At first glance, Seoul appears to be a sprawling concrete mass of high-rise apartment buildings and modern buildings interspersed with historical treasures. But on closer investigation, the city can be divided into numerous smaller districts with their own distinct character. The primary landmark is the Han River, which runs east to west and bisects the metropolis.
Chongno forms the center to the north, surrounded by five main tourist districts, and there are two other districts of interest to visitors to the south, all of which are easy to access by the convenient and economical subway system. Very few streets have names, however, and buildings are not always numbered, so the easiest way to find a place is by locating the nearest subway station or landmark.
At the heart of Seoul, the Chongno and Kwanghwamun areas have long been considered the political, economic and cultural center of the city. They cover approximately two square kilometers from City Hall Station and Kwanghwamun in the west to Chongno 5-ga and Ulchiro 4-ga Stations in the east. Here you will find an astonishing contrast of old and new. Ancient royal palaces and cultural inheritances, such as Doksu, Kyongbuk and Changgyong palaces, the National Museum and Chogyesa Temple, surround the downtown area of Chongno, which bustles with people enjoying movie theaters, stores and restaurants. Chongno and Kyobo bookstores, Lotte Department Store and the Millennium Plaza are all within easy reach. Government offices, embassies, and corporate headquarters are located here. Because the weather can be quite severe in the winter times, Seoul literally has an underbelly of shopping malls beneath the streets. These range from small malls containing 100+ shops (see picture below) to mega underground malls in areas such as the COEX.For those of you not familiar with the South Korean economy, much like Japan, it is dominated by large conglomerates that have businesses in every major facet of the economy. Companies such as Samsung own the entire semiconductor chain to end consumer devices such as flat panel TVs and cell phones. They even have an investment bank! Another company is Lotte. Originally best known for their department stores, they have all manner of additional services including restaurants, groceries, cinemas, etc.Tapkol and Sajik parks provide respite from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, and Insadong – a street famous for traditional tea houses, art galleries and antiques–runs north of the district’s main street. Just south of Chongno is the Namdaemun/Myungdong area, at the Hoehyon and Myungdong Subway stops. Namdaemun—literally “great south gate”—is the name both of the impressive stone and wood structure which still stands at the center of the intersection, and also of the large market nearby.Since 1414, Namdaemun Market has been a lively place where merchants and buyers gather to bargain over a wide variety of goods. Just east of here is the fashion mecca of Myungdong, always full of young people trying on the latest styles. To the south, you can enjoy some green space and take a cable car up to Seoul Tower, or take in the dinner theater at Korea House.
Dongdaemun (“great east gate”) is the district immediately east of Chongno, famous for the Dongdaemun Market where you can buy discounted brand-name items and outdoor wear/equipment. Dongdaemun Stadium is also located in this area. Northeast of Chongno at Hyehwa Station is the Taehangno district, also known as the Broadway of Korea. Relax in Marronnier Park, where you may see improvised performances for free. Good restaurants and outdoor cafes abound here, and you will even find traditional fortune-teller tents along the street. As the previous site of Seoul National University, this is still a place for youth, as well as those interested in performing arts.
West of Chongno, the lively university district spreads along the Ehwa University, Shinchon and Hong-ik University subway stations. Shinchon is known for its 24-hour bars, cafes and restaurants, where students (and others) go to chat, dance and eat. The nearby Ehwa Women’s University area is full of jean shops, hairdressers, and clothing stores. By contrast, Hongik University, with painted murals along its walls, has a slightly different feeling. Clothing shops are few, replaced instead by restaurants, nightclubs, rock bars and live cafes. You can experience the Korean underground music culture at small clubs in this area.
Southwest of Chongno, near Samgakji Station, Itaewon is the most Americanized district in Korea, located near the U.S. military base. You can be sure English is spoken here, and you also will find the highest concentration of non-Koreans and Koreans mingling in the street. American capitalism is rampant throughout South Korea and its still up to debate as to whether its a good or bad thing. Whenever possible, the stores have been modified to suit local tastes but one can not help but notice a Starbucks, McDonalds, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts on every street corner!
After shopping for Western-brand clothing and shoes or for local souvenirs, you can relax in one of the many restaurants and cafes here, which serve both Korean and non-Korean food. And to learn more about the country’s military history, be sure to stop by the War Memorial Museum while you are in Itaewon.
South of the Han River is the Apkujung district, centered around Apkujung Station (Line 3) and exuding youth, fashion and wealth. Known as the most expensive place to buy property in Seoul, it is nicknamed the “Beverly Hills” of Korea, home to exotic cafes, unusual bars and unique fashion. The Hard Rock Cafe and other theme bars are located here and is heavily frequented by business men. Karaoke bars and the like are a very key part of the after hours life of Korean businessmen. Lots of drink, fruit and female companionship are available while you do deals!
On my most recent trip, a very well dressed man came up to me and asked in perfect English if I would be interested in a department store girl. He said its very common in Korea and then proceeded to explain how he does it all the time he goes to the US. I told him I had no idea where he shopped in the US but clearly he and I did not share the same shopping habits!
Nearby the Apkujung district is Chongdong, an area popular for food. A fairly new entertainment and culture center, the Kangnam district—literally “south of the river”—attracts people of all ages. Cafes, restaurants, clubs, music stores and movie theaters flank the wide tree-lined street near Kangnam Station. Don’t come expecting historical sites, but instead come for the stores, fashion and modern atmosphere. Within a few subway stops, you can also visit the COEX Mall, Seoul Sports Complex and the Seoul Arts Center. Most business people spend the vast majority of their time here as many of the large Korean and multinational corporations have offices in this area.