Niels Footman describes the delights of day-to-day life in this truly ancient, aggressively new metropolis
Picture the scene: you’re a bustling, fiercely ambitious city with at least 2,000 years of history and, by some measures, the second-largest population of any metropolitan area in the world. You are the headquarters for a string of globe-straddling electronics giants, with a feisty and diverse arts scene that has rippled across much of the region. You have achieved one of the most astonishing economic successes of the 20th century, transforming from post-war rubble to riches in scarcely four decades. And yet, outside of East Asia, most people would struggle to find you on a map, never mind name one of your famous areas or landmarks.
And what a shame that is. Because while the South Korean capital, Seoul, may never win any gongs for urban beauty, there can be few cities in the world that combine the fantastic and the familiar, the rough and the refined, the traditional and the ultra-modern to such giddy, restless effect. Everywhere you go in Seoul, the collision between a long, dilatory history and the crashing, sharp-elbowed arrival of modernity shapes the city and its people. In the enchanting city-centre palaces whose vast, serene grounds are encircled by 16-lane roads; in bustling Jongno and Gangnam districts, where vendors hawk dizzyingly high-tech mobile phones right next to tents housing goateed fortune tellers; and in the modern, ultra-reliable subway system, whose most fearsome passengers are pensioners for whom etiquette means not trampling on your feet after they’ve barged you out of the way.
To most visitors, the overwhelming first impression of Seoul may be of a city where any semblance of tradition has been hastily concreted over in a mad rush to functional, if visually unappealing, modernity. Yet even among the neon-drenched streets of shopping havens such as Myeongdong, you are never more than a block away from a poky side street where every restaurant sells old-style omelettes, or from a gloriously down-at-heel watering hole serving rice wine in metal pots. Amid all the comforts of the ubiquitous Starbucks and US restaurant chains, it is the familiar pleasures of street-side food vendors that will often draw the biggest queues of Koreans.
Do a bit more searching, and Seoul yields plenty more. Tucked away in improbably quiet spots around the city, ancient Buddhist temples offer rare moments of quiescence amid truly beautiful forested mountains. In Hongdae and Daehangno, Seoul’s ever-more-boho youth unleash their creativity in a blizzard of theatres, music venues and nightclubs. Look hard enough, and you’ll even discover islands of urban allure in the sea of soulless high-rises: in artsy Samcheong-dong, concrete towers are replaced by charming, eaved-roof structures housing boutiques, galleries and old teahouses. Seoul’s long past and rollercoaster present have passed many people by. They shouldn’t any more.
Getting there Emirates flies to Seoul daily from Dhs6,785 return, including taxes.
Seoul is located on the Han River, about 40km inland of South Korea’s north-west coast.
Climate Cold winters and hot, humid summers, alongside temperate springs and autumns.
Ethnic mix Overwhelmingly ethnic Korean, some Chinese.
Major sights The ‘Five Grand Palaces’ (of which Gyeongbukgung is the grandest), Cheonggyecheon Stream, War Memorial, Jogyesa Temple, National Museum of Korea, Jongmyo Shrine, N Seoul Tower, Insa-dong, the historic Dongdaemun Gate and surrounding fashion market, 63 Building.
Insiders’ tips Samcheong-dong, Garosugil, Heyri Art Village, Namhansanseong Mountain Fortress in Gyeonggi Province, Songbuk-dong, Bukchon Hanok Village.
Where’s the buzz? Hongdae, Itaewon, Myeong-dong, Daehangno.
Most famous foods Kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), bibimbap (steamed rice, vegetables and red pepper paste), bulgogi (marinated barbecued beef), naengmyeon (cold noodles served in ice with radish, slices of Korean pear, bits of beef and a boiled egg), samgyetang (chicken broth made with ginseng).
Historical milestones Designation of Seoul as Joseon Dynasty capital in 1394, March 1 Independence Movement, Korean War, Park Chung-hee’s military coup in 1960, 1987 pro-democracy movement, 1988 Summer Olympics, 2002 football World Cup.
Number of noraebang (karaoke rooms) in the city 6,733
National sport Taekwondo.
Main sporting arenas Olympic Stadium, World Cup Stadium.
Exports Electronics (Samsung), cars, films, pop singers.
Amount of Canada you could buy if you sold Seoul 75 per cent, exorbitant real-estate prices being a common complaint.