Chi Hoa

Mixing traditions with modernity, and ancient sites with exciting nightlife, Seoul is one of the most-visited destinations in Asia

The guard in traditional Joseon-era costumes during the changing of the guard ceremony

While Seoul is highly modern, remnants of its ancient culture remain visible. A journey to discover the connections between Seoul’s past and present begins in the Jongno-gu District in the heart of the city. We begin in the former palace of Gyeongbok, the main and most imposing palace in the complex of the Five Palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty. This architectural complex is the most popular tourist attraction in Seoul and a stunning example of traditional Asian architecture. Its grand scale reinforced the absolute power and importance of the emperors. While construction began in 1395 at the behest of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, due to wars and political upheavals, Gyeongbok Palace was destroyed many times. In 1990, the palace was gradually rebuilt to regain its former glory.

Surrounded by greenery, Gyeongbok Palace blends impressive imperial architecture and beautiful natural surroundings. To the north of the palace, Hyangwonjeong Pavilion rises like a flower and is reflected in the crystal surface of a pond spanned by the wooden Chwihyanggyo Bridge. Even the pavilion’s name is romantic, translating as “far-spreading perfume”.

Tile roof detail of traditional korean palace

Another must-visit site in the Gyeongbok Former Palace Complex is Geunjeongjeon Main Hall, once used to receive visiting dignitaries and home to displays of gold crowns. Geunjeongjeon Hall features carvings on the ground that lead to a main hall decorated with a symmetrical pair of phoenixes that are symbols of yin – yang harmony. In this historic setting, visitors enjoy watching the changing of the guard ceremony, which takes onlookers back in time since the guards are dressed in traditional Joseon-era costumes. 

Leaving the gates of Gwanghwamun, the journey continues along Samcheong-dong Road, which leads to Bukchon Hanok Village, founded 600 years ago. Traditional Hanok (Korean) houses are now used to host travellers eager to experience local customs and enjoy traditional foods and tea. Since the Joseon Dynasty, this village has been deemed an outdoor museum of Korean architecture with tile-roofed houses built from natural materials including wood, clay, stone and even paper. Traditional Korean houses are built according to the feng sui principle of “leaning against mountains and overlooking the lake”. Ideally, a Korean house should be built against a mountain and facing southwards. Thanks to this layout and large open windows, the houses in Bukchon Hanok Village remain cool in the summer. In the chilly winter, underfloor heating warms the rooms. Thanks to the warm floors, people typically sleep on the floor. Traditional ondon underfloor heating uses wood smoke to heat the underside of a thick masonry floor.

A corner in Bukchon Hanok village

Visitors to Gyeongbok Palace should not miss Insadong Pedestrian Street, which is just a stone’s throw away. Located right in the heart of Seoul, this street is just 700-metres long but home to some 100 art galleries displaying a mix of fine arts and folk arts. Be sure to stop at the Kyung-in Fine Arts Museum, which showcases contemporary artworks in a beautiful building that was once the residence of aristocrats during the Joseon Dynasty. There is also an old teahouse where visitors can enjoy traditional teas and listen to folk music. 

A fruit stall in Insadong

Continuing along the street, travellers will find shops selling sophisticated handicrafts, some of which are made by the shops’ owners. Apart from Hahoe wooden masks, paintings and ceramics, stalls on Insadong offer hanji paper, a special paper made from the bark of mulberry trees that has been produced here for over 1,000 years. Explore the surrounding alleys to find teahouses, restaurants and antique stores. Those looking for a more modern setting should head to the four-storied Ssamziegil Building, which has a breezy atmosphere and is home to more than 70 kiosks offering a wide range of products from Hanbok to jewellery and ornaments. 

Around 500 years ago, Insadong Street was already home to senior mandarins of the Joseon Dynasty. Over the years it was gradually transformed into a marketplace for antiques before turning into a bustling shopping street popular with both locals and foreigners. No visit to Seoul is complete without a stop at this colourful street.

Ssamziegil building in Insadong

Korea has weathered highs and lows to become a regional economic powerhouse. Despite its rapid modernisation, the locals’ traditional values remain evident. Visitors to Seoul will enjoy discovering the intangible bridges between old and new.