World ? Asia ? South Korea ? Seoul

Seoul: Introduction

Seoul is a rambling, crowded, and exciting metropolis. First-time visitors may have trouble with the congestion (both automotive and human) and the smog, but the city has many wonderful things to offer. Recent city government attempts to clean up the traffic and the smog have been somewhat successful. The addition of "bus-only lanes" (marked on the left side of the street by a solid blue line) and the development of Cheonggyecheon, a stream that flows through the city's center, have improved the look and feel of the metropolis.

Located in the northwest part of the country, Seoul is bordered by eight mountains and the level plains of the Han River, which bisects the city. Seoul occupies an area of about 605 sq. km (251 sq. miles), but is the second-most densely populated city in the world (just behind Tokyo). With a population of over 10 million, it's home to 25% of the country's population. The greater metropolitan area is home to almost 23 million residents, or roughly half of South Korea's population.

Seoul became the capital of Korea more than 600 years ago, when King Daejo moved the capital from Gaegyong to Hanseong (one of Seoul's many former names) at the end of the 14th century. The palace and the city walls were constructed in the 1390s at the foot of Bugaksan (Mt. Bugak), north of Han-gahng (the Han River). Even with the city's well-constructed walls and the natural defense provided by the mountains, in 1592 Seoul was taken over by Japanese troops during the Imjin Waeran and the Gyeongbokgung palace was destroyed. In 1635 the capital was overrun again, this time by Manchus.

Gyeongbokgung was fully restored in 1867, but parts of it were again torn down by the Japanese when they reasserted their dominance in Korea in 1895. In fact, they built a huge Western-style capital building directly in front of the palace in 1923.

The final blow to the city came during the Korean War, when Seoul was nearly reduced to rubble by the fighting. But like a phoenix, Seoul rose from ashes. In just four decades, thanks largely to aggressive economic policies in the 1960s and 1970s, the city has become the international powerhouse it is today. In the 1990s restoration got underway on some of Seoul's most important historic buildings -- a project that continues to this day -- and the Japanese capital building was finally torn down.

Although I've watched the city transform itself, I find that I hardly recognize the modern capital it has become. Love motels have been built on the former site of neighborhood playgrounds, open market stalls have given rise to giant megastores, and the once predominantly vegetarian and seafood cuisine has become focused on meat. What used to be Asia's best-kept secret for great deals on merchandise is now blown wide open and Seoul has become a world-class shopping city, with high prices to boot (though bargains can be found in traditional markets and tucked around street corners in quieter neighborhoods).

Still, the charm of the city lies in its contradictions and surprises. You'll see well-heeled fashionistas eating spicy-red ddeokbokgi (rice-cake sticks) from tarp-covered stalls. Centuries-old palaces maintain their stately serenity under the shadows of downtown skyscrapers. Little old ladies still jostle you as they haggle their way through open marketplaces. Even with the world's best Internet infrastructure, some of the most complete cellphone coverage anywhere, and modern cafes dotting the landscape, parts of Seoul still maintain its distinctly Korean flavor.

There is much to explore here, and I have no doubt you'll come to love this ever-changing city as much as I do.

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