PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ may have catapulted Seoul to fame, but the capital city is more than just ‘Eh, sexy lady’; she wears many different shades. From the historic to the hedonistic, Seoul knows just how to lure every kind of traveller.
Ambitious kings and their headstrong queens, gorgeous concubines, scheming eunuchs, loyal soldiers and one-too-many servants lived here circa 1395. A chatty guide can reveal many intriguing — often debatable — tales of power and passion. The opulent palace was originally built by King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty, the longest and the last imperial dynasty in South Korea. But this seat of power was burned down in 1592, during the Japanese invasion. Ironically, ‘Gyeongbokgung’ translates as ‘the palace of shining happiness’. It lay in ruins for almost 300 years, until Heungseon Daewongun, father of King Gojong, began to rebuild it in 1865. Most of what you see today has been reconstructed to look almost exactly like the original.
Catch the changing of the guards, where men sport 15th-century uniforms and recreate the original ceremony, complete with the beating of drums and brandishing of medieval weapons. While you could spend the better part of the day wandering the sprawling grounds, don’t miss the ornamental gardens and the king’s living quarters. Always keep your eyes up to admire the traditional architecture, with its sloping roofs embellished with floral patterns, that merge with the natural surroundings.
Traditional bathhouses, or jjimjilbangs, are a part of every Korean’s routine, and in Seoul, many bathhouses are open 24/7. Jjimjilbangs are largely revered for their hot pools, in varying temperatures. Many bathhouses have come up at the site of natural hot springs. They can be a fabulous treat, or a bit of a culture shock, because you have to strut around in your birthday suit, from one hot tub to the next. Shed your inhibitions, and let the healing waters work their magic. Head to one of the natural spas, and you’re sure to come away with instantly smoother skin and a softer mane. The bashful can opt for the gender-neutral saunas; most jjimjilbangs come with sauna rooms, sometimes herb-infused, with added extras such as soothing lights and music.
Groove to the beats of K-pop tunes in this much-sung-about locale. Gangnam is what inspired PSY, and this is where the viral video was shot. Fans will also be happy to know that the singer was born and raised in this district. If you’d like to check out the latest in Korean fashion, pick up Korean slang, or just ‘hang’ with the cool kids, this district is your best bet. It’s also common to catch a random street performance by an upcoming pop band.
What do twentysomethings do in Seoul over the weekend? Head to a noraebang. These karaoke bars are different from anything you’ve seen before; they won’t have you singing to a bunch of strangers. You can try to hold a tune in the company of trusted friends (or even alone). A noraebang is a collection of several private singing rooms. Each can be hired by the hour, and rooms come equipped with disco lights, wireless microphones and karaoke machines equipped with hundreds of songs (including English numbers). Most also dish out a variety of drinks, ranging from Coke to soju.
Korean food is more than just kimchi and bibimbap. It is pajeon (pancakes) filled with prawn, squid and mussels; it is piping-hot bowls of myeon, or slurpy noodles in clam broth; it’s also mandu, or dumplings filled with minced meat, sweet onions and kimchi. Make sure to munch on the gamja dog, a sausage on a stick, that’s deep fried and is often served with a home-made sauce (each street vendor has their own secret sauce). If there’s one meal that you cannot afford to miss in South Korea, it’s the Korean barbecue. There’s drama to this meal, as you sear a variety of different meats over a mini charcoal-grill.
Watch Nanta, an awardwinning, non-verbal, live comedy act. The premise is simple: three cooks attempt to put together a wedding banquet, while fighting against the clock. What occurs are some crazy feats with sharp knives, forks drumming on chopping boards, food flying across the stage and fantastic acrobatics from the actors.
This is the largest market in the country and impossible to cover fully, even over days. Little wonder that it’s open 24 hours. Need a travel bag before your early morning flight? Or some souvenirs for friends back home? Want to invest in a whole new wardrobe? Looking for a placenta facial mask? Or, how about a water bottle that folds up and fits right into your pocket? You’ll find everything from the mundane to the odd to the fascinating in this sprawling market. Divided into sections for food, fashion, homeware and so on, the market is not difficult to negotiate, athough losing yourself in the labyrinth of streets isn’t such a bad thing.