Almost a year ago I visited the city of Seoul in South Korea for the wedding of one of my sons to a Korean girl. I had previously met most of my future daughter-in-law’s family but had never been to Korea before.
Exploring Seoul, the largest city in South Korea was not difficult. In a city of almost twelve million, one would not expect this to be the case. The Metro system is easy to navigate and taxis are incredibly reasonable and easy to get. Most drivers however, do not speak English or it is extremely limited. But with a map of the city or an address, there is no difficulty and all seemed to be very helpful and friendly.
In one instance when I was going to the home of my future daughter-in-law, there were many apartment buildings and he drove around until he was sure he had the correct address. I appreciated that he didn’t unceremoniously dump me where he thought the address may be. Another time when I was visiting one of the many palaces, the driver pulled in so I wouldn’t have to cross the stress and pointed to where the entrance was. As a woman on my own, I did not feel uncomfortable or nervous travelling in the city by myself.
On a visit to the National Folklore Museum, while I was looking around, a young girl came up and asked if I would like her to show me around. Although there was some English on the signage, she told me more extensive background history that I would never have known otherwise.
After discovering that I was visiting the city to attend the wedding of my son to a Korean girl, she took a special interest and showed me the entire process of life from ancient times to the present. It was very useful in helping me understand Korean life and customs as well as their wedding traditions. After the tour she directed me to the next place I planned to visit which was within easy walking distance.
My next stop was the Gyeonbokgung Palace which means ‘Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven’. Construction of the original palace began in 1395 and represented the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty. But between 1592 and 1598 it was razed by invasions of the Japanese and was not rebuilt until 1868. At this time about 500 buildings were built on the over forty hectare site. I was overwhelmed by the immenseness of the grounds and the many buildings. Planning to meet my son here, I realized the futility of ever finding him as I wandered from one building to another. We eventually met up at the entrance/exit gates where we watched the unique process of the changing of the guards ceremony.
Our next stop was Deokgung Palace which is also part of the Joseon Dynasty. The back of the building had secret passageways to the Russian Emissary which exist to this day. My son and I were able to catch the changing of the guards here as well. Each of the ceremonies are performed at scheduled times throughout the day. At both palaces the guards wear traditional clothing but the attire and the ceremonies are quite different between the two palaces.
Later, being joined by my future daughter-in-law, we made our way to Insadong Street. It is the focal point of Korean traditional culture, folk crafts and traditional clothing as well as a center for artists, craftsmen and art lovers alike. Art events and festivals are held often along this 700 meter long street and vehicles are not permitted during weekends. The shops were interesting and tea was offered for tasting at one shop which was a wonderful respite on an extremely cold winter day.
On another day, two companions and myself went to Myeongdong Market. With its countless shops, stores and stalls, it apparently is one of the busiest places in Seoul. It includes department stores and shopping malls which are interspersed with street stalls selling inexpensive items with prices that can be negotiated. A companion who had lost her glasses bought two pairs for a total of just over $200.00, including the eye examination and for a total wait time of under one hour. It is considered the ultimate shopping experience in Seoul.
Other attractions in Seoul are Namdaemun Market which is the oldest and largest in all of Korea, dating back to 1414 and Jongmyo Shrine dedicated to the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. Built in 1394, the Japanese burned it down during the Seven Year War. It was later rebuilt in 1601.
We stayed at a hotel fairly central to many of the tourist attractions and if not a good walk, at least not a long taxi ride. Surrounded by an assortment of eating establishments, the rooms were clean and wifi was available.
We were in South Korea in the middle of January which was very cold. According to my daughter-in-law May and September are the best months to visit Korea. I tucked that gem of information away as good advice when travelling again to Seoul.