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Seoul - Attractions

Guardian in temple gate


As well as its colourful nightlife, Itaewon is a great place for shopping, with low prices and bargaining the norm. If you have the time to look you'll find worthwhile items among the mountains of junk and winners of bad-taste souvenir awards (like the glow-in-the-dark Buddhas with 'Seoul, Korea' emblazoned on their foreheads).

There's a good range of shoes such as Nikes and Reeboks on sale as well as T-shirts, mugs and stickers with unusual and sarcastic slogans (such as 'North Korea - where's the beef?'). Leather jackets are a speciality, as are the bomber jackets so favoured by the military.

Joseon Dynasty Palaces

The palaces still standing in Seoul were built during the 500-year Joseon dynasty, beginning around the late 14th century. The emperors built a string of palaces and monuments to their own greatness, and although the number left standing has diminished over time, the remainder will keep even the most ardent royal watcher busy for a few days. They are all square, built on a north-south axis and are surrounded by high walls - the layout owes a great deal to Chinese geomancy.

Today's royals live at Changdeokgung, and you can visit it only on a guided tour. The paparazzi will be disappointed - parts of the palace grounds are off limits, but a tour is worthwhile if only to see the beautiful Biwon (Secret Garden) - 32 hectares (79 acres) of ponds, pavilions, ancient gnarled trees.

The Deoksugung Palace is the smallest of the palaces in Seoul, but it has served as the royal residence twice in its history; once for 15 years after the 1592 sacking of the capital, and again from 1897 to 1907 by King Gojong. The entrance to the palace is through the Daehanmun Gate opposite the Seoul Plaza Hotel.

Originally built in the 15th century during King Sejong's reign, the buildings of Changgyeonggung Palace are modest in size. The oldest structure, the throne hall, dates from 1616, while the splendid botanic garden glasshouse is almost a century old. The Joseon kings used to plant and harvest rice at the location of today's scenic pond. They did this to keep in touch with the nation's agricultural roots. Changgyeonggung suffered the ultimate indignity during the Japanese occupation of being turned into a zoo.

Namsan Park

Mt Namsan once marked the southern extent of old royal Seoul, and you can still see remains of the city walls within the park's boundaries. The peak used to be crowned with fortifications, but they are long gone and have been replaced by the Seoul Tower. The tower reaches 483m (1584ft), making it the third tallest in the world and one of Seoul's landmarks. It houses two restaurants (one of which is revolving), an observation deck, and a booth where you can have a photograph printed onto a T-shirt inscribed with the words 'For the precious love'. It's really well worth the effort.

If you like that sort of tourist-oriented action, you could also visit the Aquarium, Ocean Life Museum, Funny World, Game Room and Natural Stone Exhibits, all housed in the tower. In the western part of the grounds of Namsan Park is the Namsan Botanical Gardens, which are worth a stroll. Also check out the library and the odd statue nearby. It's an easy, downhill walk through a pleasant residential area to get back into town.

Old Seoul

The central and northern neighbourhoods are probably the most interesting areas of Seoul; their olde-worlde atmosphere is in stark contrast to the surrounding modern city. The whole area was once reserved for the nobility, and is home to most of Seoul's royal palaces, as well as numerous tiny alleyways with traditional tile-roofed homes. Some of the traditional homes have beautiful stained-wood doors graced with ornate brass doorknocks. You can walk around the quaint residential area and the Gyeongbokgung Palace in about an hour, starting at Gyeongbokgung Station.

Also in this area are several teashops and galleries, such as the Yoon, Hyundai, Kumho, Kukje and the wistfully named Growrich. They all feature the work of local contemporary artists, and it's worth your while to have a little explore. You can check out the National Folk Museum while you're here too.

War Memorial Museum

This large and interesting museum documents the many attacks on Korea by the Mongols, Chinese, Japanese and others. It's a miracle that the country survived. Every Friday (March to December) at 2pm, a military band plays and a marching parade takes place, culminating in an awesome display of military precision.

Despite its name, this is a fully-fledged museum and one of Seoul's best. It traces the history of war in Korea, from the Three Kingdom period to the Korean War, and includes a section on Korea's involvement in the Vietnam War. It houses over 13,000 items, including a number of large aircraft parked outside. All the 'great victories' are there in English translations, but the defeats at the hands of the Japanese are there only in hangul script.

Yeouido Island

Yeouido is the administrative and business centre of Seoul, and touted as the city's answer to Manhattan. During the week there's little to see, as the office buildings fill up and the streets are eerily deserted. On Sunday the enormous Riverside Park is packed with picnickers frolicking in the swimming pool; in spring, autumn and winter the pool becomes a roller/ice rink.

At the far northwestern end of the island is the ugly National Assembly building, which may not be worth the effort unless you are interested in contemporary Korean politics. The Korea Stock Exchange is also here. Sunday services at the Full Gospel Church are a huge multimedia event, and with about 50,000 of the faithful, the church claims to have the largest congregation in the world. The glamorously named KLI 63 building, with 60 storeys above ground and three below, is Korea's tallest, and houses an aquarium, an Imax theatre and an observation deck on the top floor, although the views aren't as good as from the Seoul Tower.

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