The Joseon Dynasty kings made their homes on the manicured grounds of five royal palaces—including the Gyeongbokgung Palace, a serene Confucian enclave of ponds, shrines and pavilions—in the middle of the town they called Hanyang, which we call Seoul. Today the elegant spirit of the Joseon era can be found only in remnants, most of it obliterated by foreign occupation and war. Koreans are trying to reclaim Joseon culture in order to find and preserve their own national identity. The 20th century will always be regarded in Korea as an era of outside intervention and internal division. Now the country is using its postwar economic miracle to build bridges across the divide of the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea and across the past century’s historic wreckage to the Joseon era, in order to retrieve its sovereign identity.
Seoul, the political capital of Korea for more than 600 years, is also the cultural capital of this heritage reclamation. Seoul is using the most imaginative designs and architectural plans to reclaim its classical Joseon past in a vital, modern way. At the same time, it’s trying to evolve beyond the “all work and no play” ethic of the past few decades. All across Seoul today, you can feel the city encouraging its hard-working citizens to stop and smell the roses. You hear it all over Korea; people crave a more relaxed and complete way of life. The 12-hour workdays that made Korea a top economic force are now seen as a once-necessary means to an end that has been achieved.
In the 1970s, as Korea began its dramatic economic ascent, a succession of city governments began restoring Seoul’s beauty and making it into a more livable and visitor-friendly place. Before the 1980s, Seoul clustered almost exclusively north of the Han River, in dense neighborhood warrens. When development began south of the Han, it shifted the river from the periphery back to the center of the city. Now, a long riverside swath of parkland calls people down to the water for jogging, strolling, cycling and relaxing.
In April 2011, Seoul opened its first yacht marina, with some 45 city-owned craft made available to the public for nominal hourly rate per person, offering city-run sailing lessons to boot. At the same time, the recently completed Gyeongin Canal is connecting the river to Incheon and the Yellow Sea beyond. The canal restores an important passage that vanished when the country divided into two Koreas, because the Han west of Seoul disappears behind North Korea’s iron curtain.
Another essential waterway returned in 2005, when the city opened the Cheonggyecheon Stream. The stream had been a focal point for the city during the Joseon, but the refugees who flooded the city postwar built shantytowns along its sides, horribly polluting it. To blot out that blight, a previous government covered the stream with a road, and Cheonggyecheon Stream disappeared beneath the asphalt. In 2005 the government uncovered the stream, cleaned it and designed beautiful promenades along both sides. At five miles long, the stream, which runs below street level, adds an almost spiritual respite from the urban crush right in the heart of the city.
In 2009 the city unveiled its $36 million renovation of Gwanghwamun Plaza, a broad, modern boulevard that runs some 600 yards from the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace all the way to Cheonggye Plaza. The idea was to create a space that allows pedestrians a new way to experience Korean history in an easy, relaxing way. The plaza’s Waterway of History is a thin stream that runs over a smooth basalt pavement engraved with a chronology of Joseon history. The plaza adds monumental gravitas to the city, especially as you look north toward the huge seated statue of Sejong, the fourth Joseon king, with the palace and one of the surrounding mountains behind him. Farther down, a massive statue of Yi Sun-sin, a Joseon admiral, towers over a sunken square with a fountain that shoots water to several heights.
Beneath the plaza, the Gwanghwamun subway station expands into a fascinating free museum that tells the stories of Sejong and Yi Sun-sin. Sejong invented the Korean alphabet, which has no relationship to either Japan’s or China’s. Sejong’s alphabet, called Hangul, guaranteed a separate Korean cultural sovereignty that would survive, even through times of foreign occupation. In this modern grotto of a museum, visitors can view the musical instruments of his time, a rocket launcher from 1448, touch-screen explanations of Hangul, and a three-wall film detailing the sea battles fought between the ancient Japanese and Korean navies.
Though the history may be arcane to Westerners, the palace, the ancient gates and such figures as Yi Sun-sin encourage Koreans to re-embrace a noble past that had been knocked off its pulpit after a terrible collision with the 20th century. During the Japanese occupation, most of the Joseon palaces were debased: Changgyeonggung Palace was partially turned into a zoo, Gyeongbokgung a military base. Now Gyeongbokgung has pride of place again, overlooking the plaza and backed by the Blue House, the residence of South Korea’s presidents.
Near the Blue House, the Cheongwadee Sarangchee museum tells the story of modern Seoul and the Korean Republic. A hall of presidents features photos and the official gifts they received from various heads of state, such as the tea set given by Michelle Obama to current President Lee Myun-bok. In another part of the museum, touch screens detail festivals, tours, subway maps and other practical keys to exploring Seoul. There’s even a restaurant guide. A wall of future development projects shows that Seoul is not done growing. Among the plans are the Yongsam International Business District, the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park (due in 2012), a futuristic city hall, the Seun Greenbelt Park and the Hangang Arts Island.
The nearby Korean National Museum proudly calls itself the sixth-largest museum in the world. It offers visitors a complete immersion into Korean history and culture. Some 4,500 artifacts show how Korea evolved through different periods, from the Paleolithic to the Balhae Kingdom. The museum also has nine exhibition halls displaying works from the Goryeo period (918-1392) to the Joseon period (1392-1910). The second and third floors specialize in Buddhist art.
Joseon society is also preserved in certain classic neighborhoods. Inchadong is a series of small alleyways tucked between Ch’angdokkung Palace and the area known as Myeong-dong. In its prime, Inchadong was the neighborhood of the Yangbon families, the scholar aristocrats of the Joseon era. As Confucian scholars, they shopped in Inchadong for the tools of their trade: ink wells, rice paper and calligraphy brushes—items that can still be found in the shops. The neighborhood’s antiques stores were begun in the days of Joseon decline, when the impoverished nobility had to sell their goods to survive. Today Inchadong is a neighborhood of traditional restaurants, tea and coffeehouses, and art galleries.
The Bukchon area features many traditional homes called hanok. The hanok housed Joseon-era ministers and dignitaries. Walking tours through the narrow alleys of this neighborhood are available through http://dobo.visitseoul.net/walktour/eng/course04.jsp. The neighborhood surrounds Unhyeongung Palace; and the three-hour tours start from there, visiting workshops and cultural centers.
Myeong-dong, Seoul’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue, is where you’ll find designer boutiques and big department stores. Every year the Korea Grand Sale travels to cities throughout the country for about 50 days, from mid-January to the end of February. The sale took place in some 13,000 Korean retail outlets last year. Discount coupons and membership cards are made available at overseas branches of the Korea Tourism Organization, the arrival gates of Korean airports and elsewhere.
The Seoul City Tour bus uses audio guides on its two-hour loop to such hop-on/hop-off attractions as the National Museum of Korea, Namsangol Hanok Village, Namdaemun Market, Dongdaemun Market and Inchadong. The bus departs every 30 minutes from various points.
Historic monuments and grand plazas are not the only new elements. Last year the Banyan Tree Club and Spa (800-591-0439, www.banyantree.com) opened in Seoul, bringing a new kind of lodging to a city known for business hotels. The Banyan Tree combines resort hotel and private-club experience, catering to club members, as well as business and leisure visitors. It occupies the site of the former Tower Hotel.
Travelers looking to stay in Seoul’s most fashionable neighborhood, Myeong-dong, would be well served to choose the Namdaemun Ramada Hotel and Suites (888-288-4982, www.ramada.com), known for its large guest rooms. Every room has LCD TVs with free movies and international TV channels.
Those willing to stay just outside the city center might prefer the W Seoul Walkerhill (www.starwoodhotels.com), located on the slope of Mount Acha overlooking the Han River. It’s also convenient to the Walkerhill casino; the nearby Sheraton Grande Walkerhill allows W’s guests to use its several restaurants and sign the bill to their room.
The Grand Hyatt Seoul (888-591-1234, www.hyatt.com), set on Mount Namsan, has a classic American feel. Its expansive bar is one of the best places in town to enjoy a cocktail while taking in a view of the city. The hotel’s The Spa and Club Olympus also are top-notch.
For more information, visit www.kntoamerica.com.--James Ruggia