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Seoul is the capital of South Korea. A fascinating blend of ancient traditions and cutting-edge digital technology, home to endless street food vendors and vast nightlife districts, an extraordinarily high-pressure educational system and serene Buddhist temples, a trend-setting youth culture and often crushing conformism, extraordinary architecture and endless monotonous rows of grey apartment buildings, Seoul is a city filled with stark contrasts.
Seoul is a very well organized city covering over 600 km² with a population of around 11.8 million. It is a new modern city built on an ancient and shining history. The city is located in the north-western portion of South Korea approximately 40 km east of the Yellow Sea and 60 km south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The city is roughly bisected by the Han River (한강 Hangang), which runs east to west across the city. Seoul blurs seamlessly into its surrounding satellite cities, most of which are also served by the Seoul metro. The largest of these is Incheon (to the west) in which Seoul's main Airport, and the area's main seaport, are located. Other satellite cities include such as Ilsan (to the north), Gwacheon and Anyang (to the south).
Most visitors arrive via Incheon International Airport (ICN), located on Yeongjong Island in the neighboring city of Incheon and covered in detail in its own article.
The A'REX, or 'airport train' connects the airport to Seoul Station (for further connections to KTX high-speed services) and Gimpo Airport (most domestic flights and some International flights from/to Japan, China, and Taiwan).
Upon arrival, it is worth visiting a convenience store to purchase a T-Money card. This is a rechargeable transport card that can be used on subways, city/local buses, a reasonable number of taxis and can even be used to make purchases at convenience stores.
The closer but older Gimpo Airport, caters only to the shuttle services to Tokyo-Haneda, Osaka-Kansai, Taipei-Songshan, Shanghai-Hongqiao and Beijing, as well as domestic flights within South Korea.
Gimpo Airport is easily reached on the A'REX link from Seoul Station or Incheon Airport, as well as subway lines 5 and 9. All lines intersect Line 2 which runs in a large circle through Seoul. Line 9 (Gold Line), a private subway line in Seoul, has three express trains per hour. Travelers coming into Seoul should first have detailed directions to their destination from the nearest station then consult the subway map before deciding on which line and route to take.
Seoul is the northern terminus of the KTX high-speed line. There are three KTX stations within city limits:
Seoul Station for trains to Busan, Ulsan, Kyeongju, Daegu, Daejeon Cheonan/Asan, and Suwon. Accessible via subway lines 1 & 4.
Yongsan Station, for trains to Mokpo, Gwangju, Daejeon and Cheonan/Asan. Also on line 1 & 4 (Sinyongsan Station).
The newly added KTX at Youngdeungpo is now running to southern destinations.
Every weekend approximately 2 million Seoulites leave the city, which goes a long way to explaining why the city has five major intercity bus terminals.
Central City Terminal, also known as Honam Terminal, (Metro Lines 3, 7 or 9, Express Bus Terminal stn). Directly adjacent to the Express terminal, serves buses to North and South Jeolla.
Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, Gangbyeon stn (Line 2). Buses to points east of Seoul (Gangwon and some part of North Chungcheong).
Seoul Express Bus Terminal, (Metro Lines 3, 7, or 9, Express Bus Terminal stn). Also known as Gangnam Terminal and Gyeongbu-Yeongdong Terminal, this is the largest of them all and serves pretty much the entire country, but most services head east (incl. Busan, Daegu, Daejeon). Lines to Jeolla, however, use the Central City/Honam Terminal right next door. For the most part there's no need to buy a ticket days in advance except for maybe during holidays. There's even a ticket window labeled "Tickets for Foreigners" where the attendant can speak English.
There are ferry services to various points in China from the neighboring port city of Incheon. Currently no services run from Japan directly to Seoul. Busan is the main port for ferries to Japan (about 2-2.5 hours by KTX train), where several ferry and hydrofoil options are available.
There is a weekly scheduled ferry service (with dbs ferry) linking Vladivostok in Russia, Donghae in South Korea and Sakaiminato in Japan. From March to November it departs from Vladivostok on Wednesdays, arriving at Donghae on Thursdays and continuing towards Sakaiminato arriving on Fridays. The return trip departs Sakaiminato on Saturdays, to arrive on Donghae on Sundays and to Vladivostok on Mondays. From December to February the route is similar with the exception of spending an extra night in Donhae on the way from Japan to Russia and so arriving to Vladivostok on Tuesdays.
No matter where in Korea you start your journey, there will be tolled expressways (Gosok Doro) and national highways (Gook Do) that lead to Seoul; the most important one is the Gyeongbu Expressway, linking Seoul with Busan. To avoid the daily traffic jam on the Gyeongbu Highway near Seoul, take Jungbu/2nd Jungbu, Seohaean, or Yongin-Seoul Expressway.
Traffic jams are all too common in Seoul, so be careful on the streets and head underground when possible. Street and subway signage is usually written in English as well as Korean.
In Seoul, you can visit most places by using the subway system, the second most used metro transportation system in the world. There are currently a total of 18 lines (nine numbered lines, the AREX express airport line, plus a smattering of named suburban lines), all distinguished by different colors. All signs in the subway system are in Korean (both hangeul and if applicable, hanja) and English. Most signs also have Japanese and Chinese written names. The signs leading to the platform for a particular direction of travel on a given subway line typically list the names of a number of stations in that direction. Stations each have a 3 digit number, but locals rarely make use of these numbers, and they're not on most subway maps, so don't rely on them. Be sure to search for updated subway maps as the Seoul metro system is constantly expanding and many maps even on the subway cars may not be the fully updated versions.
Seoul also has a very well connected and extensive bus transportation service. There are four different kinds of buses: yellow, green, blue, and red and gyeonggi. Yellow buses have a short circuit usually around tourist areas. Green buses travel around neighborhoods and connect with the subway. Blue buses go across town, while red and green 'G' (Gyeonggi) buses are intercity buses. Buses will only stop at designated bus stops and will not wait for indecisive travelers.
On bicycle or on foot
Getting around in Seoul without a local escort (be it friend or cab driver) can be tricky, since this is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. While Seoul occupies less land than New York City, it can be more confusing. The major roads twist and turn, the various rail lines, rivers and mountains are obstacles and the smaller roads turn into a labyrinth of alleys. Most people will try to help you find your way around but often won't know themselves; best to familiarize yourself with some landmarks and the nearest subway stations. Learn the landmarks closest to where you are staying. The better-known landmarks in Seoul (such as the N Seoul Tower located in the center of town)can prove helpful at times. A compass will still work when a GPS fails.
Once you know your immediate surroundings, you'll find that Seoul isn't such a huge place and the pedestrian approach can be an enriching experience.
There's usually a subway stop within a ten-minute walk in any direction.
Whether on bicycle or foot, the best way to escape traffic is to learn the rivers and streams. Most of these waterways empty into the Han River or another tributary to the Han, so look to the direction of water flow at any creek; chances are, it's headed for the Han. The Han runs right through town, generally moving West (sometimes Southwest; sometimes Northwest), so knowing where you are in relation to the Han is helpful.
The Han River as well as most streams are lined with massive parks that feature outdoor gymnasiums, multiple-lane bicycle paths, and 24-hour restrooms. Cars are generally not allowed. Pedestrian bridges on the smaller waterways are common.
Numerous mountains with hiking trails can be found in the city.
As elsewhere in Korea, a grasp of basic Korean will be helpful. If you plan on an extended visit, consider learning to read the Korean written script, hangeul. It takes very little time to pick up the basics, and it can be endlessly helpful. A quick (free) visit to the Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall beneath the Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square will give you an introduction to the Korean written language and some interactive exhibits to practice. Thirty minutes there will see you recognising and pronouncing some Korean words.
Shops in major tourists areas, including Insadong, Myeongdong, and Itaewon, will probably have staff that speak at least some English, and some may have staff that speak Mandarin, Cantonese and/or Japanese. While all younger Koreans are required to study English in school, due to a lack of practice, proficiency is generally poor, and most residents of Seoul only know a few simple words and phrases. If lost, a useful tip is to write down your question in simple words and show it to someone young. That being said, it is still possible to get by using only English, though it goes without saying that a basic grasp of Korean will make your trip much smoother.
What to see
Seoul offers many excellent opportunities for hiking. The mountains in Seoul are at most 800 m (3,000 ft), accessible by public transit and the trails range from easy to difficult.
Mount Bukhan Offers probably the best hiking opportunities in Seoul. It is in the north of Seoul and can be extremely crowded on holidays. To visit a popular area, take line 1 to Dobongsan station.
Mount Gwanak – Gwanak station, line 1. The sammak temple is located in.
Mount Samseong – Close to Gwanaksan.
Mount Inwang – Located in central Seoul.
4.19 Memorial Cemetery – 224 people were killed during the April 19 Movement, and were buried in this cemetery. It became a national cemetery in 1995. This place has a museum, several statues, and a mausoleum. It is a popular park to learn about culture and heritage.
Boramae Park – Formerly the site of the Korean Air Force Academy, which in 1986 turned into a park - Boramae, or hawk in English, symbolizes the Air Force. The size of the park is about 360,000 square meters and its sports facilities, a small zoo, a pond, and walking paths are well designed. The huge pond, which is 9,000 square meters, is surrounded by willow trees and benches, and people love to sit here. The pond is full of cool shades during the summer, and is spectacular when snow falls in the winter.
Namsan Park – Located in the center of Seoul and considered a symbol of Seoul. Namsan Park is an ecology-island surrounded by urban districts. In spite of being an urban ecology-island, wild animals live in the park. Located in the middle of Seoul, the mountain filled with pine trees can be seen from almost every corner of the big city and the residents of the areas surrounding the hills enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Olympic Park – Built for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. A lake, a large field covered with the grass, and a square with sculptures are very popular among visitors. It is frequently visited by brides and grooms to take their wedding pictures. There are a couple of courses that are ideal for jogging or walking. In addition, the outdoor stage and the six stadiums are often used for concerts and other special events. Also a well known modern art museum named SOMA Museum is located within the park that features modern artworks of both korean and international artists.
Tapgol ("Pagoda") Park – A small park frequented by the elderly and the footsore traveller, just to the east of Jongmyo Shrine. Contains 500+ year-old namesake pagoda under protective glass, and a nice large gazebo to get out of the sun. This is where the Korean constituation was first read aloud by the public during the 20th century. Acts as a navigation landmark when moving between Myeong-dong, Jong-no and Insa-dong neighborhoods.
Yangjae Citizen's Forest – You will find a forest on your right if you drive through Gangnam Street. It's a park with streams and a clear view of the sky. There are over 106,600 trees planted in it, and it's a very popular picnic spot for young students.
Yeouido Park – More than 30,000 visit it on the weekdays and over 60,000 people visit it on weekends. The size of the park being 230,000 m². This giant concrete field was built for military aviation purposes in emergencies. There is a traditional Korean forest, and in many other places you can enjoy concerts, cycling, or taking walks. Hundreds of trees and flowers offer you shade and an opportunity to relax. It is recommended to visit the three ponds. There are also basketball courts, so feel free to stop by and play. For a nominal fee, one can also rent bicycles or rollerblades for use at the park.
Yongsan Park – Reminds you of famous parks in other countries that you might have seen in some movies. Large grass fields and thick forests will make you feel much relieved from bustling city life ; you will see many kinds of birds and trees. The park once used as U.S military base camps. In 1992, Seoul City bought the land and built the park.
Hangang Citizen's Park – Located along the Han River at 13 districts - Gwangnaru, Jamsil, Gangdong, Ttukseom, Jamwon, Banpo, Ichon, Yeouido, Yanghwa, Mangwon, Seonyudo, Nanji, and Gangseojigu. You can see many people strolling or jogging along the trail paths, as well as in-line skaters, bicyclists, and soccer fields or basketball courts. Yeouido, Jamsil, and Ttukseom districts are especially popular because of the cruise services on the Han River.
Temples and shrines
Jongmyo Shrine – Certainly the most famous shrine devoted to the royal family members of Korean dynasties. The grounds are a bit more walker-friendly than some of the palaces, admission is cheaper and they also have some interactive equipment available to learn about the rituals and ceremonies used to treat deceased royal family members.
Mount Inwang – (near subway Dongnimmun). This 336 m hill is home not only to the eponymous Inwang Temple (Inwangsa), but also Seoul's most famous shamanist shrine Guksadang. To get there, take Exit 2 and start climbing uphill following the "Inwang Temple" signs, through the huge construction site (as of 2006) and up through the temple gate. You'll see a map board and several paths, take the left staircase upward, past the bronze bell of Bongwonsa and you'll reach Guksadang. Behind it are several creeks with shamanist offerings and the bizarre rock formation known as the Zen Rocks; there are plenty of trails if you want to poke around, and the Seoul fortress wall can be seen running near the top of the hill. Be careful not to photograph or disturb any rituals you see being performed.
Jogye Temple – The chief temple of the Jogye order of Buddhism, the dominant branch of Buddhism in Korea. As such, it is one of the most important modern Buddhist temples in the country.
Bongeun Temple – Traditionally an important Buddhist temple with rich history in a rural outskirt of old Seoul, the temple is now the biggest, richest, and the most visited temple in Seoul as the area near the temple, GangNam, transformed from rice field backwater in 80s to the most ritzy and opulent borough in South Korea. The temple has impressive array of Buddhist buildings and sculptures, and it provides a quiet resting and pray place to tourists and locals alike in middle of skyscrapers and shopping miles.
What to do
There are so many various activities to do 24/7 around Seoul. The city is full of energy at night, where most shopping centers and markets are open until midnight. Every experience is very convenient and enjoyable
Lotte Worl. (Metro Line 2, Jamsil stn) One of the world's largest indoor amusement parks that is located in Seoul by the Jamsil Station. It has a folk museum where one can have an insight into ancient Korean life. Lots of rides, and reopened in the summer of 2007 after a massive reconstruction.
Everland. The Korean version of Disneyland. It is south of Seoul and transportation by bus is the easiest way to get there. Non-stop buses to Everland leave from various parts of Seoul daily. Has a miniature zoo where one can see a lion-tiger hybrid.
Seoul Land. Theme park located in Gwacheon. This park was opened just before the Olympics in 1988. It is easy to get to by subway and is open year round.
Children's Grand Park, Neung-dong, Gwangjin-gu. The park was constructed after the decision of the City Planning Facility in 1971 and was opened on May 5, 1973. The park has a zoo, amusement facilities and restaurants. To get there, simply take the subway to Children's Grand Park on line 7. Avoid the weekends as it can get very crowded.
Horse Racing, Seoul Racetrack in Gwacheon. Races are normally only held during weekends, night racing also takes place during August. During the week, visitors can take guided tours of the grounds.
Seven Luck Casino. Two locations in Seoul: Gangnam, attached to the Grand Intercontinental Hotel, and the Millennium Seoul Hilton Hotel in central Seoul. The casinos are only accessible to foreigners (it is illegal for Korean citizens to gamble), so remember to bring your passport. Various card tables and slots are available to play. There is a bar and cafe that serve food and drinks, although expensive.
There is a free shuttle bus starting at 8:10AM from somewhere along Jong-ro (road) that takes you up into the mountain to the Bearstown resort (South Korea, Gyeonggi-do, Pocheon-si, Naechon-myeon, Sohak-ri, 295).
Korea MTB Adventures, 205-402 Samsung Remian Apt, Goyang-si (line 3 Wondang Stn), (email@example.com). This company rents mountain bikes, offers guiding services, and supplies equipment such as helmets, gloves, hydration packs, shoes and light systems.