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Cities in the Spotlight: Seoul, South Korea

Updated: Mar 11

Today we will be heading to Seoul, South Korea.


Seoul City Information

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a huge metropolis where modern skyscrapers, high-tech subways and pop culture meet Buddhist temples, palaces and street markets. Notable attractions include futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a convention hall with curving architecture and a rooftop park; Gyeongbokgung Palace, which once had more than 7,000 rooms; and Jogyesa Temple, site of ancient locust and pine trees.


Seoul Historical Significance

Settlement of the Han River area, where present-day Seoul is located, began around 4000 BC. Seoul is first recorded as Wiryeseong, the capital of Baekje (founded in 18 BC) in the northeastern area of modern Seoul. There are several city walls remaining in the area that date from this time. Pungnaptoseong, an earthen wall located in southeast Seoul, is widely believed to have been at the main Wiryeseong site. As the Three Kingdoms competed for this strategic region, control passed from Baekje to Goguryeo in the 5th century.

However, according to Samguk Sagi, both Baekje and Silla described the land as frontier border of Baekje, not as the capital region. Moreover, Jinheung Taewang Stele found at current day Bukhansan tells that the place was underdeveloped as of 6th century AD, suggesting that the first capital Wiryeseong was not located in or nearby Seoul. In July or August 553, Silla took the control of the region from Baekje, and the city became a part of newly established Sin Province (신주; 新州). Sin (新) has both meaning of "New" and "Silla", thus literally means New Silla Province. In November 555, Jinheung Taewang made royal visit to Bukhansan, and inspected the borderline. In 557, Silla abolished Sin Province, and established Bukhansan Province (북한산주; 北漢山州). The word Hanseong (한성; 漢城; lit. Han Fortress) appears on the stone wall of "Pyongyang Fortress", which was presumably built in the mid to late 6th century AD over period of 42 years, located in Pyongyang, while there is no evidence that Seoul had name Hanseong dating the three kingdoms and earlier period.

In 568, Jinheung Taewang made another royal visit to the northern border, visited Hanseong, and stayed in Namcheon on his way back to the capital. During his stay, he set Jinheung Taewang Stele, abolished Bukhansan Province, and established Namcheon Province (남천주; 南川州; South River Province), appointing the city as the provincial capital. Based on the naming system, the actual name of Han River during this time was likely Namcheon (Nam River) itself or should have the word ending with "cheon" (천; 川) not "gang" (강; 江) nor "su" (수; 水). In addition, "Bukhansan" Jinheung Stele clearly states that Silla had possession of Hanseong (modern-day Pyongyang), thus Bukhansan has to be located north of Hanseong. Modern day Pyongyang was not Pyongyang, Taedong River was likely Han River, and Bukhansan was not Bukhansan during the three kingdoms period. Moreover, Pyongyang was a common noun meaning capital used by Goguryeo and Goryeo dynasties, similar to Seoul.

In 603, Goguryeo attacked Bukhansanseong (북한산성; 北漢山城; Bukhan Mountain Fortress), which Silla ended up winning. In 604, Silla abolished Namcheon Province, and reestablished Bukhansan Province in order to strengthen the northern border. The city lost its provincial capital position and was put under Bukhansan Province once again. This further proves that Bukhansan was located in the North of modern day Pyongyang as changing the provincial name and objective would not be required if Bukhansan was located within Seoul. In the 11th century Goryeo, which succeeded Unified Silla, built a summer palace in Seoul, which was referred to as the "Southern Capital". It was only from this period that Seoul became a larger settlement.

When Joseon replaced Goryeo, the capital was moved to Seoul (also known as Hanyang or Hanseong), where it remained until the fall of the dynasty. The Gyeongbok Palace, built in the 14th century, served as the royal residence until 1592. The other large palace, Changdeokgung, constructed in 1405, served as the main royal palace from 1611 to 1872. After Joseon changed its name to the Korean Empire in 1897, Hwangseong also designated Seoul. Originally, the city was entirely surrounded by a massive circular stone wall to provide its citizens security from wild animals, thieves and attacks. The city has grown beyond those walls and although the wall no longer stands (except along Bugaksan Mountain (Korean: 북악산; Hanja: 北岳山), north of the downtown area), the gates remain near the downtown district of Seoul, including most notably Sungnyemun (commonly known as Namdaemun) and Heunginjimun (commonly known as Dongdaemun). During the Joseon dynasty, the gates were opened and closed each day, accompanied by the ringing of large bells at the Bosingak belfry. In the late 19th century, after hundreds of years of isolation, Seoul opened its gates to foreigners and began to modernize. Seoul became the first city in East Asia to introduce electricity in the royal palace, built by the Edison Illuminating Company and a decade later Seoul also implemented electrical street lights. Much of the development was due to trade with foreign countries like France and the United States. For example, the Seoul Electric Company, Seoul Electric Trolley Company, and Seoul Fresh Spring Water Company were all joint Korean–U.S. owned enterprises. In 1904, an American by the name of Angus Hamilton visited the city and said, "The streets of Seoul are magnificent, spacious, clean, admirably made and well-drained. The narrow, dirty lanes have been widened, gutters have been covered, roadways broadened. Seoul is within measurable distance of becoming the highest, most interesting and cleanest city in the East."

After the annexation treaty in 1910, Japan annexed Korea and renamed the city Gyeongseong ("Kyongsong" in Korean and "Keijo" in Japanese). Japanese technology was imported, the city walls were removed, some of the gates demolished. Roads became paved and Western-style buildings were constructed. The city was liberated by U.S. forces at the end of World War II.

In 1945, the city was officially named Seoul, and was designated as a special city in 1949. During the Korean War, Seoul changed hands between the Soviet/Chinese-backed North Korean forces and the American-backed South Korean forces four times: falling to the North Koreans in the June 1950 First Battle of Seoul, recaptured by UN forces in the September 1950 Second Battle of Seoul, falling to a combined Chinese/North Korean force in the January 1951 Third Battle of Seoul, and finally being recaptured once more by UN forces in Operation Ripper during the spring of 1951. The extensive fighting left the city heavily damaged after the war. The capital was temporarily relocated to Busan. One estimate of the extensive damage states that after the war, at least 191,000 buildings, 55,000 houses, and 1,000 factories lay in ruins. In addition, a flood of refugees had entered Seoul during the war, swelling the population of the city and its metropolitan area to an estimated 1.5 million by 1955.

Following the war, Seoul began to focus on reconstruction and modernization. As South Korea's economy started to grow rapidly from the 1960s, urbanization also accelerated and workers began to move to Seoul and other larger cities. From the 1970s, the size of Seoul administrative area greatly expanded as it annexed a number of towns and villages from several surrounding counties. Until 1972, Seoul was claimed by North Korea as its de jure capital, being specified as such in Article 103 of the 1948 North Korean constitution. Seoul was the host city of the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Summer Olympics as well as one of the venues of the 2002 FIFA World Cup.


Travel to Seoul

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Fashion- and technology-forward but also deeply traditional, this dynamic city mashes up palaces, temples, cutting-edge design, and mountain trails, all to a nonstop K-Pop beat.


Must See Sites

Gyeongbokgung; Like a phoenix, Seoul’s premier palace has risen several times from the ashes of destruction. Hordes of tourists have replaced the thousands of government officials, scholars, eunuchs, concubines, soldiers and servants who once lived here. Watch the changing of the guard ceremonies at the main entrance Gwanghwamun, then set aside at least half a day to do justice to the compound, which includes a couple of museums, ornamental gardens and some of Seoul's grandest architectural sights. Originally built by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, Gyeongbokgung served as the principal palace until 1592, when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasions. It lay in ruins for nearly 300 years until Heungseon Daewongun, regent and father of King Gojong, started to rebuild it in 1865. King Gojong moved in during 1868, but the expensive rebuilding project virtually bankrupted the government. Altogether the palace consisted of 330 buildings and had up to 3000 staff, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family. During Japanese colonial rule, most of the palace was again destroyed – much of what you see today is accurate recent reconstructions.

Changdeokgung; The World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung is the most beautiful of Seoul's five main palaces. You must join a one-hour guided tour to look around. English tours run at 10.15am and 1.15pm; if you don’t care about the commentary, Korean tours are at 9.30am, 11.30am and 3.30pm. To see the palace's lovely Huwon (Secret Garden), join tours at 10.30am, 11.30am and 2.30pm (also 3.30pm February to November). Book online or come early as the Huwon tours are restricted to 50 people at a time. Changdeokgung was originally built in 1405 as a secondary palace, but when Gyeongbokgung (Seoul’s principal palace) was destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, it became the primary royal residence until 1872. It remained in use well into the 20th century. Like all Joseon palaces, it has a mountain behind it and a small stream in front – good pungsu (feng shui).

Deoksugung; One of Seoul's five grand palaces built during the Joseon dynasty, Deoksugung (meaning Palace of Virtuous Longevity) is the only one you can visit in the evening and see the buildings illuminated. It first served as a palace in 1593 and is a fascinating mix of traditional Korean and western-style neoclassical structures. The palace’s main gate is the scene of the entertaining changing of the guard ceremony at 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm. Free one-hour guided tours in English start at 10.45am and 1.30pm. Deoksugung became a palace in 1593 when King Seonjo moved in after all of Seoul’s other palaces were destroyed during the Japanese invasion. Despite two kings being crowned here, it became a secondary palace from 1615 until 1897 when King Gojong moved in after leaving the nearby Russian legation. Although he was forced by the Japanese to abdicate 10 years later, King Gojong carried on living here in some style until he died in 1919. His son, Sunjong, reigned as a puppet emperor until 1910 when he too was forced to abdicate by the Japanese, who then annexed Korea, bringing the Joseon dynasty to an undignified and abrupt end after more than 500 years. The palace used to be three times as big as it is now, but it still contains small gardens and ponds amid an extraordinary potpourri of contrasting architectural styles.

National Museum of Korea; This vast and imposing concrete slab of a museum takes visitors on a fascinating journey through Korea's past from prehistory all the way to the Korean Empire period (1897–1910). If you're short on time, prioritise the Joseon Dynasty gallery (1392–1897). Among the must-see exhibits in the ground-floor galleries are the Baekje Incense Burner, an extraordinary example of the artistry of the 6th- to 7th-century Baekje Kingdom; and the Golden Treasures from the Great Tomb of Hwangham.

War Memorial of Korea; This huge museum documents the history of the Korean War (1950–53) using multimedia exhibits and black-and-white documentary footage, along with artefacts like weapons, uniforms, and maps. Outside, a sombre memorial walkway is inscribed with the names of every casualty from the allied forces. There are plenty of tanks, helicopters and planes too, and just to remind you that the war remains unresolved, you can clamber aboard a replica of the patrol boat sunk by North Korean forces in 2002.

Bongeun-sa; Located in the heart of ritzy Gangnam, the shrines and halls of the Buddhist temple Bongeun-sa, with its tree-filled hillside location, stand in direct juxtaposition to its corporate high-rise surrounds. Founded in AD 794, the buildings have been rebuilt many times over the centuries. Entry to the temple is through Jinyeomun (Gate of Truth), protected by four king guardians. The main shrine, Daewungjeon, has lattice doors and is decor­ated inside and out with symbols and art that express Buddhist philosophy and ideals.

Noryangjin Fish Market; Providing terrific photo opportunities, Korea's largest fish market supplies every kind of aquatic life form to restaurants, fish shops and the general public. Originally established in 1927 and relocated here in 1971, the current multistorey, state-of-the-art complex opened its revamped doors in 2016 and now is home of the 700 stalls and numerous restaurants.

Seodaemun Prison History Hall; Built in 1908, this former prison is a potent symbol of Korean suffering at the hands of Japan during colonial occupation in the early 20th century. However, it was also used by Korea's various postwar dictators up until its closure in 1987. You can tour the original cell blocks where independence fighters and democracy campaigners were held, as well as the nightmarish interrogation and torture rooms. An execution block dating from 1923 features a concealed tunnel to remove the dead. Designed to house 500 prisoners, during the height of the anti-Japanese protests in 1919 up to 3500 prisoners were packed inside. A memorial lists the names of 90 Koreans known to have died here, but between 300 and 600 nameless others are thought to have perished from torture, execution, malnutrition and disease. The most famous of the victims is Ryu Gwan-sun, an 18-year-old Ewha high-school student, who was tortured to death in 1920.


Must Try Food & Drink

Seolleongtang; Seolleongtang is a hot, invigorating South Korean bone soup prepared by boiling cow's bones, feet, head, organs, brisket, and shank for a long time until the broth develops a creamy white color. The soup is a staple in numerous Korean households, especially during the cold winter months. It is believed that the soup was invented because King Seonjong of the Joseon Dynasty needed to feed a large number of people at a worship ritual for the god of farming, during which a cow would be sacrificed. The name of the dish is derived from the word Seonnongtang, meaning soup boiled at Seonnongdan, and later on, the word evolved into Seolleongtang. Nowadays, it is usually served with ripe kkakdugi (radish kimchi), and it is said to taste even better when accompanied by it, warming numerous consumers during the winter.

Ttongppang; Ttongppang is a traditional South Korean sweet bread originating from the Insa-dong neighborhood of Seoul. The sweet bread is shaped into a stylized human feces. Although it might look unappetizing to some people, this sweet treat is actually delicious, made with a wheat flour shell that's filled with red bean paste and pieces of walnuts. Ttongppang is typically sold at markets as a sweet street food item. In Korean culture, poo is a good thing – it symbolizes prosperity, and if you dream about poo, it's said that you'll be prosperous.

Kimchi; Although many people get a chill through their spine at the very mention of the word pickles, Koreans have found a way to make fermented pickled vegetables interesting, tasty and titillating. A classic starter or a side dish to any Korean meal, these spicy, salty, sweet and sour vegetables known as kimchi start their way sliced, tied in bundles, and marinated in brine with hot chili peppers, salty fish paste, leeks, ginger, sugar, and garlic. Although the popularity of kimchi is still rising in the West, it is an ancient dish, dating about two thousand years back, when it was first mentioned in written documents. It was originally called chimchae, literally translated to soaked vegetables, because kimchi was soaked only in brine or beef stock in the past, but by the 12th century, other ingredients and seasonings began to be added to the pot. Nowadays, kimchi is made both in North and South Korea, the Southern version being more salty and spicy than the Northern one. Seasons also play a role in the flavors of kimchi - refreshing cucumber kimchi is popular in spring and summer, while winter kimchis may contain radish and mustard leaves. Due to its sharp and pungent odor, it is traditionally fermented outdoors, buried in barrels or crock pots. Even though it is served as an appetizer, it usually stays on the table during the whole meal, accompanying classics such as bulgogi, kalbi, and mandu guk (dumpling soup), while cabbage kimchi is often fried into kimchijeon pancakes and incorporated into numerous soups and stews.

Kalbi; Kalbi or galbi refers to a variety of grilled beef short ribs dishes popular in South Korea. The ribs are marinated in a sweet sauce consisting of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, sesame oil, and garlic. Although the name of the dish translates to ribs, chicken or pork meat can also be used. The dish originates from 18th-century Korea, when killing cows was strictly forbidden. As workers were building the Hwa Castle, they needed to be well-fed, so King Jeongjo allowed the opening of only one slaughterhouse in the whole country to process beef and feed the hungry workers. Of course, it didn't stop at just one slaughterhouse, and that is the best reccomendation for trying the dish for yourself. Galbi is typically accompanied by kimchi, red bean paste or rice, but it can also be wrapped up in lettuce leaves with a variety of other vegetables. Due to kalbi's great balance of sweet and savory flavors and rising popularity, the dish even has its own annual festival since 1995, called the Suwon Galbi Festival, offering the visitors a chance to indulge in this celebrated delicacy.

Kimbap; Often referred to as Korean sushi, kimbap is a Korean dish consisting of seaweed (kim), seasoned rice (bap), and other, optional ingredients that are usually rolled, sliced, and served. Almost anything can be added to the roll, but the most common ingredients are fishcakes, meat, spinach, eggs, and cucumbers. There are several theories about the origin of kimbap. Many believe that it is a Korean take on Japanese sushi. Others say that it is a variation of kimssam, a wrap consisting of rice and seaweed. Regardless of the origins, kimbap remains one of the most popular Korean dishes. There are three main styles of kimbap, and there are numerous variations within each of them. There is traditional kimbap with seaweed, rice, and fillings, French or Nude kimbap with seaweed on the interior and rice on the exterior, and Samgak kimbap, shaped like a triangle and sold in many South Korea's convenience stores.

Kalguksu; Kalguksu is a favorite summertime dish of many South Koreans, usually served during rainy seasons and on windy summer days. It consists of handmade wheat flour and egg noodles in a broth that is usually made with shellfish, dried anchovies, and kelp. The noodles are cut with a knife, giving the dish its name, kalguksu, which literally means knife noodles. Although seafood kalguksu is the most popular variety, there are other versions of kalguksu such as spicy (jjanppong kalguksu), chicken (dak kalguksu), and mushroom kalguksu (beodeot kalguksu). Typically, kalguksu is served with side dishes such as kimchi or barley combined with cabbage and soybean paste sauce. Kalguksu originated during the Joseon Dynasty era, and the first recipe for the dish was found in an old cookbook called Eumsik Dimibang, written by Lady Jang in 1670. Traditionally, kalguksu was consumed during the Yudu holiday, when barley and wheat were harvested. It was also a custom to serve the dish on a child's first birthday, as a sign of longevity, virtue, and health, but today, kalguksu is enjoyed by everyone as an inexpensive, hearty, and nourishing dish.

Tteokbokki; Tteokbokki is a spicy stir-fried dish that usually consists of cylinder-shaped rice cakes, sweet red chili sauce, and fish cakes. It is considered to be one of the top street food items in Korea, and can usually be bought from street vendors known as pojangmacha. The dish originated during the Joseon Dynasty period, when it was used as a cure, and it was also one of the royal court's dishes. Originally, tteokbokki was called tteok jjim, a braised dish of sliced rice cakes, meat, eggs, and seasonings.Although it was brown in color, today it is red, because the colors changed when gochuang (a spicy chili paste) was introduced in the mid-1900s. What was once a dish for the royals is nowadays one of the cheapest street food dishes in Korea, and recently, there have even been efforts to turn it into a food franchise due to continuous demand for tteokbokki among Korean people.

Makgeolli; Makgeolli is the oldest Korean rice wine that dates back to the 10th century. It is usually made from rice which is fermented with nuruk—traditional Korean starter. The fermentation process produces a lightly fizzy drink with a typical milky appearance and a slightly sweet flavor. Makgeolli was the most popular Korean drink until the 1980s when it was largely overshadowed by imports, and it gained the status of a farmer’s drink (nongju). However, in the last decade, the drink has seen an increase in popularity, and it can be found in many South Korean bars. Makgeolli is best enjoyed cold and should be stirred before it is served.

Soju; Korean soju is distilled from fermented rice, or optionally wheat, barley, sweet potatoes, or tapioca. It is believed that it initially appeared when Mongols introduced the distilling technique to the Koreans, sometime in the 13th century. The first varieties were made with rice, but in 1965 Korean government introduced a ban on using rice, and many producers looked for alternative sources. Soju is a clear spirit that is usually low in alcohol and has a mild, neutral flavor, which makes it work well with a wide array of dishes. It is usually enjoyed well-chilled, served in small traditional glasses, but Koreans also prefer to drop a shot of soju in beer. Apart from the classic type, it also comes in many fruit-flavored versions. Although it might come as a surprise, soju regularly tops the list of the best-selling drinks in the world, due to the large per capita consumption in South Korea.

Milkis; Milkis is a South Korean soft drink produced by Lotte Chilsung, a company which released the beverage in 1989, labeling it as a milk and yogurt soda. Some like to describe it as a melting mousse made with frozen yogurt. It is made with carbonated water, corn syrup, sugar, and milk. Today, Milkis is available in many varieties, flavored with mango, banana, peach, orange, strawberry, apple, or melon.


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