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Time Out In Seoul

Published: May 24, 2011
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Korea is a great place to see ancient cultures, try intriguing foods and shop the local markets – even if you are on a limited schedule. Don’t have much time, but still want to see the sights? Here are 10 places you don’t want to miss on a stopover:

1. Get a bird’s-eye city view atop Seoul Tower, a landmark that can be seen virtually anywhere in the capital. Built on a 262-metre peak in Namsan Park, the tower features an observation deck, and several exhibition halls including one with pictures of old Seoul and local birds.

2. Shoppers can’t wait to tour Seoul’s markets and shopping districts. After 600 years, Namdaemun, a traditional market, is still open for business. There really is nothing you can’t find in the 5,400 small shops that sell items ranging from traditional crafts to textile and utensils.

Insa-dong street was where painters learned and practiced their art during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It’s a great place to pick up culturally significant items like the hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), hanji (traditional paper), pottery, handicrafts, local teas and paintings. Art events and festivals are held regularly along the street.

The night market in the Dongdaemun area comes alive between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Here, vendors from across the country come and buy goods ranging from fabrics to clothing, imported goods and gloves to sell in their stores. Myeong-dong is one of the busiest places in Seoul offering both international and local products. Over 1 million shoppers pass through here daily.

3. See how Korean royalty once lived at several well-preserved palaces around Seoul. Gyeongbokgung Palace, circa 1395, was built when the capital was moved to Seoul at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty. It is said to be the grandest and most beautiful palace in the country. Inside are the Geunjeongjeon, the royal throne hall for official functions and Korea’s largest surviving wooden structure; the Jagyeongjeon, the Queen’s living quarters; and one of the most photographed and painted places in Korea.

Gyeongheoru Pavilion is the largest pavilion in South Korea and stands within a man made lake. Korean culture and history are on display at the National Folk Museum. Elaborate changing of the guard re-enactment ceremonies are held several times a day on the palace grounds.

Of the five palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung is the best preserved. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in 1412. Fifty years later King Sejo added a Biwon (secret) Garden, a landscaped backyard where the royal family could relax and entertain. Changdeokgung has been home to 13 kings over a 270-year period.

4. Hop aboard the luxurious Seoul City Tour Bus to get a quick overview of the city. Three different routes stop at most of the city’s popular attractions including Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Tower, Insa-dong, Namsangol Traditional Folk Village, and shopping venues like Namdaemun Market and Myeong-dong. Each bus seat is equipped with personal audio systems and LCD screens. With a one-day pass, passengers can hop on and off at their leisure, and enjoy free or discounted admission into museums, exhibitions and concerts.

5. Learn about 5,000 years of Korea’s the military history at the War Memorial of Korea. Indoor exhibits feature weaponry from the Paleolithic Age; artists’ depictions of ancient wars and busts of national heroes. Outdoor exhibits offer a close-up view of the actual equipment used in the Second World War, Korean War and Vietnam War.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea, is open to guided tours. You can visit one of North Korea’s infiltration tunnels, an observatory, a military base and Panmunjeom – the Joint Security Area where on-going negotiations to end the Korean War are held.

6. Visit the recent past at Hwaseong Fortress (circa 1796), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is a testament to a king’s devotion to his father. It’s also a construction marvel of its time, built with a Korean invention, a Geojunggi (crane) and potters’ wheels to transport and assemble large stones.

From the same era, the Suwon Folk Village, just outside Seoul, is a snapshot of how ordinary folk lived during the late 18th century. There are 260 traditional houses, and craftsmen produce pottery, basket and bamboo weaving, paper, and other crafts in the workshops. The traditional marketplace offers food from various regions. Throughout spring, summer and fall, traditional ceremonies like those for coming-of-age, marriage, funeral and ancestor memorial are recreated. There are also performances featuring tightrope acrobats, music and dance.

7. You don’t need to speak Korean to enjoy a night at the theatre. The actors in Nanta use percussion and comedy to tell the story of bantering cooks who are preparing a wedding banquet. It’s great fun when kitchen utensils, furniture, even the food, are turned into musical instruments along the way. JUMP is a family story that combines comedy with martial art movements, acrobatics, gymnastics and music.

8. The sky’s the limit at 63 City, Korea’s tallest building that boasts views of the Han River and the surrounding mountains. This 63-storey office building also houses a 504-seat IMAX theatre and Sea World, a collection of 80 aquariums and a reptile exhibition.

9. Soothe your travel-frayed nerves at a Buddhist temple. Temple stays offer experiences like meditation, communal vegetarian meals and ceremonies like temple services and a traditional tea ceremony.

10. Immerse yourself in a Jjimjilbang (bath house) and sample Korea’s popular version of the spa. Different rooms offer different activities such as a noraebang (karaoke) or an exercise area, plus a series of rooms with temperatures ranging from icy cold to sweltering. You can stay overnight – an interesting alternative to a hotel.

Food For The Soul
Korean cuisine is a colourful, spicy and healthy experience like no other. A traditional Korean meal consists of a bowl of rice and side dishes like meat, fish, vegetables and seafood, all blended with unique seasonings. A meal is never complete without soups such as guk (soup), tang (thick soup) and jjigae (stew). Made with beef, seafood and vegetables, they are seasoned with salt, soybean sauce, and bean paste. Soups that are served most often are seaweed, bean paste, seolleongtang (beef and bone soup), and yukgaejang (spicy beef soup). Bibimbap is also a very popular dish that is served with rice and colourful vegetables.

 And then there is kimchi, the Korean national dish that appears at every meal. A combination of pickled raddish or cabbage and spices, each region has its own variation. Kimchi is reputed to have many health benefits. Containing Vitamins A and C, and lactic acid legend says kimchi will cure whatever ails you.

Koreans take this dish very seriously. According to a local cookbook from 1943: “To Koreans, kimchi is next to rice. No matter how sumptuous a feast may be, it cannot be complete without kimchi. Our palate is accustomed to kimchi; it cannot go without it. It is indeed precious.” It is indeed.

Fast Facts
Getting There: Via Korean Air and Air Canada from Vancouver and Toronto.
Getting Around: From Incheon International Airport, Airport Rail Express (AREX) connects with the Seoul/Incheon Subway system. The subway system uses T-Money cards that can be topped up at any subway station. Temporary cards can be purchased from the stations. It takes about 33 minutes to get from Incheon to Gimpo Airport (Seoul) and Seoul Station on the subway. Taxis and buses are available at affordable prices.
Visa: Not required for Canadians staying less than 180 days.
Currency: Korean Won. Canadian bank cards with Plus or Cirrus logos can be used at global ATMs to withdraw cash in local currency. Major credit cards widely accepted.
Electricity: AC 220 volts, uses two-pronged adaptors.

For More Information: Korea Tourism Organization (Toronto), Tel: 1-800-868-7567 or (416) 348-9056,  Websites: www.visitkorea.ca, www.visitkorea.or.kr

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