"Heart and Seoul" Seoul by mke1963
Seoul Travel Guide: 2,996 reviews and 7,293 photos
NOTE: Sights and activities around Imjingak and the DMZ at P'anmunjom are on a separate Taesongdong page.
Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea, is one of Asia's forgotten cities, far from the lists of popular 'must see' cities. Yet this vibrant city of eleven million people holds many worthy sights, and cuisine, architecture, music, museums, culture, entertainment, shopping and open spaces to satisfy any visitor. Seoul also makes all of its charms so easily accessible, with a world-class public transport system and a pleasant climate. It also suffers, from the tragic dissection of its country - just north of the city - and the blight that comes with having large military garrisons deep inside the city, and the ensuing low-end entertainment, dining and shopping that caters, in products and attitude, to people unable or unwilling to adapt to a different culture. Seoul and the Republic of Korea are undoubtedly great admirers of the American dream, although for some decades the peacekeepers were, in the name of freedom and democracy, propping up an authoritarian and dictatorial government. the dream seems more real now for the Koreans, and Seoul looks and feels like a city that has made it into the big time, with its energetic streets, booming economy, and sophisticated, even rather snooty population: Seoul knows that the dream is real, and revels in a success made entirely with their own hands and intellect. Despite the American influence, Seoul looks Asian, feels Asian and is its pride is well justified. This rather small country, on the periphery of the world's economic trade routes has become the world's eleventh biggest economy, and deserves a seat at any top table. It has yet to become a true tourist destination, and rather like Japan, this is not entirely accidental: the country welcomes tourists with open arms, but really does not need them nor want the excesses of commercialism that has surrounded tourism development in South East Asia and some parts of Europe. Tourism in Korea is focused firmly on the needs and likes of the Korean people: it has its share of amusement parks, theme parks and national parks, but these are all considered part of Korean heritage first, and only an attraction for overseas visitors second.
Seoul is spoilt: not by its development, but for choice. It works desperately hard; too hard, perhaps. It plays hard, with participation sports available on almost every corner, and it prays hard with churches and temples on the opposite corner. It is a city that has grown rich on the success of the whole economy, and has consequently become a city of class, elegance and determination. It is noticeable that foreigners are treated respectfully, but distantly; this is only an hour's flying time from China, but it is a million miles from the often overbearing, fawning and totally unnecessary reliance and undisguised awe of foreign influence. A Korean will chose a Korean brand every time, if it is possible: in China, Chinese brands are usually considered second best. Koreans have a deep trust in themselves and their country that China is only just beginning to learn. This trust and a lot of confidence have led to both the Olympics and the World Cup being held in Seoul, to great acclaim: one feels that maybe in China it feels that people are waiting for the Olympics to bring the trust and confidence.
Geographically, Seoul is an unknown to most arriving visitors: who has the first idea what the city looks like? Is it flat? Is it hilly? Is it sprawling? Is it planned? Is it modern or is it old? Travelling on the bus from Incheon International Airport, possibly the only spot in north-east Korea unreachable by the metro or railway builders, there is an instant feel for the orderly disposition of Korea: well-made roads, neat estates, careful planning...perhaps too careful....and hills all around. The panorama of Seoul is one of hills and water, with the Hangang flowing sedately through the city centre, yet still almost completely ignored -in classic Asian style - by the city that depends on it. Like other big cities, it faces away from the river, towards its temples, palaces and market-places. The riverside is left to the dogwalkers, joggers and shady characters sitting on logs under bridges. The Hangang is faced by blank concrete pilings and scuffed scrubby embankments: only a giant fountain gives any clue that someone in Seoul wants to look at the river.
The city itself is extensive, with its many interesting districts, parks and museums spread widely over a large area, many districts separated by steep hills. Roads, even the big ones, wind every which way and are a quagmire of Korean cars night and day. But it is an orderly quagmire, like an experiment in orderly Brownian motion: cars stop for pedestrians. Hooting is rare, and reserved for true irritation or anger, not used simply to accentuate the noise of the engine. At night, a favourite sport is watching boy racers tear up and down the highways and city streets in an amusingly orderly manner, stopping at traffic lights and using their indicators when changing lanes. It's a sign of Korea's development that even the night-time bad boys are well-mannered and considerate.
Seoul has no centre...no obvious rallying point for postcard photographers: instead the city has been fashioned from a hundred neighbourhoods and a thousand different important buildings. They all come together to form a city that only fifty years ago was a smoking ruin, the military objective of opposing armies. At that time, American aid agencies wrote off Seoul and Korea as a 'basket case' which would require huge amounts of aid for ever. This seems so far away now, and the city has managed to rebuild while managing the process so that ordinary people do not get squeezed out. There are plenty of skyscrapers, but much of the city is a warren of little houses jumbled together tightly around a network of unfathomable alleys. Its lack of shape and substance gives the feeling of constantly exploring and constantly discovering: true Korea is never more than a few footsteps away down an unknown little street: stalls selling fruit, barber shops, flower shops, restaurants and neighbourhood snackbars. You really don't need to look far to find the heart and Seoul.
- Pros:Energetic, very interesting city
- Cons:The seediness of Itaewon
- In a nutshell:Great city!
Seoul's Incheon Airport is one of the few places in the Seoul area which has no metro or rail link, and it is a long way... more travel advice
Changing the Guard One of the most fascinating free shows is the Changing of the Gate Guard at Gyeongbokgong,... more travel advice
mke1963's Related Pages
Seoul Travel Guide
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