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How to get your culture fix in Seoul

From dressing up for a day at the palace to stocking up on K-pop souvenirs, Korean culture comes in all shapes and sizes in the capital

How to get your culture fix in Seoul
The Big Buddha in Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul. Image: Getty

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Seoul is a glorious jumble of juxtapositions. It’s steeped in history, although some of its landmarks are modern reconstructions. It’s big on designer shopping, but the cheap-as-chips markets offer more of an experience. It combines teahouses and cat cafes, street food and haute cuisine, temples and K-pop concerts. It’s a nexus of Korean culture, in all its forms.

Start by discovering the city’s historic side at Gyeongbokgung. Seoul’s most important palace was originally built in 1395, but has been almost completely destroyed — and then restored — more than once over the years. Today, it’s in impressive nick, with ornately painted pagodas, pavilions and palaces spread across the huge site. Want a truly Korean experience? Join the young couples and groups of teenage girls dressed in hanbok — a traditional costume, available to hire from the many specialist stores outside the palace gates.

Nearby Bukchon Hanok Village was once the residential quarter for senior government officials, but today the area’s hundreds of hanok — buildings dating back up to 700 years — contain a mix of private homes, guesthouses, cafes and restaurants. Sit cross-legged on the floor of a tea room and enjoy a herbal cuppa before taking on the steeply sloping streets.

For all the city’s history, its modern side is just as much of a draw. Check out Seoul’s contemporary art scene around Samcheong-ro, nicknamed ‘Gallery Street’ for its high concentration of, well, galleries. Start at MMCA Seoul, one of three branches of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The art deco building, a former military headquarters, was extended in 2013, and inside its huge halls are exhibitions of Korean and international art. Just down the road, Gallery Hyundai is smaller, but hosts some brilliant shows. Earlier this year Chilean artist Iván Navarro’s neon-enhanced installations were displayed in pitch-black rooms, but you’re just as likely to see paintings by the next big thing in Korean art.

One of the best ways to get a handle on modern Korean culture is through the phenomenon that is K-pop. Korean pop performers are some of the country’s biggest stars, and even if you’ve never heard one of the cutesy tunes recorded by these baby-faced singers, the mania surrounding the scene is fascinating — and entertaining. SMTOWN Coex Artium is a temple to all things K-pop, with memorabilia displays, walls of lifesize band photos (for selfies, of course), and a 3D concert cinema. The most compelling area is the shop, where you’ll find K-pop everything, from posters and phone cases to cups and cushions.

Finally, for something completely different, pack your gym kit for a visit to Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Headquarters. The martial art goes back centuries, but the first schools opened in Seoul in the 1940s, and it’s now an Olympic sport. Book ahead for the Taekwondo Experience Programme and spend an hour with a pro, learning different kicks before smashing a block of wood with your foot.

Three to try

Hongdae
The streets around Hongik University metro station are always buzzy, particularly at night; the buskers stay out late, performing for crowds who come for the bars, restaurants and quirky boutiques. Do as the locals do and start the night with a beer at a plastic table outside a convenience store, and finish off with karaoke in one of the nearby ‘singing rooms’.

Anyang Art Park
The long metro journey to the southern edge of Seoul is worth it to wander along the riverbank and hillside dotted with huge sculptures by artists and architects from Korea and beyond. Among the highlights are a spiral of mirrors and the spaceship-like Anyang Peak installation; climb to the top for views over the hills. 131, Yesulgongwon-ro, Manan-gu, Anyang-si.

War & Women’s Human Rights Museum
Hidden away down a residential street, this small but powerful museum uses art installations and brutally blunt historical exhibits to tell the story of Korea’s ‘comfort women’ — survivors of sexual enslavement by the Japanese army during the Second World War. Upsetting, of course, but it offers a crucial historical insight. 20 World Cup Buk-ro 11-gil.

How to do it

British Airways flies from Heathrow to Seoul Incheon from £651 return. Doubles at Novotel Ambassador Seoul Yongsan hotel from 190,300 won (£128) a night.

Published in the South Korea guide, distributed with the November issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)