With a population more than 10 million strong within its city limits, the metropolis of Seoul, South Korea is the second-largest in the world, bested only by Tokyo and closely trailed by Mexico City and New York City.
In 2009, 2010 and 2011, according to Travel Weekly, it was named the top travel destination by Chinese, Japanese and Thai travelers. The megacity may be home to some of the most cutting-edge technology, business and art the world over, but its history is steep and broad, dating back more than 2,000 years. A trip to the megalopolis isn’t complete without taking a lingering glimpse into its past.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in the mid-14th century by the founder and original king of the Joseon Dynasty and was the largest of the well-known Five Grand Palaces built during that period. Although the Japanese military nearly destroyed the palace in the early 20th century, the grounds are slowly being restored and reconstructed with great attention paid to historic details.
Its old-world architecture stands in stark and brilliant contrast with the modern skyscrapers of Seoul’s financial district, which stand just beyond the palace grounds and make for a fantastic visual exercise in old versus new. The palace is walkable seven days a week via guided and self-directed tours.
Insadong, a neighborhood known for housing the largest art market in Korea, is anchored around a traditional Asian marketplace on a street called Insadong-gil. Classic Korean tea houses, antique shops, paper stores with handmade stationery (called hanji) made from mulberry tree pulp, and street snacks all line the cobbled avenue, offering a sense of time travel into the past blended with a variety of ways to support the local economy in the present.
Traditional Korean fare abounds throughout every neighborhood in the city, from dakgalbi (Korean bbq) to guksu (noodle dishes). Rice and grains play a prominent role in Korean dishes such as kimbap (rolls) and bibimbap (rice, meat and vegetable dishes, usually with egg on top).
Nearly every meal of the day is served with a series of side dishes including pickled root vegetables and kimchi, the cabbage-and-red-pepper-paste dish that’s become nearly synonymous with Korean cuisine. Fermentation is also common in the preservation of vegetables throughout the country, resulting in many salty, tangy, pickled flavor notes across most menus.
Photos: author’s archive