Seoul has a large group of fans who use the Internet in a very effective, directive and informative manner. You can get very detailed information from Internet forums about the places you want to go and the things you want to do. The only thing you will need is a subway map, which you can get from any subway station, (the stations close to the touristic centers generally have an English version) and a pass. Once you have those, you’re free to enjoy Seoul. Keep in mind that you need to swipe your subway pass before and after each journey. That why you won’t have to worry about how quick the amount on your pass is consumed.
Though there are turnpikes that you can’t pass through without showing your pass, there are some exceptions where you can just pass through like the turnpikes in Istanbul, remember that if you don’t swipe, you won’t get your reimbursement. I can testify to how much you can save by swiping in exit as, not knowing the system, I spent more in the first two days than I would spend in a whole week. It was a good lesson to learn.
Winters in Seoul are very rough with too much snow, and summers are hot with lots of precipitation. For a touristic visit the high season would be the spring. It’s important which season you choose because the historical and cultural spots, other than museums, are all in the open air. Luckily for me, I have been to Saul in all seasons. I know how Namsan looks all covered in snow, and the sensation that the refreshing summer rain gives during the suffocating hot weather.
Then I’d better start with the Namsan Tower. The way to the Namsan Tower is kind of a training route, and you’re likely to see a good few people working out. Along the whole route an amazing view will accompany you. There are a lot of uphill climbs, maybe too many, and you may get tired, maybe a little too tired, but it’s worth it in the end. There is a cable car, but trust me, try to make the walk in one direction at least. Going there in the evening will also give you the opportunity to watch the light show reflected on the tower.
To call Namsan a little love nest wouldn’t be going too far as the majority of the visitors tend to be lovers. On the inside walls of the tower wish plates for a happy ending are hung.
Bogeunsa Buddhist Temple, is located in Gangnam. The district you’ll probably remember from the song “Gangnam Style”, resembles Nişantaşı, İstanbul very much. It’s very fashionable and luxurious, but as soon as you enter the area where the temple is located, you feel suddenly detached from the city as if you’ve been somehow taken from the city and deposited in a peaceful forest without your knowing; it’s the strangest feeling.
At the temple there are programmes with 2 days accommodation for the visitors. These programmes aim to promote Korean Buddhism to foreigners. Visitors spend two days living side by side with the nuns and following their lifestyle. Though finding yourself in front of their door like an unexpected guest seemed to me more convenient for the concept and more improvised, due to the excess demand a reservation ahead is necessary.
Visiting Euljiro-sam 3 is a must as the close proximity of tourist sights allows you to kill two, or three, birds with one stone. When you reach the area you’ll be able to see three very important buildings which are very close to each other. Unfortunately, the problem is just a day is an impossible amount of time to visit all three of them to the full extend.
Accompanied by historical information given in English, which is available twice a day, you can enjoy the Changdeokgung Palace Complex (East Palace), which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and feel like you are watching a short historical movie. The details that the tourist guide gives are so small that you can miss a lot if you tour in the palace by yourself, but they are so interesting that you can’t help but listen with a dropped jaw.
For example, when we entered a very wide room without any walls, pictures, furniture or ornaments, empty other than 5-6 columns, our guide asked us: “What do you think this place could be?” The room was so plain and meaninglessly wide that we couldn’t make any suggestions. The guide had to answer his question himself: “This used to be the bedroom of the king. It used to be divided into little rooms with folding screens, the servants, cooks, doctors and guards would be in those little rooms. In addition to this the king would sleep in a different room each night.” All these precautions were just because they were afraid that the king might be assassinated. I couldn’t help but think, being a king is a hard thing.
Although there are very similar buildings at Gyeongbokgung Palace (The palace blessed by the Heavens) to the Changdeokgung, what impressed me most was there was not the building but the space. After reading the sign, I read some detailed information when I got home, I even watched the movie. The Eulmi Incident was the assassination of the Korean empress Queen Min by Japanese assassins and the burning of her body. The building where the queen had been assassinated later burned down, and since then hasn’t been rebuilt. Today there are still some details that haven’t been clarified about the assassination. The queen who was a reformist and a brave leader got into a conflict with her father-in-law, who was ruling then, and defected from him forming a new government composed of her relatives. She contradicted her father in law with her new foreign policy, and her political attempts for a balanced relation with Japan and China also contradicted their intention, all of which brought her closer step by step to her unsolved murder. The Queen was 43 years old when she was murdered. Any parties who are interested in the subject can watch 2009 dated movie “The Sword With No Name”, which is about the life story of the Queen Min, it’s very good.
Jongmyo Shrine, was added to the UNESCO’s world heritage list in 1995 because it’s the oldest royal Confucian shrine where traditional rituals still continue. The sacred ceremonies in honor of the late kings and the queens also still continue. According to the old Korean traditions on the death anniversary of the deceased scents are burned and food and drinks are served and the mourners greet the altar in a prostrating position. (We are told that this greeting is done once for someone in a high position, twice for a deceased person and three times for Buddha.) This process is more flamboyant for the king and the queen, there is also an orchestra and some folk dances.
As Jongmyo Shrine, houses very big memorial ceremonies there are lots of beautiful details to see in it. I was careless enough to touch the tree trunks to check out why they were so shiny. In order to catch the flies in the open air, they had covered the trunks with duct tapes. Or else there would be flies everywhere. But the glue wasn’t an ordinary one. It didn’t matter how much I tried with the soap, oil and acetone. At the end of the fourth day I had to ask help from a pharmacy.
Anywhere in the world my special interest in tea directs me to the right spots. And of course when you think of tea, in the list of the countries that come to mind the top ranking spots are reserved for the Asian countries. When I heard that there was a tea museum in Seoul, the speech balloon that appeared above my head was full of various instruments related with tea ceremonies. And before the first hour at the museum passed by my wallet was empty.
Insadong where the tea museum is located is one of the art and culture centers of the city. Since the era of the Joson Dynasty (1392-1910) this district has been known to be an area reserved for artists. It’s possible to find unique pieces belonging to Korean culture like calligraphy, drawings, paintings, ceramics and weaving. The stores of various sizes exhibit a wide range of products from priceless collection items to cute accessories for daily use and are located on either side of the street and waiting for their customers. Insadong also houses lots of art exhibitions and cultural festivals throughout the year.
The Herbal Medicine Market is where you will find a cure for anything and everything amongst the old traditional Chinese medicines. There are still a lot of people who believe in the old herbal cures and the market is popular. The “Han Iysa,” an oriental medicine doctor will examine you, and after listening to your complaints and considering your allergies and your nutritional habits, checking your eye and skin color, and quality checking your hair and nails, he will prepare you a herbal mixture. These liquid mixtures in disposable vacuumed packages can be sent on to your address. We can call it a more organized herbalist version of the ones in Turkey. The most important product found in this market is Ginseng. A lot of people agree that the best quality Ginseng, which is a very expensive and healing herb, is produced in Korea. If your motto is “I don’t put anything that I don’t know in my mouth”, we can say that this place is a heaven to take photos of the things that you don’t know.
Seoul National Museum is a place which you have to spare at least a day to explore. It’s a very big and a magnificent museum. I had to take several breaks during my visit. By the way, the week that I visited was when the historical artifacts coming from Turkey were exhibited, so a Turkish flag was raised up to the flagpole in front of the building. To be honest I kind of got emotional. Our unique culture was being exhibited in a faraway land. The longest queue at the entrance was in front of the saloon called “the Kings of Istanbul.” It was priceless to witness such scenery in Seoul as a Turkish citizen.
Seoul War Museum is just as big, and it is not just about Korean War, it exhibits antique and modern war equipment, there is a special area for the planes in the garden. The Koreans remember us from the war of course. But the first reaction I got, and it was repeated each time after that, was “Oh Turkey, Fenerbahce. Do you know Yun Kyung Kim? She is a very good volleyball player.” The Koreans honor their worldwide famous athletes, artists, actors and actresses. I don’t know much about sports, but I didn’t have the heart to say that I didn’t know her.
When talking about Korea, it’s impossible to skip Kimchi. It’s the famous Korean pickle. There are lots of varieties of it. It can be made of almost any kind of vegetable, but the most popular ones are made of white cabbage and white radish. Soute, soup, stew and pancakes are made out of Kimchi. There is also fresh and dried Kimchi’s. One of the main dishes of Korean cuisine Kimchi, is famous for its smell among foreigners. If I tell you that there are special, separate refrigerators for Kimchi, you will get an idea. Some people even relate the fact that Korea had less victims of bird flu, compared to the other Asian countries, to Kimchi.
One of most popular snack foods, the Ddeokbokki (soft rice cake), can easily be found from peddlers and at the restaurants. But I should warn you, it’s hot. It’s not as innocent as it looks. To cut it short, if you would like to try the Korean cuisine, but hot things don’t agree with you, whatever you order, especially stress the fact that you don’t want anything hot.
Despite all the sightseeing, all the fatigue, all the laughs, all the surprises, all the photos that I took, all the food that I tasted, the hot sun burning me, and the rain that soaked me, do you think I was able to see the whole of Seoul? Nope, maybe just 20 percent of it. To tour the whole city can take days and writing about it all would fill a lot of pages. Forget about the blog, even a book, wouldn’t serve the purpose of reflecting the true beauty of this amazing city.