With the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang sparking new interest in South Korea, I thought it’d be a perfect time to finally share our experience visiting nearby Seoul with a quick trip report and 50+ photos from our travels. A lot of new travelers are going to fall in love with South Korea from afar…so why not add a bit more fuel to the fire?
Seoul is connected to PyeongChang via the new KTX high-speed rail (built in anticipation of these Olympics), and it now takes a little under an hour to commute between the two. While we did not visit PyeongChang, we’re eager to return and do a split stay, experiencing both the modern metropolis of Seoul and the winter resort escape.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Obviously, since we want to take a return trip to Seoul, we enjoyed our experience there. I won’t bury the lede: we absolutely loved Seoul. The city certainly had its quirks (and can be superficial) that we didn’t like, but overall, it was a wonderful place. Definitely one of our favorite cities in Asia. Now, here’s a little as to why that is…
A lot of our enjoyment of South Korea is attributable to its unique character among cities in Asia. While I think the “East Meets West” descriptor for culture is a bit of an overused cliche, Seoul definitely had a “worlds colliding” vibe to it. However, I don’t think this was east meeting west.
Rather, it was something of an internal reckoning within Seoul, as technology, wealth, and materialism have been slowly supplanting the traditional, ancient, and more vibrant culture. This is something of a mixed bag, manifesting itself in ways good and bad.
Seoul has experienced a meteoric rise, with almost all of its growth having occurred in the last 20 years or so. This has been driven by success in the consumer electronics and auto industries. Companies such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Kia all call South Korea home. As the fortunes of those companies have risen recently, so too have those of South Korea.
Prior to the growth of these corporations, the 1988 Seoul Olympics were a huge driver of the country’s development. Kotaku has a good article showcasing photos of the transition. Based upon what I’ve read, these Olympics kickstarted Seoul’s transformation, and the city hasn’t looked back since.
What I surmised during our visit was that the growth of these industries led to a sharp spike in development and modernization. Sometimes, this can have unintended negative consequences or result in haphazard projects that lack deliberative urban planning or thought for preserving history, etc.
While it’s impossible for me to say what Seoul has lost as it has modernized, the city’s development has been anything but haphazard. Infrastructure is logical and nice. Design and aesthetics are in no way lacking, and don’t have a remotely slipshod feel. To the contrary, the contemporary stylings of Seoul are wonderful and thoughtfully integrated into the city.
This is particularly evident in terms of the temples and shrines that dot Seoul. In our “Worlds Collide at Bongeunsa Temple” post, I commented how this temple’s existence is basically architectural ecotone.
While development around other temples (outside of Gangnam) isn’t nearly as stark of a contrast as that, there are countless locations in Seoul where such a clash of modern and traditional is present. Thankfully, the traditional remains, as the city’s leaders had the foresight to encourage preservation.
I won’t fixate on Bongeunsa Temple since we have a dedicated post for that, but it was our favorite temple in Seoul. This was in part due to its unique qualities and in part due to its location amongst a sea of skyscrapers. (It was also convenient to our hotel, the excellent Park Hyatt Seoul, which led to us visiting a couple of times during our stay.)
Farther from our hotel, we visited a number of palaces and temples north of the Han River. For this, we purchased the Combination Ticket for Palaces, which provided admission to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace (plus Huwon Secret Garden), Changgyeonggung Palace, and Jongmyo Shrine.
This combined ticket was only around $10, and saved us some money, and we figured even if we didn’t visit every spot, it’d still be worth the money. We did end up going to all of them, and even doing a couple of guided tours that were included with our admission.
Here are some photos from the various palaces and shrines we visited in South Korea:
I don’t want to turn this into a post about temples and shrines, and I still plan on doing dedicated posts for all of these someday, anyway), so I’ll just share a few brief thoughts.
First, getting the combined ticket makes a ton of sense because these palaces/shrines/temples are all within a relatively short walk of one another. There’s a good chance you’ll be staying in Gangnam as an English-speaking tourist, so the most time-consuming aspect of visiting any of them is the ~1 hour commute from your hotel. Once you get to one of these locations, you can walk to the rest.
Second, with that said, if you’re planning a visit, consider doing these palaces over the course of two days and plan your itinerary in advance. Some locations require guided tours and those are only available in English at certain times. We got a lot of value out of the tour, and it also made crowds much more manageable.
The only downside was that we had to plan around them, which forced us to split the visits into separate days. We could’ve avoided this by visiting on days with open admission, but my fear was that this would mean larger crowds. (It definitely would have–every temple with open admission had hordes of selfie stick-wielding tourists.)
Finally, a little editorializing. Changdeokgung Palace plus the Huwon Secret Garden and was my favorite of these locations. While I enjoyed all of these palaces and found each to have stunning and unique features, I felt Changdeokgung Palace had the nicest sense of place, integrating the garden and green spaces into the area.
This is probably entirely personal preference, but I found many areas of the other palaces were too stark. They had expansive grounds, but those were filled with a lot of nothingness (aside from tourists). I guess this is supposed to highlight the grand architecture of the royal residences, but for me, it just feels too impersonal and bland. It feels too self-aggrandizing and not at all like a livable space. I have somewhat similar feelings about Kyoto Imperial Palace.