In Seoul’s fancy shopping districts, where price tags bear several zeros on designer labels, and expensively coiffed, clothed and shod natives glide gracefully through its streets, it’s easy to feel like you’re an interloper among the one per cent. A taxi ride starts at a minimum fare of 3,000 won/Rs192, rent is high and tourist accommodation is a scramble for the cheapest (Rs1= 16 won). Last year, Seoul was ranked the world’s sixth most expensive city in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living survey and continually makes the top 10 in similar lists. But it’s still possible to tease out some good bits from this prohibitively pricey place, and juice out every won for what it’s worth.
In Seoul’s traditional markets, food stall owners are lined up, table to jowl, picking ingredients from small mounds in front of and behind them, whilst also trying to force their menu in your line of vision. Here, it is possible to have a hearty meal for very little.
Gwangjang Market, which I stumbled upon by chance, and which I revisited by design, was everything a market should be: festive, fun, fervid. For 5,000 won/Rs320 there is a smorgasbord to pick from. The vegetables, the noodles, the bits of meat or rice are tossed peremptorily and slammed down on the squeaky table you share with others. Wooden chopsticks are handed. You set to. My first genuinely delicious meal was had here: Noodles with Young Summer Radish Kimchi—thin noodles entwined with greens and doused in a fiery sweet and spicy sauce.
At Namdaemun Market, sweets and savouries of all kinds make eyes at you morning and night, until you succumb. I recommend the chapssal, crusted, chewy, doughnut balls (one piece, 1,000 won/Rs64), and the kkul-tarae, a sturdy, rectangular sweet woven from honey skeins, and once a favourite in the king’s court (sample free, or buy a box for 5,000 won/Rs320 and up, depending on the flavour).
Even if you don’t plan to eat at these markets, there is plenty to consume with the eyes: fish thrashing in the water before they meet their death, red rumps of flesh, towers of kimchi. Food aside, there are markets dedicated to everything: cloth, sewing machines, hardware. Here lies an anthropological insight into pockets of a more haphazard, more wizened Seoul.
Museums are not for everyone, but I believe it is impossible to visit a city without engaging with at least some of it history and politics. It is especially impossible when the museums are free, and the region carries as fascinating and fissured a history as the Korean peninsula.
At the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History (entry free), three floors showcase Korean history since the turn of the 20th century, and provide a glimpse into what was formerly described as a hermit kingdom. At the much larger and wholly splendiferous National Museum of Korea (entry free), there are three storeys and dozens of rooms documenting the phases of different ruling dynasties. I’m not into ancient porcelain and metal work but the Buddha statuary I could appreciate, and the segment on more recent Korean history was a canny overview. There is so much on display, that anything could strike your fancy. Cavernous halls, a pagoda strewn garden, a miniature waterfall and bold blackbirds all nestle in this vast complex. Even if you don’t want to spend much time inside, the outdoors, designed on Korean gardening principles, are perfectly sublime.
A gigantic urban sprawl, typical of an East Asian megapolis, Seoul is not a walkable city. Still, good walking paths can be eked out of the grid.
Seoullo 7017, a skywalk that skirts the station, is all pleasing vistas and opportunistic photo-ops. You can meander between tall buildings and enjoy bars drifting from public pianos placed at strategic intervals for users of the walkway. Originally an overpass meant to connect different parts of the station, it has been revamped into a pedestrian-zone-cum-garden-cum-cultural space. Despite the mixed reactions it first received, it’s a great way to experience the city on foot, minus the traffic.
Neighbourhoods like Myeongdong, Itaewon and Hongdae, which exemplify the bright-lights-big-city ethos of the hoardings and the brochures, are also entirely walkable and jammed with that ineffable thing called atmosphere. Want to experience that febrile feeling of being trapped in a neon-lit music video where everything is a sensory assault? Pop by these localities. As a bonus, I also managed to catch an open-air classical music concert in Myeongdong.
After a while, the dizzying heights and dazzling lights can start to feel oppressive, and soulless. So walk into the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a sloping, swerving, shimmering structure built by British-Iraqi starchitect Zaha Hadid. It does channel a UFO-style aesthetic, and may not be for everyone, but is an award-winning edifice and a cultural hub that hosts conferences, events and exhibitions, and nonetheless merits a mention.
For a walk with less sensory bombardment, check out Bukchon Hanok village outside the palace complexes. Visitors in hanboks crowd its alleys, where slanted traditional houses and one-storey bungalows hark back to the Joseon period.
Did you even go to Seoul if you didn’t pay your respects at least one altar of commodity culture? I mean without shelling out any bucks, of course. Near Seoul station is one temple to consumer retail: the Lotte Department Store, a branch of Korea’s best-known chain. Each of the little alleys inside the store has a salesperson at a makeshift counter with a free food sample to offer: I tasted pancakes, chocolate, ramen and other things before heading to the food court.
To capture some of the spiritual essence of what often seems like a dispiriting global capital, visit Seoul’s quiet shrines and monuments where Buddhism, one of the country’s major religions, abides.
The colourful and intricately designed Jogyesa Temple (entry free) in the centre of the city falls under the Jogye order and operates as the centre of Korean Buddhism. A large hall with three gigantic golden Buddhas takes centre stage in the complex. A dull murmur of chanting zips through the air of assembled worshippers. The flowers are immaculate and the laughing Buddha outside is typically ebullient. Shiny towers flank the temple in the background, and it is also possible to participate in a temple stay experience (templestay.com). Not far, the UNESCO-designated Jongmyo Shrine (entry 1,000 won/Rs64), a green spread of land which used to be a place of ancestor worship for Joseon kings, provides a sense of history—and a sense of relief from the bustling city outside. Its broad paths are not for mortals however, with signs firmly stating, “Please do not walk on this pathway. This is for the spirits.”
The Myeongdong Cathedral (entry free), one of the country’s first gothic buildings, constructed in its present form in 1898 was the birthplace of the Christian community in Seoul, and has all the regulation grandeur you would find in a European cathedral. A metro ride away, the serene and wooded Samneung Park (entry 500 won/Rs32) houses the royal tombs for Seongjong, the ninth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and his queen, Jeonghyeon and provides the perfect setting for an amble or a picnic.