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3 Things I love about Seoul, My Favourite City

Hiking in Seoul at night - Seoul Fortress Wall

At no time in history, have more people lived in cities than right now. As our world becomes increasingly global – humans – rather than spreading out and taking advantage of the millions of acres of space available to us, choose to reside in densely concentrated pockets instead. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

"Olympic Spirit," by Jose Maria Cuellar, cropped, CC Attribution

“Olympic Spirit,” by Jose Maria Cuellar, cropped, CC Attribution

In this day and age, you could argue that the idea of city is more important than that of country. When you think of China, it’s Shanghai or Beijing, that has an impact. You don’t think about the minorities of Yunnan Province or the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an, which are just as much China, as these huge metropolises are. Our impression of a “country” is mostly comprised of what’s going on in the biggest cities.

I’d even go so far as to argue that it’s not countries competing with each other to attract the best and the brightest these days…it’s cities. People don’t pick up and go to UAE. They go to Dubai. Sure, a beach break is totally restorative, but it’s cities that have the power to move, excite and exhilarate us. It’s cities that have the energy, creativity and pure human capital necessary for innovation. Cities incubate the seeds of our future.

What makes a city great? How do you decide which of all of the thousands of cities in the world, is your favourite? The choice is as unique as a snowflake in a Canadian blizzard, because every city has a character, habit and culture that’s all it’s own.

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Personally, I like big cities. For me, the bigger, the better. And Seoul, my current home, and city of birth (but not citizenship) is the 2nd largest metropolitan area in the world. Sure, there are frustrations. Living next to 25 million others isn’t always easy, but it’s also the reason why the city is as efficient, modern and adaptable as it is. It’s the reason why Seoul has 19 super clean and affordable subway lines criss-crossing it’s huge area. Necessity is, after all, the mother of all invention.

"Seoul, as seen from the Naksan park," by Kihong Kim, CC Attribution

“Seoul, as seen from the Naksan park,” by Kihong Kim, CC Attribution

Of course, a world-class public transport system isn’t enough to make Seoul my favourite city out of the hundreds I’ve visited all over the world. There’s many more reasons, and here are just 3 of them.

Food, glorious food.

Ask any expat who’s left Seoul what they miss the most, and invariably, it’s the food. And no wonder, because Korean food is absolutely delightful. Flavourful, healthy and wholly under-appreciated on a global scale, as far as I’m concerned, I simply can’t get enough of Korea’s bibimbaps and samgyeopsals.

Fortunately, in Seoul, that’s not an issue, because quality restaurants, cafes and food trucks fill the streets. It’s easy to get a fix of whatever I’m craving at pretty much any time of the day.

Best of all, there’s no tipping! 🙂

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The Ancient and the Modern.

In Seoul, it’s possible to travel between the ancient and the modern, simply by crossing the street. It’s a place where graceful Confucian palaces and ancient walls reside next to towering skyscrapers and ultra modern architecture.

"Bukchon Hanok Village," by Doug Sun Beams, CC Attribution

“Bukchon Hanok Village,” by Doug Sun Beams, CC Attribution

One of the best places to encounter this mix of old and new is at Bongeunsa, where you can experience profound silence and listen to chanting monks, before entering the noise and cacophony of commercial paradise at Coex Mall, a 5 minute walk away.

"Bongeunsa Blue," by Brad Hammonds, CC Attribution

“Bongeunsa Blue,” by Brad Hammonds, CC Attribution

It’s still at war, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the safest places in the world.

Until recently, if you asked a foreigner about Korea, their first thought was of North Korea. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked if I live in North or South Korea (as if it’s easy to just leave North Korea and travel around).

Yes, Korea is divided and technically still at war, and if you believed the news media, you’d think Seoulites were cowering under some fearful reign of terror. But it’s simply not the case. The reality is that you’re more likely to get run over by an impatient driver, than get robbed or assaulted. In fact, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Seoul itself, is actually one of the safest cities in the world.

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It’s common practice to leave laptops, smartphones and designer purses unattended in restaurants and cafes without fear of theft, and my super-smart hubby has left the keys in his scooter countless times without consequence. Everyday, I see 5 year olds walking down the street alone, smartphone in hand (no joke), without parents worrying after them. I walk down the streets myself, day or night, and have never felt an ounce of fear. The sheer safety of the city is something I’ve gotten used to, but it’s something that should never be taken for granted.

Incidently, the fact that Korea is technically still at war, lends itself to one of the most unique travel experiences you can have in this world. A visit to the DMZ or demilitarized zone, 1 hour north of Seoul, can give insight into the tension that still exists between the 2 countries.

Of course, now we have Psy to thank for equating Korea with Gangnam Style, which might be better, but only marginally… 😉

Do you have a favourite city? What do you think makes a city great?

41 Comments Post a comment
  1. OK. Craving bibimbap now! Fortunately I brought some sauce with me to Brazil! I might have to make some this week. Will have to ad-lib a bit. I adored walking through Bukchon several times each week. Those hills are great exercise when you are pushing a pram.
    As for safety, there are very few places in the world that I would comfortably ride public transport alone at night, but it was easily done in Seoul. So on one hand, I felt very safe – but on the other hand, as a foreigner in Seoul and therefore not yet desensitised to the regular “threats” from North Korea, I must say that I had some anxious times too… Good luck with your entry!

    January 26, 2015
    • Ohhh bibimbap. I think it’s probably the one Korean dish I have to have regularly…especially the stone bowl version. I’m curious to see how your Brazilian version turns out! 🙂 Bukchon is also one of my favourite parts of Seoul (it’s just so far from us – we’re down by Jamsil), but if I lived close to there, I’d get out and walk around in the mornings for sure. It must be amazingly peaceful and beautiful before all the tourists arrive.

      It’s funny, every time I travel to other cities or countries, I have to remind myself to zip up my purse properly and watch my belongings, because I’m so used to not having to worry here. It’s really one of the most amazing things I think… BTW how was your trip to Peru????

      January 28, 2015
      • Peru blew me away! I posted about it yesterday. Will try to send you a link via email.

        January 28, 2015
  2. You really make sound Seoul like an amazing place. A lot of it reminds me of how my mom described Shanghai when she visited. She was impressed by how safe she felt and the part about leaving your bag unattended, she was also impressed by the cleanliness and the transportation. They sound like similar places, big cities with a mix of the old and the new. I haven’t visited either of them yet.

    January 26, 2015
    • I think a lot of East Asian cities have a similar thing going on. Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul – all similar with the old and new, but definitely with unique characters and very unique food! I think Seoul has the best public transport system in the world – and I’ve been on the ones in Paris, NYC, London, Tokyo – it’s cheap ($1 per ride), efficient, clean, safe and goes basically everywhere. I even let my driver’s license expire because of it… 😮

      Seoul is still a bit under the travel radar – which makes it even better as far as I’m concerned. I hope you’ll get a chance to come visit one day. 🙂

      January 28, 2015
  3. Home sweet home. It’s been six years since I lived anywhere else but here and although I miss home, Seoul has been a second home to me and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. You will hit the nail on the head about safety. This is one of the few places in the world I feel safe walking around at night. The food is pretty good here too 🙂

    January 26, 2015
    • Hey, we’ve been here almost the same amount of time!! 😀 and I agree, I’m pretty sure there’s nowhere else I want to live, at least right now. In fact, when we were on our 2012 RTW, we were scouting other places to live, and there was nowhere else that gave us the same combo of factors that Seoul did. One day, I hope to live in multiple cities of the world, all at once. Maybe Rome, Seoul and someplace in Canada…oh, and a beach somewhere of course. 😉

      January 28, 2015
      • Shelley you literally just laid out our life plan! Gotta have that beach!

        January 28, 2015
      • Jill and I’s dream is to work in Europe for at least 5 years and then retire to Malaysia.

        January 28, 2015
        • Great minds think alike! 😉 Malaysia, eh? We’re thinking Bali… but get torn when we think about the Greek Islands. Definitely want to be spending multiple summers hanging out there in the future.

          January 29, 2015
  4. Except for the drivers, I agree with safety. The only times I have felt unsafe is when I am crossing a street and oncoming traffic chooses not to stop though they have a red light and I have a green crossing signal. Yesterday, saw a guy apparently assume we had the next green light and decided to drive across a very large intersection, each street had 6 lanes of traffic. He did NOT have the green light, oncoming traffic had a green left turn signal. He just kept driving. Could not believe my eyes.

    January 27, 2015
    • Oh, the drivers are something else here, eh? Agri has some stories to tell, that’s for sure. I’m convinced he only survives driving the streets of Seoul, because he learned how to drive in Rome…which has to be at least as bad.

      I’m sure it also doesn’t help that there are TVs and all kinds of other distractions in the cars. I mean, shouldn’t that be illegal or something?

      January 28, 2015
      • TVs are illegal now if they are in the front where the driver can see them. Just so ya know.

        January 28, 2015
  5. I love this post! I really hope to visit Korea/Seoul someday. So many of the things you wrote about reminded me completely of Tokyo, where I lived for many years. I’m very impressed that you said that you think Seoul has the best public transport system in the world – that is saying a lot! Anyway, it’s a shame I never made it to Korea all those years I was in Japan!!

    January 29, 2015
    • Hey Cecilia! 🙂 Yes, there are definitely huge similarities between Seoul and Tokyo, but also huge differences. The food is very different for sure, but also, overall I’d say that Seoul is a lot rowdier than Tokyo. Koreans don’t really follow the “rules” as much as Japanese, so it can be chaotic and noisy sometimes. I think Seoul’s public transport is better because it’s much cheaper ($1 per ride), feels newer, and seems more integrated than Tokyo’s. When I visited there, I felt a bit confused by all the different companies and having to exit one station, walk above ground, and then enter another station. Here, everything is totally connected, and you can even use the same transit card all over the country.

      I’m the same with Japan – I haven’t even been to Kyoto yet, and it’s only a $150 RT flight. I have no excuse, except laziness. 🙁 This is the year I’m correcting it though…I’m really feeling drawn to Japan lately…plus I’ve got it in my mind to taste Kobe beef!!! 😉

      January 29, 2015
  6. This is one of the best posts ever. And whoa, it’s all about Korea. You excuted this post so well starting with your big city introduction. It’s all so true. It’s the city, and not the country, that resonates more. Most essentially too that a city is simply in itself and cannot define a nation as a whole. Korean food definitely have a distinct taste, flavor all on its own. Shelley, I might have to stay away from your blog. All the bibimbap talk is killing me! 😆 i love the juxtapositions that you shared here. You really have convinced us to go Korea. 🙂 And it being a safe place. Pardon me, I also didn’t know how very safe it is. All those things remind me of Okinawa, Japan. This post is an excellent eye-opener. You did a very outstanding ambassador job. 😉

    January 29, 2015
    • Wow! Thanks for the compliment Rommel. 🙂 Yes, I think Korea often gets overlooked, and people go to Japan instead, but I think they’re missing out. Well, Asians aren’t, because Seoul has been the top tourist destination for Asians for many years in a row due to the hallyu wave, but westerners usually choose Japan instead. It’s changing though – have def noticed a big increase over the last few years (sadly, since Gangnam Style became so popular).

      Lol, I love to tease you with the bibimbaps. Maybe I’ll go eat one today in your honour. 😉

      January 29, 2015
  7. I was fascinated by Tokyo, but it sounds like I would love Seoul even more. I hate driving, and cities that have efficient public transportation really appeal to me. I’ve been wanting to visit South Korea – hopefully I’ll get to see it soon.

    February 2, 2015
    • The cities are quite similar, but I think Seoul has a livelier feel than Tokyo… and I find the people are more open and curious about connecting with visitors. There are a lot of programs and things set up specifically for non-Korean speaking tourists, so it can be a very good experience. Plus overall I think Korean food is better. More variety, and there’s a real social element to all the DIY cooking in restaurants here. 🙂 I hope you get to visit soon too. Fall is the best season. 😀

      February 2, 2015
  8. Awesome tribute to your city. I’ll admit Seoul has never been high on my list of places to visit. 25 million people, aaaah! But you edged it up a little higher.

    February 9, 2015
    • I’m quite introverted and the sheer number of people here is the one thing I have difficulty with. What I’ve realized though is that most of the people in the city run on the same general schedule, so if you can live your life (or travel) off peak, it’s like having a giant city with all it’s resources, basically to yourself. Coffee shops, parks etc…are pretty deserted in the mornings. (Koreans are not morning people) It’s actually kinda amazing. Does that edge Seoul a bit higher? 😉

      February 10, 2015
      • I’ll have to make a point to see the city at those times. Cheers. 😀

        February 10, 2015
  9. Seoul looks amazing and I can understand why the city becomes your favorite 🙂 The images look amazing!

    February 13, 2015
    • It’s such a huge city with so much to offer, I never get tired of exploring! 😀

      February 14, 2015
  10. Hmmm.. a favourite city is very hard. We like them all for different reasons. But what makes a great city? It’s the culture, how people-friendly it is, how easy it is to get around, the variety of things to see and do….. Probably the key points in our eyes! Some of these, we can look past if another is outstanding 😉

    PS – We would so love to visit Seoul (and Korea) one day. Food looks soooooo yummy!

    February 14, 2015
    • Lol… is there anywhere in the world you DON’T want to go? 😉 Let us know when you make it here…we’ll take you out for yummy food. 🙂

      February 17, 2015
      • Nope!! We want to go everywhere…. eventually 🙂 Oooh…. that’s a deal, now we will have to find time in our schedule to get there then 😉 And we will return the favour when you come to Sydney!

        February 17, 2015
  11. Beautiful article! One of the best things I ever did was give Seoul a shot. 😉

    February 23, 2015
    • Thanks!! I’m so happy I moved to Seoul too…I so love living here, I still make new discoveries after 5 years of being here. 🙂

      February 25, 2015
  12. Thanks for sharing your great writing. I agree, between global corporations and mega-cities the “need” for counties is becoming endangered (which seems like a natural evolution. “Imagine there’s no countries. It’s easy if you try” – perhaps enough generations have now been able to practice John Lennon’s teaching. )
    I appreciate your demystifing Seoul for me, and making me add it to my list of wonder-full places to see on our beautiful spinning planet

    March 8, 2015
    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, I do think it’s a natural evolution…most peaceful people would prefer to “imagine there’s no countries” for sure. 😀 Seoul is often overlooked, but I think it’s definitely worth visiting. Tourists are usually pleasantly surprised when they do visit.

      March 9, 2015
  13. Thank you for reminding me again why I absolutely love seoul as well! From all the places that I have travelled to, this city was definitely the one that left a big impression as there are just so many wonderful aspects about it especially the food and their brilliant transportation system. When you live in a city with horrible transportation system that frustrates you everyday, you just really can’t compare.

    I’m definitely hoping soon, I am able to go back 🙂

    March 13, 2015
    • When were you here? Another thing I love about Seoul is how quickly it changes… it really never gets boring! 🙂 I’m especially amazed by how quickly subway lines and stations are built – it feels like they literally appear overnight!!

      March 13, 2015
      • I went two years ago and would definitely go again in a heart beat! I agree, I just love how efficient and convenient their subway system is especially the T-money technology – just absolutely glorious!!!!
        As well, there just so many places to discover and experience even within a few miles away.

        March 13, 2015
        • It’s changed a lot, even in the last few years. I hope you get to visit again soon. 😀

          March 14, 2015

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