The Traditional Side of Seoul

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The Traditional Side of Seoul
Although Seoul is a vibrant, modern city, flashes of a fascinating Eastern culture still exist in its midst. From touring one of the city’s Buddhist temples to sampling unusual delicacies, experience a taste of the exotic in Korea’s capital.
By Leslie Patrick, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Bathhouse Bliss
    To truly delve into Korean culture, take a trip to a Korean bathhouse. The traditional jimjilbangs are used not only to get clean, but also as a place to socialize, steam your cares away in a traditional charcoal sauna, shiver in the ice room, or harness the healing powers of the semi-precious stones that dot the walls in the jewel room. Many jimjilbangs also offer sleeping rooms, libraries, arcades, cafés, and salons. The best of Seoul include the Wetsern-friendly Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan and upscale Aquafield overlooking the Han River.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Day Trip to the DMZ
    Less than 35 miles from Seoul lies North Korea’s border. Known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since the two countries called a truce to the Korean War in 1953, this 160-mile border is the world's most heavily guarded. The DMZ has understandably become a source of fascination for visitors to Seoul. The best tours visit the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, the border village where the two Koreas signed the armistice. Glimpse the "Propaganda Village" of Kijongdong, and explore the tunnels that North Koreans used to invade the South during the war. Being so close to the Hermit Kingdom can be disconcerting, but it’s worth it to experience one of the world’s strangest day trips.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    Silkworm or Snack?
    Everyone’s heard the saying “When in Rome . . . ,” but you may think twice about adopting that mindset in Seoul when you glance into a bowl of tiny brown insect carcasses. Dried silkworm larvae, or beondegi, are a popular street food and pub snack all over Korea, and are even sold in cans at grocery and convenience stores. This edible insect is first steamed or boiled, then seasoned to create nibbles that, though unusual, are high in nutrients and protein. Leave aside the popcorn and potato chips, and snack on beondegi when in Seoul. Try them in more traditional areas of Seoul like Insadong or Namdaemun Market.
    Photo by Dorling Kindersley/age fotostock
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    Architectural Rainbows
    Dancheong is a Korean word meaning “cinnabar and blue-green.” The literal translation has diminished over time, and the word today refers to the colorful designs that adorn the ceilings, eaves, and pillars of traditional Korean architecture. The most impressive examples of these stunning designs can be found while looking up at the ceilings of Seoul's five Grand Palaces, such as Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung. Dancheong artwork uses five colors: red, blue, yellow, black, and white. Although mainly decorative, it is also used as a means to protect surfaces, hide crude materials, and represent a building’s importance. Nowadays, dancheong makes for an excellent—and colorful—photo opportunity.
    Photo by Paul Brown/age fotostock
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    Insadong: A Walk through Korean History
    With its bright lights and towering high-rises, downtown Seoul may leave travelers wondering what traditional Korean culture was like. Fortunately, there are Insadong and Bukchon Hanok Village. These quiet, tree-studded neighborhoods are peppered with traditional restaurants, teahouses, and craft shops. A walk through Insadong feels like stepping back in time, and there are often traditionally clad street performers and artisans to make the experience that much more authentic. Street vendors purvey curious Korean foods like sesame candies, green tea cakes, and pancakes stuffed with red bean paste.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Shopping for Traditional Clothing
    The flowing lines of the hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, are considered the epitome of female beauty in Korean culture. Although the colorful frock is mainly worn for weddings and national holidays, you can find souvenir hanboks in many areas of the city. The best place to search for inexpensive hanboks is one of Seoul’s myriad textile and clothing stalls at Namdaemun Market. Children’s hanboks are inexpensive and make great souvenirs. For a complete experience, follow the locals and rent a hanbok from a costume shop in Insadong. Visitors donning hanboks are granted free access to any of Seoul's palaces.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    Temple-Hop in Seoul
    Exploring the Buddhist temples of Seoul is a justifiable highlight for many travelers. One of the most stunning of Seoul’s temples is Bongeunsa Temple in Gangnam. Constructed in the 8th century, Bongeunsa is known for its massive Buddha statue standing amidst the gardens, with the skyline of Seoul rising futuristically in the background. Jogyesa Temple is located in the Jongno district near Seoul’s main palaces. It is known for its lovely locust trees and is the official center of Zen Buddhism in Korea. Myogaksa Temple is considered the most beautiful in the city, with its pagodas and outbuildings perched on the verdant hills of Naksan Mountain. It offers a day or overnight temple-stay program if you'd like to try life as a monk.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    A Year of Festivals
    Korea is a nation that loves to celebrate, and that means no matter what time of year you visit, there’s a party going on in Seoul. With spring comes the cherry blossoms and the Yeouido Spring Flowers Festival. Pink and white petals bloom from the branches of some 1,500 cherry trees that dot Yeouido Island in the middle of the Han River. The Seoul International Fireworks Festival lights up the city in October. Pyrotechnicians from around the globe craft extravagant and unforgettable firework displays. For a magical time, visit Seoul in November for the Lantern Festival, when hundreds of multicolored paper lanterns are lit along downtown’s Cheonggyecheon Stream.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick
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    Live Octopus, a Korean Delicacy
    Eating live seafood is a delicacy, and in Seoul, almost an art form. Sannakji—live octopus—is served whole or cut into small pieces, then topped with sesame seeds and sesame oil. Although the creature is technically dead, nerve endings cause the tentacles to twist and squirm even as you raise the chopsticks from plate to mouth. One place to give this bizarre delicacy a go is at the Noryangjin Fish Market. Once you’ve wandered amongst the 700 stalls and chosen your subaquatic victim, take your purchase to the downstairs restaurant where your moveable feast will be served, tentacles and all.
    Photo by Pietro Scozzari/age fotostock