There’s more than one way to look at the South Korean capital.
There are as many people in the Seoul metro area as live in the whole of Australia. It is not until you view the South Korean capital from Mt Namsan or a lofty skyscraper that you get an accurate sense of the size of this city of 24 million people.
In a metropolis this gargantuan there are, as you’d expect, seemingly endless museums, markets, historical sites, entertainment areas and interesting neighbourhoods. Yet most first-time visitors to Seoul still end up exploring the same few major attractions.
As four of Seoul’s most famous sights, Gyeonbokgung Palace, Jogyesa Temple, Lotte World and Bukchon Hanok Village tend to be busy with tourists. On my four visits to Seoul I’ve found great alternatives to that Big Four for travellers either returning to Seoul or first-timers seeking a less touristy experience.
Gyeonghuigung Palace: an alternative to Gyeongbokgung Palace
It is a strange experience, to say the least, to be standing in the main courtyard of a royal palace in one of the world’s biggest cities with no one else in sight. Yet here I am, on my lonesome inside Gyeonghuigung Palace in broad daylight, no less. In cities as large as Seoul, earning some solitude, silence and space is a wonderful thing. Doing so within the confines of a gorgeous former royal compound is truly intoxicating.
Seoul is blessed to have five royal palaces. The biggest and most famous, Gyeongbokgung, is a magnificent complex reminiscent of China’s renowned Forbidden Palace. Alas, just like that Beijing attraction, Gyeongbokgung is swarmed by visitors at all times of the year.
Less than a kilometre away, Gyeonghuigung was the king’s second palace for almost 300 years during the latter half of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). At one point this royal compound featured close to 100 buildings, including several grand halls, temples and sleeping quarters.
Many of these buildings were badly damaged in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But almost a third of the complex was meticulously reconstructed in the 1990s. As perhaps the least known of Seoul’s five palaces it receives few visitors. You might get lucky, like me, and have a part of it all to yourself.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza: an alternative to Lotte World
Over the past 30 years Seoul has rapidly transformed into one of the world’s most modern cities. While its neighbour Japan is renowned for being cutting edge, Seoul these days is every bit as futuristic. With its metallic facade shimmering in the sun, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) looks like it has been transported into downtown Seoul from the distant future.
The giant Lotte World recreation complex for years was considered the most modern construction in the city, attracting hordes of tourists with its massive indoor theme park.
Lotte World is still a popular and entertaining place but DDP is the better window into modern-day South Korean art and architecture. Inside its smooth, metallic exterior, which resembles the seamless space ships imagined in alien folklore, is a range of exhibition halls where visitors can peruse displays of modern art, jewellery and fashion.
DDP has also become a hub for some of the city’s uber-creative types to sell their wares.
There are more than a dozen shops which specialise in emerging technologies, quirky clothing and innovative design products. Many of them sell one-off or limited-run pieces which you could never find in Perth.
Gwangjang market: an alternative to Myeongdong shopping precinct
No continent on the planet is more famous for its street food than Asia. This casual cuisine is more commonly linked to countries like Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia, rather than to South Korea. But here’s a tip: Seoul’s street food is as varied as you will find in any city in the world.
Cloaked in neon signs, the lively, modern shopping precinct of Myeongdong has a nightly street market which focuses heavily on snack foods. It’s big, brilliant and bustling with tourists. Gwangjang Market (pictured at top), however, is every bit as interesting and comprehensive.
By day, the alleys within this covered market are lined with vendors selling all manner of products, particularly fashion. In the night time many of these vendors close up and the market is taken over by the aroma of Korean food.
Dozens of small food stalls operate until late in the evening, offering a remarkable array of dishes. There is a heavy emphasis on seafood. The cutlassfish here is not to be missed, packing a robust flavour that will leave a lasting impression on your tastebuds.
Many of the menus are not written in English and the vendors often don’t speak anything but Korean. Don’t let that put you off, though: ask around and you’ll find a customer fluent in English who’ll steer you in the right direction. It’s all part of the adventure.
Namsangol Hanok Village: an alternative to Bukchon Hanok Village
Seoul’s expansion has been so rapid and so comprehensive that there are few historic neighbourhoods left. That’s why so many visitors descend upon Bukchon Hanok Village. This hillside area, flanked by Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace, is embellished by more than 100 traditional Korean hanok houses.
Hanok homes, with their extensive use of wood and pitched, ceramic-tiled roofs, are an architectural throwback and a very attractive one at that. Their walls are constructed from a combination of dirt and straw, while wood is used for the doors, windows, rafters and columns.
Five gorgeous hanoks have been restored and relocated to the Namsangol Hanok Village, not far from Bukchon. The advantage of Namsangol is that, not only is it less crowded, but visitors can wander through the grounds of these big hanoks and look inside them to admire their traditional interiors. Meanwhile, in Bukchon, almost all of the hanoks are occupied by residents or businesses and do not allow visitors.
Namsangol has been laid out like an original Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) era village. The hanoks are spread around a central garden and square, where a fantastically ornate pavilion stands alongside a tree-lined pond.
The five hanoks were chosen to represent the types of homes owned by different classes of Korean society in the Joseon era, from peasants to the upper class.
In between wandering the manicured grounds of the village, visitors can try several ancient Korean games like tuhonori (arrow throwing), yutnori (board game) and neolttwigi (seesaw jumping). Another kitschy activity takes place on weekends when the village hosts recreations of traditional Korean marriage ceremonies. This peek back in time is particularly peculiar given the space-age Seoul skyline looms in the background.
- Next to Namsangol Hanok Village is a fantastic cultural tourism destination called Korea House. Run by the Government’s Korea Tourism Organisation it offers a range of traditional arts activities like mask making, hand-fan painting and cooking classes.
- In the neighbourhood which surrounds Dongdaemun Design Plaza there is an enormous number of shopping outlets, ranging from street markets to budget shopping centres and luxury brand malls.
- For $11 you can buy an Integrated Palace ticket which gives you access to four of Seoul’s five royal palaces.
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