As the capital of a little country sandwiched between Japan and China, Seoul can really hold its own
As an Asian destination, Seoul can often be overlooked in favor of its bigger neighbours. Japan and China hold an undeniable allure, but Seoul is the place to go for a good time. It is a wonderful introduction to Asian culture and has many of the trappings that westerners would recognize (Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks seem to own certain parts of the city). It has, however, also retained a sense of national identity. When greeting each other Koreans bow and the importance of the elders in society is seen on the subway when any number of young people will almost bully their elders into taking their seats.
The underground network is simple to use and importantly, all announcements and signs are in Korean, Chinese and English. The best way to travel is to buy a T-money card at any subway station which can be topped up by machine and then used on all public transport in Seoul.
The area called Insadong is the tourist centre of Seoul (Subway Stop: Anguk). It has 2 major palaces nearby, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, and many souvenir shops. The houses in the area are preserved in the traditional Korean style and the information office on the main street will allow you to try on the Hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing still worn for weddings and special occasions and take pictures for a small fee. Just off the main street, upstairs in a little alley is a café where the birds fly around your head as you sip fruity infusions. The Old Tea House is a fun way to dodge a shower or just take the weight off your feet. The birds are free to fly around the café and many of the tables are in fact fishbowls.
Nightlife in Seoul is a big deal with clubs generally open until the last patron leaves. One popular area for expats is the rather infamous Itaewon. It is located beside a US army base and as such, is often swarming with American soldiers. While Itaewon can keep a bout of homesickness at bay (there is every sort of food available here – The Irish bar The Wolfhound is especially worthwhile if searching for a familiar meal) the real fun is to be had in Hongdae (Subway Stop: Hongik University). Hongdae is a university area with more pubs and clubs than you could count. It has a much more proportionate mix of locals and visitors and there is a bar for every taste here. One club worth checking out is Club FF where there is a definite British bias in the choice of music and many live acts performing. Another bar to see is OI bar where the entire furniture is made from futuristic fiberglass. The pub has a spaceship feel and is well worth finding for a drink or two.
If shopping is for you, then Dongdaemun Market is the place to go (Subway Stop: Dongdaemun Stadium) The entire area has been revamped over the past decade and now the older outdoor markets have been replaced with indoor air-conditioned malls containing floors and floors of haggle-ready merchants. The prices here are very good value as this area is a wholesaler’s market as well as a regular retail spot. Another spot worth checking out is Myeung-dong, if only to count the couples in matching outfits and young people with free hugs on offer (Subway Stop: Myeung-dong). While in Myeung-dong the North Seoul Tower is nearby. The Tower has 360-degree views of Seoul and really makes the vast nature of the city clear.
For something different, a drop-in Korean class is run by volunteers every Saturday afternoon in the Sookmyung University area (Subway Stop: Sookmyung Women’s University). The basic level covers the alphabet and can be a really fun introduction to the culture also. The teachers involved often organize cultural events after class and there is a fun and friendly atmosphere in the classroom. More info at http://kongbubang.wordpress.com/
From Seoul, it is possible to take a trip to the heavily guarded border with North Korea about an hour away. The USO and Adventure Korea run tours on a regular basis and give a comprehensive look at the conflict thus far. The tour has an eerie feel to it as you are told where to stand and where to photograph while surrounded by US and Republic of Korea (or ROK) soldiers. It is very interesting and underlines the constant tension between North and South Korea and just how little the outside world really knows about the secretive country.