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The Traditional Side of Seoul

Bathhouse Bliss
The Traditional Side of Seoul
Korea’s rich culture is rooted in Confucian philosophy, Buddhist values, and ancient dynasties. Visit one of the Five Grand Palaces or the historic streets of Jongno to uncover the classic side of Seoul.


By Leslie Patrick, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Bathhouse Bliss
    Bathhouse Bliss
    To truly experience Korean culture, take a trip to a bathhouse. In addition to pools, the traditional jimjilbangs feature everything from charcoal saunas and ice caves to jewel rooms where guests can harness the healing powers of semi-precious stones. Most also offer sleeping rooms, libraries, arcades, cafés, and salons, creating a place for people to socialize. The best jimjilbangs in Seoul include the Western-friendly Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan and the upscale Aquafield, which overlooks the Han River.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Architectural Rainbows
    Architectural Rainbows
    Translating literally to “cinnabar and blue-green,” dancheong refers to the vibrant designs adorning the ceilings, eaves, and pillars of traditional Korean architecture. The artwork typically incorporates red, blue, yellow, black, and white, and while mainly decorative, it also protects surfaces, hides crude materials, and signifies a building’s importance. Nowadays, dancheong is most associated with excellent—and colorful—photo opportunities. For impressive examples, gaze up at the ceilings of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces, especially Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung.





    Photo by Paul Brown/age fotostock
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    Temple-Hop in Seoul
    Temple-Hop in Seoul
    Exploring the Buddhist temples of Seoul is a highlight for many travelers. One of the most stunning examples is Bongeunsa Temple in Gangnam. Constructed in the 8th century, Bongeunsa is known for its massive Buddha statue in the garden, with the skyline of Seoul rising futuristically in the background. Another must-visit is Jogyesa Temple, located in the Jongno district near Seoul’s main palaces. Beloved for its locust trees, it’s also the official center of Zen Buddhism in Korea. Finish your tour at Myogaksa Temple, widely considered the most beautiful in the city for its pagodas and outbuildings perched on the verdant hills of Naksan Mountain. It even offers day and overnight temple stays if you’d like to try life as a monk.


    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    Insadong: A Walk Through Korean History
    Insadong: A Walk Through Korean History
    With its bright lights and towering high-rises, downtown Seoul makes it hard to imagine old Korea. Fortunately, those curious about the country’s history can visit Insadong and Bukchon Hanok Village—quiet, tree-studded neighborhoods peppered with traditional restaurants, teahouses, and craft shops. A walk through Insadong feels like stepping back in time, with traditionally clad street performers and artisans making the experience that much more authentic. For a taste of the traditional, stop at the street vendors for snacks like sesame candies, green tea cakes, and pancakes stuffed with red bean paste.

    Photo by age fotostock
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    Day-Trip to the DMZ
    Day-Trip to the DMZ
    Less than 35 miles from Seoul lies the border between North and South Korea, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) ever since the two countries signed an armistice agreement in 1953. The world’s most heavily guarded border, the 160-mile-long area has understandably become a source of fascination for tourists. If you wish to visit, choose a tour that also includes the Joint Security Area—the border village in Panmunjom where the armistice was signed. Glimpse the “Propaganda Village” of Kijongdong, then 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?
    Silkworm or Snack?
    A popular street food and bar snack all over Korea, beondegi (dried silkwork larvae) are even sold in cans at grocery and convenience stores. The edible insect is first steamed or boiled, then seasoned to create nibbles that, though unusual, are high in nutrients and protein. When in Seoul, forgo the popcorn and potato chips and snack on this classic food instead. For the best versions, head to traditional areas like Insadong or Namdaemun Market.
    Photo by Dorling Kindersley/age fotostock
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    Live Octopus, a Korean Delicacy
    Live Octopus, a Korean Delicacy
    In Seoul, eating live seafood is almost an art form. Sannakji (live octopus) is served whole or cut into small pieces, then topped with sesame seeds and oil. Although the creature is technically dead, nerve endings cause the tentacles to squirm even as you raise your chopsticks from plate to mouth. Give this bizarre delicacy a go at the Noryangjin Fish Market. Once you’ve wandered among the 700 stalls and chosen your subaquatic victim, take your purchase to the downstairs restaurant, where you can enjoy your moveable feast, tentacles and all.


    Photo by Pietro Scozzari/age fotostock
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    A Year of Festivals
    A Year of Festivals
    Korea is a nation that loves to celebrate, which means that, no matter what time of year you visit, there’s a party going on in Seoul. With spring come the cherry blossoms and the Yeouido Spring Flowers Festival. In October, the Seoul International Fireworks Festival lights up the city, with pyrotechnicians from around the globe crafting extravagant fireworks displays. For a magical time, visit Seoul in November for the Lantern Festival, when locals hang hundreds of multicolored paper lanterns along Cheonggyecheon.
    Photo by Leslie Patrick