observation tower built in 1969 located at the peak of the Namsan mountain. It also marks the highest point in Seoul.
- Gangnam District Is the largest business district in the city, south of the Han River. Most of the world known technology companies have their headquarters here, with the obvious Samsung, LG or Naver being the most prominent.
-Tehranro Avenue Is the main avenue aligned with skyscrapers at both sides. Nicknamed Tehranro Valley, after the likes of Silicon Valley.
-Bongeun Temple (봉은사, 奉恩寺) It is one of the “oasis like” temples due to its location right in the middle of the many skyscrapers of the business district. It is also the most visited temple in Seoul perhaps due to its location and enormous affluence of people and tourists that every day head around the district. Located by Samseong Station, at the east end of Tehranro Avenue.
-Gangnamro Avenue Located at the intersection on the western side of the Tehranro Avenue, by Gangnam metro station. Is the most futuristic street in the city, also aligned with many skyscrapers, neon lights, plenty of shopping centres, restaurants, cafes and thriving nightlife.
- Mount Inwang (인왕산) Located farther to the north west of Gyeongbokgung Palace, already outside of the former Joseon Dynasty City. Is a 336 meters hill filled with great temples, walkways and nature. One of the must do in Seoul. Nearest metro stations Dongnimmun and Myeongdong.
-Inwang Temple Climbing uphill from the metro station you will soon pass through the temple gates and the temple itself.
-Guksadang Shrine Continuing uphill you will find other paths. Taking the one on the left (stairway upwards) you will pass the bronze bell of Bongwonsa and the shrine is meters behind.
-Seoul Fortress Wall From the shrine and around you will get some views of the wall running near the top of the hill.
There are two airports serving the city, being Incheon the largest and international one. Flights to almost anywhere in the world across all continents are served from here. The older Gimpo airport was the international airport until the opening of Incheon in 2001, and though it is still an international airport, destinations are dramatically limited on behalf of internal destinations.
Gimpo airport is directly connected to the metro system with lines 5 and 9 serving it. Connecting both airports is either the Incheon International Airport Rail (A’Rex) which also calls at Seoul Station in the city centre and it’s the fastest way to travel to and from the airport and the city centre, or normal commuter trains. The price is ₩8000 (£4.6) for the A’Rex compared to ₩3700 (£2.15) for the commuter and takes only 8 minutes longer than the express services. In the other hand and for a bit more money there are lots of buses (limousine services) that can take you probably to the door of your hotel or near it. For a full list you can check on the Incheon official website here.
Seoul hosts one of the busiest subway systems in the world, only followed by Moscow in second place. 19 metro lines cover absolutely every corner in the city and neighbouring outskirts ones. Hundreds of bus routes plus commuter railway lines makes the city one of the best public transport friendly in the world. As for fares, there are good news here, it’s really cheap. For single tickets, you will need to get for every ride you take a card which costs ₩500 deposit (refundable) and then a basic fare of up to 10 km is ₩1150, adding ₩100 for every 5 kilometres beyond. For longer stays anyway it is advisable you get a T-Money Card, this is, a contact less card which costs ₩3000 deposit (of which ₩2500 will be refunded), and then for each trip money is deducted plus also allowing you to save ₩100 on each journey. With this card you can also pay for your groceries, museum entrance fees, shops and even some restaurants. Once you arrive at your final destination and pass through the gates towards the exit, swap your single ticket card to get the refundable money back at the automated machines.
Moving by bus can get more complicated if you are a tourist. Obviously you won’t know the bus routes and colour designation per company as easy and straightforward in the metro system is. In any case the routes cover all city and follow the same fare system as explained above. Just drop the money on the slot for this next to the driver but be aware you need to put the precise money as otherwise, anything extra won’t be returned.
I have to say that finding any good deal was pretty much impossible. Perhaps because it was still high season when we went or maybe because those are the usual prices they have in hotels in Seoul. Of course we could have found cheaper options but these would not include breakfast and would have been basic and simple. In this case we were travelling with my family, and wanted to have something really nice. Nothing too complicated elsewhere in the world (except for Scandinavia and Switzerland), setting in the search parameters breakfast and pool; but Seoul resulted to be the most expensive city in accommodation on all this trip. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
For our first 4 days at the beginning of the trip we stayed at the Somerset Palace, on 85 Susong-dong, Jongno-gu, 110-885. Next door to metro station Anguk and minutes away from Gwanghwamun Plaza. An extremely nice and good hotel where I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Everything was perfect. Staff so professional, the nice and clean design of the interiors and rooms, level of cleanliness, comfort and facilities. Breakfast was not as good as I might have expected but still enough choice, although you have a full kitchen in your room should you wish to make use of it. The pool and jacuzzi were a great treat after the long sightseeing days. Located at the rooftop offering views over the city!. Definitely will not hesitate in coming back here again.
As for our last day before returning to London, since we came from Beijing already in the evening and our next flight was in the morning following day, was not making any sense to get a hotel in the city centre but instead as near the airport as possible. After all, we only needed it for some hours therefore not luxuries nor swimming pool not anything was required this time. We found a great deal at the Sky Incheon Airport, on 2790-2, Airport Town Square, Unseo-dong, Jung-gu. With free transfer to/from the airport was all we needed. Comfortable, nice and clean, with very friendly and helpful staff. No breakfast was included this time although we would not even have benefited from it due to our early check-out.