Seoul: 5 Must-See Spots to Get Acquainted with Traditional Korea

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Photo by ISA student Mary Schwark in Seoul, South Korea

Kimi Shao is and ISA Site Specialist for Asia.  Kimi works with students studying abroad in South Korea and China.

Known for its population density which doubles that of New York City, Seoul’s dazzling skyline eagerly attracts tourists from around the world playing host to nearly half the population of the entire country. Few visitors however, know that the booming capital of South Korea hides a city of contrasts where the gleaming skyscrapers of the modern city can sometimes over shadow the traditional roots of Korean culture hidden delicately away for the adventurous traveler to stumble upon. Check out these 5 spots to help visitors discover and understand the traditional face of Seoul with its historical neighborhoods, royal palaces, an ancient temple mysteriously hidden in the heart of the city, and arguably “the most beautiful museum” in the country.

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Photo by ISA student Mary Schwark in Seoul, South Korea

1. Bukchon Hanok Village (included in the ISA City Tour)

Time stands still in this picturesque residential neighborhood famous its traditional Korean houses that have been constructed in the same simplistic yet functional style for over 600 years. Narrow streets and alleys make visitors feel like you are back in the Joseon Dynasty! Travelers can also find Korean Cafés, galleries, teahouses, guesthouses and cultural centers. The Bukchon Culture Center, a former residential hanok, now hosts calligraphy lessons, tea ceremonies and embroidery classes in traditional Korean crafts.

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Photo cc by Tom Page

2. Gwanghwamun Square (included in the ISA City Tour)

Gwanghwamun is the main gate of the magnificent Gyeongbokgung Palace. This area was once the center of Hanyang, the capital city during the Joseon Dynasty and today the massive gate acts as a significant landmark and symbol of Seoul’s long history. History is is not only reason visitors flock to Gwanghwamun Square; its beauty becomes even more apparent at night with the dramatic and colorfully illuminated statue of King Sejong with an amazing fountain at its center, makes for an amazing evening anyone can enjoy.

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Photo cc by Weli'mi'nakwan

3. Changdeokgung Palace and Huwon (included in the ISA City Tour)

The palace grounds include a public palace area, a royal family residence building, and a beautiful garden. Known as a place of rest for Korean kings of the past, the rear garden boasts a gigantic tree that is over 300 years old, a small pond, and a pavilion. In 1997, Changdeokgung was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Photo by cc by Enrique Dans

4. Bongeunsa Temple (not included in the ISA city tour)

A Buddhist temple in the heart of Seoul? Bongeunsa Temple, also known as Gyeonseongsa Temple, is the best place in the city to witness the contrasting elegant lines of Buddhist architecture against a backdrop of modern Seoul.  Photo junkies get your cameras ready!

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Photo cc by Jirka Matousek

5. Korea Furniture Museum (not included in the ISA city tour)

You’ll probably miss it if you only think of it as a furniture museum, but the KFM is surprisingly not only about furniture. With 10 exquisite hanok structures neatly fitted together on approximately 6,600 square meters of beautifully groomed space, the Korea Furniture Museum is about displaying traditional Korean architecture, interior and exterior design, and the cultural implication behind every piece of furniture. Don’t forget to take a private tour of the museum; you will be amazed by how much you can learn there.

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Photo cc by Sarah Kim