- Seoul Metropolitan City (서울특별시; Seoul-si)
- 605 km² (234 sq mi)
- 9,588,711 people (1st of 162)
- 15,843 folks per km² (41,035 per sq mi)
- is the capital of South Korea.
- is Korea’s most populous city.
- claims the headquarters of most Korean corporations.
- houses the biggest K-Pop labels.
- boasts the most awe-inspiring cultural relics.
Though it hasn’t always been the capital, Seoul’s history also summarizes Korea through time. Let’s take a tour of Korea’s densest city.
Before diving into Seoul’s past and notable neighborhoods, let’s get our facts straight.
Seoul sits on the upper western edge of South Korea. Sixty (60) kilometers (37 miles) east of the Yellow (West) Sea (황해). Fifty (50) kilometers (31 miles) south of the DMZ, the well-guarded border to North Korea.
The wide Han River bisects the heart of the city. However, only recreational boats use the waterway because the mouth of the river sits on the DMZ.
Seoul, Special City
Seoul’s official title is Seoul Special City (서울특별시). What does that mean?
Like states in the U.S., Korea has nine provinces (do; 도). Each province holds counties (gun; 군) and cities (si; 시).
Cities with over a million people can apply for a metropolitan city designation. The title liberates them from provincial oversight. Metro city mayors wield power equal to provincial governors. And metro cities can set their own infrastructure and bureaucratic agendas.
If you look at a map, you’ll see small territories punched from the province’s boundaries. These are Metropolitan Cities, including:
- Busan (부산)
- Daegu (대구)
- Incheon (인천)
- Gwangju (광주)
- Daejeon (대전)
- Ulsan (대전)
- Sejong (세종; Special Self-Governing City)
Seoul does one better. It’s the only city with the title “Special City.” What does it mean? Well, it has the most people, money, and powerful politicians. Why not give yourself a fancy title?
People trickled out of the city in the past decades. But Seoul ranks first in population and density, with 16,000 souls packed into every kilometer.
But Seoul claims all the best jobs and cultural highlights. Why has it sprung a people leak?
Seoul absorbed more and more outlying cities as it ballooned during the Miracle on the Han years (1961~1997). To prevent the concrete blob from spreading further, beginning in the 1970s city leaders tied a greenbelt around the outside of the city.
The greenbelt established protected natural spaces along the perimeter of the city. It also fixed the boundaries of Seoul.
What happens to a commodity’s price — home/apartment prices, in Seoul’s case — once it becomes fixed, but necessary? It spirals every upward.
Like America, the people who can’t afford, or don’t possess a sleepless city temperament, move to the burbs.
These burbs aren’t your prototypical cul-de-sacs, picket fences, and green lawns. They often look like any other apartment block in Seoul. What’s the difference? Price.
Koreans call these smaller commuter cities “bed towns” (베드타운). As in, Seoul is your office town. And Suwon (수원시; Suwon-si), or Seongnam (성남시; Seongnam-si) or Hanam (하남시; Hanam-si) is where you keep your bed.
Over the years, these “bed towns” formed the Seoul Capital Area (수도권). Including Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province, this Homo sapien hotspot holds over 26 million, 51% of South Korea’s total population (51 million).
Most Seoulites come from Korea. Like 97.4%. However, Seoul holds 20% of Korea’s foreigners.
Around 264,000 expats live in the capital. Many are laborers from close-by nations. A good chunk are English teachers from native English-speaking countries.
Many Koreans classify themselves as non-religious. However, Confucianism and Buddhism guide cultural and social norms. Here are the approximate stats (from 2015):
- 4,400,000 (46%) of about 9,400,000 are religions.
- 1,000,000 (11%) practice Buddhism.
- 2,300,000 (24%) follow Protestant Christianity.
- And 1,000,000 (11%) attend Catholic Churches.
Protestant Christinas in Seoul only make up a quarter of the population. However, they are the most dedicated to their religion. They often have an outsized influence in politics and business.
Seoul’s economy is the whale in South Korea’s bathtub. It accounts for 22.3% of the nation’s overall GDP. Let’s run through the numbers.
Cost of Living
Because of cheap interest rates and dwindling land, the average price per square meter of home is 10 million won ($8,600). That’s out of reach for most middle-class Seoulites, who rake in about 3.27 million won ($2,900) per month.
Most of Korea’s chaebols (재벌) — giant, family owned corporations — call Seoul home, including:
- Samsung (삼성) — electronics, appliances, insurance, ($221 billion revenue in 2019)
- LG (주식회사 엘지) — electronics, chemicals ($56 billion revenue in 2019)
- Hyundai (현대자동차) — car manufacturing ($88 billion in revenue in 2019)
- SK Group (SK그룹) — energy, telecommunications ($96 billion revenue in 2019)
- Lotte (롯데 그룹) — food, shopping, entertainment ($3.4 billion in revenue in 2019)
However, Yeouido Island (여의도) claims the title of Korea’s mini-Manhattan or “Korean Wall Street.” Sitting near the southern banks of the Han River, Yeouido hosts a secondary office for the Korea Exchange (KRX) and the headquarters of Korea’s largest banks.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Seoul once boasted a strong blue-collar workforce. Rows of shoe, textile, and fabrication factories filled neighborhoods. However, as Seoul’s fortunes increased, so did the whiteness of everyone’s collars.
Today Seoul’s workforce sits in office buildings. Armed with years of schooling and diplomas, they toil in service jobs, including finance, information technology, and international business.
However, Seoul still makes room for traditional industries, like printing, and food and beverage processing. The headquarters of Oriental Brewery (오비맥주), Seoul Milk (서울우유), and Nongshim (농심) settle in the city.
Which country boasts the fastest internet? South Korea and Seoul often reach the top of the list.
- South Korea — Mobile: 186.06 Mbit/s (2nd); Broadband: 241.58 Mbit/s (2nd).
- United States — Mobile: 82.04 Mbit/s (18th); Broadband: 191.97 Mbit/s (11th).
- China — Mobile: 149.40 Mbit/s (4th); Broadband: 172.95 Mbit/s (16th).
- Germany — Mobile: 67.74 Mbit/s (29th); Broadband: 120.93 Mbit/s (35th).
- *Figures from 2021
Why? Two reasons.
The Korean government views internet access as a utility. Not a luxury. So they dump gobs of capital building out gigabit networks and enabling free city-wide Wi-Fi hotspots.
Second, most of Seoul lives in high-rise apartments. It’s simpler and cheaper to string fiber optic cable up a wall to congregate units than connecting single-family houses via underground pipes.
Seoul has an extensive network of easy and economical public transportation. Roads, however, live in perpetual rush hour purgatory.
About every other Korean citizen owns a car. And though roads dominate almost every terrestrial meter, Seoul’s high population often equals traffic apocalypse..
When is it the worst? Weekends. And weekdays. Heading into Seoul on the Gyeongbu Expressway Friday at 2 PM? Your grandpa, bad knees and all, pass you and get most of his shopping done in Gangnam before you reach city limits.
That’s why we recommend exploring Korea by Bike.
All expressways lead to Seoul. The city claims the first and widest express in South Korea:
- Gangbyeon Expressway (강변북로) and Olympic Boulevard (올림픽대로) run parallel to the north and south banks of the Han River.
- Gyeongbu Expressway (경부고속도로) is Korea’s first modern, cross-country expressway. It starts just south of Seoul’s city limits and follows the same route as the Gyeongbu Railroad, hitting Daejeon, Daegu, Ulsan, and Busan in the southeast.
- The Capital Region First Ring Expressway (수도권제1순환고속도로) travels a 128 km loop around Seoul city limits. It speeds commuters to Seoul’s “bed towns.”
Subways may be the pride of Seoul’s public transit. But city buses are its true workhorse: reliable, flexible. They carry passengers (not bikes) to every destination in and around Seoul for reasonable rates.
Seoul color codes its buses.
- Yellow Buses (Circulation) run on main roads and follow a circular route, stopping at most stations. (₩1,200 cash; ₩1,100 with transportation card)
- Red Buses (Rapid) are the fastest category. Designed to speed commuters to satellite cities, they make only a few stops. (₩2,400 cash; ₩2,300 card. Late night buses: ₩2,250 cash; ₩2,150 card).
- Blue Buses (Mainline) also carry passengers to “bed towns,” but make more stops than red buses. Private companies operate them. (₩1,300 cash; ₩1,200 card)
- Green Buses (Branch) run short routes from subway stations to connecting bus stops. (₩1,300 cash; ₩1,200 card).
- Small Buses (마을버스; Maeul Bus) are community buses that scoot along smaller, neighborhood roads. They run circular routes through less serviced areas. (₩1,000 cash; ₩900 card).
Seoul Station (서울역) is the largest passenger rail hub in Korea. Trains of all ilk — KTX (high-speed), ITX (medium speed), mugunghwa (무궁화; slow-speed) — flow from the center of the city on the Gyeongbu Line (경부고속철도) down to Busan (부산시).
- Regular taxis cost ₩3,800 for first two kilometers.
- ₩758 every additional kilometer.
- Deluxe and jumbo taxis start between ₩3,900 and ₩6,500.
- Between ₩1,220 and ₩1,401 every additional kilometer
Riding between 12 AM and 4 AM? Expect a 20% surcharge for regular taxis. (Delux taxis don’t charge extra for late night.)
(There’s a 0.01% chance your friendly (screaming) taxi driver opens his trunk for your greasy bike.)
Where is the epicenter of Korea’s culture? Which city has all the top-tier museums and performance spaces. Do you need to ask?
Seoul has been the capital of the peninsula since 1392. It holds countless cultural treasures, from UNESCO designated sites, to museums with the largest budgets.
Japan burned down many of Seoul’s grand palaces — Gyeongbok (경복궁) and Changdeok (창덕궁) — during the Imjin War (임진왜란; 1592~1598). And the Korean War (한국전쟁; 1950 ~ 1953) reduced Korea’s other architectural relics to rubble.
However, dedication and a booming economy helped Korea build back better. Seoul’s historians, architects, and artists recreated these cultural treasures.
Where do fans hunt down their favorite celebs?
Visit the Gangnam district south of the river. Attached to the COEX Mall, the SM Entertainment complex offers a museum, multi-story gift shop, and holographic concert.
Drop by Korea’s walk of fame: K-Star Road (K스타로드) in the Apgujeong Neighborhood (압구정동). They don’t have stars and handprints. Instead, three-meter tall GangnamDol statues with oversized heads display the name of famous bands.
Check out our breakdown of Seoul’s notable neighborhoods below.
History of Seoul
The history of Seoul mirrors all the important bits of Korea’s history.
For millennia, the city crowned the peninsula’s most important natural infrastructure: the Han River. Seoul passed between political enemies, suffered through wars, and then reborn into one of the world’s densest and wealthiest metropolises.
Open your books. Let’s take a spin through the history of the Korean capital.
In the 1970s, Archaeologists discovered remnants of settlements in Seoul dating back 4,000 years. Those who populated these villages lived as fisher people and foragers.
Around 700 BCE bronze tools, fishing nets, and farming practices invaded the region. These innovations stabilized food supplies, allowing the ancient people to build larger communities and gain disposable time to try pottery and painting.
Discovered in the 1970s, the area produced 5th and 6th century BCE artifacts. Archaeologists even recreated an ancient village to exhibit these ancient peoples’ cribs.
Here’s a quick list of Korea’s political timeline.
- Three Kingdoms Period (삼국시대; 57 BCE ~ 668 ACE)
- Kingdom of Baekje (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE)
- Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE)
- Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE)
- Unified Silla Period (통일신라; 668 ~ 935)
- Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 ~ 1392)
- Joseon Dynasty (대조선국; 1392 ~ 1897)
- Korean Empire (대한제국; 1897 ~ 1910)
- Japanese Occupation (일제강점기; 1910 ~ 1945)
- South Korea (대한민국; 1945 ~ Present)
- The Korean War (6.25 전쟁; 1950 ~ 1953)
Han’s First Kingdom
Near the start of the first millennium, kingdoms and clans organized on the Korean peninsula. One of the original groups, the Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE), occupied the territory where North Korea lies today.
What about Seoul? What political group was the first to settle this area. Keep reading!
The Two Princes
According to legend, just before the era of three kingdoms era (삼국시대; 57 BCE ~ 668 ACE) in Korea, the founder of Kingdom of Goguryeo, King Dongmyeong, had three sons: Yuri (유리왕), Biryu (비류), and Onjo (온조왕). As the oldest, Yuri was the heir to the throne.
What about Biryu and Onjo? Their desires reached beyond an endless line of concubines. They had ambitions of their own.
So both headed south until they reached the Han River.
The Two Capitals
(Onjo named the kingdom Baekje (백제) after the one hundred (백; baek) vassals that followed him south.)
Biryu settled downriver just on the Yellow Sea. He called his capital Michuhol (미추홀), where present-day Incheon sits.
Biryu soon discovered sea salt tainted the soil around his new settlement, killing crops, starving citizens.
Biryu marched upriver to Wiryeseong and demanded the throne to Onjo’s thriving kingdom. Onjo refused. So Biryo said sorry. Then asked for help.
The battle did last long. Onjo’s troops fought with full bellies. Biryu’s troops’ gullets rattled empty.
In defeat Biryu committed suicide. And Onjo’s Kingdom of Baekje cemented its status as a major power for hundreds of years.
Master and Commander
The Han River was more than fertile farmland for Baekje. The Kingdom expanded and grew by taking advantage of their access to the Han River and Yellow (West) Sea.
Baekje’s maritime power and prowess let the kingdom forge connections with Japan, annex smaller tribes, and chip away at Goguryeo, their mother kingdom.
North and South Settlements
Archaeologists found Wiryeseong (위례성) fortifications on either side of the Han River. They concluded pressure from local clans forced Baekje to move a few times during its reign.
The most prominent of Baekje’s ruins sit on the southern banks. To fortify against invading kingdoms, you can find the earthen walls of:
For hundreds of years, these three kingdoms wrestled for control of the Korean peninsula.
- Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE) is, as legend says, the kingdom from which Baekje sprang. They controlled much of the northern Korean peninsula and modern day China.
- Kingdom of Baekje (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE) is the first major Kingdom to settle the Han River. Known for their naval fleet, they controlled the southwestern part of Korea.
- Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE), the weakest of the three kingdoms, used diplomacy to gain strength. They held the southeastern tip of the peninsula.
Both the kingdoms of Goguryeo and Silla looked upon Baekje with hungry eyes. Why?
The Han River basin. This natural resource had:
- thousands of acres of fertile soil.
- trade routes to China and Japan.
- a centralized location on the peninsula.
- and a network of tributaries that extended deep into the peninsula.
And pretty soon the covetous kingdoms came a-knockin’.
Here Comes Father Goguryeo
King Jangsu (장수왕) of the Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려) made the first move in the 5th century ACE. His troops invaded the eastern reaches of the Han River and cut Baekje off their inland villages.
The balance of power shifted on the peninsula when the Han River changed hands. Baekje shrank. Goguryeo leveled up.
Silla Says, What?
In the peninsula’s southeast, humble Silla watched Goguryeo’s gains. They not only took the Han River and neutered Baekje, they were kicking butt in Manchuria (Northern China).
Silla worried. But Silla waited.
Soon enough, civil scuffles erupted between Goguryeo’s local lords. Northern nomadic hordes nipped at Goguryeo’s spongy flesh.
So Silla extended a hand. They approached the wounded Kingdom of Baekje, hiding in the western mountains, and offered a deal: “Band together. Push Goguryeo back north. Share the Han River basin.” Baekje agreed.
In 551 ACE, the unified forces of Silla and Baekje punctured Goguryeo’s southern borders. Baekje reclaimed their old capital, Wiryeseong (위례성). And Silla bit off a chunk of upriver Han basin.
Silla Says, Hey!
Though the Baekje reclaimed their home turf, a wave of relief didn’t wash over. And they wanted more.
Assuming Goguryeo weakened, Baekje sent troops north to wrest more land.
Silla waited. Silla watched.
When Goguryeo beat back Baekje’s advance, Silla sent reinforcements downriver. However, orders didn’t instruct Silla’s troops to aid Baekje. They served a notice of eviction.
In 553 ACE, two years after their alliance, Silla took Wiryeseong (위례성) and sent Baekje packing back south.
Silla promised the Tang tribute. What did the Tang Dynasty send? A massive force of soldiers that helped Silla overwhelm the other two maimed kingdoms.
In 668 ACE, Silla defeated Baekje and Goguryeo and became the first political power to unite the Korean peninsula.
Capital No More
Silla abandoned Wiryeseong, Baekje’s old capital. Why?
- When a new dynasty gained control, it was bad Feng Shui to build the new regime’s capital on top of the old defeated one.
- And, Silla already had a capital: modern day Gyeongju (경주) in the southeast.
However, Silla and the succeeding Kingdom of Goryeo maintained military outposts up and down the Han River basin. They knew whichever kingdom controlled the waterway, controlled the peninsula.
Goryeo and the Summer Palace
By the 900s, civil war weakened the Kingdom of Silla. So the descendants from the two defeated kingdoms (Baekje and Goguryeo) started grassroots movements to regain power.
Goryeo and the Three Capitals
Goryeo learned from Silla’s mistakes. They knew that, while the peninsula appeared unified, their citizens’ allegiances remained fractured.
Southeastern folks had a Silla heart. Westerners tattooed Baekje upon their souls.
So, what was their solution? Three extra capitals.
- Pyongyang (평양시) was Goguryeo’s old capital; Goreyo called it the “Western Capital.”
- Gyeongju (경주시) was Silla’s ancient capital. Goreyo declared it the “Eastern Capital.”
- Wiryeseong (위례성) was Baekje’s capital. Goreyo named it the “Southern Capital.”
The population in the region stagnated in the years following Baekje’s downfall. However, builders, bureaucrats, bankers followed the royal presence and supercharged the area.
Wiryeseong was the first major settlement in the Seoul area. However, it didn’t survive the death of Baekje. Time and wars left the ancient settlement in ruins.
In 1392, Taejo of Joseon (태조) captured the Goryeo Dynasty’s crown. First on his to-do list, he needed new capital. Superstition dictated that new capitals shouldn’t sit on the ruins of old ones.
Like Silla and Goryeo Kingdoms before, ruling a peninsula amongst warring parties ain’t easy. Kings often sent troops or bureaucrats throughout the state.
Enter the Han River.
The waterway sits in the middle of the Korean peninsula. And its networks of tributaries reach deep inland and spread to Korea’s many rugged nooks and crannies.
Crops & Taxes
Like almost every past civilization, the Joseon Dynasty’s economy relied on crop surpluses to survive and expand. And what’s almost as important as growing food? Transportation.
The Han River was the Joseon Dynasty’s Highway 1. After the harvest season, rice, beans, and barley flowed towards the capital from upriver farms.
In Hanseong, ports and granaries popped up along the Han to accept the goods. These ports grew to neighborhoods that specialized in certain products.
Dongbinggo (동빙고) and Seobinggu (서빙고), near Ichon Hangang Park, earned fame for ice-making. Ttukseom (뚝섬) stored timber and munitions. And Songpa (송파), near Jamsil Hangang Park, kept rice, wood, and other products from all over the country.
Soon the city swelled with the privileged. Landowners and members of the royal court moved to Hanseong and built estates.
Diplomacy & Trade
Though the Joseon Kingdom fell “Hermit Kingdom” mode and isolated itself, it also relied on trade and tribute with nearby China and Japan to protect its borders and top off their coffers.
The Han River allowed the Joseon Kings to maintain diplomats and shiploads of goods into the Yellow (West) Sea.
When King Taejo chose didn’t choose Hanseong’s site just for money and diplomacy. He trusted neighboring kingdoms as much as a hungry tiger. So he picked a spot with natural advantages.
What were some criteria? Glad you asked.
- Nearby river.
- Natural barriers.
City planners found a perfect spot a couple kilometers north of the Han. The site sat in a basin surrounded by four 300 meter (1,000 ft) mountains. One to the north, south, east, and west:
The rocky peaks created a natural redoubt, or surrounding defensive structure. The Joseon military leaders dropped lookouts and artillery atop each mountain.
Beyond the inner mountains, four more barriers created a buffer zone:
- Mount Bukhan (북한산) to the north.
- The Han River (한강) to the south.
- Jungnang Stream (중랑천) to the east.
- Hongje Stream (홍제천) to the west.
Seoul, Fortress City
It’s hard to envision today. 20th century Seoul exploded beyond its founding boundaries. But like Washington D.C., architects planned and built Hanseong, from roads and to palaces.
And what was central to the plans? D-fence! 👏👏👏 D-fence! 👏👏👏
The new capital didn’t just rely on a few glorified hills for protection. Centuries of wars and struggle for the Han River bred paranoia. So the new Joseon leaders built some fortifications and earn the title: Hanseong (한성).
- Han River (Han; 한)
- Castle (seong; 성).
The walls weren’t just for human predators. They kept nature’s most dangerous creation out.
However majestic; however wondrous; however pitiful today; imagine a hundred years ago. Sunset robs the day of light. You and your little ones hike Namsan Mountain’s dim trails.
Stop! Notice something? Yes. A pair of reflective eyes track you from the brush. Three hundred kilograms (600 lbs) of muscle behind them.
You can’t run. You can’t scream. Hindsight washes over you. Should’ve built that wall.
Twelve (12) kilometers of walls still surround Seoul’s old districts. Designated a Historic Site, you’ll find them in parks and along hiking trails.
- Naksan Mountain Trail (낙산구간)
- Heunginjimun Gate Trail (흥인지문구간)
- Namsan (Mongmyeoksan) Mountain Trail (남산 (목멱산) 구간)
- Sungnyemun Gate Trail (숭례문구간)
- Inwangsan Mountain Trail (인왕산구간)
- Baegak Mountain Trail (백악구간)
Get a booklet. Walk the trails. Collect stamps. Bask in glory.
That’s a lot of wall! How did people get in and out? Gates!
Seoul built eight (8). Four big gates. Four small gates.
The big four sat on the north, south, east, and west of the city. The smaller four tucked into the minor cardinal directions: northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast.
At dawn guards opened the gates and let citizens pass. But come sunset, large bells warned residents of the gates’ imminent closure. Commoners didn’t have to go home, but they couldn’t stay there.
The Big Gates
- Sungnyemun (숭례문) a.k.a. Namdaemun (남대문), or the South Big Gate.
- Heunginjimun (흥인지문) a.k.a. Dongdaemun (동대문), or East Big Gate.
- Sukjeongmun (숙정문) a.k.a. Bukdaemun (북대문), or North Big Gate.
- Donuimun (돈의문) a.k.a. Seodaemun (서대문), or West Big Gate. Destroyed during the Japanese Occupation.
The Small Gates
- Changuimun (창의문) a.k.a. Buksomun (북소문), or the Northwest Small Gate.
- Hyehwamun (혜화문) a.k.a. Dongsomun (동소문), or the Northeast Small Gate.
- Gwanghuimun (광희문) a.k.a. Namsomun (남소문), or the Southeast Small Gate.
- Souimun (소의문) a.k.a. Seosomun (서소문), or the Southwest Small Gate. Destroyed during the Japanese Occupation.
While almost all the gates fell to wars and arson, the city rebuilt six and designated them national treasures.
The Old City
What dwelled inside the fortress walls? The seat of power of the Korean peninsula, from the royal palaces to bureaucratic offices.
But architects didn’t just toss buildings in the inner sanctum like carrots into a stew. They employed a little geographical Feng Shui (풍수).
- Laid streets in a rectangular pattern.
- Placed the royal palace (Gyeongbokgung; 경복궁) in the north-center of the city.
- Sat the royal shrine (Jongmyo; 종묘) east of the palace.
- Positioned the royal alter (Sajikdan; 사직단) west of the palace.
Seoul preserved the core elements of Joseon’s old capital. Let’s flip through the countless shrines, palaces of immeasurable importance.
Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁; Gyeongbokgung; 1395), Korea’s most photographed royal residence, creates one of the major focal points in the Jongno District. It rests at the end of Sejong-ro (세종대로), with the bare-faced facade of Bugaksan (북악산) rising behind.
Gyeongbok was the Joseon Dynasty’s first palace. Construction started when King Taejo founded Hanseong.
Japan burned the palace to the ground during the Imjin Wars (1592~1598). The king moved into Changdeok Palace, leaving Gyeongbok in ruins for a few hundred years. After a partial rebuild, Japan demolished the complex again during their occupation (1910~1945).
Changdeok Palace (창덕궁; Changdeokgung; 1405) sits a kilometer east of Gyeongbok Palace. The only palace designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the structures gained renown for harmonizing with its natural surroundings.
After Japan destroyed Gyeongbok in 1592, Changdeok became the royal family’s primary residence for 270 years.
During their occupation, Japan leveled most of the complex and built a zoo. Korea reconstructed the palace in the 20th century.
Built to be a common royal house, the king conscripted the buildings following the Imjin Wars. Japan had destroyed Gyeongbok, and he needed a temporary residence.
Succeeding kings used Deoksu as a secondary palace. Today, visitors drop by for its changing of the guard ceremony and the complex’s mix of Eastern and Western-style architecture.
At one time over a hundred buildings formed Gyeonghui Palace (경희궁; Gyeonghuigung; 1623). Known as the “Western Palace” because it sat west of Gyeongbok, the vast compound acted as an auxiliary palace.
Accidental fires and the Japanese Occupation destroyed many of the original structures. But Korea restored many of the halls and added premier museums.
A Shrine, A Stream, and Some Houses
The old city offers more than palaces. Let’s wade through a few more of Seoul’s Joseon Era wonders.
Like Gyeongbok Palace, King Taejo, Joseon’s founding king, built Jongmyo Shrine when he founded Hanseong. The shrine is the oldest Confucian shrine in Korea.
And like Gyeongbok, Japan destroyed it in the Imjin War (1592~1598). But unlike Gyeongbok, the emperor rebuilt the complex (1601) after Japan skedaddled.
Jongmyo remains a central cultural monument. Korea still performs yearly rituals at the shrine.
Cheonggye Stream (청계천; Cheonggyecheon) flows below Jongmyo Shrine. It branches off Jungnang Stream (중랑천) — a Han River tributary — and runs eleven (11) kilometers (6.8 mi) until it collides with Sejong-ro (세종대로).
During the Joseon Dynasty, city planners dredged, widened, and lined the banks of the stream with stones. This drained flood water from the old city center.
After the Korean War, Seoul poured concrete into the ancient stream and built a raised highway.
In 2003, the mayor of Seoul removed the concrete and restored water flow. Now, adorned walking paths, cranes, and fountains, tourists and Seoulites alike stroll the steam.
A few ancient Hanok villages live in Jongno District. These neighborhoods of traditional Korean houses provide unique views of the country’s past architecture and life.
Some neighborhoods feature newer hanoks (1910s). Some boast structures dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.
- Bukchon (북촌) holds Joseon-era structures between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces. More below!
- Insa-dong (인사동) is a hanok village north of Cheonggye Stream. It is famed for its art and antique stores. Joseon’s the Art Academy (Dohwaseo; 도화서) once lived in the.
- Ikseon-dong (익선동) is a hyper trendy neighborhood of west of Jongmyo Shrine. Brunch restaurants and hip shops transformed hanoks into contemporary hangouts.
- Seochon (경복궁서측) are hanok houses west of Gyeongbok Palace. Known for scenic pavilions at the foot of Inwang Mountain (인왕산).
- Unhyeon Palace (운현궁) was the residence Gojong, the last Joseon emperor. Seoul converted the grounds into a cultural space.
- Donhwamun Road (돈화문로; a.k.a. King’s Road) stretches between Heunginjimun Gate and Changdeok Palace. It includes Pimatgol Alley (피맛골) and Sulla Road (순라길).
- Seongbuk (성북동) rests at the foot of Mount Bukhan (북한산). It’s altars and rows of hanoks were the first outside the old city to receive hanok village designation.
- Eunpyeong (은평구) rests west of the old city. Green spaces, mountains, and streams fill space between new and old hanoks.
Because the village sits above Jongmyo and Cheonggye Stream, its name translates to “North” (buk; 북) “Village” (chon; 촌). Upper-class government officials resided in the old neighborhood.
Today entrepreneurs converted swaths of the old hanoks into galleries and cafes. However, many of the houses… houses. Real people, with bills and screaming kids, live in them. On busy days you’ll spot professional shushers with yellow vests warding off loud gawkers.
The Imjin Wars
Hanseong’s natural and artificial fortifications did their job for the first two hundred years. They protected the seat of the Joseon Kingdom.
Toyotomi’s goal? First, conquer the peninsula. Then chip away at the Ming Dynasty’s territory in China.
Within four months, the Japanese army — hardened by continual years of internal conflicts — marched from Busan all the way to Hanseong (Seoul).
The towns who resisted along the way? Generals ordered everyone, everything slaughtered. Men, women, and children. Cats and dogs.
Having heard of the invaders’ brutality, the Joseon King, his royal subjects, and most of the capital grabbed anything not tied down and fled north.
How did the Japan take the capital?
When the Japanese forces reached Hanseong’s gates, they found them barred shut. No one home. So they jimmied open a floodgate, crawled inside, and hit the unlock button.
Japanese troops occupied the Hanseong for much of the war. During that time, they tried to erase Korea’s legacy. They razed:
- Gyeongbok Palace
- Changdeok Palace
- Changgyeong Palace
- Jongmyo Shrine, which preserved the legacies of Joseon’s kings and queens.
Mighty Ming Stirs
The Ming Empire in China received regular tribute from the Joseon Dynasty. In return, they promised military support. And now that Japan controlled half the Korean peninsula, Ming mustered a few thousand troops and drove them south.
It’s always better to fight a war on foreign soil than domestic. And with Japan’s unchecked advance, Ming turf was next.
Japan captured Korea’s major settlements. However, with Ming’s Chinese troops competing in the battlefield, a mix of equal powers stalled progress on all sides:
- Japan dominated the land war. +10
- China sent several thousand reinforcements. +4
- Admiral Yi Sunsin’s (이순신) commanded a swift and superior Joseon Navy that included Korea’s famed turtle boats. +4
- The Korean townspeople did not capitulate the invaders. They fought back, with both hard and soft force. +3
Let’s do the math. 10 – 10 = Stalemate.
For four years, the Joseon Navy attacked and cut off Japanese reinforcements along Korea’s south coast. Chinese troops engaged Japanese. But no territory changed hands.
And more and more Koreans died. Infrastructure, farms, heritage sites, burned.
Japan, the Ming and Joseon Dynasties reached a shaky truce in 1596. However, a year later Japan invaded a second time. Same result: stalemate.
In 1597, Japan’s Toyotomi kicked. Japan rethought their imperial policy and pulled out.
When Japan left the peninsula, they poured salt in Korea’s fields. They torched civil and tax records, upending social order. And they level most of Korea’s identity-defining treasures.
Later Joseon Dynasty kings grew suspicious of the outside world. They limited foreigner access to the peninsula, earning Korea the moniker “Hermit Kingdom.”
By the 1800s, however, the outside world insisted.
- 1866: The French invaded Ganghwa Island to retaliate against slain Catholic priests.
- 1871: The United States attacked Ganghwa Island investigating a sunk merchant ship.
- 1875: Japan lured Korea into a conflict and forced the dynasty into a one-sided treaty.
- 1904 ~ 1905: Russia and Japan tussled for control over Korea and parts of China.
Joseon Dynasty’s last ruler, King Gojong (고종), watched and worried. He saw mega powers from the east and west wield advanced military and civil technology.
Bridges and Streetcars and Electricity, Oh My!
Hanseong won the flagship infrastructure projects.
- Workers installed electric lights in Gyeongbok Palace in 1897.
- Hanseong Electric Company plugged in and lit the capital, the first city in east Asia to do the electric slide 1898.
- With Hanseong’s new voltaic superpower came telephones, telegraphs, and trolley cars.
- Hangang Railway Bridge (한강철교) began in 1898 and completed in 1900. It became the first modern bridge to cross the notoriously wide Han River.
Japan began encroaching into Korea’s economy and politics towards the end of the 1800s. By 1910, they drew the noose tight and annexed Korea.
So Japan started with their closest neighbor: Korea.
Step One of the Colonizer Handbook
Want to colonize a nation? What’s the first step? Exploit its resources.
Once Japan installed a puppet government, they took the reins from the Korean Empire and continued modernizing Korea’s infrastructure and industries.
They installed thousands of kilometers of paved roads. They expanded Korea’s railroad network and erected more bridges across the Han in Hanseong.
Korean farms and fisheries, Japan mandated they adopt modern technology and techniques. This multiplied Korea’s fish and crop output.
Wow! Not too bad!
Well, Japan didn’t update transportation networks and lend their agrarian expertise to fill the wallets and bellies of your average Korean.
The roads and railroads flew the boosted production to the ports, where boats waited to export back to Japan.
The result: Japan’s coffers overflowed. Korea’s bowl sat empty.
Step Two of the Colonizer Handbook
Manufacture an identity crisis.
Japan remembered the Imjin Wars four hundred years earlier. They still felt the thousand cuts from Korea’s insurgency.
So the imperial overlords dismantled Korea’s heritage. First, they renamed the capital “Keijo” (京城) or “Gyeongseong” (경성). Then they began taking things down.
Bye, Bye Royalty
Japan started by erasing the royal palaces.
- They tore down 90% of Gyeongbok Palace’s buildings, constructed exhibition halls, and moved Gwanghwamun Gate (광화문).
- They demolished Changgyeong Palace and created a botanical garden and zoo.
- They disassembled Gyeonghui Palace, shuffled its buildings around the city, and built a Japanese school on top of the old site.
- They mangled Changdeok and Deoksu Palaces.
Jongmyo Shrine, and Changdeok and Changgyeong Palaces occupied a continuous royal exclusion zone. Sacred walking paths led between the Shrine and palaces.
When Japan remodeled, they demolished the sacred paths and severed the royal zone with a road (Yulgok-ro; 율곡로).
Bye, Bye Walls
From 1429 until 1910, the population of Hanseong (Seoul) increased from 100,000 to 250,000.
Wow! It more than doubled! Let’s compare those numbers with other famous cities:
- Hanseong: 1400s = 100,000; 1910 = 250,000 — 150% increase
- Paris: 1400s = 280,000; 1911 = 2,888,110 — 930% increase
- London: 1400s = 50,000; 1911 – 4,997,741 — 9,900% increase
Step Three of the Colonizer Handbook
Subjugate the People.
Japan occupied Korea for thirty-five (35) years, till the end of WWII. During that time, they conscripted Korean men into the army and forced Korean women into sexual slavery.
Japan kidnapped between 200,000 and 500,000 Korean women between 1932 and 1945.
First, officials forced the women into brothels catering to the Japanese Imperial Army. Later, they lost their salaries and lived with daily systematic rape.
Japan shipped these “Comfort Women” throughout Japan’s colonial outposts, including Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. As the war worsened, soldiers often brutalized and killed the women.
In 1939, Japan conscripted hundreds of thousands of Koreans. During the six years of war, in factories and mines, these laborers toiled in unbearable conditions. Lack of food and medical care killed 60,000 out of 670,000 workers. 9%.
In the late 1940s, the two superpowers carved up the freed world. Communist forces took Eastern Europe, China, and middle Asia. Democratic powers claimed western Europe and Japan.
Both north and south leaders claimed to be the legitimate government of Korea. Both disagreed over the other’s legitimacy.
The Upper Hand
Today most recognize North Korea as one of the world’s poorest. At the dawn of war, however, they had more troops, land, and natural resources than the South.
South Korea wasn’t so close with the United States, their superpower backer. America used the nation as a buffer between Japan and the communist bloc. They didn’t station many troops on the peninsula, nor equip the ROK with the latest in defense hardware.
June 25th, 1950, the North Korean Army (KPA) blitzed through the South’s (ROK) lines. Armed with modern tanks and artillery, they reached the outskirts of Seoul within two days.
June 28th, panicked ROK leaders demolished the main bridge across the Han River. This killed 500 to 1,000 refugees and trapped an entire division of ROK soldiers on the wrong side.
The bridge’s destruction didn’t slow the KPA’s advance, though. They hopped over the river the same day and kept their tanks rolling south.
Late to the Game
When the Northern Army crossed into the South, President Harry Truman concluded that if Korea fell, Japan might be next.
As Macarthur scrambled to send troops and equipment over the East Sea, Truman went to congress and asked for money. He drained his budget building up a nuclear arsenal.
The Surge South
- United States: 540 soldiers. Zero tanks. Zero anti-tank matériel.
- The KPA: 5,000 soldiers. 36 tanks.
- No contest.
August 1950, the KPA rolled southward. They blasted through UN Command’s ever descending front lines, their pew-pew-puny caliber rounds bouncing off tanks like bugs on a windshield.
North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, dictator and military leader, convinced himself he’d dominate the peninsula by August. So, even as the KPA’s supply chain stretched thin, he ordered his army to keep rolling south.
Then he let the dogs loose. The U.S. AirForce and Navy bombarded roads, supply depots, and railways. Anything that moved or enabled movement.
The KPA stalled.
From August to September 1950, South Korea fortified a new border: the Pusan (Busan) Perimeter. This 230 kilometer (140 miles) battlefront, loosely defined by the Nakdong, fell under constant attack by KPA forces.
Battle of Incheon
A fog of bleakness rolled over South Korea. It maintained a pinky toenail grip on the peninsula.
However, General MacAuthor had a plan.
Most of the KPA concentrated their forces along the southeastern Pusan Perimeter. So why not swing around the peninsula? Slip into an undefended spot. Maybe the coastal city Incheon (인천광역시; Incheon-si), right next to Seoul.
September 16th, 1950, armed with tanks and artillery, the UN Forces blasted out from behind the Pusan Perimeter. KPA forces turned and dashed back north.
Late September 1950, UN troops from the Incheon landing and Pusan Perimeter converged on Seoul. They retook the capital within six days.
The Surge North
With the South’s capital retaken, the UN Forces matured into the peninsula’s dominant army. And with great power comes great reciprocity.
October 1, 1950, UN Forces hopped over the 38th Parallel into North Korea.
The Northern Army had lost hundreds of tanks and hundreds of thousands of men in their initial invasion. Fatigued in body and spirit, the KPA’s lines resisted like soaked newspaper.
October 19, 1950, UN Forces captured Pyongyang (평양시), North Korea’s capital.
Like the KPA, they didn’t stop. They marched towards the Yalu River (압록강), the Chinese border. And like the KPA commander, General MacAuthor’s grew hungry eyes. He made plans to invade Communist China.
China Enters the Chat
China advised North Korea during the war’s opening stages. Now, they watched and worried.
Kim Il-sung squandered his advantage. Now the poked American boar galloped north unimpeded. They knew they’d need to put troops on the Korean peninsula before the UN ripped Manchuria to meat scraps.
October 19, 1950, Chinese Communist Forces (PVA; People’s Volunteer Army) snuck across the Yalu River, ambushed UN Forces in the night, then retreated into the mountains.
General MacAuthor believed these attacks an anomaly. The PVA retreated to China. Glory lay up ahead. He’d unite the Korean peninsula then send his troops home to eat Christmas dinner with their families.
Late November 1950, UN Forces puttered northward. An overwhelming force of PVA soldiers crouched and waited. With Soviet airplanes dropping bombs overhead, the PVA overwhelmed the UN and pushed them back to the 38th Parallel.
The combined KPA and PVA forces doubled their efforts to rid the peninsula of capitalist dogs. However, just like the year before, the rapid southern advance broke their logistical capabilities. Meter-deep, pockmarked roads kept fresh men and munitions far from the front lines.
Between February and March 1951, UN Forces regathered, surged north and kicked the KPA and PVA out of Seoul. The city’s fourth and final regime change.
By July 1951, the war’s front lines settled along the … 38th Parallel. The original border.
The war churned for two more years. Day and night, the U.S. AirForce bombed North Korea. Battles broke out along the border. Not a nation gained an inch.
What three apocalyptic years fighting sow?
- 137,899 soldiers killed; 450,742 wounded; 32,838 missing.
- 373,599 civilian deaths; 229,625 wounded; 303,212 missing.
- 36,574 soldiers killed; 103,284 wounded; 3,737 missing; 4,439 POWs.
- 508,797 soldiers killed; 226,000 injured; 120,000 missing and imprisoned.
- 406,000 civilians killed; 1,594,000 injured; 680,000 missing.
- 197,653 soldiers killed; 383,500 injured; 25,600 missing or imprisoned.
The United Nations Command included seventeen counties, from Luxembourg to Ethiopia. Every nation lost troops.
About 2,730,000 non-combatants died over the Korea War’s three years. Why?
Both the North and South Korean forces wiped entire sections of the populace.
- The Bogo League Massacre perpetrated by South Korea killed 60,000~200,000 suspected communist sympathizers.
- North Korea executed 900 doctors, nurses, and patients during the Seoul National University Hospital Massacre.
- In a miscalculated air bombardment, U.S. Forces killed 160 civilians in the No Gun Ri Massacre.
A Leveled Capital
Between 1950 and 1951, Seoul lived through five battles, changing hands four times. Each succeeding skirmish ground more of the city’s neighborhoods and infrastructure into dust.
The war’s collateral included:
- 191,000 buildings.
- 55,000 houses.
- 1,000 factories.
The Miracle Years
After the war, Seoul found itself in the middle of a dark ocean. The twin sharks of poverty starvation circled below. The only way to survive? Swim.
- Seoul lay in ruins.
- An obliterated economy robbed citizens of their jobs.
- The wartime president’s old-school ideas slowed the county’s progress.
- And the capital’s population ballooned with refugees and returning expats.
However, a miraculous wave formed below the surface. When it crested, it would bring rapid economic expansion to Seoul and Korea.
A New Kind of Dictator
But life during peacetime revealed his flaws. His policies stagnated the economy. His father-leader-knows-best attitude led to rigged elections and corruption.
In 1960, a group of university students protested stolen elections. Rhee ordered police to open fire, killing 186. This ignited more protests and led to Rhee’s resignation only a week later.
The next year saw a revolving door of unpopular replacements and untrusted politicians.
Park Chung-hee had a clear vision of Korea’s future. Beginning in 1961, he instituted a Five-Year plan to dig Korea out of its economic ditch.
What were the goals of the plan? Industrialize, educate, and employ. The military junta leader:
- built roads, railroads, ports.
- improved agriculture output.
- developed core industries, like oil refinement, cement, iron, and steel.
- created schools to teach both the young and old basic trades.
- tried to give everyone a job.
By the 1970s, Korea soared past agriculture and simple manufacturing. They developed into producing complex goods, like electronics and ship building.
How did Park Chung-hee pay for these massive economic and social programs? Wasn’t South Korea one of the poorest nations on earth?
The nation had two advantages: people and a dark past.
So Park Chung-hee offered his experienced, communist hating troops. From 1964 to 1973, Korea sent 350,000 troops to Vietnam.
What did South Korea get? Over $235 million in aid.
Japan abandoned the Korean peninsula after they lost WWII. One thing they couldn’t take with them? The businesses Japanese entrepreneurs built.
Blessed by (and patronage paid to) Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, enterprising Koreans erased the Japanese company names and scribbled their family name overtop.
Trickle Down Love/Hate
When Park Chung-hee rose to power, he vilified and prosecuted chaebols. He labeled them a part of the Rhee’s corrupt regime.
Chung-hee was no communist, though. He knew South Korea’s drowning economy needed that competitive, go-go-capitalist spirit only private companies can excite.
So, he fined the family businesses… Then he gave them tons of money.
Where did the money come from?
Chung-hee helped chaebols secure foreign loans. And if they couldn’t pay their debts, he put up Korea’s treasury as collateral.
Meaning, the largest chaebol’s money pipes tapped into South Korea’s reserves. They drank their milkshake.
What did these chaebol’s do for such economic benefits? They followed Chung-hee’s succeeding Five-Year Plans.
South Korea’s economic policies mandated when chaebols moved into more complex and profitable businesses.
- 1st Five-Year Plan (1962~1966): build electrical infrastructure and improve agricultural output.
- 2nd Five-Year Plan (1967~1971): pivot to steel and petrochemical manufacturing.
- 3rd Five-Year Plan (1972~1976): grow electronics, machining, shipbuilding industries. Continue petrochemicals and advanced metals production.
- 5th Five-Year Plan (1982~1986): expand beyond chemical and heavy manufacturing and into consumer electronics (TVs & camcorders), semiconductors, and precision machinery.
- 7th Five-Year Plan (1992~1996): punch through into top-tech industries, including microelectronics, advanced chemicals, biotech, and aerospace.
Chung-hee gave more than just money to chaebols.
First, he closed the door to foreign businesses. Tariffs and heavy regulations placed on foreign companies made it impossible for international competitors to enter the South Korean market.
Then, to speed up Research & Development, he encouraged chaebols to acquire foreign tech and expertise. Often, companies paid Japanese engineers fistfuls of dollars to hop over to Korea on the weekends to lend their know-how.
Whales in a Kiddie Pool
- Samsung — 30%.
- Hyundai — 8%
- LG — 6%
- SK — 8%
- Lotte — 2%
With all that wealth and power, typical companies employ boards of directors to meld minds and make responsible decisions.
What about chaebols? Most kept trillion won (billion dollar) resolutions within the family. (Remember, chaebol means “wealthy family.”)
Seems risky? You bet. Don’t even think about inheritance. It could ruin the country.
From 1962 to 1997, South Korea’s economy went from dead last to just outside the top ten.
Here’s some numbers:
- In 1960, GDP per person was $158.25 (or $1,366.81 in 2019).
- In 2019, GDP per person was $31,846.22 (a 2,230% increase).
- Korea’s population went from 25 million (1960) to 51 million (2019).
- In the 1960s, South Korea received billions in foreign aid.
- In 1996, South Korea joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and began donating foreign aid to other countries.
The Great Seoul Expansion
Seoul reinforced itself as the epicenter of the nation during Korea’s massive economic overhaul.
But local leaders didn’t drive the city’s destiny. President Park Chung-hee stole Seoul’s policy making keys and transformed the post-war city under federal control.
The count multiplied after Japan tore down Seoul’s walls and increased Korea’s industrial output. By World War II (1939~1945), the city reached 900,000.
During the Korean War (1950~1953), however, Seoul’s five city-leveling battles whittled the population below 200,000.
A people bomb exploded in the capital once the war cooled. Yes, Seoulites returned to their pre-war hometown. But also:
- An overwhelming number of expats returned to Korea and settled in Seoul.
- North Korean refugees that escaped across the DMZ filtered into Seoul.
- Homeless South Koreans migrated to Seoul looking for opportunity.
By 1960, Seoul’s population ticked over two-and-a-half (2.5) million. That’s an eleven-fold increase in just seven years.
The population big bang didn’t stop in the post-war world. Like a magnet, Korea’s rapid industrialization brought hordes to cities.
In 1990, Korea’s premiere metropolis reached its high mark. Ten million souls. A quadrupling in only thirty years.
How did Seoul deal with the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses?
Seoul kept to the north side of the Han River until the mid-1900s. However, under Chung-hee’s orders, the city transformed into The Blob in the 1960s.
Its borders burst. It hopped over the Han and snatched chunks of territory to the east and west, grabbing parts of:
- Yangju (양주시) to the north.
- Bucheon (부천시) to the west.
- Gimpo (김포시) to the northwest.
- Siheung (시흥시) to the southwest.
- Gwangju (광주시) to the southeast.
Much of Seoul’s purloined land remained rural for years. However, in 1966, Seoul turned its sights on the swampy swath below the river, a.k.a. Gangnam (강, gang: river; 남, nam: south).
Throughout the 60s and 70s, the city built roads and bridges to Gangnam. Then they moved government institutions, including the National Assembly, and threw up rows of apartments.
People and developers followed. The extra leg space allowed speculators to erect the best 20th century consumerism offered: department stores, skyscrapers, convention centers.
By the 2000s, these southern districts came to represent affluence. They account for half the population and tax base of Seoul.
Someone even made a song to commemorate the area.
The downpour of people in the 1960s almost broke the city’s infrastructure.
But two things saved Seoul in the early days.
- Korea’s rapid economic development.
- Park Chung-hee’s Five-Year Plans redirected money to the roads, sewers, and electric grids on the verge of collapse.
The upgraded infrastructure kept the lights on. But the government prioritized economic progress over ecological conservation.
By the 1980s the land and waterways around Seoul choked with pollution.
In 1981, the Olympic Committee chose Seoul to host the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
Seoul was a mess. Upriver farms and factories dumped every unmentionable into the Han River. Wetlands around Seoul withered and died.
To prepare for the international audience, the Korean government instituted the Han River Development Plan (한강종합개발).
Besides constructing Olympic facilities, the plan banned dumping, built better sewage systems, and gave first aid to the collapsing ecology.
This green space limited development on 452 square-kilometers (175 sq mi) of terrain around the perimeter of Seoul, including hills and mountains taller than a hundred meters. It also:
- protected natural environments from the ever expanding metropolitan city.
- forbade development of factories and high-rise apartments on the land.
- provided space for parks, farms, forests, and fisheries.
By 1977, every metropolitan city in Korea installed some version of a Green Belt around their city limits.
However, over the years Seoul’s green belt restrictions grew unpopular. Why?
- Less land for development skyrocketed real-estate prices.
- Urban sprawl just hopped over the Green Belt into Seoul’s satellite cities.
Korea’s president relinquished parts of the Green Belt to build Olympic venues in 1988.
Just Another Renaissance
As cost-of-living climbed into a low-oxygen atmosphere, public pressure on elected officials cut larger slices off the Green Belt.
But, Seoul hasn’t abandoned green spaces.
- continuing the Han River cleanup.
- redeploying wetlands to regulate the river and support wildlife.
- creating parks and landmarks along the river in Seoul to attract citizens outdoors.
Like New York, London, and Paris, Seoul’s breadth and diversity make the mega-city feel like an entire nation.
Overwhelming? Let’s take a quick tour of Seoul’s most notable neighborhoods.
First, we’ll explore the districts North of the Han River; then the districts on the Southern Banks.
Seoul is special. In fact, it’s named “Seoul Special City” (서울특별시). Let’s look closer.
Seoul has two of administrative categories:
- Gu (구) are districts.
- Dong (동) are neighborhoods within districts.
Seoul’s districts behave like tiny cities unto themselves:
- Residents elect district mayors and legislators.
- They have their own flag and logo.
- They partner with sister cities around the world.
Districts are further divided into dongs (동) or neighborhoods. Seoul has 424 total.
Neighborhoods or “dongs” arise if an area’s population swells. Then new civil service offices, police stations, and schools open.
Here’s a quick list of Korea’s political timeline.
- Three Kingdoms Period (삼국시대; 57 BCE ~ 668 ACE)
- Kingdom of Baekje (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE)
- Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려; 37 BCE ~ 668 ACE)
- Kingdom of Silla (신라; 57 BCE ~ 935 ACE)
- Unified Silla Period (통일신라; 668 ~ 935)
- Kingdom of Goryeo (고려; 918 ~ 1392)
- Joseon Dynasty (대조선국; 1392 ~ 1897)
- Korean Empire (대한제국; 1897 ~ 1910)
- Japanese Occupation (일제강점기; 1910 ~ 1945)
- South Korea (대한민국; 1945 ~ Present)
- The Korean War (6.25 전쟁; 1950 ~ 1953)
North Han Districts
You can refer to the territory north of the Han River in Seoul as Gangbuk (강북). The name translates to:
- Gang (강) — river.
- Buk (북) — north.
While Seoul has a district named Gangbuk (강북구; Gangbuk-gu), we’ll be looking at all the districts north of the river.
Most of old Seoul — historic Joseon structures, relics, and fortifications — haunt the regions above the Han River. But you’ll also find some uber-trendy neighborhoods.
Let’s slip comfortable shoes!
Though Japan tore the walls down in the 1910s, Jongo still holds a bundle of historic treasures in its borders.
Jongno District’s name refers to Jongno (종로), the old capital’s main east/west thoroughfare.
Bosingak (보신각), the largest bell in Hanseong, provided Jongno Road’s namesake, which translates to “Bell Street.” During Joseon’s reign, the bell announced the opening and closing of the fortress gates at sunrise and sunset.
Jongno’s historical architecture includes four of the Joseon Dynasty’s Five Palaces. Attracting millions a year, their facades are must-post social media sweet-cream.
- Gyeongbok Palace (경복궁) is Korea’s most famous royal residence. Countless ad campaigns and post cards feature the palace’s front gate and halls.
- Changdeok Palace (창덕궁) is the only Korean palace designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Changgyeong Palace (창경궁) sits near Changdeok. It’s known for simple yet elegant architecture.
- Gyeonghui Palace (경희궁) was Korea’s largest palace complex. It once included over a hundred buildings.
Today families occupy a few. Cafes and trendy clothing shops retrofitted others.
- Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌) is a village of Joseon-era hanoks between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces. It’s Seoul’s most popular Hanok Village.
- Insa-dong (인사동) is a hanok village just north of Cheonggye Stream. Many tourists visit for its art, crafts and antique stores.
- Ikseon-dong (익선동) is a trendy neighborhood west of Jongmyo Shrine. Brunch spots and hip shops transformed these 1920s era hanoks into contemporary hangouts.
Check out more must-visit highlights in Jongno.
- Jongmyo Shrine (종묘) is Korea’s oldest Confucian Shrine. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this indispensable site still performs yearly rituals.
- Cheonggye Stream (청계천) is waterway south of Jongmyo. First formed in the Joseon era, today Seoulites walk the stream’s paths and cool off by its fountains.
- Gwanghwamun Plaza (광화문광장) sits on the end of Sejong-ro (세종대로), before Gyeongbok Palace. Opened in 2009, it holds the statues of King Sejong, Korea’s most important leader, and Admiral Yi Sunsin, Korea’s most honored military figure.
- Heunginjimun (흥인지문) a.k.a. Dongdaemun (동대문), or East Big Gate, is the old Joseon capital’s best preserved fortress gates.
- Cheongwadae (청와대; The Blue House) lies on the northwestern part of the district. Completed in 1989, the complex houses Korea’s current president.
While the district is both Seoul’s smallest (9.96 sq km; 3.85 sq mi) and least populated (124,477), it might have one of the largest economic footprints.
Why no people, though? Two reasons:
- Businesses and shopping streets crowd out many apartment buildings.
- Namsan Park (남산공원) where Nam Mountain (남산) makes an oversized presence on the southern portions of the district.
Jung (중) translates to “central.” Why? It sits in the geographical center of Seoul, houses many company headquarters, and a full deck of new and old highlights.
Like the northern Jongno, the Jung District offers a grab bag of invaluable monuments.
- Deoksu Palace (덕수궁; Deoksugung) is the newest of Joseon’s Five Palaces. Once a lesser royal residence, the king converted the complex into a royal palace after the Imjin Wars destroyed Gyeongbok. Deoksu is the only palace to feature western architecture.
- Gwangtonggwan (광통관) is Korea’s oldest bank. Completed in 1909, operated today by Woori Bank, the western style building is a protected cultural monument.
- Bank of Korea Money Museum (한국은행화폐박물관), completed in 1912, hangs near Myeongdong. It was the headquarters of Korea’s Central Bank. Seoul converted the building into a currency museum and designated it a cultural monument.
Several of Seoul’s historic gates populate the Jung District. These well-preserved monuments also lend their names to local markets and designer areas.
- Sungnyemun (숭례문) a.k.a. Namdaemun (남대문), was the Big South Gate.
- Heunginjimun (흥인지문) a.k.a. Dongdaemun (동대문) was the Big East Gate.
Jung boasts Seoul’s most famous shopping district and markets.
Dongdaemun Market (동대문시장) is a traditional market nestled next to the ancient Dongdaemun (East) Gate. Open 24-hours, it’s Korea’s largest wholesale market, with producers pumping out everything, from Supreme knockoffs to sizzling mandu.
Namdaemun Market (남대문시장) sits near the old Namdaemun (South) Gate. Dating back to the 1300s, the market is one of the country’s largest. Not only does it supply locals with daily staples, many small restaurants serve traditional dishes to curious tourists.
Korea’s most well-funded cultural facilities fill-out the district’s borders. From futuristic structures, to museums, to cathedrals, here are some more important highlights.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (동대문디자인플라자; DDP) is a neo-futuristic exhibition hall with a voluptuous, curving aluminum and steel façade. The hall serves as the ultimate monument to the Dongdaemun Fashion Town, a hub of nearby clothing manufacturers and distributors.
National Theater of Korea
National Theater of Korea (국립극장) sits on the eastern edge of Namsan Park (남산공원). Built before the Korean War, it is Asia’s first national theater. Four separate performance spaces run programs from ballet to pansori, a traditional Korean musical.
Seoul Museum of Art
Seoul Museum of Art (서울시립미술관) is Korea’s premier art museum. It has many annexes, but the main building hangs south of Deoksu Palace and Seoul City Hall. The exterior of the building was the facade of Korea’s Supreme Court.
Seoul City Hall
The curving walls of Seoul City Hall (서울특별시청사) resemble waves of glass. The hall contains exhibition and public spaces, and runs the city’s day-to-day operations. Next door, the city converted the old city hall into Seoul Metropolitan Library.
In times past, many foreigners settled in Yongsan. To this day, the Itaewon and Haebangchon areas house and entertain a hefty chunk of Seoul’s foreign population.
From the end of the Korean War till 2021, satellites had a hard time penetrating a green patch of land in the center of the Yongsan District. Why?
The area housed the United States’ military headquarters.
The Yongsan Garrison
Yongsan Garrison (용산수비대; a.k.a. Dragon Hill Garrison) began as Japanese Imperial Army garrison during Japan’s occupation (1910~1945). Since the end of the Korean War, the United States Armed Forces Korea (USAFK) inhabited this oversized acreage in the middle of Seoul.
In 2018, however, U.S. military command picked up and moved the garrison to Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul. Except for a few bits and bobs, like Dragon Hill Lodge, Seoul reclaimed the land. The city plans to develop the space into parks and housing.
War Memorial of Korea
The War Memorial of Korea (전쟁기념관) stands on the western edge of the Yongsan Garrison. Free to the public, the museum’s courtyard displays close to a hundred decommissioned Korean War military vehicles. Inside, the museum presents exhibits on the Korean War and the nation’s military history.
The Tower, the Mountain, and a Park
What adorns almost every skyline postcard of Seoul? A spiky tower atop a mountain.
While most of the park lies in the Jung District, the tower falls in Yongsan’s borders.
Namsan Seoul Tower
Completed in 1975, the tower transmits radio and TV broadcast waves to Seoulites. Since 1980, Namsan Tower has been the nation’s most famous vantage point.
Daily thousands of travelers hike or ride the cable car up Nam Mountain, buy tickets, then ascend elevators to the tower’s observation decks. (The men’s room view is unparalleled.)
While the mountain flows into the Jung district, its 271 meter peak (889 feet) crests in Yongsan. Portions of the old fortress wall, which defines the Yongsan/Jung District border, crawls up the mountain’s spine.
- Namsan Cable Car (남산케이블카).
- Ancient Hanseong fortress walls.
- Kilometers of walking paths.
- The National Theater of Korea.
The Jung District holds most of the park.
During the Joseon era, Yongsan sat just south of the old capital. Because it held Seoul’s major river port, Joseon king’s allowed [tolerated] foreigners to dwelled in this outer district.
Today Yongsan hosts Seoul’s most diverse and vibrant foreigner neighborhoods.
The neighborhood’s low-rising buildings ride an upward sloping landscape from the Han River to Nam Mountain in the north.
The neighborhood also grew famous among tourists and locals for its knock-offs. Manufacturers and retailers offload high quality leather and Korean souvenir shops at negotiable prices.
Itaewon’s foreigner population skyrocketed when the United States opened the Yongsan Garrison. Soldiers flowed out from the base, filled local bars, and drained their paychecks.
Overtime, however, a more diverse international community sank their roots in the area. Today workers, from Native-English teachers to Muslim families, gravitated towards Itaewon.
Some more unique spots in Itaewon:
- Home Hill (호모힐) is a group of bars and clubs south of Itaewon Road. It’s one of the few safe places in Seoul for open LGBTQ+ establishments.
- Seoul Central Mosque (서울중앙성원) is the only mosque in the Seoul Capital Area. After it opened in 1976, the holy site multiplied the Muslim population in Itaewon. Its traditional architecture attracts hundreds of worshipers every week. A local market specializing in Halal food buzzes around the site.
A big bite of HBC’s (as the locals say) population hail from foreign lands. They own coffee shops, live in permanent dwellings, and raise children in this quieter part of Seoul.
Yongsan has a few more highlights in its kit.
- Yongsan Electronics Market (용산전자랜드) is Seoul’s largest electronics wholesalers. Opened in 1988, IT shoppers drop by to pick up computers, cameras, and more.
- Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (삼성미술관리움) is an art museum founded by Samsung, Korea’s largest chaebol. Designed by European architects, its two exhibition halls show traditional Korean art and contemporary works.
The Ichon Hangang Park (이촌한강공원) travels along the Han River, which forms the southern border of the Yongsan District. The park carries part of the Hangang Bike Path, one of Korea’s twelve certification bike paths.
The Mapo District (마포구; Mapo-gu) occupies a stretch of land on the northern banks of the Han in western Seoul. It’s elongated form touches Yongsan and Jung Districts in the east and Goyang City (고양) in the west.
The district lingered outside the old capital during the Joseon era. However, the outer region held an important Han River port called Mapo (마포), the district’s namesake.
While Mapo today doesn’t own many historical treasures, the district claims some famed neighborhoods and an assembly of lush riverside parks.
Several well-known liberal arts universities populate trendy neighborhoods in Mapo. They attract artists and hip patrons from all over Seoul and Korea.
What makes the area swing? Like any urban renewal spot around the world, young people. And where do the coolest of the cool youths hang? Universities.
Hongik University is a prestigious architecture and design college. It functions both as the area’s capstone and namesake.
- Hongik (홍익) Dae-hak-gyo (대학교; University)
The artsy atmosphere swelled with nightclubs, pricey restaurants, and designer stores. Waves of wallet-heavy sightseers followed.
However, a common spirit ties Sinchon Neighborhood and neighboring Hongdae area. Their ethers and geography blend seamlessly.
Sinchon claims three prestigious universities:
- Yonsei University (연세대학교) is a member of the top three universities in Korea, known as SKY (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities).
- Ewha Womans University (이화여자대학교) is the largest women’s university in the world and one of the first universities in the nation. Very prestigious.
- Myongji University (명지대학교) is a private Christian university with many notable alumni in sports and music.
This concentration of collegiate essence generates a buzzing, retail and nightlife focused district similar to Hongdae. Countless noreabongs (노래방; Karaoke room), PC Rooms (PC방; PC Bang), and nightclubs crowd the neighborhood’s streets.
World Cup Park
During the Joseon Dynasty, the island’s fertile soil grew peanuts and other crops. But in the last half of the 20th century, 92 million metric tons of trash stunk up the site.
What turned around the island’s fortunes? The 17th FIFA World Cup in 2002.
The city decided it wouldn’t just toss 92 million metric tons of garbage somewhere else. Instead, they buried the toxic rubbish deep, sealed it, and mounded tons of soil on top.
Today, when you walk the elevated grounds of Haneul & Noeul Parks, you can spy small pipes sticking out of the earth. These vents release underground methane buildup.
Dropped between the plateaus an incineration plant uses the buried landfill’s excess gases to burn Seoul’s current waste flow.
Four & More Parks
World Cup Park comprises four parks clustered near the Seoul World Cup Stadium. Here’s a quick glance at each.
- Pyeonghwa Park (평화의공원; Peace Park) is World Cup Park’s premier park. Connecting to the Seoul World Cup Stadium via a concrete bridge, the park holds Nanji Pond, a plaza, and picnic area.
- Haneul Park (하늘공원; Sky Park) is one of two flat top pyramid parks. The most popular park, the late summer brings thousands to the park’s ripened grass fields. The 291 steps ascending the plateau is a popular photo-zone. A nearby electric car whisks passengers to the park’s top.
- Noeul Park (노을공원; Sunset Park) is the other of World Cup Park’s highrise parks. Although a nine-hole golf course takes up much of the park’s area, visitors can also enjoy a sculpture park, silkworm and firefly habitats, and bookshop.
- Nanjicheon Park (난지천공원; Nanji Stream Park) flows along the Nanji Stream at the base of Haneul and Noeul Park. It offers walking paths, playgrounds, and more.
Other than the World Cup Park’s four, you can also find two more notable parks.
- Nanji Hangang Park (난지한강공원) is a part of the Hangang Park system. Because it lies just over the Gangbyeon Expressway, people often group it with World Cup Park.
- Oil Tank Culture Park (문화비축기지) is a sculpture park next to Seoul World Cup Stadium. It is an old oil tanker field converted into an art space.
Two of the Hangang Park system’s eleven parks occupy snake along the Han River in the Mapo District:
Nanji Hangang Park features many unique elements, including a wetland area, riverside pool, mirror fountain, and concert area.
Both Hangang Parks contain portions of the Hangang Bike Path.
South Han Districts
- Gang (강) — river.
- Nam (남) — south.
(Gangnam also refers to a specific district, which we explore below.)
Gangnam Districts don’t hold as many cultural landmarks as the north. Most of the space remained undeveloped until the 1970s.
When the Miracle Years exploded Seoul’s boundaries, many developers chose Gangnam’s cheap and empty land to build department stores, office buildings, and high-rise apartments.
Gangnam’s gleaming investments snowballed. Now, the streets south of the river run with wealth. Let’s take a brief tour through some of the glitzy glow.
- One square meter of apartment nationwide cost ₩4.1 million ($3,600)
- One square meter of apartment in Seoul cost ₩8.5 million ($7,500)
- One square meter of apartment in Gangnam cost ₩23 million ($20,300)
Yeah, apartments in Gangnam cost four times Seoul’s average, already Korea’s most expensive city. And nationwide: five-and-a-half times the average.
Why so expensive? When Korea began developing south of the river, they started in Gangnam.
Beginning in 1966, Seoul improved access to the district by building the Hannam Bridge across, and the Gyeongbu Expressway along, the Han River. Then the city threw up new apartments and moved the ministries of commerce and industry in Gangnam’s borders.
People followed. The infusion of governmental infrastructure and investment birthed speculation. By the 2000s, prestigious schools, high-end shops, and office towers took hold of the swampy countryside. Not to mention a little-known K-Pop song.
Let’s look at the neighborhood’s highlights.
Upscale Streets & Neighborhoods
Upscale department stores, haute couture shops, and restaurants fill Gangnam’s neighborhoods.
Don’t have a bottomless bank account? Don’t let that stop you. Then there’s fun to be found in Gangnam if you enjoy gawking at shameless displays of wealth.
Apgujeong & Cheongdam Neighborhoods
The Apgujeong (압구정동; Apgujeong-dong) and Cheongdam (청담동; Cheongdam-dong) neighborhoods sit side-by-side on the northern edge of Gangnam against the Han River. Together they form the Beverly Hills, the 5th Avenue, the Ginza of Seoul. Rich. Rich. And rich.
Both neighborhoods boast both the city’s priciest real estate and upmarket (ultra-rich focused) department stores.
Cheongdam Fashion Street
Cheongdam Fashion Street (청담패션거리) follows Apgujeong Road (압구정로) across the Apgujeong & Cheongdam neighborhoods. Along it your typical gaggle of luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Prada) make an appearance.
The twin EAST and WEST Galleria Department Stores mark the center of the thoroughfare. Outward from them, you’ll spot beauty shops, plastic surgery clinics, and more boutiques serving celebrities and customers with triple-platinum-diamond cards.
What is K-Star Road? Think the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Celebrity paraphernalia embossed into pedestrian infrastructure. Except K-Star road doesn’t embed gold stars with celebrity names and handprints into the sidewalk. They went big!
Dotted throughout the street you’ll find three-meter tall GangnamDol statues with jumbo heads. Each figure lists the names of famous K-Pop personalities, including PSY, BTS and Twice.
Apgujeong Rodeo Street (압구정 로데오거리) is a net of streets on the border of Sinsa, Apgujeong, and Cheongdam Neighborhoods. Its main entrance hangs opposite the Galleria Department Stores on Cheongdam Fashion Street.
Rodeo? Like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills? Yes. The area borrowed its name and spirit from California’s monument to money and gluttony.
Daily, capital infused known and unknown young and youth-positive folks buzz around the boutiques, cafes, and surgery clinics in Apgujeong Rodeo’s fanciful backstreets.
This 700 meter-long stretch of ginkgo-tree-lined street hums a quieter tune than other parts of Gangnam. Most vibrant in the fall, strollers discover unique cafes, designer stores, and art studios.
All these little neighborhoods and shopping districts are fine and dandy. But where does the business happen?
- Gangnam Station (강남역) in the Yeoksam Neighborhood (역삼동; Yeoksam-dong) to:
- Samseong Subway Station (삼성역) in the Samseong Neighborhood (삼성동).
Tehran Street earned the nickname Tehran Valley. Why? Not because of its gleaming valley of skyscrapers. But because an oversized portion of Korea’s venture capital and IT industries hold some stake on the street.
You can find major offices for:
- Samsung Electronics — the largest division of Korea’s largest chaebol.
- Naver Corporation — Korea’s largest search engine and tech company.
- Kakao — Korea’s largest messaging platform and second largest search engine.
- SK Hynix — an SK Corporation division that manufactures semiconductors.
- POSCO — Korea’s largest steel manufacturing company.
Tehran. Recognize the name? Isn’t that the capital city of Iran? Yes, in 1977 Tehran’s mayor proposed to Seoul’s mayor they name a street after one another’s capitals. Today Seoul has Tehran Road. Tehran has Seoul Street.
A Little Old and a Little New
While districts north of the Han River claim most of Seoul’s ancient buildings, Gangnam offers two important cultural relics alongside a premier retail outlet and convention center.
Underground mall? What sits above it?
While the subterranean mall opened in 2000, a convention and exhibition center thrived above ground since 1979. In fact, it’s where the COEX name comes from: COnvention & EXhibition.
Connected to Seoul Subway Line 2 and Line 9, Starfield COEX Malls’s looping hallways present a premium assortment of storefronts and restaurants. However, the mall includes some notable, photogenic facilities.
- COEX Aquarium (코엑스아쿠아리움) is a huge indoor aquarium with 90 exhibitions, including a transparent tunnel and discovery zones for kids.
- A Gangnam Style Statue sits just outside the COEX Convention Center, near the east gate. It shows two forearms overlapping in the signature “horse riding” dance. A pressable button will play the song’s music video for the 4 billionth time.
- Trade Tower (트레이드타워) is a 54-story office building with a key-edge facade. At night, color fills the tower’s grooves.
COEX is also a center for live performances. The mall features plazas and event spaces for music performances, Esports contests, and more.
Today, because of its central location and accessibility, thousands of religious and agnostics journey to the temple and snap terabytes of pics.
Bongeunsa is a compound. Its wooden temples, thousands of Buddhist scriptures, and ancient ceremonies put into sharp relief Gangnam’s wealth and tech. Notable sights include:
- A 23 meter (75 ft) tall statue of Maitreya, a future Buddha, completed in 1996. It looks over the COEX Exhibition Center.
- The temple blankets the courtyard leading to the temple with overhead lanterns for festivals, like Buddha’s Birthday.
- Woodblock carvings of the Flower Garland Sutra. Created in 1855 and designated a national treasure in 2014, they survived the 1939 fire and Korean War.
First built in 1495, the site contains the remains of two kings and one queen.
- Seolleung is the tomb for King Seongjong (조선성종; 1457~1495), Joseon Dynasty’s 9th King, and his second wife Queen Jeonghyeon (정현왕후; 1462~1530).
- Jeongneung is the tomb for King Jungjong (조선중종; 1488~1544), Joseon Dynasty’s 11th King.
The name of the site is a compound of both tomb names: Seon (for King Seongjong) + Jeong (for King Jungjong) + Neung (릉; meaning tomb).
Inside the ticketed gate, you’ll find perfected green lawns and all the classic features of Joseon royal tombs:
- A Hongsalmun (홍살문) is a decorated wooden gate. It marks the entrance to the tomb site.
- Chamdo (참도) are two sacred stone paths that lead to the Jeongjagak Shrines: a raised path for the dead kings to travel (신도; sindo), and a lowered path for living kings (어도; eodo).
- Jeongjagak Shrines (정자각) are wooden houses that sit at the base of the tomb. Mourners prepare offerings and perform ceremonial rituals to the dead kings here.
- The Bangbun (봉분; a.k.a. tumulus) is a mound of earth that holds the king or queen’s remains. Stone lanterns and Chinese zodiac statues surround the tombs.
Songpa District (송파구; Songpa-gu) has more people than any district in Seoul. Some regard it as an outgrowth of their wealthier neighbor, Gangnam District. However, Songpa possesses its own history and highlights.
Like Hanam City to the east, the Kingdom of Baekje’s (백제; 18 BCE ~ 660 ACE) capital, Wiryeseong (위례성), once sat in Songpa. You’ll find its remains at Pungnaptoseong near the Han River and Mongchon Fortress in Olympic Park.
The district received an adrenaline shot to their economic heart when the 1988 Olympics came to town. Seoul sailed catamarans of capital south to Songpa, building Olympic Boulevard (올림픽대로) along the Han, and several world class sports facilities.
The Lotte Lot
The Lotte Corporation may rank 5th among Korea’s largest chaebols, with ₩121.5 trillion ($107 billion) in assets and 86 affiliates. However, their gaudy garb, their towers and department stores, speak “corporate behemoth.”
Many of Lotte’s businesses fall under the retail and entertainment category. So it makes sense Lotte built a premier shopping destination to boost its brand.
So where is this Lotte mecca? In the heart of Songpa. Lotte structures commandeer two large city blocks and one artificial lake in the middle of the district.
You can break down the Lotte metropolis into two sides.
West Lotte Complex
Lotte’s western complex first opened in 1989, making it over twenty (20) years older than the eastern complex.
Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park, forms the center of the complex, with a department store, supermarket, hotel, and more encircling.
Its notable facilities include:
- Lotte World (롯데월드) is the world’s largest indoor theme park. Over a skating rink and under a giant dome, kiddie rides buzz. The park extends onto Magic Island (롯데월드매직아일랜드), an artificial, open-air island on Seokchon Lake.
- Lotte World Folk Museum (롯데월드 민속박물관) is an exhibition hall featuring the history of Korea. It includes Neolithic panoramas, an indoor cultural village, and sweeping miniature scenes from all Korea’s dynasties, Baekje to Joseon.
- Lotte World Hotel (롯데호텔 월드) is a resort and business hotel.
East Lotte Complex
Lotte’s eastern complex first opened in 2014. It includes Korea’s tallest building linked and two department stores filled with the latest in shopping and entertainment.
- Lotte Tower (롯데월드타워) opened in 2017. Measuring 555 meter tall (1,821 ft) with 123 floors, the building is Korea’s tallest (fifth highest globally). Korean ceramics inspired the building’s downward bulging facade. Observation decks, open to the paying public, occupy the top three floors. Apartments, a hotel, and businesses claim other sections.
- Lotte World Mall (롯데월드몰) is a 244,000 square meter retail space first opened in 2014. It’s 11-story tall main building holds a mall, movie theater, concert hall, and more. A separate 8-story structure hosts a duty free department and AvenueL, an upmarket brand for shoppers unaware of the word “budget.”
- Lotte Aquarium (롯데월드 아쿠아리움) sits in Lotte World Mall. It claims Korea’s largest tank and underwater tunnel. The aquarium hosts animals from all five oceans and freshwater ecosystems.
Sports, Sports, Sports
The 1988 Summer Olympic Games were a boon for Songpa. Seoul centralized most of the Olympic’s venues in the district, including the games’ main stadium and an expansive park.
That’s a lot of park. What’s inside?
You can divide the park into three unique areas:
In the park’s eastern regions, Seoul constructed six (6) Olympic venues. Half the buildings remain sports-focused. The city converted the others into music and performance spaces.
- KSPO DOME (올림픽체조경기장; 14,594 seats) was the main gymnastics facility. Now it holds a variety of events, from UFC matches to Esports events to music concerts.
- Olympic Swimming Pool (올림픽수영장; 10,000 seats) holds a swimming pool and is open to the public.
- Olympic Velodrome (올림픽공원올팍축구장; 6,000 seats) hosted cycling events. It’s now an open-air soccer stadium.
- Olympic Tennis Courts (올림픽공원테니스경기장; 9,931 seats) includes a main court, thirteen (13) outdoor courts, and four (4) indoor courts.
- Olympic Handball Gymnasium (SK올림픽핸드볼경기장; 5,003 seats) was the Olympic fencing venue. Now it hosts handball competitions.
- Woori Financial Art Hall (우리금융아트홀; 1,184 seats) held the Olympics weightlifting arena. Woori Bank transformed the space into a performance hall.
The western area of the parks keeps many arts and culture facilities.
- World Peace Gate (세계평화의문) is the Olympic Park’s crowning architectural monument. Designed by a Korean artist, four pillars ascend 24-meter and prop up two large wings. Murals depict phoenix, turtle, tiger, and dragon spirit animals.
- SOMA Museum of Art (소마미술관) features an indoor exhibition facility and the world’s most extensive outdoor sculpture parks. Half of the 200 sculptures stand near SOMA. The remaining sculptures scatter around other parts of Olympic Park.
- Seoul Olympic Museum (서울올림픽기념관) preserves artifacts and teaches visitors about the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Pristine lawns, walking paths, and flower gardens inhabit a big bit of the park’s middle.
Walk down to Mongchon Lake (몽촌호) and glance at green expanse. Notice, it sits on a hill. It doesn’t rise on a dirt foundation, however.
Before the Olympics, Seoul sent archeologists to excavate and help preserve artifacts from one of Korea’s founding kingdoms. A few park museums display their findings.
- Seoul Baekje Museum (한성백제박물관) shows historical Baekje pieces found in the park. Other exhibits present Seoul’s prehistory.
- Mongchon Museum of History (몽촌역사관) also focuses on the Baekje Kingdom. It displays models of the Mongchon and nearby Pungnapto Fortresses.
- Seoul History Compilation Center (서울역사편찬원) is a Seoul government office responsible for researching and recording historic data and artifacts.