The soul of Seoul

Worth a second look: There are many hidden stories attached to the Seoul City Wall.

Worth a second look: There are many hidden stories attached to the Seoul City Wall.

There is much more to Seoul than K-pop/dramas and its signature dish of bibimbap. Get off the beaten track and discover the wealth of its heritage.

FOR many Malaysians, all the history they are interested in tracing when they visit Seoul, South Korea, is the footsteps of their favourite characters in their favourite scenes from their favourite drama series.

Then there are those who only want to make their own “history” by stalking ... I mean, waiting to catch a glimpse, of their beloved K-pop idols and Hallyu stars.

Which is a shame as, at over 2,000 years old, Seoul is a treasure trove of history – ancient and contemporary; personal and national; factual and mythical.

Founded as Wiryeseong under the Bakje Kingdom, one of the three kingdoms of Korea, Seoul is situated on the banks of Hangang (River) and surrounded by four mountains: Bugaksan, Inwangsan, Namsan and Naksan.

One of the artwork at Ihwa Village near Naksan Park under the Seoul Metropolitan Government's public artwork project to liven up the neighbourhood.
One of the artwork at Ihwa Village near Naksan Park under the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s public artwork project to liven up the neighbourhood.

Throughout history, Seoul has gone through diverse evolutions under the rule of the different kingdoms as well as the Japanese colonial administration and the Korean War. Its name alone has seen countless changes from the original Wiryeseong to Hanyang during the Joseon era and the current Seoul in 1945.

Because of its long existence, Seoul has a rich historical heritage. But like many other sprawling metropolises of the world, Seoul sees a wealth of (hi)stories created every day, all waiting to be shared. All you need to do is to simply step away from the beaten tourist track.

Seoul City Wall

Seoul City Wall is an iconic tourist site in the city, with more than 20 paths filled with stories. Stretched across the four mountains, with eight gates – four small and four big – some parts of the wall, however, are often overlooked by visitors.

A good place to start your exploration of Seoul City Wall is at the Hyehwamun Gate, one of the four smaller gates located between the East Gate and the North Gate. From there, you can walk to Naksan Park to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Seoul skyline, before ending the day at the coffeshops and restaurants of Seoul’s vibrant theatre street Daehangno, or even catch a show to relax.

We were taken on a shorter route, however, starting straight from Daehangno up to Naksan Park for a short stroll along the wall before coming back down for coffee.

The long stairways and winding alley up Naksan may look daunting but the view from the top and the public project artworks along the way will be worth it, I promise you.

The statue of King Sejong the Great at Gwanghwamun Square.
The statue of King Sejong the Great at Gwanghwamun Square.

And as the Seoulites rate it, the night scene from Naksan is the best, even compared to the more popular Namsan.

According to the royal annals, some 118,070 people were mobilised from across the country to build the wall, which was more than double the total number of Seoul’s population then. It took two years to complete the wall, and many of the builders remained in the city, forming villages along the fortress.

It is said that if you look hard enough, you might even find the names of the original “migrant” builders. As the story goes, to ensure the highest standard of workmanship, they were forced to etch their names and addresses into the wall, so that if the wall crumbled later due to their substandard work, they could be hunted down by the king’s men!

You will also come across some quaint villages along the path, including Dongsomun-dong, the home of many intellectuals and artists during the Japanese colonial period. It is claimed that the beauty of Naksan had inspired many poets and painters even since the Joseon Period. While the list of artists who left works on Naksan was lost on me, I can appreciate why the mountain park left a deep mark on them.

Another village of interest is Ihwa, which was revived by a public art project in 2006. More than 70 painters were invited to paint murals and put up installations on the walls and stairs to brighten up the otherwise dreary neighbourhood.

Hangang River has become an important recreational and leisure spot in Seoul, especially in the evenings when people can enjoy the cool breeze and the surrounding scenery, which gets even more beautiful as the sun sets.
Hangang River has become an important recreational and leisure spot in Seoul, especially in the evenings when people can enjoy the cool breeze and the surrounding scenery, which gets even more beautiful as the sun sets.

Further down is Changsin-dong where the Japanese administration settled during the colonial period. Interestingly, the village was also home to an independence activist named Kim Sang Ok who ran a clandestine anti-Japan organisation named Hyeoksindan from his blacksmith shop smack in the middle of the village.

After all the history and tiring climb, it is great to soak in the youthful and lively energy of Daehangno, which literally means University Street. It earned the name from its original “resident” – the liberal arts and law faculties of the Seoul National University. Although the university moved out years ago, Daehangno retained its artistic vibe with outdoor concerts and street performances held by more than 100 little theatres and other art collectives that have taken root there. Daehangno is also growing increasingly popular with foreign tourists despite the language barrier, although one suspects a lot might have to do with the growing number of Hallyu stars and K-pop idols taking the stage by storm, especially in the musicals.


Dongdaemun is a guaranteed destination in the itinerary of all visitors to Seoul. For fashionistas on a hunt for the latest fashion trends and bargains, it is paradise.

But if shopping is not your thing, you, like me, will probably find it a bit of a bore after a few minutes. (Frankly, Dongdaemun reminds me too much of Petaling Street and Sungai Wang.)

However, instead of whiling time away at a coffeshop while your fellow travellers appease their inner shopaholic or K-pop diva wannabe, try walking around the area. You don’t have to go far to discover unique treasures underneath the trite global-mall sheen. After all, Dongdaemun’s trading history can be traced back to the early days of Seoul - some 600 years ago.

A signboard leading to the Silk Road of Seoul in Dongdaemun.
A signboard leading to the Silk Road of Seoul in Dongdaemun.

One source of interesting tales about Seoul is the hard-to-miss but, sadly, often overlooked Heunginjimun Gate. Built as part of the Seoul City Wall, Heunginjimun survived turbulent foreign invasions and wars to be the last one standing among the four main gates of the fortress. In fact, it had also provided shelter for the people during the troubled times, especially those whose houses were destroyed in the bombings and fires.

Today, the historic gate stands at odds with the skyscrapers and giant shopping malls of the city, cut off from the remaining wall. But it is not impossible to imagine the days when it was a core part of the landscape - thronging with merchants on donkeys transporting their wares to the market. Seoulites had a wonderful surprise when lost remnants of the wall were unearthed in 2008 after the Dongdaemun Stadium was demolished. What really caught their imagination, though, was not so much the historical monument itself, but the symbolic meaning of the discovery.

As many love to repeat, “Seoul City Wall patiently waited for us for 83 years under the soil of Dongdaemun Stadium. Finally, it came back to remind us that Seoul is indeed a ‘city where history lives on’.”

But it is not all about ancient history in Dongdaemun.

Overlooking the market is the very modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), built as the new design and cultural hub of Seoul. The brainchild of British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the DDP is both impressive and overwhelming with its organic structure. It is a sight to behold! Depending on which side you view it from, DDP can look either like a hill or a wave. The roof is thatched with a patch of grass to make it look like a grassy mountain ridge. The shiny exterior is made up of 45,133 unique sheets of aluminum panelling which doubles up as a multimedia screen. If anything, DDP will be an oasis for tired visitors to escape the crowded and congested streets of Dongdaemun when it opens later this year.

But if escape includes food for you, the Gwangjang Traditional Market near the Cheonggyecheon stream might be a better place. Here you can find the quintessential Seoul street food – an array of noodles, spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki) and the infamous “drug” kimbap – named such because one taste will have you hooked and hankering for more.

Not to be missed is Gwangjang’s specialty – mung bean pancakes (bindaetteok). It is customary for the Koreans to wash their bindaetteok down with makgeolli rice wine, so for those who can, don’t miss the chance to enjoy it like the locals. Even Hollywood director Tim Burton fell in love with the cheap but yummy traditional dish and is doing his own bit to promote his favourite bindaetteok stall with his personal testimony and pictures on the wall.

The best thing about Gwangjang, however, is the arrangement of the stalls in the middle of the market where you have no choice but to sit shoulder to shoulder with other diners, facing the peddlers. No quiet or private meals allowed here! But there is also no better way to learn more about Korean street food. If you are looking for a different sort of Korean experience, don’t hesitate to venture out to the back streets of Dongdaemun. Tucked in a corner that even many Seoulites are unaware of is a little hamlet called Jung-gu Gwanghui–dong or the Silk Road of Seoul. The neighbourhood earned the moniker from the community of traders – from Russia and Central Asia to Mongolia – who have made Dongdaemun their home.

The multicultural mix has given the neighbourhood an exotic vibe and diverse aromas with its eclectic mix of restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores lining the streets. While the foreign element is strong, the community somehow fits in well with the history of Dongdaemun, with its merchants and workers who have travelled from far-flung parts of the republic to settle in Seoul.

King Sejong and Hangeul

Ganghwamun Square in the middle of the bustling Sejongno (Sejong Street) is another one of the most recognisable landmarks of Seoul with its imposing statues of King Sejong the Great, the fourth king of Joseon Dynasty, and Admiral Yi Sun-Sin, purportedly Korea’s greatest naval commander.

Set against the heavy downtown traffic, the two huge statues are nothing short of majestic. Sadly, once they have caught the awe-inspiring view on camera, most visitors would simply race on to the next tourist sight.

What many don’t realise is that just underneath the square is the Great King Sejong Museum where you can trace the life story of the ruler who “modernised” Korea. The Story of King Sejong Exhibition Hall is divided into nine different display areas showcasing the king’s scientific, artistic, military, cultural and political contributions to the development of Korea as a nation. At the centre of the exhibition is none other than his most important contribution – the creation of Hangeul.

A dedicated scholar, King Sejong was passionate about spreading knowledge to all his people regardless of their social standing. He concluded that an alphabet that was easy enough for even a child to learn was the solution.

After learning all you can at the museum, you can head on across the street to the Gyeongbokgung Palace and check out where King Sejong was said to be inspired by the patterns created by moonlight for the shape of the Korean letters.

From there, walk towards the Hanguel Gaon Street, where the headquarters of the Korean Language Society and the old house of Hangeul scholar Ju Si-gyeong are located.

All along the street are also hidden Hangeul-themed artworks – 18 to be exact – by different Korean artists waiting to be discovered. If you have time, stop at the Sejongno Park to see the Hangeul Geulja Madang (Hangeul Letter Garden) where you can find the possible permutations of Hangeul letters – which totals up to 11,172!

The Koreans are so proud of their 567-year-old script that last year their government reintroduced Hangeul Day on Oct 9, a public holiday, to celebrate its birth.

As they say, language is the soul of a nation, and there is so much you can learn about the spirit and mind of Koreans from this trip down Hangeul lane.

Hangang (River)

If Paris has its River Seine and Bangkok its Menam Chao Phraya, then Seoul has its Hangang (River).

For centuries the arena of political struggle, it is unsurprising that the current seat of power and money has also grown along the river, at Yeoeuido. The commercial district played a key role in the country’s “miracle of the Hangang”. which is a term used to refer to South Korea’s rapid economic growth, earning Yeoeuido the nickname “Manhattan of South Korea”.

With 27 bridges and numerous islets, Hangang has grown from a functional waterway into a recreational spot. While the Banpo Bridge has grabbed the limelight with its Rainbow Fountain, other bridges like Mapodaegyo (Bridge) have also become popular as recreational spots for cyclists and pedestrians.

The bridge caught public attention after one of Seoul’s sons, Bong Joon-ho, got an idea to film the monster movie, The Host, there. The film went on to become a national blockbuster and was even invited to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

That has not always been the case, however. In fact the Mapodaegyo was previously an infamous suicide point. So much so that the Seoul Metropolitan Government even launched a big campaign to get rid of the “dark vibes” and renamed it the Bridge of Life.

Other parts of Hangang have also become important recreational venues, including Nanjido (Island), a former landfill transformed into an eco-park. In recent years, the serenity and lushness of the eco-park – with its diverse flora and fauna – have seen an increase in camping activities, or, as the fashionable young Koreans call it, “glamping” (glamour camping).

After its transformation, Nanjido also grew in popularity among young couples; marriage proposals are often made here. If you ever visit Nanjido, don’t miss the lucky tree of proposal. Who knows, some of its luck might rub off on you!

For more Seoul travel inspiration, catch THE LINK exclusively on Life Inspired (channel 728 Astro B.yond) starting Monday, Jan 20, at 6.28pm. Please log on to for additional show info. This has been a special collaboration between the Seoul Metropolitan Government, The Star and Life Inspired.