It is quite possible I have now found my favourite (very) large city. Seoul is huge, lively, interesting, extremely friendly, reasonably affordable and easy to get around.
We really only scratched the surface of this enticing city, but as a tourist first impressions matter and almost everything about Seoul was worth exploring.
I did struggle a little with the air quality on a foggy/smoggy day, but after some good rain, I was able to go for jog and play on the outdoor exercise equipment.
South Korea is a small, densely populated peninsular nation of 50 million. Half of South Korea’s residents live in greater Seoul. There are another 25 million people isolated from the world in North Korea.
Seoul is located in the north-west of the country, remarkably close to the heavily fortified border and Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. Technically the two countries remain at war, yet even during a time of North Korean and American sabre-rattling, Seoul’s residents just seemed busy enjoying a long weekend.
Korean culture and language date back thousands of years.
The last major Korean Dynasty – the Joseon – began in 1392 and ended when Japan invaded or ‘colonized’ the peninsula in 1910. The two Koreas emerged in 1945 when the Japanese Empire was defeated. While Korea has an important trade and cultural relationship with Japan, tensions remain. I side entirely with the Koreans on this particular subject.
Much like the demarcation line between former East and West Germany, Soviet troops met the allied forces on the 38th parallel about halfway down the Korean peninsula. That contentious border remains.
In 1950 Soviet-supported North Korean troops invaded the south. The United Nations responded. After three tragic years of civil and ideological war, the 38th parallel was re-established as an important Cold War stand-off. It is arguably the last one remaining.
Our trip out to the Demilitarized Zone is highlighted here.
During the 65 years since 1953, South Korea has turned into one of the most important global economies. Seoul’s transformation is referred to as ‘The Miracle on the Han’ and South Korea is indisputably a Tiger economy.
As visitors, we found Seoul extremely enjoyable. One week was not enough. The Koreans are famously friendly – particularly to children – we totally agree. After spending a few weeks in very polite – and notably reserved Japan – it was fun interacting with the outgoing Koreans.
Finn’s blond hair was a hit and people would stop and offer help and directions. Thankfully many Koreans speak at least passable English because we (particularly me) struggled to pronounce anything in Korean. I may have to take a Korean language class, as I fully intend to return for a longer visit.
We treated ourselves by staying in the modern Sheraton D-Cube City. Check-in is on the 41st floor. Our room overlooked a canal and hundreds of high-rises from the 31st.
The room was excellent, the staff outstanding, and the pool and gym facilities among the best I have found. I rarely give a ‘shout-out’ to hotels, but this one is worth it.
We spent two full days visiting the historic centre of Seoul.
City Hall offers a free, interactive museum downstairs and we played on the musical stairs.
Throughout the city we found excellent facilities designed to encourage activity and health. Piano style public stairways are so tempting as to render the escalator redundant.
The city is distinctly more modern than ‘old’ yet several temples and palaces are meticulously maintained and a large part of the old city walls remain and can be walked.
Seoul is framed by rocky hills and mountains, some of which can be reached on public transportation. Koreans are fit and sporty. When I had worked promoting the Canadian Rockies, the Korean market was considered a perfect match due to their cultural love of outdoor activities.
We also had to make the obligatory visit to the Gangnam District. I’m not sure anyone outside of Korea knew much about the area until Psy introduced us to Gangnam Style, but now known globally as a centre of fashion and style (and plastic surgery), it was well worth a visit!
It takes a bit of work to fall for ‘K-Pop,’ but the music genre, which incorporates Korean and western styles mixed with lively visual elements speaks to Korea’s outward perspective.
I am not really a shopper nor do I follow fashion trends, but I did find Korean fashion very appealing – and I even bought shoes and a new blazer.
The ‘Samsung D’light’ Center was under renovations, so Finn will have to return to Gangnam for their interactive shop. I’ll stick with my iPhone for the moment.
Enjoying a true vacation day, Finn and I went to Lotte World – the second-largest indoor theme park in the world.
*We obtained a coupon at one of the many tourist information offices (they even have mobile Tourist Info staff walking about in the city centre). This coupon saved us half the entrance fee!
It was a good choice to go early on a Tuesday as in our first hour we managed to do most of the best rides without standing in line. I have now taken a Virtual Reality (VR) rollercoaster! The rollercoaster was real (and excellent), but the VR headsets took us on an added adventure.
Due to rain, we did not have a chance to do the bungee or giant drop V ride on the outdoor Magic Island part of the park… honestly, it had nothing to do with fear ;).
If you do have a chance to explore Lotte World, make sure to do the ‘Fly Venture’ ride. Not only was the interactive cinema extremely well done, the film offered a bird’s eye view of beautiful Korea.
It was fun to see thousands of school children enjoying the amusement park as a school outing (Korea regularly rates in the top-five countries for education). Attached to the amusement park is a Korean folk park/museum. This was included in our ticket and well worth a visit – after all the ride excitement.
Eating in South Korea was fun and distinctly spicy.
I certainly have enjoyed Korean food in other countries, but in Seoul, it was an adventure. Personally, I was most taken with the street BBQ skewers.
Finn loved the different hot-pots and one night we splurged and cooked premium beef on a small bbq at our table. We did try one extra-spicy soup/stew that defeated our palates, resulting in steam coming out of our ears!
A budget of $10-$20 will buy a good meal. 1100 won = $1 US.
There is so much we did not manage to do on this visit, in particular we did not venture outside of the city. We had at first planned a day trip to PyeongChang – site of the upcoming Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, the high-speed train connection is not yet completed, and 6+ hours on a bus for a single day was a little too much.
As with our trip to Japan, we visited during the Cherry Blossom period. Days were neither too hot nor too cold. There is water everywhere in Seoul – the fantastic Incheon airport is even on an island. I expect summers could be a little too hot and humid for my taste. Winters can be surprisingly cold, with temperatures falling well below freezing.
According to the OECD, South Koreans work a lot. They come second only to Mexicans for average number of hours worked in a year. South Korea’s transition to stable, pluralistic democracy has contributed greatly to quality of life
During the dictatorial period of the 1960’s and 1970’s there was no minimum wage and homeless people were forced into labour camps. Now average wages are high, vacations respected and public infrastructure clearly designed around wellbeing.