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City in Transition:Seoul

October 12, 2010

With the countless travel articles currently flaunting the Eat Pray Love thing or rehashing the old favourites in Mexico and Thailand or Paris and Morocco, it was refreshing to read a feature recently (via the New York Times autumn travel addition) on a place that up to now has never made its way on elite travel lists. I’m talking about Seoul.

I’ve known Seoul as a bustling beehive packed with commuters, pollution, and construction. A place where expats often go to hide and Asians love to visit for the brand shopping. I also know that Seoul isn’t considered as an exotic travel destination among “Western” travellers the way Tokyo is. Past comments I’ve received from bloggers, family and even friends have considered Seoul as a boring, dirty, crowded old city. I admit there is truth in these comments, but I can also take these words and apply them to any city within Asia, the Americas and dare I say it — Europe.

Despite the global recession South Korea was one of the few countries to pull itself out of the financial quagmire earlier on. With sound financial policies and strategies the country is well on track to becoming a major player in North Asia’s financial hub. Add innovative ideas and a national airline that likes to collect award upon award it’s any wonder why the NY Times has picked up on this happening country particularly Seoul, adding it to the top 31 places to visit in 2010.

So, what’s delicious about Seoul?



Buddhist enthusiasts can forget Thailand and its glitzy tourist orientated temples and pagodas. Korea’s Buddhism has remained under the radar for decades and well away from wannabe devotees. Temple stays are available in the country’s bigger temples outside Seoul city and in the country’s southern regions. Personally the idea of waking at 4am to chant has never been my thing, but if it’s what you seek in life, you won’t find the temples overcrowded with cameras except on religious holidays.

by Cate

Street food, Café food

A city in transition means food in transition. Street food and vendors are a large part of the Korean landscape selling toasted bread sandwiches, rice porridge, rock hard candy, popped rice snacks, chicken kebab, rice balls in a vibrantly red chilli sauce, noodles, tempura style vegetables, dried fish and boiled silkworm larvae (hmmm). This is what keeps Koreans ticking; stalls that open at day break and close in the early hours. Usually operated by small strong fierce-looking grandmothers, the prices are cheap and the food is fresh.

by Cate

As Koreans bring food and design ideas back with them from overseas, cafés including brunch or spaghetti specific have popped up like mushrooms and have also shut down overnight. The scene is forever changing. There are also Indian, Thai, Uzbeki. Mongolian, French, German and dozens of Chinese restaurants and other flavours of immigrants to South Korea over the recent years.

by Cate

Old style, New style

Corporate conglomerates like Samsung and LG house their staff in Seoul’s finer pieces of architect, and if they are not doing this for their staff their names gone on art galleries. Transitions can be a way passing over a tired old life for a shiny new including residing in old neighbourhoods. What once was a place where traditional homes clustered around narrow lanes and winding streets, are now high-rise apartment blocks, priced in the millions, safe and secure.

by Cate

Development has threatened Seoul’s historic district Bukchon, but thanks to UNESCO stepping in the traditional home called the hanok will be preserved. Sadly many areas have succumbed to the developers demolition ball and the opportunity to get lost among old rambling streets are rapidly decreasing.

by Cate

Personal Space

In a city with 26 million souls it is difficult to find personal space, unless you know where to go. Set among universities like Seoul National and Yonsei are gardens filled with beauty and prestige designed as backdrops for graduate shots and settings for picnics and romance. Naturally plantings change with the season from autumn hues to bridal pinks blossoms…

by Cate

by Cate


I like to think Seoul as a place where whimsy thrives. Old men have the ability to fall into deep sleeps as traffic zooms by honking horns, or hang outside a convenience store in the early hours of the morning debating life over bottles of sochu — at the top of their voices. Whimsy can be seen in the arts districts with retro style fixtures, furniture and music.

by Cate

by Cate

by Cate

But there is much more to South Korea than just Seoul. At the southern end of the peninsula lies Pusan, the second largest city with its golden beaches and very traditional fishing villages. Tea plantations like Boseong are virtually unknown by western tourists and the country’s oldest Buddhist|temple district lies southeast of Seoul in Gyeongju. Further south past Pusan is the island of Jeju known for it’s UNESCO lava domes and the ancient volcano Halla. North of Seoul is well, you know, the tiny artificial kingdom of the Democratic Republic of North Korea which opens its southern borders for day trips when diplomatic relations are good.

Caffeinated Traveller

  1. October 12, 2010 4:58 pm

    Love the photo of those lights. Very cool.

  2. Catherine permalink
    October 13, 2010 12:13 pm

    what a comprehensive and fascinating post – South Korea is certainly on my travel list along with Japan and China which I have also never visited in Asia – I teach a lot of Korean students here in mexico where there is a huge community and would love to visit their cultural home – thanks for flagging it up in such an interesting way..

    • October 15, 2010 11:51 am

      I never knew Koreans migrated to Mexico but then again why not. Like the Japanese migration to Peru last century, people do flock to unusual places.

  3. Stephen permalink
    October 13, 2010 6:04 pm

    Long time reader – first time poster!

    Great read about Seoul, ‘transition’ is certainly the right word.

    There is definitely beauty in the mayhem, the old markets next to the new malls, the mountains by the high-rises and miles of hiking trails above the miles of highways. Seoul may not have a Forbidden City or relics on the scale of Kyoto but it is certainly a unique place.

    Would really love people to check out the East coast of South Korea, Sokcho is a beautiful place with great mountains by the sea and well organised infrastructure, and unspoilt for now…

    Take care Kat!

    • October 15, 2010 11:50 am

      Thank you Stephen, glad to see you are still out and about. Thanks also for the tip on Sokcho.

  4. Stephen permalink
    October 13, 2010 6:10 pm

    Love the pics by the way! The couple on the bench especially!

  5. October 14, 2010 7:28 am

    Mr G was a regular business traveller to Seoul and always enjoyed his stays. He’d regale me with stories about the people, the food, the culture. He simply loved the place and felt an attachment to it. I haven’t been but I feel I would enjoy it.

    Lovely photos, Cate, especially the teapot and lights.

    • October 15, 2010 11:49 am

      I bet he has some good stories on the food, something worth investigating further for your blog.

  6. October 14, 2010 9:27 am

    Seoul looks enthalling. Your pix really capture the whimsy and interesting landscape.

    • October 15, 2010 11:48 am

      Thank you Rosalind 🙂

  7. October 15, 2010 5:37 am

    Although I have never been there, one thing that I normally hear from ones who have been there is that people are not exactly very friendly. It could be one reason why Seoul is not high on the traveler’s destination list. Looking at your images, it does seem like a charming city that one may like to spend a lot of time walking in. The photographs are beautiful as much as the place is.

    • October 15, 2010 11:48 am

      That may be part of the reason but I wouldn’t put it all down to unfriendly people. There are many big cities in the world renown for their unfriendly locals — Paris, London, New York, Moscow — but that hasn’t stopped people from travelling there. Even China rates as having very pushy rude people but tourism is increasing. The people factor doesn’t usually stop someone from visiting a place, it stops them from participating with locals and that’s about it.
      If you are someone who enjoys discovering I think you would enjoy Seoul despite its size.

      Thanks for your thoughts and comments Arun.

  8. October 19, 2010 2:09 pm

    I enjoyed reading your take on Seoul. So much of what you find comes down to what you are looking for, and I think a traveler such as yourself will always find treasures in the places you visit.

    • October 20, 2010 10:33 am

      Exactly that Heather, it’s what you as an individual want to find in a place. The curious will always find something different to those who just want to find some fun in the form of shopping or a party.

  9. November 1, 2010 7:40 am

    Beautiful pictures, I really like!

  10. November 8, 2010 10:14 pm

    It is one of those placed that grows on you if you are not into big cities. But Korea isn’t all built up, in fact there are some very picturesque places worth visiting as well as historic sites in the Southeast.

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