At first glance, Seoul, South Korea may appear to be a nothing more than a city composed of millions of concrete bricks laid end to end, stretching across the entirety of the city’s borders — a vast, wasteland occasionally pock-marked by the construction of a new office tower, upon whose mirrored surface reflections only exacerbate the city’s dull, lifeless palette. Upon further inspection, however, the monotone grey of a newly rebuilt city — which was almost completely destroyed in the Korean War a half century ago — gradually gives way to vibrant splashes of color and artfully designed spaces, where lively parks and bustling nightlife hotspots thrive, and where quirky cafes and unique design boutiques anchor every street corner.
Seoul is a city that is currently in flux, where the old, lifeless areas of town are quickly and quietly vanishing into the past, as the artistic-minded youth of the country are exerting their influence to produce an outward aesthetic that matches the inner beauty, to create a city that lives up to its moniker: the “Design Capital of the World.” Filled with energy and constantly moving forward, it is a city for which those who have been away for any extended period of time likely won’t even recognize upon returning — and is one of my new favorite cities on the planet.
The city itself is cut in half by the flow of the Han River, with most of the historic sights along the Northern side and several trendy neighborhoods and beautiful parks lying to the South. To get your bearings and to gain a better perspective on the layout of the city, the best viewpoint is from the Namsan Park, a tree-capped hill at the center of town, with the Seoul Tower standing perched on its peak. You can either hike your way to the top or elect to take a cable car, before finally ascending the Seoul Tower via a speedy elevator — but either way, the views are magnificent:
Even though,as previously mentioned, much of Seoul was destroyed in the 1960′s and hastily rebuilt, that doesn’t mean that all of its original heritage was destroyed in the onslaught, too. There are still 5 major palace complexes that visitors can tour, as well as a host of historic neighborhoods, all which act a nice counterpoint to the extremely modern and cutting edge office towers and public buildings that are being built at a rapid pace:
Another unique cultural attraction is the presence of the many hanok, or traditional Korean houses. Characterised by their tiled or thatched roofs and stone, plaster, and wood construction, their layout includes an open courtyard in the center as well as a heated floor system called ondol. Although the number of hanok in Korea has dropped significantly over the last few decades — in the name of urbanization and gentrification — there are still several hanok clusters dotting the entire Korean peninsula, as well as several neighborhoods with Seoul itself. My favorite to wander through was the scenic Bukchon Hanok village, sandwiched between two of the major palace complexes. Have a look:
As part of the continuing redevelopment of Seoul’s exterior facade, one point of emphasis has been on creating green and livable spaces, both for folks to have a place to enjoy and to decrease the sometimes overwhelming urban crush that exists in many big metropolises. Whether this entails walking trails alongside the rivers, scenic views from the city’s parks, or simply open, natural spaces in which folks can relax, the results can clearly be seen simply by wandering the streets — and thankfully so, as their presence makes Seoul one of the most livable big cities I’ve had the opportunity to visit:
In keeping with the theme of public parks and artistic green spaces, I’ll conclude my tour of Seoul with one of my favorite places in the city, that of Seonyudo Park on a small island in the middle of the Han River. This park exists somewhat as a microcosm for the city as a whole: what once was a bland, industrial complex (a water treatment facility, in this case), has been completely overhauled and transformed into something beautiful and enjoyable (an aquatic botanical garden open to the public). Enjoy, and annyeong-haseyo from Seoul!