Exploring the Culture of Seoul

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Exploring the Culture of Seoul
Upon first glance, you may think that Seoul looks like any other bustling cosmopolitan capital. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find unique history and culture alive within all aspects of this dynamic city.
By Leslie Patrick, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by John Banagan/age fotostock
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    The Grand Palaces of Seoul
    The kings of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty lived in spectacular palaces that are now scattered amidst the high-rises of downtown Seoul. Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest and stateliest, situated in a sprawling complex filled with lotus ponds and temples. Imposing guards in traditional dress guard the palace gate and provide colorful photo opportunities. Stay for the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony, which occurs three times daily. The four other palaces—Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Gyeonghuigung, and Deoksugung—are also all notable for intricate architecture and stunning gardens.
    Photo by John Banagan/age fotostock
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    Seoul's Burgeoning Urban Art Scene
    Walk down any thoroughfare in downtown Seoul and you’re likely to see a towering statue, an unconventional sculpture, or a quirky mural. Creative expression is exploding in Korea’s capital, as the city has warmly embraced the concept of public art. Classic statues of ancient kings line the streets by the palaces, but for more avant-garde designs, head to the hip districts of Gangnam or scope out a contemporary exhibit at the Leeum, Samsung Museum. Art installations are also constantly popping up around the city, and you never know when you’ll see a house made of recycled doors, or a sculpture seemingly soaring over the city on invisible wires.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick
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    K-Pop Frenzy
    Korean rapper Psy put Seoul on the international map with his 2012 mega-hit, "Gangnam Style." Ever since his song became world-famous, the Gangnam neighborhood has been buzzing. Visitors flock to the tree-lined streets, which are bursting with voguish cafés and swanky boutiques that are often frequented by celebrities made famous by Korea’s K-Pop craze. There’s an entire street, K-Star Road in Apgujeong, dedicated solely to this cultural phenomenon, where fans can see handprints of their favorite singers à la Hollywood Boulevard. Fans can even witness a live, free concert by participating as an audience member in the taping of one of many of Seoul's televised music shows.
    Photo by Andrea Pistolesi/age fotostock
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    Please Pass the Soju
    Soju is the national beverage of Korea, and drinking this translucent liquor is considered serious business. In fact, Koreans purchased over 65 million cases of soju in 2016. Seoul is no exception to the soju-loving, and whether you go to the corner 7-11 or a swanky bar in Gangnam, a cold green bottle will be on hand to wash down your meal. Although many people prefer to drink their soju neat, soju cocktails are becoming more popular, and flavors like strawberry, kiwi, and peach can be an instant refresher on a hot summer day; try one a hip bar, like Bar d.still, in the Hongdae neighborhood. However you choose to take it, soju is a memorable—and drinkable—part of Korean culture.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    An Oasis in the City
    Once a tiny trickle of water that became covered by years of urban sprawl, the Cheonggyecheon Stream was unveiled through a massive urban renewal project and has become one of the city’s hippest hangouts. Man-made water features and aesthetically placed rocks dot the 5.2-mile-long stretch of walking paths that line the river. On sunny days, the area is jammed with couples, families, and tourists eager for a touch of the bucolic within the heart of the city. Come nightfall, festive lights dance on the waterfalls and rapids in the stream and create a party-like atmosphere. The best place to take it all in after dark is over dinner at one of the area's lively restaurants.
    Photo courtesy of Lee Beomsu/Korea Tourism Organization
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    History in the Heart of Seoul
    The houses of historic Bukchon Hanok Village haven’t changed much since mighty kings ruled Korea’s Joseon Dynasty hundreds of years ago. The gently curving rooftops and traditional geometric patterns of the houses may look at odds with the urban sprawl extending into the distance, but the serene neighborhood makes for a tranquil retreat from the hustle and bustle of Seoul. While there, experience a traditional tea ceremony at one of the many teahouses, or try your hand at the artisanal skills of calligraphy and knot-tying at the Bukchon Cultural Center. Stay in one of the hanoks (traditional Korean houses) that have been converted into guesthouses and you’ll feel like you stepped into the pages of a history book.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick
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    Shopping by Neighborhood
    Seoulites take style seriously and there’s no better way to watch the fashion parade than from a café in upscale Gangnam. With everything from designer handbags to couture paper products on offer, chances are you’ll leave Seoul with a heavier suitcase and a lighter wallet. In Myeongdong, international brands coalesce with Korea’s favorite department stores—Lotte and Hyundai—to create a virtual shopping mecca. The trendy tree-clad sidewalks of Garusogil in Gangnam are dominated by funky boutiques filled with handcrafted jewelry or the latest makeup craze. If it’s all-out luxury you want, look no further than Apgujeong—Seoul’s very own version of Rodeo Drive—where you’ll find designer names like Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick
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    Niche Museums in Seoul
    Seoul is filled with a peculiar collection of museums. For the gastronomically curious, the Kimchi Museum offers an intricate look at the Korean staple. Located in the Insadong area, the museum explains everything you always wondered about the famous fermented cabbage dish. Striking a chord with style mavens is the Simone Handbag Museum in Gangnam. Over 300 bags dating back as far as the 16th century are on display, and the building is also home to designers’ workshops and a retail store selling—you guessed it—handbags. The Beautiful Tea Museum in Insadong is a look into Korea’s tea culture; learn about different brews or sip a cup in the tasting room. The free War Memorial of Korea has a collection of vintage military vehicles scattered around its grounds that guests can climb and enter.
    Photo courtesy of Simone Handbag Museum
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    Explore Seoul's Romantic Side
    Couples are everywhere in Seoul, and it’s no wonder—Korea’s capital is a surprisingly romantic city. For the perfect date, begin with a walk through the gardens of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Stroll hand in hand through centuries-old gardens and past lotus ponds before making your way down Sejongno to the start of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, where ambient waterfalls and fountains create a romantic backdrop. Close the night with an intimate dinner at Gaon, a restaurant awarded Three Micheline Stars for its exquisite interpretation of traditional food.
    Photo by Steven Moore