Welcome to Seoul, the capital of the Republic of South Korea.
For decades the city known as The Miracle of The Han, kept its head down, barely raising a ripple as the country rebuilt in the decades following the Korean War.
Today, Seoul has re-emerged as an economic powerhouse and the epicentre of Hallyu, a Korean wave of culture that is sweeping the world’s smartphones, food halls and dance floors. But Seoul wasn’t always so outgoing.
In the 14th century, a 12-mile fortress wall encircled Korea’s ancient capital; its gates closed each night to keep marauding Siberian tigers and invaders at bay.
Since then the city has spilled out far beyond and above its great city gates and Guardian Mountains. 21st century Seoul is a city where glass and steel towers and the ancient curves of palace roofs coexist. It’s a city where the brushstrokes of the past and contemporary public art tell stories of tradition and inspiration.
Coming to grips with Seoul’s incredible size and sweeping narrative can be a little daunting, so start your adventure at the K-Style Hub, a state-of-the-art visitor centre. Where South Korea’s past, present and future converge, from the latest in K-Pop to its timeless national parks, from the cutting edge of K Design to culinary traditions which have taken centuries to perfect.
And while you’re here, why not slip into the traditional dress. Dressing up Hanbok-style doesn’t just put you in touch with Koreas proud past, it also gives you free admission into many of Seoul’s most revered historic places.
The great leader sits before the grandest of Seoul’s five royal palaces, Gyeongbokgung, the Palace of Shining Happiness.
A residence of Joseon Dynasty rulers from the late 1300s until 1910, the palace has endured fires, invasion, and wars.
Wander through the palace’s ornate gates, pavilions, halls and throne room, which in accordance with Confucian principles, are perfectly balanced by the simplicity of the pine-covered mountain backdrop.
Take a short bus or subway ride to the east, to explore the adjoining palaces of Changdeokgung and Changgyeongung, which are separated by a simple stone wall.
In the tranquil confines of Changdeokgung’s secret garden, sit for a while by the pond where kings once paused from royal duties and dramas to write poetry beneath the ginko, walnut and plum trees.
To the south at Deoksugung Palace, see the changing of the guard which takes place three times each day.
Then explore the eclectic mix of palace buildings, such as the pavilion where coffee-loving King Gojong enjoyed his daily cup, paving the way for his country’s future caffeine obsession.
But it’s in Seoul’s busy streets where the past and present really rub shoulders, and where the two Korean loves of shopping and food go hand in hand.
Close to Seoul’s Great South Gate, step into Koreas largest marketplace, Namdaemun Market, where locals have been bargaining hard for over 600 years.
Looking for some Gangnam style? Head just upriver to the Samseong-dong, whose exclusive boutiques and wide boulevards have made it the Beverly Hills of Seoul.
Namsan is one of Seoul’s Guardian Mountains, marking the southern limit of the ancient capital. The city has long since grown around it and today the mountain has become one of the city’s favourite green getaways.
At Namsan Botanical Garden, follow the winding paths through fields of wildflowers and pine forests.
Then hike, or take the cable car to the peak, and take in the sweeping views from the old city walls or from Seoul’s iconic tower.
Running right through the busy heart of downtown Seoul, another landmark has also been given a new lease on life. After centuries of neglect, Cheonggyecheon Stream has been transformed into a 7-mile corridor of serenity and creativity.
Take time out just a few feet from some of the city’s busiest streets, in a space so quiet you can sometimes hear the sweet sounds of bird song and whispering lovers.
On returning to Seoul, spend a little time at the War Memorial of Korea to truly appreciate the scale and trauma of the Korean War, a conflict that tore a country in two, involved 22 nations, and cost millions of lives.
Besides displaying all the usual machinery of war, above all, this is of place of remembrance, longing, and determination.
When the sun gets low and the city lights up, locals gather on the banks of the Han to see the Banpo Bridge erupt in waves of water and light.
It’s in moments like these that South Koreans reflect on life’s possibilities, and are reminded that they are capable of anything they put their minds, imaginations and hearts to.
And Seoul, The Miracle on The Han is certainly proof of that.