Seoul

Short history

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was founded in 18 BC by the Baekje people. Initially known as “Wiryeseong,” the area that is now Seoul served as a central point for political, economic, and cultural activities. Its status as a Korean capital city was cemented during the Joseon dynasty.

In the early 20th century, Seoul underwent great transformations, emerging from the shadows of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) to become a symbol of revitalization and advancement. Following the end of World War II and the Korean War (1950-1953), the city embarked on a path of reconstruction, laying the foundations for economic resurgence. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a remarkable economic boom, catalyzed by government-led industrialization policies, culminating in Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, a statement of its arrival on the global stage. This era of rapid development reshaped its skyline with modern architectural structures.

Geography

Seoul is located in the northwest part of the country, by the Han River. Situated at the core of the Korean Peninsula, this city holds a significant position not only within South Korea but also in the wider scope of Eastern Asia.

It’s circumscribed by eight mountains, with urban sprawl spanning across plains. This geographical features contribute to its humid continental climate, characterized by hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters. The city experiences its hottest period in July and August, while the coldest times are in January and February.

As the administrative and political center of South Korea, Seoul is the seat of government and a critical node in the country’s economic and cultural network. The city is enveloped by the Gyeonggi Province but retains its distinct administrative and political status equivalent to that of a province. 

Population

Seoul is home to over 9.7 million people, according to the latest data from the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This metropolis is predominantly Korean, with ethnic minorities including Chinese, forming less than 1% of the population.

The culture in Seoul is a mix of ancient traditions and cutting-edge modernity, with the city’s residents celebrating traditional festivals like Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) alongside global music phenomena such as K-pop. Despite its rapid modernization, Seoul has managed to preserve its heritage, visible in its palaces, temples, and traditional hanok houses.

The majority of the population identifying as having no religious affiliation. However, Buddhism and Christianity are the most practiced religions among those who do.

Language in Seoul is primarily Korean, with the Seoul dialect considered standard Korean. English proficiency is increasingly common, particularly among the younger generation.

Main sights

  • Gyeongbokgung Palace: Often referred to as the “Northern Palace” due to its location, Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty. 
  • N Seoul Tower: Standing on Namsan Mountain in the center of Seoul, this communication and observation tower provides panoramic views of the city. 
  • Bukchon Hanok Village: A traditional Korean village in the heart of Seoul, preserving a collection of well-maintained hanok (traditional Korean houses).
  • Myeongdong Shopping Street: Renowned for its extensive range of shops, from high-end retailers to unique local boutiques, Myeongdong is a paradise for shoppers.
  • Cheonggyecheon Stream: An 11 km long, modern public recreation space in downtown Seoul. Initially covered by infrastructure, the stream was restored and reopened in 2005. 
  • Insadong: A neighborhood known for its traditional tea houses, shops selling antiques, handicrafts, and Korean art supplies. Insadong is a cultural district where visitors can experience the artistic heritage of Korea.
  • Lotte World Tower: Standing at 555 meters, this 123-floor skyscraper is the tallest building in South Korea and the fifth tallest in the world. The tower features a luxury hotel, observation decks, retail shops, and offices.

Food

  • Kimchi – Fermented vegetables, primarily napa cabbage and Korean radish, seasoned with chili pepper, garlic, ginger, and a variety of additional flavors. A staple in Korean cuisine, it accompanies almost every meal.
  • Bibimbap – A comforting bowl of warm white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables, chili pepper paste (gochujang), soy sauce, or doenjang (a fermented soybean paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat are common additions. The ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating.
  • Bulgogi – Thin, marinated slices of beef or pork grilled on a barbecue or on a stove-top griddle. The marinade is a blend of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper, creating a savory, slightly sweet flavor.
  • Tteokbokki – A popular street food consisting of chewy rice cakes in a sweet and spicy gochujang-based sauce, often with fish cakes, boiled eggs, and scallions. It’s known for its addictive taste and texture.
  • Samgyeopsal – Unseasoned pork belly slices that are grilled at the table. Diners wrap the meat in lettuce leaves, adding garlic, salt, and a dab of ssamjang (a thick, spicy paste).
  • Jajangmyeon – A noodle dish topped with a thick sauce made of chunjang (a salty black soybean paste), diced pork, and vegetables. A staple in Korean-Chinese cuisine, it is savory and mildly sweet, often enjoyed on special occasions or as comfort food.

Fun facts

  • Seoul is home to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the splendid Changdeokgung Palace Complex.
  • The city’s N Seoul Tower, sitting atop Namsan Mountain, changes colors to indicate air quality levels: blue for good, green for moderate, yellow for unhealthy, and red for very unhealthy.
  • Seoul prides itself on the world’s largest indoor theme park, Lotte World, enabling year-round entertainment regardless of the weather outside.
  • The Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid, is known for its futuristic design and serves as a primary center for design and fashion events.
  • The city is the birthplace of K-pop, a global musical phenomenon, with Seoul’s Gangnam district famously celebrated in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” 
  • Seoul’s metropolitan area houses the world’s longest bridge fountain, the Moonlight Rainbow Fountain on the Banpo Bridge, which displays dazzling light shows, adding to the city’s nightlife.