A stroll through Seoul

By | Category: Travel destinations

Gyeongbokgung Palace

I admit big Asian cities on occasion give me a feeling of overwhelm. Perhaps the years spent in Latin America, where I can haggle with the best of ‘em and always order the tastiest tacos, have left me ill-equipped to handle the dauntingly complex-looking alphabets and the sometimes very striking cultural differences. I was just starting to think of myself as a confirmed Latin Americanist, when suddenly the opportunity to visit South Korea presented itself.

Weaving our way through morning traffic from ultramodern Incheon airport towards Seoul centre, I initially felt as overwhelmed as ever. The metropolitan area of Seoul packs in over 25 million people and a lot of them appeared to be spending time on the very same roads as us. Still, we arrived at my hotel in one piece without too long a wait in crawling queues. Jetlag notwithstanding, I was determined to start familiarising myself with this giant of a city, that on the surface at least, looked quite unmanageable to the novice visitor.

Unsurprisingly, a city this size has plenty of interesting sights, but more to my surprise, I found it’s quite possible to walk between many of them. Give me a map and I’m usually in my element and in Seoul both a map and a guide were at my disposal, so there was obviously no stopping me. First we ventured off to Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of the country’s most beautiful royal palaces, originally built in the 14th century and with 50 buildings still intact, quite a city within the city. You could easily roam its splendid structures, peaceful gardens, or one of the museums within the grounds for many hours and still not see everything. The entrance gate, Gwanghwamun Gate, is an impressive sight in its own right, while the back gate offers fine views of the Presidential Palace, known as the Blue House (not open to the public).

In no time I found myself pleasantly surprised by Seoul. The city is large, but likeable and not too difficult to navigate on foot. Despite its very modern face and forward-thinking attitude, a long-standing Korean history is still evident amidst all the contemporary architecture and there are little pockets of old Seoul here and there.

lanterns for Buddha's birthday at Jogyesa temple

The royal palaces are a delight and so are the Buddhist temples. A short walk from Gyeongbokgung lies Jogyesa temple, where preparations for Buddha’s birthday were in full swing. In truth I’ve rarely seen anything quite so serenely beautiful. Several times during my stay in Seoul, I returned to the temple to watch as hundreds upon hundreds of bright lanterns, all the colours of the rainbow, were assembled and hung up along a network of threads around the main building. The effect was rather like creating an extra multi-coloured sky, with rainbow lanterns representing the living and white lanterns representing souls departed.

There is only so much sight-seeing a jetlagged writer can do in one day, however, so slightly templed-out, I returned to the hotel to rest and recoup before next day’s sight-seeing extravaganza. My guide, Mr Park, was enthusiasm personified and always had great plans for our days out – the next day was no exception. If the day before we’d taken it easy with our Seoul-strolling, this time Mr Park was preparing for a marathon. My hotel was conveniently located in Myeong-dong, a hip and trendy, mostly pedestrianised shopping and nightlife district, so we started the morning by ambling through it as the shops were opening up.

Clear Water Creek

We were heading for what’s known in English as Clear Water Creek (and since it’s far easier to spell in English, I’m sticking to that), a restored urban waterway that was reopened in 2005 after decades of languishing underground. These days it’s a lovely part of Seoul, with scenic walking paths and the water does appear to be surprisingly clear.

A short walk northeast and we reached the next item on our Seoul must-see list; Bukchon Hanok village. Bukchon, tucked in between two palaces, takes you back in time to pre-modern Seoul and it’s a remarkably quiet haven, atop a hill in central Seoul, with excellent views of the nearby palaces. Hanok refers to the Korean traditional style of building and Bukchon, although an increasingly popular tourist attraction, is also a normal, working part of the city, full of traditional houses. I must admit walking almost literally through people’s backyards to have a look at their houses makes me feel slightly dubious, but there is no doubt Bukchon is worth a visit. Just bear in mind that these are people’s actual houses and don’t go wandering inside. There are many fine examples of traditional architecture and several museums if you have time on your hands, including an Embroidery Museum and a gallery of folk paintings.

The mix of the modern and the ancient is a constant theme in Seoul. Just when you’ve finished marvelling at the historical treasures before your eyes, turn a corner and you’re face to face with jaw-dropping architectural wonders from a completely different era. The brand new city hall, for example, is all glass and chrome on the outside, with ivy growing all the way to the ceiling on the inside, giving it a bizarrely soothing impression. There is also a huge sculpture of an ear outside it, symbolising the local government’s willingness to listen to its citizens. A short walk from city hall and you find yourself amidst the hundreds of stalls that make up Namdaemun market, excellent for local and international bargain hunters or those in search of a spot of lunch at the many food stalls or cubbyhole restaurants.

take-away cocktails

My second day was coming to an end, but there was yet one more place to fit in before finishing our exceedingly informative “strollerthon” – Insa-dong, arguably the neighbourhood best known to foreign visitors. If Myeong-dong is the modern face of Seoul shopping, Insa-dong is the old-fashioned. The streets here are equally narrow and pedestrianised, but rather than the latest fashion and cool bars, you’re more likely to find arts and crafts shops, galleries and traditional tea houses. Very lively in the afternoons, Insa-dong is a great place to just browse, amble into the odd shop or gallery, check out the street stalls (such as the somewhat out of place-looking “take-away cocktail stall”) or stop for a refreshing lemon tea – mine seemed to contain an entire lemon.

Two days are barely enough to scratch the shiny surface of Seoul, but it’s a start. Undoubtedly others might recommend different itineraries altogether, but that’s the beauty of a big city – there are always new areas to discover. Strolling through Seoul my initial sense of overwhelm evaporated and without the Latin Americanist in me rebelling too much, I decided there and then that, incomprehensible alphabets notwithstanding, I liked some Asian cities very much indeed.

Getting there:
British Airways (www.britishairways.com) fly direct London Heathrow to Seoul.
Other airlines flying to South Korea include Asiana (www.flyasiana.com) direct and several carriers via Europe or Asia.

Further information: Korea Tourism Organisation Tel 020 7321 2535

Images other than first one © Anna Maria Espsäter

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