I had never been to East Asia, and since work took me to Central Asia, I figured I would take the long way back around the globe to see my brother in Seoul. I caught a flight on Etihad Airlines via Abu Dhabi and arrived in Seoul refreshed and ready to see why many call this the “Soul of Asia.”
Seoul is a sprawling metropolis located on the Han River. The city is divided into many gu, or districts, which contain several dong, or neighborhoods. My brother lives in Bangi-dong in Songpa-gu, just steps from Olympic Park and Lotte World Mall and Tower, which, when completed will be the fourth-tallest building in the world. Lotte World Mall boasts the largest indoor theme park with an adjoining luxury hotel, theaters, restaurants, and high-end shopping. In contrast to the gleaming and modern buildings just minutes away, the streets of Bangi-dong feature neighborhood markets and low-rise apartments.
I arrived midday and we spent the afternoon exploring Olympic Park, where Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. The park is an easy walk from Lotte and Jamsil Subway and features many trails, waterways, flowers, and contemporary sculpture. There is a history museum within the park that will give you a solid foundation of Korea’s long and rich history.
My first full day was spent visiting the Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was built in 1395 and is one of five grand palaces in Seoul. The pagoda-style roof and walled gates were a give-away that I was someplace special. We were lucky enough to enter the main gate to catch the changing of the guard with bright pennants, drums, and traditional instruments. Through the back gate, you can catch a glimpse of the Blue House, the executive residence of the President, featuring traditional Korean architecture with sloping blue-tiled roof lines.
We continued our stroll up the steep steps to navigate the narrow alleys of Bukchon Hanok Village. Originally residences for high-ranking government officials, these traditional Korean houses sit high on a hill overlooking a modern downtown, and offer a glimpse into life in a 600-year-old urban environment. When we came down to the bottom of the hill, we meandered through an alley and had a traditional Korean lunch with dozens of plates of seafood, rice, kimchi, and pickled peculiarities while we sat on the floor.
On my second day, we walked through several traditional markets and commercial neighborhoods, where “mom-and-pop” shops are grouped by trades. You can walk down one street that is all hardware, while another area is just musical instruments. The traditional covered outdoor markets are chock full of fresh and dried fish, kimchi, fresh produce, meats and traditional garb in bright colors—definitely worth walking through the cramped quarters to take in the sights, sounds, and smells.
While you’re there, try any of the many offerings from the food stalls with benches. We enjoyed mung bean pancakes hot from the fryer. Our drink of choice to wash them down was soju, which translates to “burn liquor” and is most akin to Korean vodka distilled from rice or sweet potato.
After the market, we took steps down below street level to the Cheonggyecheon. This is a recently restored stream that was previously covered by an elevated highway which has since been removed. It meanders from City Hall and eventually drains into the Yellow Sea. It is a great place to catch a break especially after the hustle and bustle of the market. There are many seating areas to watch passersby, and you can criss-cross the creek on stepping stones, or dip your feet into the cool water. Another nice treat to cool down was green tea bingsu, or shaved ice, which was big enough to share with several people.
In contrast to the traditional markets, you may want to visit the trendy Itaewon neighborhood. It offers international cuisine and well-known shops from brands around the world. While you’re there, be sure to take the cable car to the top of Namsan or Seoul Tower at dusk to see the city lights twinkling below you.
From the banks of the Han, to the top of Namsan Tower, Seoul is a vibrant, energetic, and pulsing place, good for your soul and your spirit. The soju didn’t hurt either! I cannot wait to return for another glass and explore a new corner of this exciting city.
– Jami Rodgers
Photo Credit: Jami Rodgers