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Seoul – “New Tokyo”

For the past couple of weeks I have been accosting every person I know who has travelled widely in Asia with one simple question “why did you not tell me about Seoul?“. Having recently spent a meagre two days there I cannot understand why it is not at the forefront of everybody’s Asian travel experiences and, bluntly, why I don’t live there.

Insadong mall in Seoul, South Korea
Insadong mall - where you can buy creative local goods in graffiti tinged surroundings

For some reason, I have never really had Seoul on any itinerary or travel wish list and I only ended up going there because Cathay Pacific had a sale on.

Then I arrived and thought, I’m here; “New Tokyo“. Just like the best of Japan it had that beautiful muddle of past and present where heritage has been preserved but also culturally strip mined to create a better present.

Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, South Korea
Bukchon Hanok Village

The result of this is that when you wander around the districts of Seoul you see something that is often absent in Asian cities – a raw buzz of aesthetics being peacocked through art, food, materials and architecture. Somehow Seoul seems to have avoided or ameliorated the mistakes cities like Hong Kong have made where history is to be bulldozed to build a higher skyscraper. Where finance rules the roost and one should celebrate because the Ritz Carlton has opened the world’s highest bar but forgotten that there should be some content to it rather than just a superlative.

Seoul in South Korea

We didn’t have time to see too much in two days so we just drifted around Insadung (cultural handicrafts area), Hongdae (University “cool” area), Gyeongbokgung Palace (biggest traditional Korean palace), Hanuk villages (old wooden roofed villages) and some bars and restaurants. I felt at home again. That feeling of being adrift in a world city like London, New York or Tokyo. And the food…. wow (next post).

makgeolli containers in Maakholic, Seoul, South Korea
makgeolli containers at a cool bar called Maakholic (thanks to Seoul in the City)

There is, however, one problem. You will never find anything you actually want to find. The street names and address system is worse than the worst stories you can believe. Our first night we got off their metro 100m from our hotel. In our hands (like good travellers) we had the hotel’s address, a map printed from it’s webpage, a google map and instructions from tripadviser. We spent 1 1/2 hours wandering in circles till I finally emailed @SeoulEats who came and walked us to the hotel and saved the night.

Gyeongbokgung or Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea
Gyeongbokgung or Gyeongbokgung Palace

So if you haven’t been, get excited and book a trip. The next couple of posts are about the food but if you want to get bit more of an idea about the experience and food I can’t do more than recommend Seoul in the City and Seoul Eat’s blogs here and here.

Gyeongbokgung or Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea
Gyeongbokgung or Gyeongbokgung Palace (I just hope this doesn't make me look like a pervert)

10 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos. I must admit, to my shame, Seoul had never really been on my radar screen of places to visit, but it looks like I really should prioritise a trip over there. Can’t wait to read the forthcoming food posts!

    • For some reason I thought it would be like a bit more developed HCMC or something? I think it is because there is no widespread Korean culture in Europe. I mean we have a Korean district in London – New Malden – but it still doesn’t exert the biggest influence.

      You have to go though!

  2. Stunning photos as always – and yes Seoul has not been on my radar at all – until now!

  3. Beautiful photos! Love that last one…although the angle that you probably had to take it at makes me wonder what you were doing down there………..just kidding hehe. Seoul is on my travel list too!

    • I promise it was just a lower part of the temple! Though whilst taking it I kept worrying that someone was going to come and arrest me.

  4. hk

    really nice photos. what camera do you use?

    any recommendations as to where to go that is eng speaking friendly? I’m planning a trip there in early sept. been dying to go for the past 2 years since i started to get really into kdrama. haha.

    • HK – just the entry level Canon – an EOS 450. We got lucky with the light though.

      Even though it is largely not English speaking I think you will find it pretty easy. People are very friendly so it makes it more approachable than China (for example)!

  5. Great Post. I was in Seoul late last year, as well. Though, you might find Korean offended with the “New Tokyo” moniker. But I kinda agree.

    • Yeah – it is a slightly controversial one given the history but there are such similarities with the growth of each city and the way it muddles history and modernity.

  6. Thank you for another wonderful article. Where else may anybody get that kind of info in such a perfect manner of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m on the look for such information.

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