Explore Seoul, South Korea: a modern metropolis rising from ruins

Seoul, South Korea, is undoubtedly an energetic emblem of the modern Asia, but it’s also a fascinating place to dive into the history of the Korean peninsula, writes Tom Hall

Changdeokgung Palace in South Korea

Seoul is undoubtedly an energetic emblem of the modern Asia, but it’s also a fascinating place to dive into the history of the Korean peninsula. The city centre continues to develop at a fierce rate, with high-rises and a rejuvenated riverside park that can be explored alongside designated national treasures and more workaday delights like the bustling Gwangjang Market. Spend an evening here to find every type of Korean street food and rub shoulders with locals enjoying some downtime.

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With its heritage damaged in the early 20th century by both occupation and war, more recent reconstruction and preservation of undamaged buildings has left a cluster of historic palaces to visit, of which Changdeokgung is arguably the pick. A moonlit tour is an unforgettable way to experience it.

As you’d expect, some of Korea’s best museums are found in Seoul, including the National Museum, and Seoul Museum of History. For a taste of old Seoul, though, head to Bukchon Hanok Village – a preserved but still-vibrant community of 900 traditional homes set amid characterful alleyways. You’ll have plenty of other visitors for company, but it’s a fine place for a wander and a change of pace from much of the rest of the capital.

The border with North Korea lies just over 30 miles from Seoul, and a tour towards the frontier makes for an extraordinary day-trip. While you can visit various areas of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on a tour, most visitors have in mind the heavily organised outing to the Joint Security Area (JSA), which must be booked in advance, and for which you’ll need ID and to observe a dress code. It’s worth the effort – it’s not every day that you get a chance to peer into North Korea.

If you like this…

● The appeal of Shanghai lies in its mix of bustling Chinese mega-city, international history and rapid present-day growth.

● Taiwan is another fast-changing Asian destination with a thrilling contrast between the old and the new.

Tom Hall is a travel writer and author of Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips

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This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine