From palaces to shopping, what to do with your time off
The royal palaces
One of the most astonishing things in Seoul is how traditional palaces are juxtaposed with modern high-rises. The central part of Seoul is home to five royal palaces of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910): Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace, Changgyeong Palace, Deoksu Palace and Gyeonghui Palace. These historically significant locations will take more than a day to visit, so picking just one or two according to your taste is the best option.
Gyeongbok Palace is one of the largest among the five and the first palace to be established. However, during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45), it was ransacked twice and therefore rebuilt, making the palace look newer than the rest. The palace offers a spectacular panorama, with mountains at its back. It is also home to the National Palace Museum and the National Folk Museum.
Changdeok Palace is about a 10-minute walk from Gyeongbok Palace, and you can pass through a village of beautiful hanok, or traditional Korean houses. This palace was constructed as a secondary royal residence and, as Gyeongbok Palace was under reconstruction for so many years, this palace housed Joseon kings and queens longer than the main palace.
As it retains more of its authentic elements than the other palaces, it was granted Unesco World Heritage status. Changgyeong Palace shares grounds with Changdeok Palace, so visitors can take a quick look around this palace or skip it. Changgyeong Palace was used mostly as a royal residence for relatives, queens and mistresses of the Joseon kings. During the colonial period, the Japanese used it as a zoo and botanical garden.
For those who like peace and quiet, Deoksu Palace is the place to visit. This palace also has some European-style architecture that seems out of place. The big European-style building was used as a residence by Emperor Gojong (1852-1919).
Gyeonghui Palace is the least popular, perhaps because it is the least authentic palace of them all. It used to be a large complex before colonization, but the 20th century restoration only managed to deal with one-third of the original.
Visitors can rent a hanbok, or Korean traditional dress, and take selfies around the palaces, which has become a very popular thing to do while in Seoul. Visitors wearing hanbok are given free entry to the palaces. The normal entrance fees range from 1,000 won ($0.84) to 3,000 won.
Interested in Korean fashion? If so, Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station on the Korean subway is your stop.
Get out at exit 1, and you will be inside a huge, futuristic aluminum structure. It’s the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), built by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid.
Besides hosting the Seoul Fashion Week and design exhibitions throughout the year, the DDP also features many craft shops, cool cafes and eateries inside its maze-like halls. Seating and public pianos are placed outside. While fashion brand stores don’t exist inside the DDP, the department stores across the street are stocked with a plethora of local and global brands to satisfy your fashion needs.
Starting from Lotte Fitin just outside of the station exits 11 and 12, around six huge malls offering the latest trends stand side by side. It’s a good idea to take out some cash before visiting the shops inside, as some vendors might be willing to haggle. Many of these malls come with entertainment facilities, like Lotte Fitin and Hello apM, each with a bowling alley. Doota Mall offers exceptionally long operating hours - until 5 a.m. except Sundays - for those wanting to do some late night shopping.
Traditional Korean marketplaces are just a few minutes by foot towards Dongdaemun station, the next subway stop on line No. 4. Fabrics, accessories and traditional Korean clothing are sold there.
For art lovers
There is a neighborhood in central Seoul with as many art galleries and museums as there are cafes or shops: Samcheong-dong.
The peaceful streets of Samcheong-dong is home to Korea’s major art galleries, many of which offer free admittance for art aficionados to enjoy themselves without breaking the bank. Beginning their walk from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Seoul, which offers ticket to view all its exhibits for just 4,000 won, visitors are welcomed into nearby galleries that are situated within five minutes of each other.
While Kumho Museum of Art and Gallery Hyundai sit just next to the MMCA, Gallery Hakgojae, Kukje Gallery, Arario Gallery Seoul, Barakat Seoul, PKM Gallery, Gallery Su, Art Sonje Center and Gallery Pibi are all located a short walk just north of Korea’s biggest art museum. In between the streets are smaller galleries that will introduce you to up-and-coming artists for free.
For those who would like to learn more about the traditional Korean culture, the National Folk Museum of Korea sits just across from the MMCA, and Bukchon Museum is just minutes away, too. Visitors can even have a go at painting their very own minhwa (Korean folk art) style traditional fans inside the Hanok Gallery at $84 per person. While you’re there, don’t forget to drop by Gyeongbok Palace to see the royal residence of the Korean kings.
To properly enjoy a view of Seoul, a visit to Namsan Seoul Tower is a must. However, if you’re planning to walk, wear your most comfortable shoes because it will take at least 30 minutes to reach the tower. Those looking for a bit of exercise can have their chance there. Since the weather has definitely cooled off in Seoul over the last couple of days, walking up to the tower might not be that bad of a choice.
Still, if the walk is a bit too much, the cable car might be a good way to reach the tower. Walk more or less 10 minutes from Myeongdong station, exit 3, and you will arrive at the ticket booth for the cable car. A round-trip ticket costs 9,500 won per person - one way is 7,000 won.
If you’re looking for cheaper option to get to the tower, local buses are also available around the clock.
While you’re there, you might as well get to the top of the tower and really “see” the city from above. It offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Seoul from one of the tallest towers in the country. The ticket costs 11,000 won to visit the observation deck.
The place has eating options, so if you’re hungry, there are a number of spots in the tower, ranging from traditional Korean to Italian. Some of the restaurants even provide a view as well as delicious food, so choose the right place to enjoy a meal or a snack.
Make your own Korean cuisine
Fill up your stomach with a variety of trendy or traditional Korean food available all around Seoul during your time exploring the city. You can make your eating experience more educational and entertaining by joining a cooking class or joining a specially-made tour and experience programs.
Try making kimchi, one of Korea's staple foods, and understand what makes the fermented spicy cabbage so appealing to many Koreans by joining a food and fashion-themed cultural excursion put together for the participants of IBA 2019.
To make more than just kimchi, sign yourself up for the Korean Cooking Culinary Experience, which is on Sept. 23, 25 and 27. Another class invites people to join and make a few of the most popular and well-promoted Korean dishes in the global culinary scene, including beef bulgogi, soy-sauce marinated beef with vegetables and kimchijeon, a kimchi pancake.
Opportunities to learn more about Korea's tea-drinking culture are available as well. On Sept. 22, 24 and 26, a class dubbed the Dado Tea Ceremony offers tips on how to make fine-tasting tea and how to drink the tea.
Excursions can be arranged for participants of IBA 2019, and registration in advance is possible by visiting www.triptokorea.com.
Next to central Seoul’s most international neighborhood, Itaewon, are two museums that let you in on Korea’s history deeper than anywhere else. While the National Museum of Korea holds some of the oldest artifacts, The War Memorial of Korea offers a look into the details of the Korean War (1950-53) and how it shaped the latter half of Korea’s 20th century.
The National Museum of Korea is home to six permanent exhibitions, each showing Korea’s history during different periods. From stone axes from the Paleolithic Age to the golden jewels of the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-668 A.D.) and the delicate paintings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the museum is the best place to see the actual remnants of Korea’s history with your own eyes.
Special exhibitions are also held at the museum. The current offerings are “The Etruscans: Rising to Rome,” “Teaching as Conveyed through a Flower: Buddhist Hanging Scroll at Mogoksa Temple” and “Collection from Vietnam National Museum of History.” The permanent exhibition is free, with different prices for special exhibits.
The War Memorial of Korea, a museum dedicated to remembering the painful history of the Korean War and preserving war-related artifacts from different periods in history, is just a 10-minute taxi ride away. Special exhibitions are also held inside this museum. Now, the featured exhibit is “Happy Inside,” a photo-friendly multi-media exhibition intended to make visitors happy inside. The War Memorial is also free, but 15,000 won for the special exhibit.
If you fancy a walk and getting some fresh air, then visit the stream, Cheonggyecheon, and its museum.
After seeing its crystal clear water while walking along the paths, you may find it hard to believe that the stream was once called the “city’s cancer” during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) due to the heaps of trash and other refuse that contaminated the water. The water pollution was largely due to the domestic sewage that residents living along the stream dumped into the river, oblivious to the damage they were doing to the environment.
If you’re curious to find out more about Cheonggyecheon’s history, then Cheonggyecheon's museum is the perfect place to do so. Visitors will be able to follow along the timeline of the stream’s transformation into the river they know today.
In the special exhibition, the museum is currently hosting “The Pyounghwa Market, Where Dongdaemun Fashion Begins.” Now called “Pyounghwa Fashion Plaza,” the place is the biggest wholesale shopping plaza for clothing. With three floors, the building has over 2,700 clothing stores. Through this exhibition, the museum explains how it all started - first as the “Pyounghwa Market” - 56 years ago.
The museum is right by the Cheonggyecheon, so wander around to the sidewalk right next to the stream for a stroll. Although the stream is clear during the day as at night, the real charm of the stream can be seen and felt in the nighttime.
In the midst of the cool fall breeze, one may be able to enjoy a moment of peacefulness walking through the soft florescent lights.
Myeong-dong is one of Korea’s most popular neighborhoods to shop in and enjoy nightlife. It’s also conveniently located in central Seoul, just two stops away from Seoul Station, line No. 4.
The fun starts right from Myeong-dong subway station, which features a large underground shopping complex filled with clothing stores and K-pop merchandise vendors.
Exits 6 and 7 of the station will take you right to the main shopping streets, blocked off to cars. They are dotted with local and global fashion and beauty brands and staffed with multilingual employees to help you find what you need.
From around 5 p.m., vendors begin operating food carts and serve up snacks from tteokbokki, Korean spicy rice cakes, to grilled cheesy lobsters.
Myeong-dong is also famous for putting on good shows. Nanta - a non-verbal musical featuring acrobatic cooks - is on everyday at the Unesco Building at the large intersection in the middle of the neighborhood. Across the street, the Myeondong Theater of the National Theater Company of Korea stages both original and imported plays, with English subtitles provided several times a week.
If you want to take a break from the noise and crowds, the rooftop garden of Baerongnamu Cafe on the 12th floor of Unesco Building is worth a visit, but keep in mind that it is only open until 7 p.m. on weekdays.
The Blue House
To hit all the popular spots in central Seoul, including a visit to where the Korean presidents work, join the walking tour “Cheongwadae Sarangchae Road,” put together by the Korea Tourism Organization.
Cheongwadae Sarangchae is a building a few steps away from the Blue House where the Korean Presidents live and work. It is used as a tourist information center.
A walking tour around central Seoul to Cheongwadae Saranchae is available every Thursday and Friday until Oct. 18. It is 10,000 won including lunch and a guided tour in either Korean or English.
Thursday’s tour starts at 11 a.m. at the K-Style Hub located near the Cheonggyecheon and takes people to Tong-in Traditional Market for lunch and then to a cafe built in traditional Korean hanok-style buildings. The tour ends at approximately at 3:10 p.m.
Friday’s tour also departs at the same time and location yet focuses more on the role Buddhist culture has played in building what’s considered Korean. Whoever joins the tour gets to visit Jogye Temple, one of the few popular temples located within the capital city.
The tour also takes visitors to the Korean Temple Food Center to check out cooking classes that offer instruction on how to make temple-style food.
To participate in the tour, online registration in advance is necessary. For more information, go to cwdsarangchae.kr or call 1330 to get travel tips on Korea in four different languages, including English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean any time of any day. When you submit an online registration, you will receive a text message telling you whether or not you have secured a spot for the tour. You will get your reservation confirmation once the fee for the tour is paid.
BY CULTURE TEAM [email@example.com]
More in Features
Forget K-pop, K-literature is making waves
[Zoom Korea] Works that burst with color and tradition
Drag and drop: Deepfakes create a new kind of crime
For Chapter1, trendsetting starts in the home
‘Friend fouling’ is latest battle in war against sex crimes