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6 Surprising Things About Seoul, South Korea

These two Korean women were very excited to have an American take their photo. Don't ask me why!

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.

Architecture Mish-Mash

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.

I love the crazy looks of this building in Seoul.

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.

Late Dinners

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.

The modern and the ancient co-exist.

First-Rate Transit

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.

Yes, that's a chihuahua wearing shoes.

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.

3 thoughts on “6 Surprising Things About Seoul, South Korea

  1. Charlotte

    South Korea is one of my dream destinations which I’m planning to fulfill as soon as possible. Aside from the very modern and hip cities, I’d love to see their natural landscapes!

  2. Nichole L. Reber

    Now you know I have to comment on the architecture part. Whilst I haven’t seen Korea’s architecture (I have written about some urban planning there), your impressions remind me of my time in China. In the north the effects of Communism (“block” as you called it) are more evident. The university where I taught looked like a prison complex in its uniform drabness amongst each building. Barely could you tell one apart from the other. In the south was the hodge podge that, like your trip, warranted curious thoughts about building codes. Then again, we do with some regularity hear about collapsing buildings there that kill hundreds, eh?

  3. Emily

    I just got back from Seoul, which was amazing. Liked it more than Shangai and Beijing, and had the best meat I ever had in all of my life at Seo Seo Galbi in SInchon. I have a rule about not going to the same city twice so I can see more, but I might have to break this rule for that Korean BBQ meat I had, or to catch a glimpse of that chihuahua wearing shoes :) priceless photo.

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