At first glance, Seoul appears to be a sprawling concrete mass of high-rise apartment buildings and modern buildings interspersed with historical treasures. But on closer investigation, the city can be divided into numerous smaller districts with their own distinct character. Your primary landmark is the Han River, which runs east to west and bisects the metropolis. Jongno forms the center to the north, surrounded by five main tourist districts, and there are two other districts of interest to visitors to the south, all of which are easy to access by the convenient and economical subway system. Very few streets have names, however, and buildings are not always numbered, so the easiest way to find a place is by locating the nearest subway station or landmark, or by asking the friendly people you are certain to meet in every part of the city.
At the heart of Seoul, the Jongno and Gwanghwamun areas have long been considered the political, economic and cultural center of the city. They cover approximately two square kilometers from City Hall Station and Gwanghwamun in the west, to Jongno 5-ga and Ulchiro 4-ga Stations in the east. Here you will find an astonishing contrast of old and new. Ancient royal palaces and cultural inheritances, such as the Deoksu , Gyeongbok and Changgyeong palaces, the National Museum and Chogyesa Temple , surround the downtown area of Jongno, which bustles with people enjoying movie theaters, stores and restaurants. Chongno and Kyobo bookstores, Lotte Department Store and the Millennium Plaza are all within easy reach. Government offices, embassies, and corporate headquarters are located here. Tapkol and Sajik parks provide respite from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, and Insadong —a street famous for traditional tea houses, art galleries and antiques—runs north of the district's main street.
Jung-gu & Dongdaemun-gu
Just south of Jongno is the Namdaemun and Myeong-dong area , at the Hoehyon and Myeong-dong Subway stops. Namdaemun, literally “great south gate,” is the name both of the impressive stone and wood structure which still stands at the center of the intersection, and also of the large market nearby. Since 1414, Namdaemun Market has been a lively place where merchants and buyers gather to bargain over a wide variety of goods. Just east of here is the fashion mecca of Myeong-dong , always full of young people trying on the latest styles. Here you will also find the biannual Myeong-dong Festival, featuring an array of entertainment, from traditional music to a fashion show. If the shopping begins to overwhelm you, visit the Myeongdong Cathedral , built in 1898, for an artistic and cultural experience. Also close by, atop Mt. Namsan , you can enjoy some green space and take the Namsan Cable Car up to Seoul N Tower to take in the beautiful panoramic views of Seoul. The letter N signifies the tower's magnificent new look since it was remodeled in 2005.
Dongdaemun (“great east gate”) is the district immediately east of Jongno, famous for the Dongdaemun Market where you can buy discounted brand-name items and outdoor wear/equipment. Also Migliore , another popular shopping sensation is found here, an attraction that is popular with the young. Dongdaemun Stadium is also located in this area. Dongdaemun once served as the main eastern gate, built in 1397, in the wall surrounding Seoul. The gate that is seen today was rebuilt in 1869. A historic landmark to visit while in the area is King Sejong Memorial Hall . This museum serves to honor the king who created the Korean alphabet, Hangeul. Dongdaemun is also known for its nightlife, as the younger crowd is attracted to the late night shops that feature beer, soju, and pop music that blares from the scene.
Daehangno & Seodaemun-gu
Northeast of Jongno at Hyehwa Station is the Daehangno district, also known as College Street. Although Seoul National University has since moved its campus after its establishment in 1946, Daehangno continues to be a place for the young to gather. Come here when you want to enjoy plays, musicals, or concerts at one of the many theaters, such as Dongsoong Arts Center or Munye Theater . Relax in Marronnier Park , where you may see improvised performances for free. Good restaurants and outdoor cafes abound here, and you will even find traditional fortune-teller tents along the street. As the previous site of Seoul National University, this is still a place for youth, as well as those interested in performing arts.
West of Jongno, the lively university district within Seodaemun-gu, spreads along the Ewha University, Shinchon and Hong-ik University subway stations. Shinchon is known for its 24-hour bars, cafes and restaurants, where students (and others) go to chat, dance and eat. The nearby Ewha Women's University area is full of jeans shops, hairdressers, and clothing stores. By contrast, Hongik University, with painted murals along its walls, has a slightly different feeling. Clothing shops are few, replaced instead by restaurants, nightclubs, rock bars and live cafes. In fact, a great cafe in the area is Bbang Saeea Kin Kwail (Fruit Between Bread) , a definite favorite among the locals. You can also experience the Korean underground music culture at small clubs in this area.
Within Yongsan-gu, near Samgakji Station, Itaewon is the most Americanized and tolerant district in Korea, located near the U.S. military base. You can be sure English is spoken here, and you also will find the highest concentration of non-Koreans and Koreans mingling in the street. This district is also known for the Yongsan Electronic Shopping Town , an ultimate electronic shopping experience. After shopping for video games, appliances, or Western-brand clothing, and local souvenirs, you can relax in one of the many restaurants and cafes here, which serve both Korean and non-Korean food. To learn more about the country's military history, be sure to stop by the War Memorial Museum while you are in Itaewon. The whole family can enjoy a picnic in the park at Yongsan Park . Another must-see museum is the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art , which showcases traditional Korean art as well as modern contemporary art.
Gangnam & Apgujeong-dong
A fairly new entertainment and culture center, the Gangnam district, literally “south of the river,” attracts people of all ages. Cafes, restaurants, clubs, music stores and movie theaters flank the wide tree-lined street near Gangnam Station. Don't come expecting historical sites, but instead come for the stores, fashion and modern atmosphere. Within a few subway stops, you can also visit the COEX Mall , Seoul Sports Complex and the Seoul Arts Center . This affluent metropolitan area is also home to prominent Fortune 500 global companies, attracting international business to Seoul.
South of the Han River is the Apgujeong district, centered around Apgujeong Station (Line 3) and exuding youth, fashion and wealth. Known as the most expensive place to buy property in Seoul, it is nicknamed the "Beverly Hills" of Korea, home to exotic cafes, unusual bars and unique fashion. The Hard Rock Cafe and other theme bars are located here. Near at hand is Chongdong, an area popular for food.
Seoul is a great place to experience a wide variety of spicy yet mouth-watering foods, especially the local cuisine with its distinctive tastes based on garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, red pepper powder and fermented soybean paste. Korean dishes, such as bibimpab (vegetables mixed with rice and hot pepper paste, topped with a cooked egg), kalbi (succulent beef ribs marinated in a special sauce, then char-broiled) and kimchi (Chinese cabbage or radish, salted with various spices, including red hot pepper powder and pickled fish sauces), are becoming increasingly popular around the world. Kimchi, in fact, is the country's staple, accompanying almost every meal. As many Koreans put it, "A meal without kimchi would be like trying to walk without legs." The existence of some 200 kinds of Kimchi shows how important it is to the local diet.
For an excellent sampling of the growing trend towards international cuisine, try Dimatteo , where authentic Italian pizza is prepared by Neapolitan chefs. Of course, if you are searching for some Seoul food, you can stop in at Sanchon , which offers a vegetarian Korean menu. Still searching for something more traditional? Try Arirang Minsokgwan , an excellent place to eat and watch classical Korean performances. Another restaurant in the area to try is Yeongbin Garden , a popular Korean style restaurant in the heart of Seoul. Finally, after a long day touring the Jongno district, what better way to unwind than over a glass of soju, perhaps with a new found friend?
Aside from the magnificent views the Seoul N Tower provides, the N-grill found inside Seoul Tower is surely not to be missed. This rotating restaurant is sure to be a dining highlight of your time spent in Seoul. You can even take in a performance before or after dinner at the National Theater , located near Mt. Namsan . Another diner's and drinker's paradise is Top Cloud , located inside the Millennium Plaza . The restaurants located inside Hotel Shilla offer Western, Japanese-Chinese, and Korean cuisine in a classy, aristocratic atmosphere. Prices here are higher, but the quality of the food is superb. These restaurants include Continental , Palsun , and Ariake . Don't forget to try the Pastry Boutique for those with a sweet tooth.
Daehangno & Apgujeong
After touring around Daehangno , try one of the many places frequented by students, such as Chin Chin . Stop in to see why this place is among the favorites of university students. If you have spent all day shopping around Apgujeong and you are in the mood for something American, try Kraze Burgers . This Korean-American style restaurant will leave you satisfied by their selection of gourmet burgers, salads, pasta dishes, and steaks. If Italian-American is more your style, try Kimmee , another local favorite. After a refreshing lunch, take a stroll in Marronnier Park , a great place to relax or work off a hearty meal.
Among other attractions in the area is the War Memorial Museum , one of the many reminders that commemorate those who fought to ensure the modern nation state. After an afternoon of sightseeing, broaden your palate of Asian cuisine by trying Thai Orchird . Of course, European cuisine can always be found in Seoul, for instance, La Cucina is a great example of Italian fare. If you happen to be wandering around Itaewon at night you will find the young and young at heart out at the various bars and lounges. Some of the popular nightclubs in the area include the Big Electric Cat and Del's Disco, popular amongst the gay crowd. If sipping drinks is more your style, try one of the wine bars like Bonji Bistro and Gecko's Garden.
If you are staying at or around the Ritz Carlton , you are in luck. Not only do they offer fantastic accommodations, but also offer a wide selection of appetizing meals. Every so often, these hotels have special food fairs where they emphasize culinary delights from different countries, too. After your shopping spree at the COEX Mall or a day filled spent at the Seoul Arts Center , you may want to proceed to Siena , a fine Italian restaurant for some mouth watering Tuscan cuisine. If Korean food is on your mind, try Samwon Garden . This restaurant demonstrates its pride for Korea with their traditional fare. It is also hailed as one of the largest restaurants in Seoul, providing great service and tasty dishes.