"Seoul is a city of layers" - Paula Stokes
Seoul is a city like no other. A modern metropolis of around 10 million people, 20% of South Korea's entire population now live around 35 miles from the tense border with it's northern neighbor. Seoul's size and position as a modern metropolis means that there's a little something for everyone to enjoy. From the traditions and grandeur of Seoul's five royal palaces, including Gyeongbokgung and Changgyeonggung, to the bright lights of Dongdaemon and Gangnam as well as the handful of instagrammable themed cafe's, South Korea's capital has it all. So, here is our city guide to Seoul to help you make the most of your weekend getaway!
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Gyeongbokgung Palace - Seoul's northern palace
Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest (and arguably the most aesthetic) of Seoul's 5 palaces. Also known as Seoul's northern palace, Gyeongbokgung was restored throughout the 1800's after a fire burnt through the area and, well, they crushed it - it's awesome. Red and green pavilions dominate every courtyard, amazingly framed by mountains to the North. Despite being one of Seoul's key tourist attractions, Gyeongbokgung's pure size makes it surprisingly easy to get away from the crowds of tourists and have a section to yourself. Just don't get too far off the beaten track or you'll miss the local tourists who dress in traditional Korean dress to get into the palace for free. They may just be other tourists but they make those pictures just oh so much sweeter!
Go deep into Seoul's Hanok villages
If modern Seoul isn't what you had in mind, the Hanok villages spaced around the city are exactly what you're looking for! A small cluster of traditional styled houses, walking through them feels a million miles away from the busyness of downtown Seoul and provides a welcome relief from the crowds but you may want to get there early to get empty pictures without other camera-toting tourists in every shot.
The main Hanok village sits in between the Gyeongbokgung and Changgyeonggung palaces, so is the perfect coffee stop if you plan on visiting both! Its closeness to both also means that those same locals dressed in the traditional dress are easily seen wandering around and are more than happy to pose in front of some buildings for you!
Alternatively, head down by Namsan mountain for the Namsangol Hanok village. Sitting at the base of Namsan mountain, Namsangol has a load of different events: from an 1890's themed night market to Hanbok dresses and even traditional wedding ceremonies. Then, just when you're done, a short walk up the mountain (okay it's actually like 3km straight up but I mean come on, it's worth it! - or just grab the cable car) gets you to the Namsan tower and, well, how can you say no to 360 degree views of Seoul!?
Visit the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South A visit to the DMZ may not be the most glamorous thing to do, but understanding South Korea's relationship with its northern neighbour is a must-do when you visit Korea. North Korea is by far the most secretive country in the world and one that generates an insane amount of intrigue. With tours to the country being both expensive and strictly controlled, the DMZ on the border is most people's best chance of catching a glimpse of North Korea.
The DMZ is a far cry from the metropolis just 35 miles away and the sight of soldiers pointing weapons at each other is surreal to say the least, but there are few places around the world where you can see the effects of what you learnt in history class as brazenly as here.
Take a travel-break, get caffeinated!
One thing that Seoul has maybe more than anywhere is instagrammable cafe's. We'll write a more in-depth Seoul coffee guide in the coming week but, in the meantime, let's just say that if you are looking fr some great cafe's, you won't be disappointed. From wedding-themed cafe's and cafe's with lambs and meerkats milling around, to traditional hanok-themed coffee shops, you can be sure that you're never too far away from an interesting cafe in Seoul.
That's right, it's more than a song! Sitting south of the river, Gangnam has become one of the more popular districts in Seoul and is where a lot of the city's young and rich go to play. Dominated by bright lightd and fancy bars, Gangnam is the place to go for nightlife in Seoul. Get there early and enjoy a walk through the 8th century temple Bonguensa before grabbing some food on the way to your club or bar of choice. Looking for something a little different? Try out one of the latest nightlife crazes to sweep through South Korea and visit one of the hundred or so booking clubs that are sprouting up across the city.
Looking to explore some other neighbourhoods? The university district of Hongdae, near Hongik University, has become the home to indie music and art expo's, while Dongdaemun, with its new, curved design plaza has become a staple for international tourists visiting Seoul. The plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid, manages to be 7 floors of architectural intrigue with no straight lines or right-angles and was made to represent the fashion shopping areas that surround it. Just don't go too early in the morning or you'll miss a lot of the stalls, with much of Dongdaemun not open until later in the day.