|Seoul Special City
Note: 首爾 is used in Chinese for the 서울 part, but is not the Korean Hanja name
||Seoul (Sŏul; 서울)
||10,276,968 (2003) (Metro area c. 20,000,000)
Capital of South Korea
||25 wards ("Gu")
Seoul is the capital of South Korea and was, until 1945, the capital of all of Korea. It is a designated special city. Since the establishment of South Korea (formally the Republic of Korea) in 1948, it became the capital of the country, except for a short time during the Korean War.
Seoul is located in the northwest of the country south of the DMZ, on the Han River. The city is the political, cultural, social and economical centre of South Korea. It is also an international centre for business, finance, multinational corporations, and global organizations. This, along with its position as the capital of one of the world's largest economies, has boosted it to the status of a global city. Today, it is one of the most visible symbols of the Korean economic Miracle of the Han River.
According to UN Population Division figures, Seoul's Urban Area contained 9.7 million people in 2003, making it the 22nd most populous such area in the world. Its density has allowed it to become one of the most digitally-wired cities in today's globally connected economy. It also has more than 1 million registered vehicles which cause isolated traffic-jams beyond midnight. The larger Seoul metropolitan area and commuter belt, which includes the major harbor city Incheon and the largely residential city of Seongnam, is one of the world's most heavily populated. In recent years, the metropolitan government has carried out an extensive cleanup of the city's heavy air and water pollution, transforming the previously murky atmosphere into one of outstanding cleanness.
Unlike most place names in Korea, "Seoul" has no corresponding Hanja, which are Chinese characters used in the Korean language. The word "seoul" in Korean means "capital city". For people who use the Chinese language, the city has been known instead as 漢城 (read as Hancheng in Chinese, Hanseong in Korean), the Joseon Dynasty name of the city which denotes a fortified city (seong) on the Han River.
After months of discussion and debate, the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially announced on January 18, 2005 that the Chinese name of the city shall be Shou'er (首爾), which is a close transliteration of Seoul, where "shou" can also mean "first, capital". The new name will be used for all official government websites and publications in Chinese, instead of Hancheng/Hanseong. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has also asked the Chinese Government to use the new name; however, some Chinese organizations from airlines to the official Xinhua News Agency have ignored Seoul's request to use the new Chinese name , with a Beijing-based newspaper commenting that Chinese speakers have the right to decide what name to use for Seoul.
The history of Seoul can be traced back as far as 18 BC. In that year the newly established kingdom of Baekje built its capital Wiryeseong in the Seoul area. There are several city wall remains in the area dating from this time, and Pungnap Toseong, an earthen wall whose remains lie just outside Seoul, is widely believed to be the main Wiryeseong site. During the time when the three kingdoms fought for hegemony in Korea, Seoul was often the site where disputes were carried out.
It was thought that only the kingdom who controlled the area around Seoul would be able to control the whole of the peninsula, because it was a centre of transportation. This was the reason why in the 11th century the ruler of the Goryeo Dynasty built a palace in Seoul, which was referred to as the Southern Capital.
This city was renamed from Hanyang (漢陽) to Hanseong (漢城) when it became the capital of the Joseon Dynasty in 1394. It was renamed Gyeongseong (京城—Keijō in Japanese) during the Japanese Colonial Period, and finally given the name Seoul after the 1945 liberation. The word Seoul has been used since the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D.935). Seoul was originated from the archaic words of 'seobeol' or 'seorabeol'. Both were referred to Gyeongju, then capital of Silla, and meant the capital or capital city. Then it was transliterated into several types reflecting slight changes over time and has finally firmed up to Seoul. The Hanja gyeong (京) also means "capital" and is used to represent Seoul in the names of railway lines and freeways, for example, the Gyeongbu (Seoul-Busan) railway line and the Gyeongin (Seoul-Incheon) freeway.
After independence, some nationalists have insisted that gyeong should be replaced with seo, the first syllable of Seoul. In this case, however, one cannot tell Seobu (서釜, Seoul-Busan) from another Seobu (西部, "western") in Hangul, so the proposal was withdrawn.
Originally entirely surrounded by a massive circular wall (a 20 foot high circular stone fortress) to provide its citizens security from wild animals such as the Korean Tiger (Siberian Tiger, once roaming the wilds of Korea in large numbers; although it vanished from the peninsula long ago, its memory has been preserved in both myth and legend), thieves and attacks. The city has grown to surpass those walls and although the wall no longer stands (except in the mountains north of the downtown area), the gates remain near the downtown district of Seoul, including most notably Sungnyemun (commonly known as Namdaemun) and Honginjimun (commonly known as Dongdaemun). During the Joseon dynasty, each entrance was opened and closed each day, by ringing large bells, to allow traffic.
During the Korean War, Seoul changed hands between the Chinese-backed North Korean forces and the UN-backed South Korean forces several times, leaving the city heavily damaged after the war.  One estimate of the extensive damage states that after the war, at least 191,000 buildings, 55,000 houses, and 1,000 factories lay in ruins.  In addition, a flood of refugees had entered Seoul during the war, swelling the population of Seoul and its metropolitan area to an estimated 2.5 million, more than half of them homeless.
Following the war, Seoul was the focus of an immense reconstruction and modernization effort due mainly to necessity, but also due in part to the symbolic nature of Seoul as the political and economic center of Korea. Today, the population of Seoul comprises twenty-four percent of the total population of South Korea, and ranks seventh in the world in terms of the number of Fortune 500 transnational companies headquartered there. 
Seoul was the host city of the 1986 Asian Games, the 1988 Summer Olympics, one of the venues of the Football World Cup 2002, and the 2005 Asian X Games.
Relocation of the Capital
On August 11, 2004, the South Korean Government announced that the capital city will be located in the Gongju area as of 2007. The Government estimated that the move will probably not be completed before 2012 . Although part of the election manifesto, this plan ignited nationwide controversy. On October 21, 2004, the Constitutional Court ruled that the special law for the relocation of the capital is unconstitutional since the relocation is a serious national matter requiring national referendum or revision of the constitution, thus effectively ending the dispute.
The traditional heart of Seoul is the old Joseon Dynasty city, which is now the downtown area, where most palaces, government offices, corporate headquarters, hotels and traditional markets are located. This area occupies the valley of Cheonggyecheon (청계천), a now-covered stream that runs from west to east through the valley before emptying into the Han River. To the north of downtown is Bukhan Mountain , and to the south is the smaller Namsan (남산, "South Mountain").
Further south are the old suburbs of Yongsan-gu and Mapo-gu, and the Han River (한강). Across the Han River are the newer and wealthier areas of Gangnam-gu and surrounding neighbourhoods. The World Trade Center of Korea is located in Gangnam-gu and this is where many expositions and conferences are held. Also in Gangnam-gu is the Coex Mall that is a famous indoor mall area where many young Koreans enjoy spending time with friends. Yeouido is a large island in the middle of the Han River, downstream from Gangnam-gu, and is home to the National Assembly, the major broadcasting studios, and a number of large office buildings, as well as the Korea Finance Building and the world's largest Presbyterian church. The Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park, and Lotte World are located in Songpa-gu, on the south side of the Han River, upstream from Gangnam-gu. South of the sprawling Gangnam area are Namhan Mountain and Gwanak Mountain . In addition to the many districts, the skyline of Seoul is also quite amazing. Many notable buildings include the Korea Finance Building, Namsan Tower, the World Trade Centre, the 6-skyscraper residence Tower Palace, the Star Tower, IPark Apartment, and the various high-rise office buildings dominate Seoul's skyline. The number of high-rise buildings in Seoul is the most abundant in Asia after cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Urban and civil planning was a key concept when Seoul was first designed to serve as a capital in the 14th century. The Royal Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty still remain in Seoul, with the main palace (Gyeongbokgung) currently being restored to its original form. Today, there exist 9 major efficient subway lines stretching for more than 100 kilometres which connects the greater Seoul Metropolitan area, with a 10th line being planned.
There are many significant streets to Seoul, but the most historically significant is Jongno(종로)—meaning the "Bell Street"—where 'jong' means a bell, and 'ro' (the initial consonant becoming 'n' through a regular sound change) means a street. This bell signalled different time of the day and therefore controlled the four gates to the city. It is still intact in its original form, and hit ceremonially at 0:00 every new years day. Seoul's most important streetcar line ran along Jongno until it was replaced by Line 1 of the Seoul subway system in the early 1970s. Other notable streets in downtown Seoul include Euljiro (을지로), Sejongno (세종로), Chungmuro (충무로), Yulgongno (율곡로), and Toegyero (퇴계로).
Seoul is divided into 25 gu (구 "wards"), which are sub-divided into 15267 dong, which are further divided into 112,734 ban in total.
- Dobong-gu (도봉구; 道峰區)
- Dongdaemun-gu (동대문구; 東大門區)
- Dongjak-gu (동작구; 銅雀區)
- Eunpyeong-gu (은평구; 恩平區)
- Gangbuk-gu (강북구; 江北區)
- Gangdong-gu (강동구; 江東區)
- Gangnam-gu (강남구; 江南區)
- Gangseo-gu (강서구; 江西區)
- Geumcheon-gu (금천구; 衿川區)
- Guro-gu (구로구; 九老區)
- Gwanak-gu (관악구; 冠岳區)
- Gwangjin-gu (광진구; 廣津區)
- Jongno-gu (종로구; 鍾路區)
- Jung-gu (중구; 中區)
- Jungnang-gu (중랑구; 中浪區)
- Mapo-gu (마포구; 麻浦區)
- Nowon-gu (노원구; 蘆原區)
- Seocho-gu (서초구; 瑞草區)
- Seodaemun-gu (서대문구; 西大門區)
- Seongbuk-gu (성북구; 城北區)
- Seongdong-gu (성동구; 城東區)
- Songpa-gu (송파구; 松坡區)
- Yangcheon-gu (양천구; 陽川區)
- Yeongdeungpo-gu (영등포구; 永登浦區)
- Yongsan-gu (용산구; 龍山區)
The Joseon Dynasty built the "Five Grand Palaces" in Seoul, namely:
There is also a minor palace:
Temples and shrines:
Museums and galleries:
Outside the metropolitan area:
Popular Tourist Sites
City Hall Tourism Office: Your first stop in Seoul should be the tourism office at City Hall. Just walk straight through the big wooden front doors and keep going straight up the stairs. The staff is helpful and fluent in English. Even better there are a number of free computers you can use to get free net access. The office is open 7 days a week, from 9 am to 6 pm. Get off at City Hall station. Take Exit 5.
Gyeongbokgung Palace: There are several palaces in Seoul. This is the largest. It is near the Gyeongbokgung subway station on line 3 or a short walk north from Gwanghwamun station on line 5. Gyeonbokgung Palace is highly reminiscent of scenes from The Last Emperor. It's kind of a Forbidden City but on a smaller scale. This is definitely one of the cardinal stops on any tour of Seoul. The admission fee is a dirt cheap: 1,000 won. Much of the palace grounds are rather rocky but as you head towards the rear of the palace there are some scenic trees and ponds. There's also a large folk museum (free admission with your palace admission) that provides some excellent displays and an overview of Korean history. The palace itself is also something of a lesson on Korea's suffering under its Japanese overlords. Many of the buildings are not originals but reproductions of palaces that stood for hundreds of years until the Japanese burned them to the ground.
War Memorial and Museum: This place is a military hardware geek's dream. Outside of the museum is a huge static display of '50s era American and Soviet tanks, planes, and choppers. Inside you have your customary displays of weapons, from swords to Korean War hardware and uniforms. It's close to the Samgakji station on the Light Blue line or the Noksapyeong station on the "world cup" Brown Line.
- National Museum of Contemporary Art Get off at Seoul Grand Park Station on the Light Blue line. Take exit No.4. The museum is quite a hike through the Grand Park. Admission is about 800 won. But the gallery is quite large and there is quite a lot of art here.
Seoul Museum of Art: Get off at City Hall Station on the dark blue line/apple green line. Take exit No.1 and walk toward Deoksugung Palace. The Seoul Museum of Art features more traditional Asian and European works of art. It typically hosts various International traveling art shows. Admission can run about 10,000 won if there's a special show or about 700 won if there is no special show.
- Insa-Dong: Get off at Anguk station on the orange line. Insa-Dong was a street full of shops selling traditional Korean crafts and antiques although in the last several years it's given over to cheaper tourist stuff like Korean fans, lacquered boxes, and Chinese astrology book marks.
Changdok Palace: Get off at Anguk station on the orange line. Changdok is the best preserved of Seoul's palaces. It was the seat of Korea's royal family until they were all snatched by the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century and carted to Japan for "education". Unlike the rocky Gyeonbokgung palace, these grounds are swathed in trees and water. The grounds are cool and beautiful and smell like a Pacific Northwest forest. Unfortunately, one is not free to simply wander these grounds. You have to travel with a guided tour. However tempting it is to pitch a blanket under a tree, near some water, and write some poetry, you'll be shoo'd along by the ever present security team and made to follow the guided tour. Admission is 2,300 won which includes the compulsory tour. There are a few English tours but you can tag along with the frequent Korean tours and not miss out on much that isn't explained by the bilingual signage.
- Seoul Arts Center: Get off at Nambu station on the orange line. Take Exit 5. Walk straight until the road ends at a rocky hill and then hang a right. You'll see the massive arts center down the road. It looks more like a mountain redoubt than a music hall. The center piece, the opera house, is designed to look like a traditional Korean hat. There's always something going on here, Monday to Sunday, from full fledged symphony performances to recitals. Concerts and recitals can run from 10,000 won to 80,000 won. Major concerts featuring world famous soloists, visiting symphonies, or traditional crowd pleasers like the 9th or the Four Season will usually be sold out. In general it's not too difficult to get same day tickets if you show up an hour before the concert. There's a great musical water fountain complete with video and light show to behold while you wait. There's also a calligraphy museum and art gallery open during the day.
Lotte World: Lotte World is a small indoor/outdoor amusement park. Although built on rather tight confines, they make efficient use of space. Several of the rides are underground, which lends a certain amount of atmosphere. Many of the rides are surprisingly good. The rides are comparable to a western theme park although on a slightly smaller scale. You can easily kill the day here. Unlike western theme parks, the food prices are not at extortion levels. What might cost you 4,000 won outside the gates will run 5,000 won in the park. You can easily mow down for about 5,000 won per meal. Lotte World can keep you busy for a whole day and well into the early evening. There are two types of tickets. The 24,000 admission ticket which gets you into the park but no rides. And there's the 30,000 won special pass that gets you into the park and lets you get on all the rides. Since most rides are 4,000 with the cheap ticket, it's crazy not to buy the 30,000 won pass. You'll need to keep the ticket handy, however. You need to show it at each ride gate to board. There are no wrist bands.
- Lotte World Folk Museum: Also part of the Lotte attraction is a folk museum. You don't need to pay for park admission to visit the museum. You can buy a cheaper ticket for just the museum. The folk museum is pretty interesting in itself and worth a visit. Admission is about 4,500 won. The entrance is near the amusement park ticket booth. Look for an elevator leading up to the folk museum .
Nanta Theater: Get off at Seodaemun station on the purple line. Take Exit 5. Walk past the Starbucks. At the first intersection, cross the road. You'll see a McDonald's at that corner. Go right. Walk for about 5 minutes and you'll see sign/alley leading to the Nanta theater. The Nanta musical comedy/cooking show is a non-verbal show that can be enjoyed by people of any language, being comprised of mostly music and physical comedy. The cooks/performers beat out a peppy little show using pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards. In the process they manage to prepare and cook a whole meal. You don't actually get to sample any, however. The show is best thought of as Stomp Meets Tampopo.
Coex: Get off at Samseung station. Take Exit 6. Coex is a sizable underground mall. Korea isn't a big mall culture but Coex is an exception. There are a number of Western restaurants and Korean restaurants and places to drink. There's a large movie theater that usually runs two or three Hollywood flicks. Other than major summer blockbusters Korea tends to get Hollywood flicks several months after the fact. So if you're a tourist and missed a big movie during its North American run you might be surprised to catch it here. Most American movies are in English with Korean side titles. When you're in Coex, a visit to the Kimchi Field Museum is good for a giggle. There is also a sizable aquarium. Entrance fee is a bit pricey, especially when you're used to public palaces and museums with 2,000 won entrance fees. But if you're an aquarium fan, this will do you, although on a world aquarium scale it comes in at about a 6.9.
Space 9: Another big mall in Seoul. Get off at Sinyongsan Station on the light blue line. Take Exit 5. You'll see it to your left at the intersection. Down from the intersection is a train track under pass and tunnel. Space 9 is the big complex to the left of that under pass. Do not, however, use the tunnel/underpass. Space 9 has about 5 floors of computers and other consumer electronics like digital cameras and MP3 players. It has two wings that have restaurants and clothing stores. There's also a large movie theater. There are a number of Korean, Chinese, Japanese and food court restaurants in Space 9, plus a ubiquitous Lotteria.
- Yeouido Island: The center of the Korean government and the main TV stations are located on this island. There is a very nice water front park that runs the length of the island and well worth checking out during good weather. Get off at Yeouido station on the purple line. Take exit 5.
- KLI 63 Building: Some tourist books identify this as the tallest building in Korea but it has been eclipsed by a couple other buildings. However, it has a nice observation deck, giving you a good view of Seoul from its geographic middle on Yeouido Island. (See above) Also located in the building are an Imax theater and a small aquarium. The observation deck fee is 6000 won.
Where to Shop
Myeong Dong: Many call this Seoul's Ginza. There are a lot of up market and bargain market clothing shops. There are a lot of young people and this place can get mighty crowded on the weekend. It is fun to walk around and explore. At night you can buy various knock off products, from LV purses to designer watches. Get off at the Myeong Dong station on the light blue line. Get off at Myeong Dong Station. Take Exit 5. The stairs split to the right and continue straight. Take the stairs to the right. When you come up the stairs turn left (away from the street).
- Apgujeong: Apgujeong is where Korea's rich kids play and shop. There are a lot of high-end clothing stores, bars, coffee shops, and restaurants in this district. Get off at Apgujeong station on the orange line. Take exit 1. Walk for 10 minutes towards the Galleria Department Store. Look for signs leading you to "Rodeo street ".
- Sinchon: Get off at Sinchon station. Take Exit 3 or 4 or 8. Sinchon is smack in the middle of three of Seoul's top universities. So there are a lot of restaurants, stores, pubs, and movie theaters. Also walk towards the Ewha University stop for more of the same, although since its near a woman's university, many of the stores are devoted to makeup and shoes.
Dongdaemoon: Get off at Dongdaemun Station on the Light Blue/Dark Blue line or Dongdaemun Stadium Station on the Light Blue/Apple Green/Purple line. If you're looking for a bargain price on local Korean fashions, go here. There are three or four 10 floor buildings that are floor after floor of small clothing kiosks: Doosan Tower, Migliore, and Freya Town are the major ones. Go to the top floor for some restaurants and some great vistas.
Technomart: There's a 10 floor store devoted to electronic products called Technomart at the Gangbyeon station on the apple green line. In general you will find Korean electronics not such a great deal. Oddly, you can buy Korean made mp3 players and digital cameras cheaper in America.
HyeHwa: HyeHwa used to be the home of Seoul's National university. Back in the day, it was the locus of the pro-democracy movement. The university has been moved south but much of the antiestablishment youth and art culture has remained. There are a large number of experimental drama and dance theaters in the area. Unfortunately, most of the productions are in Korean. However, when the weather turns nice (spring/summer), HyeHwa is great for free live performances day and night, many of which are held in or around Marronnier Park .
- Gangnam: Get off at Gangnam station. Take Exit 7. There are a number of clothing shops, restaurants, cafes, and the like. Gangnam is the heart of the south side.
Sejong Center-Jongno: At the western end of Jongno street is Kyobo books and a big statue of this Korean Admiral who invented the turtle ships. Kyobo books is a good place to use the washroom, get English newspapers or books. Northwest is the Sejong art center. Walking east you'll find a lot of restaurants. Around the Jonggak subway station is the Yoongpoong book store with a nice Starbucks in the basement. There's also a funky building called, variously, the Millennium building or the Samsung building. Across from that is a bell called the Boshingak bell that is rung every new year. If you keep walking west you eventually come to Tapgol Park or Pagoda Park where the Korean independence movement began. If you walked north from the park you'd hit Insadong.
There is a large number of universities in Seoul. Seoul National University is considered the country's most prestigious university and is highly sought after.
The other universities of the city include:
Seoul's transportation boom dates back to the era of the Korean Empire, when the first streetcar lines were laid and a railroad linking Seoul and Shinuiju was completed. Ever since then, Seoul's transportation has greatly diversified, allowing it to become one of the greatest transportation hubs in Asia. Seoul has nine subway lines, nearly 200 bus routes and six major highways that interlink every district of the city with one another and with the neighboring metropolitan area, which is the world's most populous. The majority of the population now uses the public transportation system due to its convenience. Seoul is also linked to several other major South Korean cities by the KTX bullet train (maximum speed 300 km/h), making commuting between cities extremely convenient for commuters and domestic tourists. In addition, in order to cope with all of these transportation modes, Seoul's metropolitan government employs several mathematicians to coordinate the subway, bus, and traffic schedules into one timetable.
There are two airports that serve Seoul. Gimpo Airport in Gimpo was the only and main airport for Seoul from its original construction during the Korean War. It also served as the country’s gateway to the world.
Upon completion in 2001 Incheon International Airport in Incheon has changed the role of Gimpo Airport significantly. Incheon now is responsible for almost all international flights, while Gimpo serves mostly domestic flights. This has led to a significant drop in flights from Gimpo Airport. Meanwhile, Incheon International Airport has become, along with Hong Kong and Singapore, a major transportation center for East Asia. The two airports are linked to Seoul by a highway.
Due to the efforts of the government in regard with the environment, Seoul's air pollution levels are now on par with that of Tokyo and far lower than those of Beijing. Seoul's metropolitan area accommodates six parks, including one currently being made. The Seoul Metropolitan Area is also surrounded by a green belt aimed to prevent the city from sprawling out over the neighboring Gyeounggi Province. These lush green areas are frequently sought after by people resting on the weekend and during vacations. In addition, Seoul is also home to four amusement parks: Dream Land, Everland, Lotte World, and Seoul Land. Of these, Lotte World is the most frequently visited. Other recreation centers include the former Olympic and World Cup stadia (the latter home to K-League soccer side FC Seoul) the Korea Finance Building, and the City Hall public lawn.
Last updated: 10-19-2005 01:29:59