Seoul, South Korea was my introduction to being in a large Asian city. It was a disorienting but welcoming swirl of humanity and activity. Modern exists side-by-side with the ancient. You’ll also be surprised by the mountains and the amount of open space … especially since it’s so close to the ultimate in high-density sprawl. If you have plans to visit Seoul, here’s a bit of what you can expect.
Right next to a modern-but-bland skyscraper, you’ll find a castle that’s hundreds of years old. Look a little further, and you’ll find apartments that would barely meet building codes in the U.S. A few feet further, you’ll see a modern architecture marvel. There seems to be no zoning law, with business and residential spaces elbow-to-elbow. The building aesthetic goes from blocky to breathtaking in the span of a few footsteps.
Warm Welcome from Residents
Seoul’s residents seem to have a soft spot for visitors – especially those who clearly don’t speak Korean or have any understanding of their Hangul alphabet (few signs are in English). They have a knack for knowing who needs directions, and they are not shy about asking if you need help.
It seems that South Koreans like to have a later dinner, followed by a lot of strolling in the shopping hubs and the underground markets. So don’t be surprised if the restaurants are empty if you’re an early diner. They don’t dine quite as late as Spaniards, but they definitely head to the table later than many Americans.
I absolutely love the subways in Seoul (and Busan, too). There are few places you can’t reach with one of the very inexpensive subway passes. The subway cars themselves are very clean. During the rush hours, they’ll be crowded – be ready for a huge press of humans!
Well-Dressed People – and Pets!
Even during the leisurely weekends, Koreans love dressing up: High heels for the women, ties for the men. When they hike, they’re an oxygen tank short of looking like they plan to summit Mount Everest (the opposite of Australians, who’d show up at Everest base camp wearing a pair of flip-flops). I even saw a chihuahua wearing shoes! It all makes sense because shopping seems to be a full-contact varsity sport in South Korea.
You’ll Be a Novelty
Non-Asians are not common. We had people ask to take our photos, have their photos taken with us, and even just have us take their photos. One very kindly hiker even commandeered my camera for 30 minutes to make us pose all over one of the mountains. People might even seem amazed that you chose to visit South Korea – and they love hearing how much you enjoy it. And you will enjoy it … lots.