Everything you need to know about surprising Seoul

It's hi-tech, high-rise and high energy - but there is a lot more to Seoul. Here are seven things you might believe about the vibrant South Korean capital that aren't true (and three that absolutely are).

A palace surrounded by water
  • Leslie Moore
  • December 2019

With its gorgeous green spaces, dramatic mountains and grand palaces, there is much more to the South Korean capital than the worlds of tech and K-pop. Here are the most common myths about Seoul - busted.

It’s an overcrowded city

The Seou opens in new windowl Capital Area, which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi-do, is home to a whopping 25.6 million people, making it one of the world’s biggest metropolitan areas. However, the large number of tranquil green spaces and wide avenues give the city a peaceful vibe. Don’t believe us? Check out Hangang’s collection of parks stretching kilometres along the Han River, or World Cup Park opens in new window, a sprawling retreat built on what was once a landfill.

Seoul cityscape alongside the Han River
Explore one of the many parks that stretch along the Han River.

The language barrier is extreme

Not only are all street and subway signs written in both the native Hangul and in English but most everyone from taxi drivers to street food hawkers speak English to some degree. A 24-hour tourist hotline – phone 1330 – is also available in myriad languages to assist visitors with everything from bus tickets to movie session times.

english.visitkorea.or.kr opens in new window

Seoul is a concrete jungle

You may be surprised to hear that mountains abound in and around the city, including the granite peaks of Bukhansan National Park. There’s also Namsan Park, an urban mount at the top of which sits the iconic N Seoul Tower, reachable by foot or cable car. A stroll along the 11 kilometre-long Cheonggyecheon Stream is also a highlight, with walking paths and a waterfall, set in the heart of downtown Seoul.

A palace in South Korea that backs onto trees
Bukhansan National Park's granite peaks are well worth a visit.

It’s not safe

Since Seoul is only 56 kilometres south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), some people think the city is too close to North Korea for comfort. But there’s been no significant military action in decades and recent acts of diplomacy include a joint team in the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea. In fact, the DMZ has even become a tourist attraction, with a train taking onlookers to the border from Seoul Station. South Korea also has low crime rates – a heritage of Confucianism means locals treat others with respect.

The only culture is K-pop

K-pop is a phenomenon beloved by international and local fans alike. What’s lesser known by outsiders is that Seoul is filled with a variety of other art forms, including robust film and TV industries (who hasn’t seen a melodramatic Korean drama?), a thriving fashion scene with biannual fashion weeks, incredible architecture – see the neo-futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza built by Zaha Hadid – and galleries dedicated to both traditional and modern art.

Two women in traditional South Korean dress
While the traditional costumes are lovely, there is more to Seoul's thriving fashion scene.

There’s not much history

The capital possesses five grand palaces, including the main Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung Palace. Dating back to 1395, this colourful complex offers a twice-daily changing of the guard ceremony complete with dramatic historical costumes and is also home to the National Folk Museum of Korea. Other pockets of heritage include tranquil temples such as Bongeunsa and the renowned Bukchon Hanok Village, where you can even stay in a traditional Korean hanok house.

It’s nonstop kimchi

Despite the fermented veg condiment being a staple, Seoul’s cuisine offers much more. The flourishing food scene includes traditional dishes, such as bibimbap (rice bowl), in addition to more than 30,000 KFC (that’s Korean Fried Chicken to the uninitiated) shops nationwide. There are also restaurants proffering fare from around the world: the famed Michelin released a Seoul guide in 2017.

Korean fried chicken
Korean Fried Chicken is just one of the must-try foods in Seoul

Plus, three truths about Seoul

Seoul is the world’s beauty capital - some reports estimate one-in-three South Korean women aged 19-29 have had plastic surgery. Medical tourism in Seoul is booming with more than 500 clinics in the Gangnam neighbourhood alone. Currently plastic surgery tax is refunded on departure but this may change in 2020.

Seoul is also the home of Taekwondo. The origins of the martial art of Taekwondo (meaning ‘the way of the foot and fist’) date back more than 2000 years. The form we know today was established in the 1950s by General Choi Hong Hi, who promoted the art to his troops. It became South Korea’s national sport in 1971.

Four boys practising Taekwondo
Taekwondo became South Korea's national sport in 1971.

You might know Seoul as being tech savvy – and you are not wrong. Not only is it home to tech giants including Samsung and LG, internet speeds in the capital are around three times faster than the rest of the world. Wi-Fi is free in the city’s public spaces, coffee shops, some taxis and even subways and city buses.

If you want to go beyond the tourist traps of South Korea’s capital city, here’s how to explore the best of Seoul by subway opens in new window.