N Seoul Tower
Photographers often say that the “blue hour” straight after sunset is the best time to photograph a city, when there is still natural light but the urban landscape is starting to twinkle. There is only one place to go if you want to enjoy the best view at sunset: Namsan Seoul Tower rises up from the summit of Namsan Mountain and towers over the city of skyscrapers. You can enjoy an observatory, restaurants, a museum, a coffee shop and souvenir shops, although the real star of the show is naturally the urban panorama outside the windows.
The Lighting Festival at the Garden of Morning Calm
From December until March each year, this is the biggest festival of lights in Korea, with 100,000 pyeong (330580 m2) illuminated by 30,000 lights. A glorious array of lights adorn the trees of Hakyung Garden, Hometown House Garden, Bonsai Garden, Moonlight Garden, Sky Path and Garden of Eden. Naturally, evening and night are the best times to enjoy the show.
The Korean War ended in 1953 not with a peace treaty but with an armistice. As a result, the two Koreas are still technically at war, and are separated by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Despite its name, this is the most heavily militarized border in the world. But don't let that stop you visiting...
There are a couple of popular ways to experience the DMZ. One option is the DMZ train run by KORAIL. The Gyeongui Line goes from Seoul Station to Dorasan Station, while the Gyeongwon Line, goes from Seoul Station to Baengmagoji Station. There are three cabins on the train, designed to evoke peace, love and harmony: surely the perfect environment from which to enjoy one of the tensest areas on the planet.
Panmunjom is the most famous village in the DMZ, sitting right on the border, in the heart of the zone. This is where the armistice was signed in 1953 and the Joint Security Area (JSA) is the only place where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face, glowering at each other across the border. You will have to sign a waiver if you want to enter, acknowledging that you are happy to enter a “hostile area” and put yourself in the line of fire.
The Joeseon Dynasty lasted for around five centuries and forms the foundations of modern Korean society. Like any dynasty, there were some good rulers (e.g. Sejong the Great, who created the Korean alphabet Hangul) and some less good ones (e.g. Yeonsangun, who beat various servants to death and seized a thousand women from the provinces to serve as palace entertainers, before being deposed in a coup).
One thing the rulers shared was a taste for spectacular palaces. The five most famous palaces that are open top the public are: Gyeongbokgung (“Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven”); Changdeokgung (“Palace of Prospering Virtue”); Changgyeonggung (“Palace of Flourishing Gladness”); Deoksugung (“Palace of Virtuous Longevity”) and Gyeonghuigung (“Palace of Serene Harmony”).
An all-inclusive ticket is available that gets you into all of them, which is valid for a month and can be bought at any of the palaces.
Often located in residential neighbourhoods, Seoul’s traditional markets offer a charming contrast to the mega malls and big brands that have become hugely popular in recent decades. Some of the coolest markets include:
Tongin Market dates back to 1941. The area bustles with street vendors and is the perfect place to explore Korean food.
Garak is famous for its fish market, where you can watch the day’s catch being auctioned between 18:00 and 21:00 each day. It is huge.
Pungmul (officially the ‘Seoul Folk Flea Market’) is the place for vintage goods, Korean originals, clothes, food and regional specialties.
Gyeongdong market is famous for its fragrant oriental medicinal herbs. A treat for the senses.