We enjoyed a week of in the many-faced capital of South Korea. Here we give you several reasons why Seoul should be your next travel destination.
Go now, as Seoul is already hot, but still cool!
According to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index, Seoul is the 11th most visited city among the 162 cities listed annually (2019 listing).
For us that was a great surprise as we don’t know that many people who’ve visited Seoul. No-one particular had told us ”you have to go there!” We had talked about the city from time to time. One evening we just happened to see a good flight deal (straight Finnair flight from Helsinki). And pressed Enter.
So, how is it possible that Seoul is so hot that it is number 11 on the global listing? Where do all the 11,25 million international visitors come from?
Well, the official tourism statistics by Visit Korea give quite a good explanation: only 0,1% of the visitors in July 2019 came from Finland, whereas 35,8% of the visitors came from China. The other nationalities with a larger percentage of visitors were the Japanese (19,0%), Taiwanese (7,8%) and the visitors from the U.S.A. (6,7%). The latter has a lot to do with the army base located in Seoul, we believe.
This is not Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok or Shanghai. Seoul has it’s own personality.
So, travel now as the western world and western tourists have not taken over here.
Learn about the layers of time
Seoul’s history dates back over 600 years. We learned that it’s been destroyed several times. That must be one of the reasons the structure of the city is unique. But the city is now changing rapidly as it grows. It’s estimated Seoul will enter the United Nation’s list of the megacities in 2024. That means there will be more than 10 million residents by then.
South Korea has a dark war history, but it was able to rise from the ashes. It is one of the high-growth Asian economies, The Four Asian Tigers. These economies have had strong growth rate since 1960’s. Rapidly they became major global players and have maintained economic growth through the decades.
However, Korea has been in the international tourism game for a relatively short time.
The 1988 Summer Olympics meant Seoul got major uplift in infrastructure. We were explained that several new hotels, a major expressway and for example the Olympic Park were built for the occasion. The international event also opened new doors for trade and diplomacy.
There’s still work to do in “human first” thinking within Seoul’s urban development. However, bit by bit Seoul has been able to create a city that no longer develops buildings and areas for the dire necessity and functionalism, but for livability and aesthetics as well.
We liked the fact that there are pedestrian only (or mainly) areas and public spaces with greenery. Actually, between 2012 and 2016 downtown Seoul got 197 new green spaces. However, a lot of crossing the streets still means going underground or crossing over on a bridge when cars rule.
Old buildings of certain eras are just super ugly, they reminded us of the ugly buildings of the same eras in our country. But the development is definitely positive: in 2010 Seoul was named World Capital of Design. Beautiful things are constantly being created.
So, what you get in is a wild mixture of new, old, familiar and strange. Seoul is known for it’s ancient, unique traditions, but for it’s contemporary creations as well. And this is one of the answers to why Seoul should be your next travel destination.
Travel now, because you can still see the layers of time and understand the speed of the recent developments.
From Palaces to Skyscrapers
Depending on the area we chose to explore, we could dive into different eras. Get carried away among centuries old, detailed temples, palaces and hanok houses or find pleasure admiring 21st Century architectural masterpieces.
We went inside the old, beautiful buildings. Another day we rode up the futuristic Seoul Sky elevators. And wandered around the amazing COEX Mall, the largest underground mall in Asia. And actually, at the yard of our Westin Chosun Hotel we could admire an old, historical shrine.
Both of us love market places and Seoul is also a shoppers paradise at many levels. There are market places in Seoul that have served locals for centuries. One of them is the huge, buzzing Namdaemun Market that was opened in 1414. Just steps away from this maze of alleys you find opulent. department stores making your credit card scream if you can afford it.
In some areas we explored the ancient and the brand new neatly share same quarters with no problems. Within a neighborhood parts from different eras have been saved. Unfortunately, some developments come with a high cost to the residents, as this Guardian article explains.
Even if you have a short time to visit Seoul, you notice it is to explore different parts of the city. Metro network is wide, effective and cheap. For shorter rides, take a taxi (but have your destination written down in Korean for the driver).
Travel now. You never know when the money and power builds over the traditions.
High-tech, Weird & Unique
We learned Seoul is a must visit for friends of cars and latest high-tech. This is also a dream city for on-line life. We had no problem finding a Wi-Fi connection as it’s literally everywhere from public areas to metro stations, hotels and bars.
One exiting and for a non-connoisseur, a little weird phenomenon luring visitors to Seoul is K-Pop. Everything K-Pop. As nightclub professionals we know what’s the hype about, but the scale of hype in Seoul is quite something! We heard K-Pop everywhere. There were billboards advertising the bands in concert. On the streets we saw groups of fans doing the dance moves.
SM Town Museum at COEX Atrium offers six floors filled with K-Pop history. Outside COEX Mall is the Gangnam Style statue with PSY’s giant size hands from the 2012 Gangnam Style music video. At Gangnam Station there’s the Horse Dance Stage. To attract more foreign visitors, Seoul will open Korea’s first concert arena dedicated to K-Pop only. It’s going to open in 2024.
And what about Kakao Friends and Line Friends, the beloved animal characters? They have lured their way into the everyday Korean Kidult products. The (as far as we know) number one messaging app for smartphones in South Korea is called KakaoTalk. We saw people buying everything Kakao Friends & Line Friends from snacks to office supplies.
Seoul has also been called the hottest fashion city in Asia and it’s not a surprise. We noticed that the well-attired Seoulites are great at mixing and matching expensive designer brands with laid back styles. Especially the younger generations have very unique tastes in fashion: cyber punk meets Asian traditional, hip hop and K-Pop styles are blended and so on.
Travel now. Experience the super high-tech, weird and unique as it still has it’s capital in Seoul.
Cheers to Seoul
In addition to the traditional, formal behavioral codes (that at times made us feel a little uneasy), Seoulites are also known for their love of partying. And according to statistics, locals are consuming very regulary something stronger than tea.
Seoul is full of restaurants, but for finding bars you need to do some homework. We liked to go to the bars of the international Itaewon and the youthful university area in Hongdae.
As we talked to people we heard it’s also fun & popular to spend a night with friends at a karaoke place. In a Noraebang you can spend time privately singing. For dancing, late night clubs are found in Gangnam, Itaewon or Hongdae. Although our opinion on the party capitals of the world doesn’t match Thrillist’s, that has named Seoul the Best Party City On the Planet, we definitely encourage you to explore. Geonbae (cheers)!
When you do some partying, you’ll notice Seoul is truly a city that never sleeps. The 24/7 actually happens here. After a night of partying you can head to many parts of the city to enjoy street food. Or do some odd early morning shopping.
A word of warning price wise: pay attention to where you decide to buy your drinks. Go to places like Itaewon or Hongdae if you feel like sitting at the bar for the night. Do not make the same mistake as we made and go to the international hotel bars. Even if you stay there. The most expensive 0,33cl beers ever: 18,000 Won each (about 18 US dollars). When you go to Itaewon or Hongdae, a pint was from 3,000 to 6,000 Won and a shot 10,000 to 12,000 Won.
Travel now. You still have a city with traditions and a city where residents are willing to run the city 24/7.
Like us, you may have tasted dumplings and kimchi, bibimbap, gimbap and bulgogi somewhere in the world. Seoul is a window to the rich world of traditional Korean cuisine both in restaurants, markets and street vendor alleys. If you’ve been to other Asian countries, you’ll notice similarities, but come across totally unique tastes and items as well.
Our guide book listed several areas that are good for street food. For us it was a nice surprise that the popular shopping district of Myendong is also an easy place to learn about local street food. The vendors are cooking their foods at the pedestrian walkways.
If you are like us you may need some familiarity in between food adventures. Fortunately there are areas offering a wide selection of mixed and international kitchens as well. Especially Itaewon is a good destination.
Travel now. You still have the quiet tea houses, street food, traditional Korean BBQ, small family run businesses.
The Neighbor Next Door
The (maybe) most heavily guarded demilitarized zone in the world, the DMZ, is located only 30 miles from Seoul. We didn’t take a guided dark tourism daytrip to the border, but a lot of visitors do. During our visit to Seoul the neighboring nation did continuous missile testing.
It’s surreal thinking of the two nations that once used to be one. How different the realities on different sides of the border are now. The families that once had to live their loved ones to the other side. We’ve had these borders in Europe as well, but it all seems very distant these days.
Could these two nations ever find a common ground? Just about a year ago the leaders of the two nations had a historical meeting. In the recent times the relations have gotten colder again.
Travel now, you never know what may happen.