What to see in South Korea
Sat on the Han River, the buzzing metropolis of Seoul is the capital of South Korea and proudly the 4th largest metropolitan economy in the world, even larger than London. A trip to Seoul is sure to open your eyes to a city of contrasts, as both the ancient and ultra-modern sit side by side in this unfathomably unique capital.
Founded in 18 BC, by the Baekje people, one of a number of kingdoms on the Korean peninsula, Seoul became the Korean capital during the reign of the Joseon dynasty. With a backdrop of atmospheric mountains and hills, including the iconic Bukhansan mountain on the northern periphery, the city is situated close to the Yellow Sea coast, in the East of the country.
Seoul’s skyscrapers are perhaps its most iconic feature. The city’s modern architecture is part of its attraction to visitors, with highlights such as the N Seoul Tower, standing at 263 metres in height on the Namsan mountain, impressive for its futuristic design and sheer size. The world’s 5th tallest building, the Lotte World Tower can also be seen towering over Seoul’s skyline at 1,821 metres tall, whilst the other-worldly Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the Jung-gu neighbourhood, is renowned for its neo-futuristic design, with curved, pod-like structures in shiny materials.
Inside there are a number of huge exhibition spaces, futuristic retails shops and food vendors. With such a lively arts scene it is little wonder that Seoul is the birthplace of K-Pop music and the so-called ‘Korean Wave’, a term given to the recent popularity of Korean culture worldwide. Whether you are already a fan of Korean culture or not, a holiday to Seoul is the perfect way to immerse yourself into and fall in love with the unique pop-culture so prevalent in the city.
Aside from the city’s fast-paced and ultra-modern aspects, it has managed to preserve the most prized parts of its heritage and has put itself on the map for being an Asian cultural centre. With 115 museums, Seoul offers visitors a vast array of opportunities to learn about the history and culture of the city, with the largest museum, the National Museum of Korea, home to more than 200,000 artefacts that beautifully tell the narrative of the Korean peninsula.
Religious monuments ranging from Confucian shrines to Catholic churches and Buddhist temples allow the visitor, on a tour of Seoul, to discover the different spiritual traditions that have helped shape the city and its history. The city’s five UNESCO World Heritage Sites are amongst its most emblematic attractions.
These consist of the Changdeok Palace, one of five Joseon Dynasty grand palaces, located in Jonghogu, the Hwaseong Fortress, built in the 18th century, Namhansanseong Fortress, an extremely impressive mountain top fortress and the Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, all of which are unmissable sights on a visit to Seoul. Finally, the Confucian Shrine of Jongmuyo stands out as the oldest preserved royal Confucian shrine.
Aside from cultural attractions, ancient temples and palaces and high-tech urban structures, Seoul also boasts a lively food and drink scene with the centuries-old Gwangjong Market being the ultimate destination for trying local street food and Korean delicacies. Fill yourself up on seaweed rolls and savoury pancakes as you wander around admiring the weird and wonderful gastronomic offerings.
As the 9th most visited city in the world, it is clear that a trip to Seoul is not your usual city break, but instead an unforgettable opportunity to experience the different features of Korean culture and delve into the country’s fascinating history.
250 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide, the Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land stretching across the Korean peninsula which acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. Created in 1953 through an agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations, the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ is one of the country’s top tourist attractions as it represents the turbulent history and current state of affairs between the two countries.
Although the original border ran along the 38th parallel latitude line, this border became the scene of tense conflicts at the end of World War II when the Soviet Union and the USA acted as sponsor states to the North and South respectively. The Korean War followed, marking three years of conflict between 1950 and 1953, until the Armistice Agreement of 27th July 1953 established the DMZ and the moving back of troops away from the old border to the new lines of separation. Even in the present day, members of the military guard each side of the border.
The area inside the DMZ is home to a number of interesting attractions. There are two villages located within the zone, who are protected by UN Command and belong to neither South or North Korea. The most iconic site is, of course, the Joint Security Area, a number of buildings designed as designated spaces for negotiations to take place between leaders of the two nations.
Tours to the Korean DMZ are widely available in South Korea and are increasingly popular. A typical tour includes visits to the North Korean tunnels, a series of tunnels dug underneath the border into South Korea, for reasons not entirely clear to the outside world. Three of these tunnels are open to the public. Visitors can also enter the Joint Security Area and find themselves standing in neither South or North Korea and also take a stroll in the poignant Dorasan Peace Park, a natural area within the boundaries of the DMZ with many reminders of the Korean War, such as military tanks, scattered around the area.