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Exploring the Culture of Seoul

The Grand Palaces of Seoul
Exploring the Culture of Seoul
At 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 Grand Palaces of Seoul
    The kings of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty lived in spectacular palaces that are now scattered among 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—especially during the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony, which occurs three times daily. The four other palaces—Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Gyeonghuigung, and Deoksugung—are also all notable for their intricate architecture and stunning gardens.
    Photo by John Banagan/age fotostock
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    Seoul's Burgeoning Urban Arts Scene
    Seoul's Burgeoning Urban Arts Scene
    Walk along any thoroughfare in downtown Seoul and you’re likely to see a towering statue, an unconventional sculpture, or a quirky mural. As the city warmly embraces the concept of public art, creative expression is exploding in Korea’s capital. Classic statues of ancient kings line the streets by the palaces, and for more avant-garde work, head to the hip district of Gangnam or the contemporary Leeum, Samsung Museum. Art installations are also constantly popping up around the city, so you never know when you’ll see a house made of recycled doors or a sculpture soaring over the city on invisible wires.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick
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    Niche Museums in Seoul
    Niche Museums in Seoul
    Seoul is filled with a peculiar collection of museums. Located in the Insadong area, the Museum Kimchikan offers an intricate look at Korea’s national dish, explaining everything you've always wondered about kimchi. For those less interested in gastronomy and more in style, there’s the Simone Handbag Museum in Gangnam. Here, you’ll find more than 300 bags dating as far back as the 16th century, as well as designer workshops and a retail store selling—you guessed it—handbags. The Beautiful Tea Museum in Insadong dives deep into Korea’s tea culture with a tasting room and exhibits on different brews, while the free War Memorial of Korea boasts a collection of vintage military vehicles that guests can climb into.
    Photo courtesy of Simone Handbag Museum
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    History in the Heart of Seoul
    History in the Heart of Seoul
    The houses of historic Bukchon Hanok Village haven’t changed much since mighty kings ruled Korea hundreds of years ago. The gently curving rooftops and geometric patterns may look at odds with the surrounding urban sprawl, 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 as if you stepped into the pages of a history book.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick
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    An Oasis in the City
    An Oasis in the City
    A tiny trickle of water that became covered by years of urban sprawl, Cheonggyecheon was unveiled through a massive urban renewal project and is now one of the city’s hippest hangouts. Lining the river is a 3.6-mile-long stretch of walking paths dotted with man-made water features and aesthetically placed rocks. 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, creating a party-like atmosphere. The best way to experience the after-dark scene is over dinner at one of the area’s lively restaurants. 

    Photo courtesy of Lee Beomsu/Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    Explore Seoul's Romantic Side
    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 past centuries-old gardens and lotus ponds before making your way down Sejongno to the start of Cheonggyecheon, where ambient waterfalls and fountains create a dreamy backdrop. Close the night with an intimate dinner at Gaon, which earned three Michelin stars for its exquisite interpretation of traditional food.
    Photo by Steven Moore
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    Please Pass the Soju and Makgeolli
    Please Pass the Soju and Makgeolli
    Drinking is a major part of social and corporate culture in Korea, where etiquette dictates that a cup never be left empty. Soju, the country’s national beverage, is typically the libation of choice—so much so, in fact, that Koreans purchased more than 65 million cases of the stuff in 2016. The translucent liquor, which has a deceptively high alcohol content of 20 percent or more, usually comes in little green bottles and can be found everywhere from the corner 7-Eleven to swanky bars in Gangnam. Although many people prefer to drink it neat, soju cocktails are becoming increasingly popular; try one at a hip bar like Bar d.still, in the Hongdae neighborhood. For something a little more tame, there’s the popular sweet wine makgeolli. With a lower alcohol content of 6 to 8 percent, it’s lightly carbonated and nicely complements savory meals. 


    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    K-Pop Frenzy
    K-Pop Frenzy
    Thanks to sensations like Psy, Big Bang, and Wonder Girls, K-pop has reached an international fever pitch. In Seoul’s Apgujeong neighborhood, there’s an entire street dedicated solely to the K-pop craze, where fans can see handprints of their favorite singers à la Hollywood Walk of Fame. Devotees can even attend live concerts for free by being audience members in televised music shows. Korea has many popular programs, including Inkigayo and Show! Music Core, that air weekly and involve major stage productions. Four main broadcasters (KBS, SBS, MBC, and CJ E&M) record the programs; to request tickets, simply visit one of their websites and fill out an application. Some shows, like M Countdown, don’t have an application process and take participants on a first-come, first-served basis at the studio.
    Photo by Andrea Pistolesi/age fotostock
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    Shopping by Neighborhood
    Shopping by Neighborhood
    In Seoul, shopping is serious business. You’re all but guaranteed to leave with a heavier suitcase and a lighter wallet, whether you opt for a designer handbag or couture paper products. Myeongdong features international brands alongside Korea’s favorite department stores, Lotte and Hyundai, while the trendy, tree-lined 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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    The Skincare Obsession
    The Skincare Obsession
    Korea is a nation obsessed with flawless skin. Here, most women follow an elaborate, 10-step skincare routine and avoid sun exposure like the plague. With the highest rate of plastic surgeries in the world, the country is not surprisingly at the forefront of beauty technology. There’s a cosmetics store on practically every block selling all types of miracle products, from sheet masks and snail repair creams to ampoules and makeup in pretty palettes. It can be daunting to know where to begin, but for the major brands, head to stores like Olive Young, LOHB, and Aritaum (a cross between Sephora and a drugstore). Those who prefer a more natural, eco-friendly approach should visit Belif or Innisfree.
    Photo by Lara Dalinsky
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    Traditional Style Meets Current Fashion
    Traditional Style Meets Current Fashion
    In Korea, the traditional clothing worn by both men and women is called hanbok. Part of the culture for centuries, these comfortable outfits typically consist of a slim jacket worn over loose, high-waisted pants or bell skirts, all made from either embroidered silk or satin. Until recently, Koreans reserved hanboks for formal occasions. Now, however, it’s considered quite fashionable for locals to wear them when visiting historic areas of Seoul. Tourists are encouraged to participate and can buy inexpensive hanboks at Namdaemun Market, or rent them from shops in Insadong and Bukchon Hanok Village. Rentals start as low as $10, and some businesses even offer packages that include photo shoots, with the added perk that anyone wearing a hanbok is granted free access to Seoul’s many temples.
    Korea Tourism Organization NY