The soul of Korea: the answers to all your Seoul questions
South Korea’s largest city, officially the Seoul Special Metropolitan City, is the heart and soul of the nation. In fact, half of South Korea's population lives in and around Seoul. The site of both ancient palaces and modern skyscrapers, the city is also the birthplace of fashion trends and K-pop.
Q: What country is Seoul in?
A: Seoul is the capital of South Korea, officially called the Republic of Korea.
Q: How to pronounce Seoul?
A: The city is pronounced like the English word "soul." Plays on words reflecting this are common. For example, the city’s slogan is I SEOUL U, meaning "soul of Asia," and Seoul has a program called Global Seoul Mate that encourages a delegation of foreigners to share information about the city on social media and the Visit Seoul tourism website.
Q: How big is Seoul?
A: The city has a population of about 10 million. When adding the metro area, the population count is more than 25 million. The whole country has a population of almost 51 million.
Q: When to visit Seoul?
A: Thanks to its distinct seasons, Seoul is lovely to visit at any time of the year. Spring and autumn are considered the best times because of the mild weather. Spring has cherry blossoms, and in the fall trees turn bright gold and red. Summertime is hot, and the rainy season lasts from mid-June to mid-July. Wintertime temperatures can drop well below freezing, but the cold doesn’t last long. A Korean weather phenomenon called samha saon usually results in four mild days following three cold ones.
Q: How much is a taxi from Seoul to Incheon airport?
A: Taxis charge a flat rate from the airport to various destinations in Seoul, depending on the section of the city and the type of taxi. International taxis are 20 percent more expensive than regular taxis, but the drivers speak English, Japanese or Chinese. Trips to Section A, which includes Gangseo, cost 55,000 won (about $48) for a midsize car. Section B is 65,000 won (about $58), and Section C, which includes Gangnam, is 75,000 won (about $66). There is an additional toll charge of 7,900 won ($7). Tipping is not a custom in Korea, but telling the driver to keep the change is welcomed.
The train and bus are other options to get from the airport. The AREX train connects the airport to downtown, with the express train taking 40 minutes and costing 8,000 won (about $7). Use preloaded TMoney transit cards to pay for public transportation, including taxis, and even purchases in convenience stores and traditional markets. The TMoney Mpass is designed for tourists who want to hop on and off public transportation as they explore the city. Purchase the Mpass at the tourist information center in the airport and in other locations in the city.
Q: Is Gangnam in Seoul?
A: The Gangnam district, made famous by Psy’s K-pop song "Gangnam Style," is one of 25 districts in the city. The neighborhood is a wealthy one with several shopping areas. Gangnam also has the COEX Aquarium, a handbag museum and the Bongeunsa Temple, where visitors can learn how monks live.
Q: What to do in Seoul?
A: Seoul can keep visitors busy for weeks, whether they’re looking for traditional cultural experiences, seeing what makes the city a modern technology hub, enjoying the outdoors or indulging in the city’s nightlife.
Seoul has many temples as well as five grand palaces that were built by the kings of the Joseon dynasty from 1392 to 1897:
- Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest palace, was built in 1395 and is undergoing an extensive restoration. Often called the Northern Palace, many say it's the most beautiful of the five grand palaces. It is a historic site and hosts two national museums.
- Changdeokgung Palace, also known as the Eastern Palace, is the best preserved of the five grand palaces. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, honored because of the integration of the buildings into the natural setting. The site also has a garden and an art museum.
The Namsan Seoul Tower provides a distinct contrast to the traditional palaces. This 777-foot tower is a landmark, a nighttime art display and an observatory to see all of Seoul from its viewing platforms. Take the cable car or walk up Mount Namsan to get there.
After seeing the sites, hit the shops:
- Myeong-dong is popular with tourists because of the variety of shops and the competitive prices. Look for the famous department stores Shinsegae and Lotte, tiny street stalls without names and everything in between.
- Dongdaemum Market is the largest shopping district and has a famous night market. You can often find bargains here. Fashion predominates, and it's a place to go for the latest trends.
- Namdaemun Market is a more traditional market, with beginnings 600 years ago. Many of the shops here sell goods the owners make themselves, and you'll also find produce, electronics and imported products.
Q: What to buy in Seoul?
A: Handicrafts are a popular purchase. Beautifully decorated fans are a traditional gift for loved ones, and old-fashioned accessories like brooches and hairpins can make the wearer feel traditional, even if not ready to don a hanbok, a brightly colored structured dress still worn by Koreans on special occasions.
Seoul is a popular spot for fashion, and the shops here boast ever-changing styles of modern clothes, including matching outfits for couples. Korea also makes good-quality cosmetics, and many shops offer personalized consultations and free samples.
Even if there’s no room for souvenirs in your suitcase, there’s always room to eat Korean foods like tteok (rice cakes), yukgaejang (beef stew), gim (toasted seaweed), makkoli (or makgeolli, a sweet rice wine), and hotteok (hot pancakes filled with brown sugar and sometimes cinnamon and nuts).