Seoul, South Korea - Stein Travel
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Seoul

Encircled by mountains, containing a population of 10-million, and with more than a million registered motor vehicles inching through its congested streets, one would imagine the metropolis of Seoul, capital of South Korea, to be a polluted nightmare. The city fathers, however, have made a concerted effort in recent years to clean and green this thriving, prosperous city, also ensuring that the mushrooming of gleaming skyscrapers has not meant the neglect or destruction of centuries-old palaces and shrines. The result is a bustling, but organised, city filled with fascination, where old and new co-exist happily.

A great deal of the credit for the well-ordered urban planning of Seoul can be given to the ancient Joseon Dynasty, which used great foresight when crafting the city into a capital way back in the 14th century.

The old Joseon Dynasty city with its central main palace is now the traditional downtown heart of Seoul where many of the most popular sights, hotels and markets are to be found. One of the most popular areas for visitors to explore is Insa-dong, filled with antique shops, art galleries, traditional teahouses, restaurants and bookshops.

Across the Han River the modern city is dominated by Korea's World Trade Centre, and the Coex Mall, a shopper's delight. Even the island, Yeouido, in the middle of the Han River is densely packed with high-rise buildings; this is also the base for the Korean National Assembly, and the world's biggest Presbyterian church.

Interspersed through the urban landscape are several lush, green parks, the most central being Namsan Park, encompassing the mountain of the same name just to the south of downtown Seoul. Namsan Park is also home to the iconic Seoul Tower, which offers spectacular 360 degree views of the city and surrounding countryside.

Nightlife in Seoul is lively and legendary with something to suit all tastes, from a 'booze-cruise' through the raunchy red light district of Itaewon, or a sedate sit-down at a traditional teahouse. Eating out, too, is a feast for the senses in Seoul, with an enormous international variety to choose from, whether it is succulent steak, perfect pizza, multi-course gourmet, tasty tandoori or even perhaps classic Korean.

Information & Facts

Climate

Seoul is classed as having a temperate climate with four distinct seasons, but temperature differences between the hottest part of summer and the depths of winter are extreme. In summer the influence of the North Pacific high-pressure system brings hot, humid weather with temperatures soaring as high as 95°F (35°C) on occasion. In winter the city is topographically influenced by expanding Siberian high-pressure zones and prevailing west winds, temperatures dropping as low as 7°F (-13.7°C). The bitterly cold days tend to come in three-day cycles regulated by rising and falling pressure systems, however, bringing some relief. The most pleasant seasons in the city are spring and autumn, when azure blue skies and comfortable temperatures are a sure bet. The city experiences heavy rainfall, but most of it falls in the summer monsoon period between June and September.

Eating Out

The selection of Seoul restaurants is vast and varied with everything from local specialities, such as Saeng Galbi, to huge American cheeseburgers and exotic Moroccan kebabs on offer. Options for eating out in Seoul range from cheap noodle stalls to fine-dining establishments. The Itaewon entertainment strip has the best collection of Seoul restaurants, serving both local and international cuisine. Otherwise, good areas for traditional Korean food are Gangdong-gu and Yeongdeungpo-gu, while restaurants with international menus can be found in Gangnam-gu, Seodaemun-gu and Namdaemun. Tipping is not customary in Korea but some Seoul restaurants may add a service charge of 10%. Restaurant hours vary throughout the city and reservations are recommended.

Getting Around

The easiest and quickest way to traverse the crowded city is on the subway, which has eight lines and serves all the main areas of interest. Station signs are written in English as well as Korean, and most lines have English announcements too. Subways are extremely crowded during the morning and evening rush hours, but are generally safe, though plagued with hawkers and beggars. Tickets are bought from vending machines or at ticket windows. Debit tickets for a certain amount can be purchased which have the amount of each fare deducted when swiped at turnstiles. Buses are frequent and cover the whole city, but tend to be very crowded. Tickets can be bought on boarding, or debit tickets can be purchased. Taxis are readily available. Regular taxis (white or silver) charge 1, 600 won as an initial fee and have a complex system of metering thereafter. Black luxury taxis, called Mobeom taxis, are superior both in condition and service, fares being charged as 4, 000 won at commencement.

Kids Attractions

Many people may not think there is much to do in Seoul for children on holiday, but look a little closer and you'll discover that there is actually a surprising amount of fun activities and attractions for kids to enjoy.

Head to the Samsung Children's Museum which will educate and captivate young minds, or the IMAX Cinema or the Aquarium which are both located close to the Grand Hilton Hotel. Lotte World Adventure Amusement Park will keep the kids entertained indoors and out, making it an ideal attraction during the summer and winter months. Renowned as the world's largest indoor theme park, kids will love the carnival shows, rides, roller coasters, folk museum and ice rink.

Head to Seonyudo Islet, an island park on the Han River for a day of fresh air, picnics and playing games in the sun, and it even features a small playground for kids to enjoy. SeoulGrand Children'sPark in Neung-dong is worth a visit for families with children as it features a multitude of attractions including a zoo, an aviary, a circus, elephant rides, a giant greenhouse and even a small amusement park with rides which will delight younger children, but older kids will find these a bit tame.

Language

The official language is Korean.

Money

South Korea's monetary unit is the won (KRW). Currency can be exchanged at most banks and at casinos, and travellers cheques cashed at authorised banks and hotels. Most merchants in the cities accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express credit cards, but Koreans traditionally prefer cash. ATMs at banks are usually accessible only during banking hours, and instructions on the machines are generally only in Korean. Public ATMs at convenience stores and subway stations are generally available 24 hours. US Dollars are an accepted form of foreign currency and can be used as US Dollars in the areas around the American Military bases in South Korea.

Night Life

The cosmopolitan city of Seoul is known as having quite a good nightlife packed with just about every activity, all kinds of entertainment and plenty of karaoke in between. Popular places to enjoy a night out are the Old Tea Shop - Tea house, Time Out, Murphy's Bar and Salon de Flora.

The nightmarkets in Dongdaemun see plenty of action, while Myeongdong is a great spot for anything and many people start off their evenings here with a dinner or a few beers at one of the many cafés and bars. Theplace to be seen is at any one of the exclusive wine bars, clubs and expensive bars in Apgujeong-dong or Sinsadong, which attracts a trendy crowd.

The more relaxed, younger crowd tends to hang out in Gangnam where plenty of Western-style clubs and bars can be found. Dongdaemun is great for a few quiet ales and a spot of theatre, or to stroll through a gallery. Hongdae is the best area for live music and great dance floors to show your moves on. Whatever your tastes, you can be sure to find something in Seoul.

Shopping

Shopping in Seoul is an interesting and sometimes chaotic experience; a vast selection of products, busy shopping areas and communication barriers all offer beguiling challenges. There are, however, many bargains and treasures that make it worthwhile. Most shops stay open till 10pm and some markets are open 24 hours, giving shoppers ample time to spend their money!

Myong Dong, the most popular shopping district, is home to sports and fashion shops offering cheap and trendy clothes for young people. In Tongdaemun, Doota sells cheap beads, accessories and shoes, as well as every imaginable type of fabric for homes. Second-hand goods such as televisions, CDs, clothing and shoes are available from the Hwanghak-dong Flea Market. Chang-anp'yong Antique Market treasures include paintings, calligraphy and old chests, as well as stone and ceramic artefacts.

The Itaewon area has shops selling discounted designer clothes from brands such as DKNY, Nike and Adidas; stalls on the street sell hats and fake designer handbags. Apkujong has upscale department stores and boutiques, as well as the Kangnam underground shopping mall. Prada, Gucci, Armani, Stella McCartney and the Galleria are also found here. Counterfeit goods are illegal and may be confiscated at home. Tax-free shopping is advertised where applicable.

Sightseeing

Seoul attractions include historic temples and palaces, as well as some natural and cultural highlights. The preferred seasons for sightseeing in Seoul are spring and autumn, with comfortable temperatures and blue skies, but in winter the city is covered in snow and can be quite beautiful.

The Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395, and is home to the National Folk Museum of Korea, a great Seoul attraction. The Namsangol Hanok Village is also a good stop, featuring traditional Korean homes from the Joseon Dynasty. The Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple founded in 794 AD, offers a 'Temple Stay Program' for visitors.

Just out of town, visitors can ride the Namsan Park cable car to the summit of the mountain to see the maritime aquarium and botanical gardens. Lotte World is the largest indoor theme park in the world, one of the most exciting Seoul attractions, while the 1988 Olympic Park and Stadium is another. There are lovely antique shops and art galleries to be browsed in the Insa-dong alleyways.

Time

Local time is GMT +9.

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