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Seoul - South Korea
There is no reason to be bored in Seoul. Whether you are visiting for a few hours or staying for a few weeks, Seoul offers round-the-clock opportunities for shopping, performing arts and cinema, sightseeing, sports activities, nightlife and more, suited to every travel budget.
Shoppers will delight at the range of choices available, from bustling noisy outdoor markets and antique alleys to conventional department stores. Namdaemun Market, close to downtown, is thronged with locals and tourists alike, haggling for the best prices in clothing, outdoor equipment and Korean souvenirs. At Dongdaemun Market you can shop until dawn, then head over to Yongsan Electronic Shopping Town for the latest gadgets and necessities. How about some snake medicine or elks horn? You will find these and other oriental medicines at the Kyongdong Herbal Market. A smile and some body language will go a long way when bargaining at any of these markets. For traditional Korean art, crafts and antiques (lacquerware, brassware, paper, ceramics, paintings and embroidery) the district of Insadong should be number one on your list. When you tire of browsing through these shops, take a break in one of the many traditional tea rooms. Itaewon—the most Americanized district in Korea—is the best place for Western-sized clothing, tailor shops, shoes and leather products, while Myeong-dong and Apgujeong are the fashion districts of choice for Koreans. Visitors to Seoul should not overlook the hidden world beneath the street either. The Gangnam Express Bus Terminal Underground Arcade and Sogong Underground Shopping Center are popular shopping centers, selling inexpensive clothing and other products.
Performing Arts & Cinema
As the cultural capital of Korea, Seoul is teeming with music, dance and theater venues. Performances at the Traditional Performing Arts Center, Chongdong Theater and the National Theater display thousands of years of history. The colorful and elegant "fan dance" and the humorous "mask dance" are examples of Korean cultural treasures. Pansori, a narrative folk story which is sung and performed, is a very powerful musical experience, though to unaccustomed ears the warbling tones may be rather overwhelming. Lively farmers' drum music, accompanied by energetic dancing with flowing ribbons, is a Korean experience not to be missed. Check out the free outdoor performances at the Seoul Nori-Madang. Of course opera, classical concerts, musicals and plays are also readily available in Seoul. The Seoul Arts Center and the LG Arts Center are the largest venues. The Daehangno district has the highest concentration of theaters in Seoul; come here to enjoy a play or musical in the DongSoong Art Center or at smaller alternative theaters, such as Hakchon Blue. If you crave a movie (especially a Hollywood blockbuster), you should have no trouble finding a cinema, especially downtown. Obtaining a seat on the weekends, however, may be difficult; be sure to arrive at least one hour in advance of the show. Films are usually screened in the original language—no dubbing. Movie lovers can check schedules in the Friday editions of English newspapers around the city. Then, for a uniquely Korean experience, try a videobong, a private room where one to six people can watch a rented movie on comfortable chairs or a sofa.
Palaces, Museums & Galleries
Korea's historical relics were partially or completely destroyed in times of conflict and subsequently rebuilt numerous times over the years. The central part of Seoul has the highest concentration of palaces. Gyeongbok, Deoksugung and Changgyeong are well worth the small admission fee, while Changdeokgung Palace and Biwon Garden, or "Secret Garden" (guided tour only), should also be on your agenda. Visitors have a wide choice of museums to look forward to, ranging from the Kimchi Museum (where you can learn more about Korea's favorite food) to the Sodaemun Prison History Center. For an open-air "living" museum, experience the past in the Korean Folk Village. If art is more your style, don't miss the myriad of local galleries displaying traditional Korean art in the alleys of Insadong. The National Museum of Contemporary Art will satisfy your craving for more modern art, while the Hongik University area is known for its creative outdoor murals and small galleries.
The Great Outdoors
"Yaho!" is a cry you might hear at dawn if you are staying near a mountain or hill in Seoul. Koreans are very fond of climbing and making their accomplishment known early in the morning, or at any time of day on weekends. Seoul is surrounded by mountains, easily accessible by public transportation. Well-marked trails exist for both the novice and the more experienced hiker. Bukhansan National Park is known for its rock-climbing as well as regular hiking. Mount Suraksan and Mount Inwang are other good choices. For flatter scenery, pay a visit to Yeouido Park, one of the few places you can rent a bicycle and pedal along the Han River, or stroll through some of the small historical and ecological parks located throughout Seoul.
As the proud co-host of World Cup 2002, Seoul has numerous venues for professional soccer matches. The biggest are the Olympic Stadium and the Seoul World Cup Stadium. In fact, around Olympic Park you can check out the open air Sculpture Garden. Baseball and basketball fans will also be happy to know there are regular games in season. Traditional sports such as taekwondo (martial arts) and ssirum (wrestling) can be seen at Changchung Stadium. For individual sports enthusiasts, bowling alleys, billiard halls and ping-pong rooms abound in most neighborhoods, and swimmers and ice-skaters will be delighted by Seoul's facilities. If you prefer being a spectator, try your luck punting at the Seoul Racecourse. With your winnings, you can play at Seoul's only casino, the Walker Hill Casino, open only to non-Koreans and Koreans who reside abroad. For a hair-raising adventure, visit one of the city's amusement parks, such as Lotte World, the largest indoor amusement park in the world, with its exhibition hall and Folk Village in addition to all the rides you would expect.
Koreans work long hours and like to "let off steam" at the end of the day, contributing to Seoul's lively nightlife scene. Officially, there is a midnight closing time at bars and nightclubs—a remnant of the city's military past—but the reality is that you will find places to linger until dawn if you so desire. Itaewon, declared an "official tourism zone," has some bars that remain open 24 hours a day. Most drinking spots have a selection of local and some imported beers, or you can try the potent potato vodka, soju, or the more traditional rice wines, dong dong ju or makkoli. Music lovers will find a range from jazz to rock or classical in Seoul bars and cafes. Chonnyon Dongan Do in Daehangno is one of the best places for live jazz, while the Hongik area features more alternative and underground clubs in addition to regular bars. Taehangno and Shinchon are especially popular areas for students, being near the largest university campuses. Gangnam, Apgujeong and Myungdong, on the other hand, will appeal to adults of all ages. Don't miss the ubiquitous noraebong (singing rooms), a typically Korean experience where up to twelve friends can cram into a room to belt out songs to the karaoke machine. Night owls can enjoy midnight shopping at Namdaemun or Dongdaemun or take the Han River Boat Cruise to see Seoul after dark. And be sure to take in the night view from Seoul Tower after the sun goes down.