Even if you know nothing about Seoul, you’ve probably helped the Gangnam Style video get to 2.5 billion views on YouTube. Now of course there’s more than that; there’s a lot of history to see in Seoul. Robert Koehler, author of the guidebook SEOUL, says “this is a 600-year-old city, but the last 100 years have not been kind.” If you only have five days in this vibrant yet traditional city, this is how you make the most of it.
Monday: Seodaemun Prison Museum and the Guksadang shrine
The Japanese occupation was a dark chapter in 20th century South Korean history. Resistance fighters were tortured and executed in this prison, and you can see jail cells, an execution room, a tunnel for carrying corpses, and a basement jail cell where an 18-year-old high school girl was tortured and left to die of starvation. Get in touch with your spiritual self by walking to Guksadang, Seoul’s most famous shamanist shrine which was rebuilt after the Japanese demolished the original one in 1925. You may even see the mostly female shamans make sacrifices to the spirits or other shamanist rituals.
Transport: Take the subway to Dongnimmun station
Tuesday: Namdaemun Market
This huge traditional market with more than 10,000 stores selling everything from noodles and soup to handicrafts and medical supplies has enough variety to last you for hours, which is probably good that it’s open 24 hours. The name comes from Namdaemun, the main southern gate of the old city wall, and it started more than 600 years ago when the government built shops here and rented them out to traders. For a taste of more modern consumerism, you can walk to the flagship branch of the Lotte department store, which brings in around two million shoppers a day and where you can buy everything from cosmetics and luxury products to consumer electronics.
Transport: Take the subway to Hoehyeon station
Wednesday: Bukchon Hanok Village and old Seoul
Take in a bit of history and culture after all that shopping by heading to Bukchon Hanok village where you can find hundreds of traditional houses or hanok. The name “bukchon” literally means “northern village.” The area, which has more than a million square metres, is surrounded by palaces and a park. If you want to taste some Korean culture as well, many of the hanoks now operate as guesthouses, restaurant and tea houses. If you don’t want to wander around by yourself, you can also join the walking tours.
Thursday: Experience an uneasy peace at the DMZ
How could we forget South Korea’s neighbor, North Korea? The infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is of course the buffer established in 1953 after the two countries signed an armistice after the Korean war. Military activity is forbidden inside the 4km –wide and 240km-long area, but there’s plenty of that on both sides of the zone with tank traps, electrical fences, landmines, and armies standing guard.
You can also observe daily life in North Korea from an observatory exhibiting daily household goods and military equipment from the North, go into infiltration tunnels, and even try North Korean wine, so you can tell people you did it. Remember civilian access is strictly controlled, so you have to join a tour. You’ll need an ID card, passport, and permission if you want to take pictures.
Transport: Look up a tour that sounds right for you. It’s the only way to get to the DMZ
Friday: Luxury shopping in Gangnam
To this day, headline writers are still using “Gangnam style” like it’s so hip and original, so you know this neighbourhood’s reputation precedes it. This area south of the Han river never used to have much other than rice fields and temples, but it all changed after the 1988 Olympics and is now full of expensive real estate and high-end shops and clubs. Aside from eating and buying fancy outfits, you can also visit Samsung D’Light, a digital exhibition space where you can see the future as imagined and powered by Samsung, the Olympic Park, and the giant theme park Lotte World.
Transport: Take the subway to Gangnam station