Quick. Name one landmark in Seoul, South Korea. Stuck? Need more time? While the sheer size of the capital city is the most notable attribute of Seoul – behind only Tokyo with a metropolitan area of 25 million people – the former Summer Olympics and World Cup host has a dearth of icon attractions. At least to the West that is. No Times Square. No Eiffel Tower. No Tower of London. No CN Tower. Rather than one or several indelible landmarks that burn themselves in the collective consciousness of tourists – like the Hagia Sophia to name a random example – Seoul is a modern metropolis of glass and steel and mass frenzy of human activity. Or is it?
No city can surface on the international landscape as Seoul has over the past three decades without some terrific points of interest. These ten must-see landmarks prove that South Korea’s capital is a real player in the tourist game.
A major pulsepoint of the city since 1905, Dongdaemun Market may be the best place to go to get a genuine feel for everyday life in crazy Seoul. The market is simply gargantuan and covers 10 city blocks. Over 30,000 shops and 50,000 manufacturers call Dongdaemun home. Suffice to say, if you can’t find it here, it does not exist.
One of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in metro Seoul, the Jongmyo Shrine was the first Confucian royal shrine in Korea. The venerable landmark looks just as it did in the 16th century and myriad ancient rituals still take place here.
One of the best national museums in any capital city, the National Museum of Korea is the institution of record in the country for native art, culture and history. Go early and take your time in the impressive facility – only five other museums in the world cover more floor space.
On the orders of the ambitious Emperor T’aejong in the 15th century, a brilliant palace complex was built with reverence for the natural environment in what is now a part of metro Seoul. Because of peerless continuity with the landscape and remarkable Far Eastern architecture, the complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Too often the American point of view of war seeps into our mindset and we lose sight of other points of view. The War Memorial of Korea is a dramatic and emotional landmark that chronicles the many violent conflicts the peninsula nation has had to endure throughout her turbulent history. A wonderful museum and monument complex where one could easily spend half a day.
Of the five grand palaces built in Seoul by the long and powerful Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Gyeongbok remains the crown jewel. The main palace was built in 1394, with numerous subsequent additions. With beautiful gardens and the National Folk Museum of Korea inside, a tour of the palace complex is a must.
The ancient Bongeunsa Temple dates back to 794 and sits on Sudo Mountain in the affluent Gangnam-gu district of Seoul. The Buddhist shrine is a popular attraction where tourists can engage in a program that allows them to “live” like a monk within the temple grounds.
COEX Mall is across the street from Bongeunsa Temple but could not be more dissimilar. The behemoth underground mall provides a perfect glimpse into hyper-modern Korea. Seoul is a city on the cusp of every digital and technological trend and COEX Mall is a wonderful vantage point from which to take it all in. Bring comfortable shoes however. The mall features over 250 commercial shops, 800 restaurants, a multiplex, aquarium, Kimchi Field Museum, Game Park and receives over 100,000 visitors on weekdays.
Historic Namdaemun Market provides more old-school authenticity from COEX Mall, with traditional stalls that in some cases have been in operation by the same family for generations.
For tranquil escape from the rush of urban Seoul, Namsan Park has the remedy. The mountain peak in the Jung-gu district provides stellar panoramas of the city, with easy cable car access. As the location of the N Seoul Tower, Namsan is never hard to spot.